Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The "right of the peoples to self-determination" – the patent solution to ethnic conflicts?

For the national movements of the peoples of the Habsburg Monarchy, the final objective of national development was seen as being complete cultural and political autonomy or even their own national state. The slogan of the "right of the peoples to self-determination" was on everyone's lips.

However, the problem was one of implementation, since the extremely mixed ethnic composition of central Europe meant that there could be no solution without infringing the rights and claims of others.

A demand that had been heard again and again and never implemented since the 1848 Revolution was the restructuring of the Monarchy into a federal state, which would have meant a reorganisation of the Crown Lands – since the historical borders only corresponded to ethnic borders in a tiny number of cases. It was not until October 1918 that Emperor Karl proposed federalism as the last means of rescuing the Habsburg Monarchy. However, by this time this late compromise was no longer taken seriously, since sovereignty as a national state or unification with the co-nationals living in the motherland outside the Monarchy was within reach – and was a more enticing prospect than continuing to remain in a Habsburg Empire exhausted by the nationalities dispute.

At the same time, the prospects of the smaller nations under Habsburg rule had hardly been bright at the time of the outbreak of war. If the Central Powers had been victorious, the consequence would have been a precarious existence within a German-dominated central Europe. For a long time, little support was to be expected from the Entente. In Western Europe, little was known about the situation and interests of the small nations in the eastern part of the continent. For broad sectors of the political public in Western Europe, the territories east of the German-speaking world with their obscure mix of peoples and languages constituted blank spaces on their mental maps. This was also an obstacle for the representatives of the small nations in exile, who, when lobbying for their interests amongst the western allies, first had to create an awareness of their demands.

In the eyes of the western powers, the Habsburg Monarchy, while admittedly needing reform, was regarded as worth preserving per se, as a guarantee of a certain stability in this region of Europe. Even the publication of US President Wilson's 14 Points in January 1918 spoke of extensive autonomy rights for the individual nationalities that, however, were still intended to be implemented within the framework of the Habsburg Monarchy.

In order to trigger a swing of opinion, the representatives of the central European nationalities met in Rome in April 1918 for a congress of the "suppressed peoples of Austria-Hungary". The objective was to demonstrate internationally that the compromise-based collaboration between the small nationalities in central Europe was working. The risk of fragmentation and Balkanisation of the region was the most important argument of the Austrophiles, who argued in favour of the continued existence of the Habsburg Empire as a counterbalance to nationalist extremism. The interpretation of the war as a conflict between democracy and autocracy gained more sympathy in the west than the previous nationalities-based arguments, which where impenetrable for western observers.

Since early 1918, finally, there was a change of direction amongst the Western Allies. In the light of the improbability of Austria Hungary abandoning the alliance with Germany, the breakup of the Habsburg Empire ceased to be taboo. In the opinion of the Entente, the new structure of Europe after the end of the war should also involve nation states in Central Europe. This radical change of direction became the nail in the coffin for the continued existence of the Habsburg Monarchy. For the non-German and non-Magyar ethnic groups within the Monarchy, which hitherto had only led an existence as a supporting cast, the achievement of national self-determination was within reach.

Translation: David Wright


Bihl, Wolfdieter: Der Erste Weltkrieg 1914–1918. Chronik – Daten – Fakten, Wien/Köln/Weimar 2010

Křen, Jan: Dvě století střední Evropy [Zwei Jahrhunderte Mitteleuropas], Praha 2005

Stourzh, Gerald: Die Gleichberechtigung der Nationalitäten in der Verfassung und Verwaltung Österreichs 1848 bis 1918, Wien 1985

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    “Viribus unitis” or prison of nations?

    The multi-ethnic Austria-Hungary formed a relatively stable environment for the co-existence of the many ethnic communities. The much-vaunted “unity in diversity” was in fact overshadowed by numerous inequalities. This was illustrated above all in the differing weight of the various language groups involved in political and economic rule. These inequalities were increasingly challenged by the disadvantaged nationalities. As a result, the nationality issue dominated political affairs, leading to destabilisation of the Monarchy.

Persons, Objects & Events