Karl’s bid for freedom
Faced by authoritarian tendencies amongst the leaders of government and the demands of the omnipotent military apparatus, Emperor Karl could offer little in the way of resistance but his own good will.
Karl’s attempts to gain a freer hand in domestic politics led to him distancing himself from the authoritarian course of the Clam-Martinitz government.
The reconvening of the Reichsrat in May 1917 was generally seen as a conciliatory measure on Karl’s part. It meant that the people of the Austrian half of the Monarchy now had their parliamentary representation restored (whereas in Hungary the parliament had been able to continue its activity uninterruptedly). Since the closing down of the Austrian parliament in the early months of 1914 the government had operated with the ‘emergency paragraph’ (§14 of the Constitution of 1867), which enabled it to pass laws without a decision of parliament. For the first years of the war Austria had thus in actual fact been a dictatorship.
After a recession of three years’ duration many seats in the chamber were empty, graphically demonstrating the changes that had taken place. A number of deputies had died and others had fallen in the war; some opposition politicians (amongst them the future President of Czechoslovakia Tomáš G. Masaryk) had gone into exile in order to evade persecution by the Austrian authorities; and a number of deputies had been tried and imprisoned for ‘undermining the power of the state’, with the Italian deputy Cesare Battisti being executed for high treason. None of these members of parliament had been replaced.
This situation prompted the Emperor to a further gesture of conciliation. In June 1917 Karl decreed a comprehensive amnesty for those who had been sentenced for political offences (high treason, lese-majesty, disturbing the peace, incitement to insurrection and the like).
Contrary to the intentions of the Emperor, the reconvened Reichsrat now became the most important platform for the constantly worsening national conflicts and the disintegration of the Monarchy. In the ‘May Declaration’ the Czech and southern Slav deputies demanded far-reaching reforms. The southern Slavs declared themselves in favour of the unification of the areas where they lived into one single territory. The Czechs not only wanted the territorial unification of the Czech areas but also, for the first time, the inclusion of the Slovaks. In both cases this would have cut across the internal frontier of the Dual Monarchy. While the Bohemian lands belonged to the Austrian half of the Monarchy, the Slovak areas were part of the historical kingdom of Hungary. There was a similar problem with the southern Slavs, who were claiming areas extending from parts of Carinthia and Styria in the north across Croatia and southern Hungary to Bosnia. Remarkably enough, those who were calling for these reforms still considered that they would remain within the fold of the Habsburg Monarchy – an assumption that was soon to be questioned.
As might be expected, it was not possible for any agreement to be reached, as the idea of a reorganization of the Monarchy on federal lines was entirely opposed by the German deputies, who also knew that they could rely upon the support of the Magyar elites of the kingdom of Hungary in this respect.
The consequence of this internal crisis was the resignation in June 1917 of the Clam-Martinitz government. Nor did any of the various governments that followed, all short-lived on account of the apparently insoluble problems, have the support of the Reichsrat, which now became a platform for the various forms of national separatism.
Even in Hungary, which under Minister-President István Tisza’s firm hand had hitherto been relatively stable, the opposition formed a united front against the authoritarian regime. In June 1917 the Tisza government also resigned.
Translation: Peter John Nicholson
Bihl, Wolfdieter: Der Erste Weltkrieg 1914–1918. Chronik – Daten – Fakten, Wien/Köln/Weimar 2010
Hanisch, Ernst: Der lange Schatten des Staates. Österreichische Gesellschaftsgeschichte im 20. Jahrhundert [Österreichische Geschichte 1890–1990, hrsg. von Herwig Wolfram], Wien 2005
Rauchensteiner, Manfried: Der Erste Weltkrieg und das Ende der Habsburgermonarchie 1914–1918, Wien u. a. 2013
- The enthusiasm for the war
- ‘Brothers in arms’: Austria-Hungary and Germany as partners and allies
- Front lines – The course of the war 1914–16
- Italy enters the war
- The impact of the war on civilian society
- The accession of Emperor Karl
- The Sixtus Letters – Karl’s quest for a way out
- Karl’s bid for freedom
- The Russian Revolution and its consequences
- 1917 – The turning point