War Unmakes the State: Austria-Hungary’s Internal Wars 1914-18

On September 14, 2017, IES welcomed John Deak from the University of Notre Dame to Moses Hall for a lecture titled “War Unmakes the State: Austria-Hungary’s Internal Wars 1914-18.” This was the inaugural lecture of this semester’s CGES lecture series and was co-sponsored by the IES Austrian Studies Program. Deak’s talk focused largely on the history of state-building, while specifically analyzing the paradigms and problems in the historiography of the Habsburg Empire during World War One. According to Deak, the traditional historiography of the Habsburg Empire during the first World War followed a Hegelian logic; viewing the empire as a sideshow in European history. Following this logic, the Habsburg Empire was perceived as a place unknown to progress that was doomed to fail. However, in recent years, a striking revision of Habsburg historiography has taken place, of which Deak is a part of. This revision has focused on the local politics and civil society, the entanglement of national histories within the empire, and the national indifference in the nation itself. The main results of this revisionist history that Deak highlights are as follows: The nations did not want out, the empire was not a prison of national movements, and the monarchy was not in decline before 1914. In his book Forging a Multinational State (2015), Deak explores these new revelations and analyzes the state building infrastructural power, the creation of a professional bureaucracy, and the new theory that the Habsburg Empire was not doomed to fail. It was during the process of writing this book, that Deak discovered not only that the Habsburg Empire developed along similar lines of surrounding European nations, but that all dissolved with the emergence of World War I in 1914. This discovery led to the conclusion that the declaration of war in 1914 represented a major rupture of the Habsburg Empire; Deak argues that this conclusion should change the way we view and discuss the Habsburg Empire. Deak’s current work focuses on the events that occurred after 1914 and how the empire managed its prosecution of the war. He specifically analyzes the constitutional clash between the military and bureaucracy after the declaration of war and the increase of military influence and power. This increase in military power resulted in the temporary suspension of the constitution, the creation of numerous ‘total war effort’ emergency laws, vast increases in arrests and prosecutions, and a war on minority languages within the empire. Deak concluded his talk with the still unanswered question of the fall of the empire; he reiterates that instead of seeing WWI as the breaking of the coffin for the Habsburg Empire, we need to reanalyze what disrupted and destroyed it beginning in 1914, and how this event altered multinational state ideology and structures in Europe as a whole. An engaging question and answer session followed the lecture between Deak and the twenty-five participants. One attendant asked what the fate of Austria Hungary would have been without World War I, to which Deak argued that the state may have been strong enough to survive, and that important reasons for the failure was the war lasting so long and the suspension of liberties during that time. Other questions debated the argument that the Habsburg Empire was indeed a strong institution before the beginning of the war, and some questioned whether Deak has sufficient data to sustain his claim that the Empire’s legal and civil institutions were still strong before 1914.

You can watch the video of this lecture here.