Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Universal conscription as the fundamental militarisation of society

The introduction of universal conscription marked the start of the fundamental militarisation of society in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. At the same time, public awareness of the military changed: from a dubious place for forcibly conscripted lower classes to a respected “school of the nation”.

The universal conscription introduced in 1868 was possibly the key element in the militarisation of the Habsburg empire. There were various reasons for its introduction. It marked the end for the time being to the different recruiting practices, and it was also the result of two specific military and political events: the defeat by the Prussians at Königgrätz (1866) and the Compromise with Hungary (1867). While the Compromise made necessary a reorganisation of the legal and administrative structures, the defeat at Königgrätz revealed the military deficit compared with the Prussians. For that reason an imperial decree in 1866 called for a sweeping reform of the army. To increase the strike capability of the army and to satisfy the requirements resulting from the Compromise with Hungary, the military was completely reorganised. One important component of the reform was the introduction of universal conscription. This reform had been discussed in parliament since 1867 and was enacted by it a year later.

Universal conscription replaced the selective conscription and recruitment district system. While the conscription system had included various exemptions for property owners and educated classes, such as the nobility and clergy, burghers, hand workers, merchants and farmers, all of the male population was now required to perform three years of military service. Recruits no longer came from marginal or lower classes but now mirrored the male-dominated social structures.

This also blurred the previous distinction between the civilian and military worlds. The fundamental militarisation of society began. Military service became an obligatory transitional phase in a young man’s life. It was also an ideal place to obtain civic education to reinforce the conservative monarchical ideology. Whereas the consolidation of the state had been furthered through the establishment of a standing army, universal conscription now made the process of nation-building more dynamic. Members of the military served a “higher cause” – the state or fatherland. The military became a place for developing a patriotic military community that fostered integration and reinforced national identity. The exclusiveness of the military also came to bear, as those unfit for service were excluded from patriotic service for the fatherland.

Universal conscription also led to a significant reinterpretation of the military as an institution. It was no longer the disreputable home of forcibly recruited lower classes but a highly respected and ubiquitous aspect of society. This can be seen from the fact that the uniforms during the nineteenth century became increasingly respectable and decorative. Desertion, which during the days of the conscription system had still been regarded by many as a minor sin, became a reprehensible “betrayal of the fatherland”. Soldiers now died while performing their “patriotic duty” in the “field of honour” and were recognised by the state, if a little belatedly in some cases, through the erection of war memorials. The deeper meaning behind these memorials is illustrated in a speech by Emperor Franz Joseph at the unveiling of the Hesser memorial in 1909 to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle of Aspen. The memorial, he said, was a “[...] testimony to dynastic loyalty, love of the fatherland and steadfast comradeship. […] May the fearless bravery of your ancestors in 1809 act as a beacon for the brave regiment in the future.


Translation: Nick Somers


Hochedlinger, Michael: Militarisierung und Staatenverdichtung. Das Beispiel der Habsburgermonarchie in der frühen Neuzeit, in: Kolnberger, Thomas/Steffelbauer, Ilja/Weigl, Gerald (Hrsg.): Krieg und Akkultuaration, Wien 2004, 107-129



"[...] testimony to dynastic loyalty...": Die Neue Zeitung. Illustriertes unabhängiges Tagblatt, am 14.5.1909, 5 (Translation)

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    The Habsburg empire

    Austria-Hungary had an extremely diverse state structure. At the start of the First World War it was a major power in decline. Social and political problems and the dominant nationality conflicts shook the empire to its foundations. At the same time, the Monarchy represented an enormous cultural region in which the Habsburg empire flourished in spite of the political stagnation.

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Development

    Nation-building – national programmes and positions

    Nation-building was part of the emancipation by large sections of the population from feudal dependence. In line with the ideals of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, the nation – understood as a community of free citizens – was to become the sovereign in place of feudal potentates.

  • Event

    Austria at war with Prussia and Italy

    The defeat at Königgrätz was a bitter blow for the Habsburg Empire. As a result Austria lost Venetia to Italy and handed the leading role among the German states to Prussia.