Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Franz Joseph’s reflections on WWI

Several members of the Franz Joseph’s entourage recorded that the aged emperor was upset with the course of the war and its future implications for the future of the Habsburg empire. According to a note passed to the Germans by the Austro-Hungarian representative to the German Supreme Headquarters, Alois Klepsch-Kloth von Roden, in 1915, the Habsburg emperor did not desire war in 1914:

I am a constitutional monarch, not an absolute ruler, and for this reason could not act otherwise! From the beginning, I had all the influential advisers to the crown against me; for a full three weeks, I vehemently defended myself against any aggravation that might lead to war – in vain! They would not be persuaded, and after three weeks of fruitless effort, I was forced to give in.

In July 1916, he reportedly told his military adjutant Albert von Margutti that:

Things are going badly with us, perhaps worse than we suspect. The starving people can’t stand much more. It remains to be seen whether and how we shall get through the winter. I mean to end the war next spring whatever happens. I can’t let my empire go to hopeless ruin!

Of course these claims have to be taken with a significant grain of salt. Von Roden’s narrative of the Emperor’s actions does not quite match the actual timing of the Austro-Hungarian decision making process in 1914. Like the famous “Nicky-Willy” telegrams between the Kaiser Wilhelm II and Emperor Nicholas II of 1914, this type of correspondence was not an apolitical personal communique but a document laden with political overtones. Von Margutti’s postwar reminiscences about his former master also necessitates some skepticism as he was a loyal servitor of the Habsburgs and was interested in presenting his master in the best possible light.

One thing that is clear about the wartime years of Franz Joseph is that he was quite aged and increasingly fatalistic. Although he kept to his near-robotic regimen of structured work habits even in his last years, the Emperor was hermetically sealed off by an entourage who was almost as elderly as Franz Joseph. Much of this entourage busied themselves with ensuring that Franz Joseph kept to his routine rather than exercising personal authority over the war effort. Many of them did note that Franz Joseph’s health was deteriorating and the Emperor was less capable of performing his duties. The escalating crisis with Italy pushed Franz Joseph to his breaking point, Ferdinand Freiherr von Marterer’s diary recorded the Emperor exclaiming after Italy had delivered its ultimatum that “In this way shall we go under,” and weeping in the ante-chamber of the palace. Von Marterer would also note that after the Italian entry, that “The Emperor frequently nods off during reports, we are lacking the strong central force, uniform action everywhere.”

Although Franz Joseph had some signs of increased activity, such as supporting the appointment of the reformist Ernest Koerber as Prime Minister after the assassination of Count Stürgkh and renewed energy in confronting the Italians, despite his obvious age. The Emperor also remained a popular figure for a number within the Empire as evidenced by a considerable upswing in personal appeals sent to him by his subjects suffering under wartime pressures. But there was little Franz Joseph could do to rectify the dire situation the Dual Monarchy had found itself in. Franz Joseph increasingly devoted himself to the execution of his last will. He sought to ensure that his personal finances would be able to provide for his heirs’ financial well-being.

That the Emperor devoted such attention to this matter in his last remaining months was typical of Franz Joseph’s somewhat curious amalgamation of a diligent bourgeois mentality within an imperial context. Yet the fact that he was clearly concerned whether or not the members of the Habsburg family would be financially secure after his death also speaks volumes about what he possibly felt about the prospects for the Dual Monarchy in the immediate future.

Sources

Beller, Steven. Francis Joseph. London: Longman, 1996.

Healy, Maureen. Vienna and the Fall of the Habsburg Empire: Total War and Everyday Life in World War I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Rauchensteiner, Manfried. The First World War and the End of the Habsburg Monarchy, 1914 – 1918. Vienna: Böhlau, 2014.

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