192: Versailles Pt. 9 - To Kill and Empire


Nobody knew what to do with Austria and Hungary, because they were Austria-Hungary, but then they weren’t



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 192, To Kill an Empire. Big thank you to Dr. Thomas for his support of the podcast on Patreon. Over the last several episodes we have looked at the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, mostly due to the actions of the Allies in Paris and London both during and after the war. This episode marks a shift in our focus to the fate of the Austro-Hungarian empire in Eastern Europe. Today we will discuss the fate of Austria and Hungary, who previously made up the two pieces of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. The next episode we will look at the creation of Yugoslavia, then after that we will discuss Czechoslovakia and some of the other Eastern European countries, then in the fourth episode we will discuss the fate of Poland. All of these topics are very difficult to pry apart into a nice cohesive story, and so I will often be referring to all of these countries in each episode, their fates were tied very closely together because of the primary question that the Paris Peace Conference would try to resolve for these countries, the question of borders. Unlike the new nations in the Middle East, which were created by declarations from Paris, in Eastern Europe the countries created themselves, often along ethnic lines, then when they came to Paris for the Conference they came to have their new countries recognized. With so many different groups next to each other creating new countries there were bound to be disagreements. Borders were a problem, especially when multiple ethnic groups mingled. These problems would create many arguments, some of which the Allies in Paris would help resolve, some of which would result in armed conflict. In both cases the Supreme Council found that its power of decree was not as strong as initially thought, and often the countries in Eastern Europe could chose their own fate, or be victims of their neighbors aggression. While those are the themes of all four of these Eastern European episodes, today we will be looking at two pieces of the former empire, Austria and Hungary. Both of these new countries would have to come to terms with a greatly reduced geographical footprint and internal struggles due to the strain of four years of war. The results of these internal struggles would be drastically different in the two countries.

While I titled this episode, to Kill an Empire, in fact the Austro-Hungarian empire was already dead by the time that the war was over. During the last few weeks of the war Emperor Karl would realize that Vienna was powerless to stop the various nationalities of the empire declaring independence. These declarations has started with the Poles on October 15th, then the Ruthenes on the 19th, the Czechs and Hungarians on the 28th, and the Slavs on the 29th. With the empire falling apart around him Emperor Karl, while never formally abdicating his rights as Emperor, relinquished control of the government and army essentially destroying the old empire. The future Austrian territories then created their own government for what was left under their control. All of these events, while welcomed by the Allies brought up some very important questions after the armistice was signed. Who would the Allies negotiate with? What representatives of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would be sent to Paris? Which areas should be recognized as independent of that Empire? As the Peace Conference got underway and the basic structure of the peace agreements began to take form other questions had to be answered, most importantly: Who was going to pay Austria-Hungary’s share of war reparations?

While these questions did not have an easy answer, as obvious targets of Allied anger the new governments of both Austria and Hungary appealed for mercy. They claimed that they were no longer the same country that had entered the war in 1914, they were new countries under new leadership and therefore could not be blamed for the mistakes of the old Empire. While both countries made this same argument, the situation within both countries meant that their situations, and therefore how they were treated in Paris were very different. Austria, while a mere fraction of its former size, would at least be at peace, while Hungary found itself at war with most of its neighbors. These differences caused very different political outcomes as well, in Austria a socialist government would come to power and mostly stay in power for the post war period. In Hungary they would quickly find themselves in the middle of the Bolshevik revolution, and then subject to foreign invasions.

One of the problems that the Supreme Council, and the Paris Peace Conference as a whole, had when trying to handle situations like what was happening in Eastern Europe is that there was not a great way to get really good solid information about what was happening. This was true for the former Austro-Hungarian empire in the same way that it had been about the middle east. Good information was just very hard to come by, and when it did arrive it was often discounted due to the general quality of information. There were times when good information did arrive and it was believed, like the information that arrived in early 1919 about the situation within Austria. We discussed this a bit back in earlier episodes, but life was very challenging in Austria after about 1917. One report that arrived in Paris stated that there was almost no livestock, in Vienna there was basically no food, and hundreds of thousands of people were unemployed. A British representative, William Beveridge was sent to Vienna in January 1919 to find out the truth of the situation. He reported that if immediate relief did not arrive soon the society would completely collapse. This and other reports caused the Allies to lift their blockade of Austria, which up to that point had been ongoing since the war ended. They also offered credit to the Austrian government which could be used to buy foreign goods. Eventually Austria would become the fourth largest beneficiary of Allied aid, behind only Germany, Poland, and Belgium.

At the conference the Austrian delegation would be led by the country’s new Prime Minister Karl Renner. He would arrive and then be forced to wait as the Supreme Council still had not completely decided on the terms that would be given to Austria. They were dealing with some of the same problems with Austria that I mentioned earlier, at the top of the list was how much this new country would be held accountable for the mistakes of the Empire. Wilson was particularly concerned about how it would look if Austria, a country mostly founded upon the principles of Wilson’s own Fourteen points, was punished for the mistakes of the Empire. The Supreme Council did not see any easy answers to these questions. Fortunately they did have one question in front of them that they unequivocally knew the answer to. After the war the new country of Austria was made up of the areas of the Empire that were predominately German. This caused many Austrians to believe that the best path forward for the country was to join with Germany. This was based on many reasons, not least of which was the concerns, with so much volatility surrounding the small country, it was the only way that it could survive in the post war world. The new Austrian government even opened negotiations with the government in Berlin to see how they could join the country. The Austrians were not prepared to just jump into Germany, and they wanted to make sure that the specific Austrian character was not lost in the transition. There was also some resistance in Austria due to the long rivalry between the Prussians and Austrians, but this was certainly the minority. The bigger roadblock was the Germans, they were very cautious about the suggestion because they did not want to anger anybody in Paris who were still working on the German terms for the treaty. When the Allies learned that discussions were happening between the Germans and Austrians they moved in quickly to stop them. France was adamant that the two countries should not be joined together, that would completely destroy their plan to keep Germany as weak as possible, adding Austria to Germany would just make the Germans stronger for the next war, and nobody wanted that.

While the joining of Austria to Germany was quickly answered by the Allies, the exact peace terms for Austria were never high on the priorities list for the Supreme Council, and they would have to wait until after the terms with Germany were worked out. It would not be until the end of May that the Austrian delegation would very politely complain to the Council, wondering where their terms were and then it would not be until June 2nd that they would receive them. By all accounts the document that was provided was, according to one delegate, very ‘slapdash’. This was because the Allies had mostly just taken the German treaty and then edited it to fit with Austria. In general they would go easier on the smaller country. They removed most of the text about any kind of war guilt, since, as Lloyd George pointed out, Emperor Karl had not even been on the thrown in 1914, let alone the current Austrian government. On the sticky topic of reparations they put most of the requirements to pay them on Austria and Hungary, they also added on top of this the Austro-Hungarian war debt. When the Austrians received these terms they immediately went to work on their reply. They did not even address some of the clauses, for example reparations and war debt because they simply believed that they would never be able to pay it anyway. They instead focused on some very specific clauses that they wanted added in to the treaty to try and protect their new country. These were generally small in the eyes of the Allies, for example an amendment to make sure that Austria’s art treasures could not be divided up among the Empire’s various successor states, but they were very important to the Austrian delegates. Many of these small changes would eventually make it into the treaty. After the treaty was signed, Austria was at peace, but the post war years would not be easy. The Austrian economy would never really recover from the war, and just when it was started to come back it was hit by the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s. Karl would attempt, twice, to reclaim the Hungarian Crown to add to Austria, both in the year 1921, before the Allies eventually decided that he had to be cast into exile on Madeira, an island in the north Atlantic. After the uncomfortable 20s, the 30s would not be much better, and then in 1938 Austria would be finally united with Germany in the Anschluss.

While the Austrians were dealing with their problems the other side of Dual Monarchy, Hungary, was dealing with even larger ones. Hungary was in a rough spot at the end of the war, and it had many things working against it. First, of course, it had been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and was seen as one of the enemy states by the Allies. Second, it was not a well understood country in Western Europe and its delegation to Paris would be less than inspiring. Finally, and much more impactfully, it was surrounded by new countries that had been formed either out of the empire or were looking to expand their territory into the old empire. This meant that many Hungarians did not expect much out of the Peace Conference, but they did hope that it would limit the damage. Many had come to expect that many areas that the Hungarians claimed as their own would be leaving, like Croatia and Slovakia. But there was one area that many Hungarians considered to be a step to far, Transylvania. Transylvania had been a part of Hungary since the 11th century and even though the population of the area was only 23% Hungarian, it was still believed to be a critical piece of the new country. It was also, geographically, over half of the old Kingdom of Hungary. Unfortunately for the Hungarians it was also coveted by several other countries, most importantly Romania. Basically the entire reason that Romania had entered the war was to try and get Transylvania added to their country, and they were not about to let it simply slip away now that the war was over. These were all big problems, but before they could even be presented to the Supreme Council back in Hungary an important event would happen, a Bolshevik government would come to power.

After the war Hungary was led by a government that was very unstable. It was attacked from the right due to attempts at instituting land reform. It was attacked from the left due to not taking the land reforms far enough. Both sides then also criticized the government for its seeming willingness to trade away pieces of Hungary that both the far left and far right believed should stay within the country. On February 22nd, 1919 protests by Communists turned violent and four policemen were killed, this would lead to almost a month of violence and instability around the country. Then on March 21st a Bolshevik by the name of Bela Kun would proclaim the creation of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Bela Kun was from Transylvania and he had joined up with the Austro-Hungarian army when the war began. he would spend some time fighting the Russians before he was captured and sent to a Russian prisoner of war camp. During the Russian Revolution in 1917 Bela Kun would rapidly change his political outlook and by 1918 he was released and meeting with Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders on a somewhat regular basis. He would then return to Hungary in the chaotic post war days and he would begin to grow a base of power. He issued manifestos, listed demands, and began to organize strikes and demonstrations. In March he would declare the creation of the new Soviet Republic without having to fire a shot. In Paris the news of the change in government arrived and hit the Allied leaders like a lightning bolt. There had always been concerns that Bolshevism would spread to other countries, a fear stoked by the almost constant rhetoric coming from the Bolsheviks themselves that they were at the vanguard of a global revolution, and here was the first seemingly successful example of that global revolution.

With Bolshevism having made the jump into Hungary in Paris conversations got very serious very quickly. They decided to send a mission to Budapest led by Jan Christian Smuts. This mission would have two primary purposes. The first, and probably the least important, was to persuade Bela Kun and the Hungarian government to accept some territorial concessions with Romania. If they did not do this it was likely that a Romania force led by the French General Mangin would move in to take the territory by force. This was the lead important reason for the mission though. The most important cause for Smuts to go to Budapest is because he wanted to talk to Bela Kun to determine if he might be good person to create a diplomatic back channel with Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia. This is a topic that we will dive into in later episodes, but at this point in time the Allies were trying to start discussions with the Bolsheviks, but for political reasons they could not just go and talk to them. They hoped that Bela Kun could help them out with this problem by providing an easy way for the Allies and the Bolsheviks to talk off the record. When Smuts arrived, via train, in Budapest he insisted that Bela Kun come to him and that their meetings take place on the train. After Bela Kun arrived, after some delay, the discussions did not go well. Kun refused out of principle to give in on any of the territorial concessions with Romania and he also wanted immediate official recognition for his government, recognition that the Allies were unwilling to give. After a few brief meetings Smuts would leave, forming a very negative opinion of the new Hungarian leader, and doubting very seriously that his regime would last very long, making any formal relations with the government unnecessary.

After Smuts returned to Paris many of the other leaders began to doubt the future of Bela Kun’s government, and he was not really doing anything to help himself stay in power for any length of time. He was certainly trying to make changes, he would be in power just a bit over 130 days and during that time he announced drastic reforms. Prohibition of alcohol, socialization of the factories, land reform, abolition of all hereditary titles, reallocation of housing, proletariat culture for all, and that is just a partial list. In enacting so many changes so suddenly he would rob himself of most of his allies within Hungary. Sure, there were definitely some Bolsheviks surrounding him that supported these initiatives but many moderates rapidly left his side. This may or may not have caused the support for the government to fall enough that it would have been replaced, we will never know. That is because just a few days after Smuts’ mission left Hungary the country would be at war with both Czechoslovakia and Romania, and it would not end well.

In April both the Czechs and the Romanians would launch attacks into Hungarian territory. The Romanians would move through the neutral zone that had been setup in Transylvania and they would begin a push towards Budapest. The Czechs would also attack from the north. As would so often be the case with government created in the chaos of the post war years, when the foreign armies invaded the country Bela Kun actually saw his support rapidly increase. He appealed to patriotism, and both fresh volunteers and officers from the old army answered his call. In both cases the men joining up did not necessarily like Bela Kun or agree with his policies, all they knew was that anyone was better than the Romanians. With these new forces the Hungarian army was able to push back the Czech advance, and keep them from linking up with the Romanians. As the fighting continued into late May in Paris the Supreme Council decided to step in. They sent a message to the Romanians that they should not occupy Budapest. They sent messages to Bela Kun saying that he must stop fighting, to which he replied that he would only stop if the Romanians and Czechs did first.

In the Supreme Council would send another message, this time to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. This message contained declarations about what the new borders between the countries would be, and an order with withdraw their armies to those borders. This is a great example of the Supreme Council having no real clear idea of what their ability to influence events actual was. Because none of the three countries were prepared to agree with the borders that were sent to them. Romanian used the excuse that if they withdrew it would open them to attack from both Hungary and Bolshevik Russia, the other countries just simply refused. In Paris there were then discussions about a joint military force that could be sent to occupy Hungary which would be made up of French, Yugoslavian, and Romanian troops. This force was not sent due to concern that if the Allies let the Romanians occupy all of Hungary, they may never leave. While these discussions were still happening in Hungary Bela Kun would make his last mistake as the leader of Hungary. In July he would launch an offensive with the goal of pushing the Romanian troops back across the Tisza river, which would provide some breathing room for Budapest. This offensive was a disaster, and while there were some small initial successes a Romanian counterattack proved to be devastating. Bela Kun was counting on some units from Russia to help his troops, but they would never arrive, and some Hungarian units would simply stop fighting. The Romanians would enter Budapest in early August.

For the next 4 months Hungary would be occupied by three of its enemies, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Romania. The Romanians occupied the largest area, and the capital, and they wasted no time in instituting a policy of looting. Everything that was not nailed down could be requisitioned, and must of it was. It would not be until November that the Supreme Council would once again attempt to intervene, sending another message to the three occupying countries, telling them that it was time to move to their new borders. This time they would listen, and a new government would be formed in Hungary, and this one would finally be officially invited to Paris to receive the country’s peace terms. The delegation was led by Count Albert Apponyi, and they would leave for Paris in early January 1920.

Apponyi was a good choice to lead the delegation, he spoke English and Italian perfectly which allowed him to communicate with the other leaders very easily. He would plead for mercy. As the treaty was drawn up and the terms were made clear he would ask why Hungary was being punished more than almost any other country that had joined in the war. It would stand to lose two third of its territory, two thirds of its population, it would be cut off from the sea, it would lose much of its access to raw materials, and along with Austria it would be saddled with much of the Empires reparation bill. The other leaders in Paris heard the message, but at this point they were unwilling to change anything. Hungary was one of the last pieces of the puzzle to fall into place in Eastern Europe and none of the other leaders wanted to renegotiate with any of the other parties, and this left them little wiggle room in the terms that they provided. It was due to the concerns of the Hungarians that they would not sign the treaty until June 4th, 1920, and on that date flags would fly half-mast throughout the country. The harsh terms fueled resentment towards the Allies. Hungary had certainly got the short end of the stick when it came to their peace terms, with one English observer having told the post war Hungarian leader Karolyi in 1919 that “The Entente governments had many more important things to worry about than the fate of ten million people in Hungary.” This would prove to be a pretty accurate estimation of the importance of Hungary to the Allies, and the Hungarians paid the price.