Reviewed by Lothar Hoebelt (University of Vienna)
Published on H-Diplo (January, 2019)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
When a US assistant secretary of state publishes a book on grand strategy, it is bound to attract attention. If he deals with Prince Metternich and the Habsburg monarchy, it is also bound to kindle memories of Henry Kissinger’s A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-22 (1954). Kissinger was a German exile who tried to teach European statecraft to idealistic Americans. A. Wess Mitchell is a native-born Texan who has come to sympathize with the problems the Habsburg monarchy faced. When Kissinger analyzed Metternich’s diplomacy between 1812 and 1822 in depth, he relied on a huge amount of published sources about the period around the Congress of Vienna. Mitchell’s task is more ambitious and burdensome: he covers the period from 1700 (when the rollback of the Turks had rounded off the hereditary lands to the East, the ties of the Habsburg dynasty to Spain were severed, and the Central European part of their domains emerged as “a stand-alone unity” [p. x]) to the battle of Königgrätz in 1866 (when the monarchy ceased to be a great power, as Mitchell argues). Published sources and secondary literature for that huge span of time are uneven, to say the least, especially if you do not restrict yourself to diplomatic maneuvers but want to include military affairs to arrive at a composite picture of the “grand strategy” of the Habsburgs. Mitchell has looked at some of the archival material, especially for the period of Emperor Joseph II, but rewriting the history of the Habsburg’s struggle for survival as a great power for the whole period from original sources, both military and diplomatic, would probably take more than a lifetime.
The result is a stimulating and fascinating book that deserves to be discussed in detail. The geopolitical situation of the Central European heartland of the Habsburgs after 1700 was a unique one for a great power. It was a landlocked country surrounded by potential enemies on all four sides, an “interstitial power” facing “omnidirectional threats” (pp. ix, x). The central problem for the Habsburgs thus was “avoiding multi-front wars” by the “sequencing of contests” (p. 306). The classic option for sequencing contests, knocking out one enemy first before turning to face the next, was almost never really feasible for the Habsburg monarchy. The one attempt that might be classified within that category, the Seven Years’ War with its aim of turning the clock back and convert Prussia into an innocuous little electorate once again, turned out to be a failure (provoking a preemptive strike by King Frederick the Great of Prussia). Maybe such a strategy only seemed feasible once railways and the Industrial Revolution had dramatically altered the nature of warfare. As Mitchell rightly sums up: “Geopolitical problems can rarely be solved, only managed” (p. 329).
The “tools” available for surviving within a “360-degree threat environment” can be summed up under the headings of the “three Ts”: terrain, technology, and treaties (p. 113). Being landlocked meant the Habsburg monarchy was unable to tap into the potential wealth of overseas trade. The compensating advantage was the coherence of the Danubian basin, surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges that formed an easily defendable core of the Habsburg lands. The advantage of its geographical position could be enhanced by “technology,” in other words, fortifications, and by “treaties” with potential allies, both great powers interested in the survival of the Habsburgs as an integral part of the European balance of powers and “buffer states,” especially the fiefs within the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire, both in Germany and Italy. The need for alliances to hold its own against rivals, which more often than not outgunned the Austrians on a one-to-one basis, required a certain flexibility, Mitchell argues. There should never be any antagonism so deeply ingrained that it could not be overcome if that is what the situation called for. Austria “could not afford to permanently estrange former enemies” (p. 234).
After outlining his theoretical approach in the first few chapters, Mitchell takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride of how all this worked in practice. Among the best passages of the book are the ones dealing with the southeastern frontier, which remained a “nettlesome place for the exercise of Habsburg power,” valuable “as a shock absorber but not a net contribution to Habsburg power in anything other than status terms” (p. 125). Prince Wenzel Kaunitz realized that Russia was “useless as a friend” but needed to be contained by a “restraining alliance” (p. 121). For all that, after the 1690s, sequencing generally worked in the East. Mitchell singles out a few eighteenth-century Austrian diplomats working in Constantinople for special praise. Maybe the Ottoman Empire had simply realized that it faced bigger threats elsewhere? As a result, in the crucial years of the wars with Prussia (as during the Thirty Years’ War), all was quiet on the eastern front.
France presented the Habsburgs with different problems. Mitchell is right in not devoting any special importance to the Austrian Netherlands, which Vienna wanted to exchange for some more easily defensible possessions from the very moment they got this land after the War of Spanish Succession. Italy, however, was a different kettle of fish. Mitchell rightly identifies the Habsburg “overextension of its power” in Italy “the Achilles’ heel” of Austria’s “post-1815 security architecture” (p. 261). But the same held true even earlier. Italy counted not just as a glacis, to protect Austria’s flank, but also as a prize worth having in its own right. The renversement des coalitions (diplomatic revolution of 1756) only obscured those ambitions—and the ensuing liabilities—for a few decades before 1789. It is a fascinating question whether the Po-Rhine dilemma really worked against the Habsburgs all the time? In Napoleon’s time, the French maybe found it easier to switch armies from one side of the Alps to the other via Switzerland, but had not the Tyrol provided a much better corridor before this? It would be interesting to look at the merits of the question on a case-by-case basis.
Prussia, of course, is the one rival to Austria that with hindsight often commands center stage, even if one has to keep in mind historian Paul Schroeder’s warning: the wars against Napoleon heralded a fundamental change “from 18th century Austro-Prussian rivalry to 19th century partnership.” Empress Maria Theresa only consented to “sequencing” under duress, with very bad grace in 1742, when she first ceded Silesia to Fredrick, but she did so (or at least allowed her ministers to do so). Prussia was certainly very much in the forefront of all the learned treatises drawn up during the last third of the eighteenth century that Mitchell has studied. It is easily overlooked that Bohemia, if not quite as detached from Vienna as Italy, did not exactly belong to the famed Danubian heartland, either. Apart from long-suffering Saxony, there were no buffer states sandwiched between Austria and Prussia, no Association of Nördlingen, no Wallachia, and no Savoy. Fortresses had to fill the gap: Mitchell argues persuasively that during the War of the Bavarian Succession, investment into fortresses like Königgrätz (Hradec Kralove) paid off.
This brings us to the demise of Austria’s post-1815 position. Admittedly, it is difficult to find anything praiseworthy in Austria’s foreign policy during the 1850s. Mitchell points to the conclusion that Austria’s balancing act worked as long as it could rely on Russia’s friendship. The Crimean War put an end to that precondition. Austria should have answered the famous question “Neutral, but neutral for whom?” with a determined stand in favor of a pro-Russian neutrality that avoided antagonizing the czar. While not trying to find any excuses for Baron Buol, Austrian foreign secretary in the 1850s, it is still difficult to envisage how Austria could have done so without laying itself open to a Franco-Sardinian attack in Italy. And it is doubtful whether Russian help would have been either forthcoming or effective in dealing with such a situation. Of course, that situation arose anyway, in 1859 (prompted by a move that was probably singular in the history of preemptive strikes: the Austrians attacked but arrived too late). It is difficult to escape Mitchell’s conclusion that once Franz Joseph had decided to do so, he should have made certain he could rely on Prussian support by “appeasing” Berlin in time-honored fashion.
To avoid a deterministic reading and highlight the crucial importance of the mistakes made during the early years of Franz Joseph’s rule, Mitchell explicitly states that Austria’s demise as a great power was far from inevitable. Well, yes and no. In 1866, Austria let itself be tricked by Napoleon III into a situation that represented the worst of both worlds, with elusive promises rather than firm alliances and without cutting its losses in one theater of the war or the other. Undoubtedly, there was room for improvement. But as far as the famous profound forces are concerned, it is no use pointing to the statistics that show that Austrian growth rates during the latter half of the nineteenth century compared quite favorably with most of western Europe. The crucial fact was that they lagged behind the phenomenal strides made by both Prussia and Russia, its continental neighbors. That was not even due to economic mismanagement or conservative distrust of technology. The largest coal deposits of the continent were located below the Ruhr; Russia did boast a population several times larger than Austria-Hungary’s. Railways mitigated the disadvantage Austria had been suffering from in terms of being excluded from the best part of lucrative foreign trade. Unfortunately, they also made it easier for enemy states to throw masses of soldiers against the exposed frontiers of the monarchy (and to keep them supplied). There was a widening gap between potential world powers like Germany, Russia, and the British Empire and second-rate powers like Austria, Italy, and France (even if the latter still seem to be unaware of it).
The fun of Mitchell’s book is that it is possible to open it on almost every page and tell students: “Discuss.” That is no mean achievement. One can only hope that many scholars will take up that opportunity. Some critics will presumably be tempted to follow in the footsteps of Richard Wagner’s Master Beckmesser and point to all sorts of minor slips that do not detract from the main argument, from spelling mistakes and the odd typographical error to a few questionable statistics lifted from internet sources (did GDP per capita in Austria really equal that of France? [p. 258]). Mitchell rightly praises the mapmakers of the late eighteenth century who provided the scientific basis for the memoranda about grand strategy. Few will find equal praise for this book’s computer graphics, I suspect. But that is not Mitchell’s fault.
. Paul W. Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848 (1994) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 271.
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Lothar Hoebelt. Review of Michell, A. Wess, The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire.
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