The case of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
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The case of the Austro-Hungarian Empire


The Austro-Hungarian monarchy created by the compromise of 1867 was the third most populous state in Europe before the First World War. The traditional vision of the country as a decrepit and backward Empire has been thoroughly revised by historians of the region in the past twenty years. This new historiography presents Austria-Hungary in its final years not as an anachronistic entity mired in ethnic conflict but as a viable political structure, which faced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century challenges rather similar to those experienced by other European states. Older narratives on the rise of invincible modern nationalism among ethnic groups leading to the decline of Austria-Hungary and its subsequent downfall have been replaced by a more nuanced understanding of the creation of national identities within the empire during this period. This more complex representation of the work of nationalists also helps re-evaluate the vitality of forms of loyalty to the Empire. Several institutions actively contributed to the creation of a sense of collective belonging and personal allegiance. Even nationalist parties and associations were not fighting against the state but rather in a competition primarily directed at each other for the allegiance of populations (German against Czech, or Slovene, Ukrainian against Polish), appealing for recognition from the central state. As the state was supranational, especially in the Austrian half of the monarchy, nationalism cannot be considered as a state-affirming force as is the case for other countries covered in the project. This general context and the nature of political violence, which sometimes combined national and social motives, make the relationship between nationalism and armed associations less straightforward in the case of Austria-Hungary. Keeping in mind the different nuances of political categories, there is ample scope (such as the interaction of armed associations with the labour movement) for fruitful comparison with other European case studies.

New York Times. Edition 29 June 1914, p. 1

Recent works on the pervasiveness of military culture in the Habsburg Empire and its role in supporting state patriotism have shown the importance of military values among broader sections of Late Habsburg society. Armed associations, especially citizens’ guards in provincial towns (Bürgercorps or Bürgergarde) and shooting clubs, participated in the same ethos, the same glorification of bourgeois masculine sociability. These associations of local citizens, present in many cities and towns across the monarchy, were forces of conservatism. Their membership often consisted of older middle-class or lower-middle class men who attended all the major celebrations of the secular and religious calendar (Emperor’s birthday and Corpus Christi processions, for example). Belonging to one such corps was a sign of middle class social status. Their patrols in cities seemed to have been largely symbolic and honorific by the end of the century. Wearing sumptuous uniforms, they participated in parades, marching to the music of their own band, and firing celebratory salvos. The citizens’ guards were the only armed associations authorized by the 1851 imperial patent, which disbanded the National Guard active during the 1848 revolution but tolerated some forms of citizens’ guards. The legislation regarding armed associations in the Habsburg monarchy defines bearing arms collectively as an imperial privilege, which remains the preserve of honorific citizens’ guards at the end of the nineteenth century up until the First World War. Armed associations in Austria-Hungary were thus characterized by the preservation of pre-modern institutions defense of the land and the blossoming of voluntary associations in the post-1867 era (including shooting clubs). However, several other types of associations (limited by the associations’ law which forbade armed gatherings) aspired to the use of firearms in their meetings and trainings. The research on the Austro-Hungarian case will focus on both these more official forms of armed associations and more informal forms of organized violence.


This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 677199).

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