The birth of a national army
: making national identity in the Austrian Military, 1918-1938

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Austrian national identity in the interwar period is a complex issue, bound up with many other forms of identity in the nation at this time. There are those who argue that an identifiable national identity simply did not exist, that it was supposed by many that sooner or later the republic would become a part of the German Reich, and that this was the most desirable outcome because of the shared sense of Germanness which existed between the Reich and the republic. This supposes a great deal of political stagnation over two decades of national evolution, as this argument does not take into consideration the fact that in 1918 the left-wing Social Democratic party wanted Anschluss in the hope of improving economic prosperity, but by 1938, it was the extreme right, in the form of the Nazi party, which now advocated for a union between the two states. It is the argument of this thesis that national identity did grow within Austria, particularly in the armed forces, over the course of the interwar period, and that a sense of the republic as a unique state with her own history and culture, separate from that of the Reich, had emerged by the time of the Anschluss, though it would be subsumed by the years of occupation which came after. This proto-identity put forward by the Austrian government will be referred to throughout as a Habsburg German identity. It is arguably not yet the Austrian national identity which we recognise today, but it is also distinct enough from contemporary German identity that citizens of the republic viewed them as two separate identities, which were not always considered compatible. This thesis further argues that governmental advocacy of this national identity fell on fertile ground in the military, and that the army of the Austrian Republic became a vocal champion of the national identity which the government espoused.
Of the theories which discuss national identity and state formation, there are a number which rely on commonalities between groups of individuals such as shared cultural practices, histories, or language, to define the borders of nations. However, it is the argument of this thesis that seeking out commonalities in this manner can obscure self-proclaimed differentiation between states. In this instance, Austrians and Germans have been considered by some to be German, and a union between the two states, administered by the more economically robust Germany, seemed to be a natural progression, owing to the shared language, culture and experience of defeat in the First World War. However, Austrians described themselves, even in the immediate post-war years, as better Germans than the Germans themselves. They suggested that while Austrians and Germans may once have shared a culture, they had grown too far apart, too different, for an easy union between the two states to occur, and they expressed their desire not to be a part of this union. The Habsburg dynasty provided the greatest evidence of differentiation between the two states, and it is therefore not surprising that, after the initial rejection of Habsburg ideas and symbols, the dynasty was recovered. In particular, Franz Joseph was portrayed as the representative of much that had been good about the old empire, and many Habsburg icons were repurposed to suggest a continuity from the empire to the Austrian Republic, implicitly reinforcing the republic’s difference to the neighbouring German Reich, despite the many elements of commonality.
The Austrian case is interesting because of its somewhat anomalous nature. The Austrian government attempted to create a national identity which was unique, despite commonalities with their largest national neighbour. This struggle to enunciate an identity which was different to and yet analogous with another nation has similarities to the situation in Latin America, whereby several states share languages and a common history, yet they consider themselves to be independent nations, each with their own separate identity. Alongside this, there is the comparison which can be made with the collapse of other transnational entities. There have been numerous studies done which discuss nation-state construction after the fall of the Soviet Empire, and the Austrian case fits certain elements of the models which have been extrapolated from these studies, though by no means all of those elements, suggesting that the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire produced different results than the collapse of the Soviet, and that we must be cautious in drawing wider conclusions from individual studies.
National identity theory, by and large, suggests that modern nation-states have formed around groups which self-identify a common identity, sharing aspects of their culture such as language, history, ethical understandings, traditions, or laws. The models suggest that such a group then came together and expressed an identity which was different to those of neighbouring ethnic groups, and over time, this ethnic identity transformed into a national identity within which there were distinctive geographical borders which incorporated a large percentage of those who expressed this identity. An ideal nation would be entirely homogenous, though this would require some form of removal of all those who fell outside of the accepted parameters, reminding us that national identity models are often purer and less complex than the situations which they represent.
National identity has always been closely linked to the military, as often civilians have to be indoctrinated into a willingness to fight and die for their country, and so the concept of the nation has to be expressed to them clearly enough that they believe it is worth giving up their lives to preserve that concept. In the Austrian case, the army was a self-selecting community of volunteers, which became both the target audience for much of the national identity rhetoric about at the time and its symbolic representation for the wider population. The government explicitly linked the contemporary armed forces with the great deeds and majesty of the imperial empire which had come before. However, this identity did not come about immediately. The military which was formed in Austria immediately after the First World War was designed to be a socialist party guard, the exact antithesis of the army which had existed under the Habsburg Empire. This army had been apolitical, multi-national, strictly hierarchical, and united by their commitment to the Habsburg family, and to the long-serving Emperor, Franz Joseph. After the war, the Social Democratic party came to power, and they rejected the format of the army as it had been under the Habsburgs, creating a new military which would serve their new state. This army placed power in the hands of the rank and file, with the creation of Soldiers’ Councils which gave voice to those who had previously lacked an outlet for complaint or reform. The system of elections to the Councils gave private soldiers the same amount of political power as their officers, a state which was notable at the time for the unusual balance of power which resulted. The Social Democrats also gave soldiers full political rights, and ensured that these were enshrined in their new constitution, in the hope of making soldiers feel like valued members of the society which they were expected to protect by giving them a political stake in the running of the country. There was some effort to ensure that the military would support the government and the constitutional bodies that had been formed, but this was within the context of the military remaining left-wing in political outlook. The impact of these early decisions on the part of the Social Democrats would be felt for a long time to come. Upon the coming to power of the Christian Socials, the Soldiers’ Councils, which had initially operated with a great deal of independence, resisted efforts to bring them back under centralised control, and the fear of political activism in the army would frequently play a role in determining government responses to political issues, whether those fears proved to be well-founded or not. The army was one of the institutions most dramatically affected by the brief period of Social Democratic power, and as a result of this, the military retained a certain institutional leftism far beyond that seen in comparable organisations like the police and gendarmerie, both of which were considered to be deeply conservative, and which would later become vulnerable to the growing force of Nazi propaganda. When the Christian Socials came to power, they endeavoured to make the Austrian federal army more closely reflect the political outlook of the government as it was under their leadership, though they spent the first few years of this campaign reassuring the public that they were merely rendering the army politically neutral and thereby making it a reliable force which could be trusted by all citizens to protect them equally. The Christian Socials attempted to effect this disguised re-politicisation of the army in a number of ways. They focused initially on recruitment, suggesting that they should examine the background of serving soldiers and remove from the ranks all those with a criminal record. These men would then be replaced by new recruits with political convictions which would more closely resemble the government’s own outlook. They also examined training regimes, altering the programme to demonstrate to new recruits the value and beauty of the whole country of Austria, attempting to elicit patriotic responses from the troops and reduce commitment to the political identities which divided them. Throughout the interwar period, political identity in Austria proved so divisive that some citizens felt compelled to form themselves into politically motivated paramilitary groups which promised to protect their local communities if federal troops proved unable or unwilling to do so. There were three main paramilitary organisations in Austria initially, the right-wing Heimwehr, the left-wing Schutzbund, and the Communist Arbeiterwehr. The last of these organisations attempted a coup in 1920 which ended in disaster and the loss of much support, leaving only the Schutzbund and the Heimwehr in direct competition for the next few years, until the arrival of the Nazi party. The Heimwehr was centred largely in rural areas, founded by former soldiers, and supported by those who had been too young to participate in the First World War themselves. These men, described by Michael Burleigh as being “incapable of psychological demobilisation”, held extreme political views, and the impact of their threat to constitutional democracy frequently diverted parliamentary energy away from ordinary citizens.1 These issues were often bound up with veterans affairs, though there remained throughout the interwar period a sharp distinction between those who had fought in the war and those who had been wounded by it, with the latter often grouped in with war widows and dependents of those who had seen combat. Heimwehr operatives swore an oath to assist the armed forces in the face of foreign incursion, but also promised to defend themselves against federal troops, should those soldiers attempt to enact policies with which the Heimwehr disagreed. This was the largest and most powerful of the paramilitary groups in Austria, though loose affiliation and differing political standpoints between the factions occasionally dampened efforts at unification. The Schutzbund, meanwhile, was more unified, as it was centralised around urban districts, and Vienna in particular. Both groups had a certain amount of support from politicians and government officials, so much so that the administration would eventually sanction missions which included the federal army, the police force, and Heimwehr troops. The military, however, resented this inclusion of amateurs in official operations and adamantly resisted the inclusion of political paramilitaries in their military, drawing on the legacy of the Habsburg army as an institution above such concerns as politics or partisanship. Austrian society was alienated by many things in the interwar period, chief among these being geographic divisions. Frequently, residence in an urban or rural district would dictate most of the other identities by which a citizen of the republic defined themselves, and meant that the urban/rural divide persisted in superseding the national unity, centred around the concept of the Habsburg German, for which successive governments continued to advocate. This process was further hampered by the fact that most politicians worked and resided in Vienna, the ultimate embodiment of the urban Austria, while the most vocal proportion of their opposition lived in rural areas, and these two groups remained distrustful of one another throughout the period. In order to demonstrate the Habsburg German image to the wider population, the government increased the visibility of the armed forces by making it a central responsibility of the army to provide relief in the event of natural disasters. Memoirs and contemporary newspapers both mark these instances of assistance as watershed moments wherein Austrian citizens began to view the army as a national organisation whose purpose was to assist and defend all citizens of the republic. This increase in respect from external observers led to an increase in self-respect within the military, and this became a self-perpetuating cycle which has trickled down to modern times. The present army of Austria is conscription-based, and in 2013, the Austrian public voted in a referendum to retain this conscript army, partly because of the sense of pride which citizens feel on having served, even though the conscription period is currently only six months long. In the interwar period, the military could not use conscription, so instead they produced educational books and films, designed to show ordinary citizens what life was like in the armed forces. They also worked in conjunction with the military museum, which wished to demonstrate to visitors the day-to-day lives of soldiers and the experiences of the recently concluded war, as an educational tool for those who had not participated directly. Though the military did not necessarily mirror the political outlook of the government, the two institutions had goals which were similar enough for them to work together towards a common purpose. Through the interwar period, as civil-military relations improved, it became slowly more common to see soldiers and commanders of the army announcing in patriotic speeches and newspaper articles their commitment to the fatherland, and they began to pledge their allegiance to the republic, small and fragile though it then still was. Under the Habsburgs, military conscription had been used not only to provide a rudimentary education for thousands of men, but also to teach those same men about loyalty to the empire. The army of the Austrian Republic was not a conscript army, and it was limited to only 30,000 troops, but this did not stop the government from attempting to elicit from soldiers a commitment to the new nation of Austria, a promise to the fatherland and to the people who lived there. The essential elements of Habsburg German identity were Catholicism and Germanism. The concept of Germanism, as it was expressed by the interwar government was that Germanic tribes had occupied the Danube region since the time of the Romans, and there were tribes that both Austrians and Germans were descended from. However, the overwhelming Catholicism of its citizens was what differentiated Austria from Germany, as the argument continued that the Germans, governed as they were from ‘Protestant Prussia’, had lost sight of their strong Germanic past, which the Austrians had retained by cleaving to their Catholic faith. The greatest embodiment of this identity was seen in the Habsburg family, Catholic rulers of the former empire, who had represented all that was good about Germanism, providing us with the concept of the Habsburg German identity. Over time, Habsburg symbols and colours began to be used to express the notion that the nation of Austria had been handed down to her current citizens by the Catholic Germans who had come before, and that the citizens of the republic therefore had a right to claim the history of military and political victories which they saw as part of the Habsburg legacy. The army, in particular, took up this practice of demonstrating continuity from the imperial past to the republican present, retaining regimental troop names, numbers and colours, as well as displaying a great deal of reverence for historical military figures. This Catholic Habsburg legacy formed the basis of an Austrian identity unique in Europe, the Habsburg German identity, as they laid claim to the history of the empire, which was picked up and reproduced by a wider range of people, civilian and military alike. Not least among the elements of Habsburg history which were retained was the sense of professionalism within the armed forces, and the firm belief that the military was above such petty considerations as individual identity or partisan politics. This proved to be so true that in the period after the fall of the Habsburgs, when qualification for Austrian citizenship was being established, some long-serving, decorated officers found that they did not qualify for Austrian citizenship, because of the location of their family home, the primary language which they spoke, or their place of birth, elements which had never before caused them any trouble so long as they served the empire. These men went into a kind of limbo where they did not possess a national identity, and many of them had to have their official records altered before they could continue to serve, often updating their birthplace or their homeland. It was a matter of great pride to the Austro-Hungarian officer class that national identity had no impact on their capacity and willingness to serve the Habsburgs, and because a high proportion of the officers of the army of the republic had fought in the Austro-Hungarian military, this ethos carried over into the new armed forces. Their disregard for politics and their focus on professionalization is likely one of the elements which inoculated the military against the ferocious propaganda from both the left and the right which swirled around Austria in this period.  National identity, now defined as a Habsburg German identity, grew within the armed forces during the 1930s with a particular push after Engelbert Dollfuss became Chancellor of the Republic in 1932. He advocated not only for the military to declare its intention to protect all citizens, but he also pushed for the general population to have greater respect and consideration for the military. This wider societal respect for the army was most vocally encouraged in speeches during patriotic festivals and national celebrations, events which often included a military parade or other such show demonstrating the improvement in civil-military relations in the period. The speeches at these events discussed the importance of the army, its contribution to society, as well as the positive attributes of the soldiers who had chosen to serve. Over time, Dollfuss and the Christian Social party went so far as to begin to equate political disagreement with how the military was being run with a betrayal of the nation, painting political opponents as national traitors. This argument gained particular traction after 1934, with a civil war and a coup following each other in quick succession, brought about by specific political groups in society. The result of both incidents in 1934 was the quick suppression of the rebels by federal soldiers, followed by the arrest and execution of the leaders. Habsburg German identity did not appear overnight, but throughout the interwar period, particularly after 1928, we see a growth in military understanding of this identity. Through the examination of training materials and the sources available to soldiers in their recreational time, we see a consistent message reminding them that the republic was the direct descendent of the Habsburg empire, and that they could take pride in the actions of their imperial predecessors, so long as they upheld the same values, and continued to protect the nation that had grown out of that empire. Some of these educational materials were used in both military training facilities and in civilian schools, ensuring a continuity of education across the nation, and encouraging the widest possible cross-section of the population to begin to think of themselves as Habsburg Germans, with contemporary soldiers as physical reminders of the legacies that the empire had left to them. These soldiers embodied everything which the government wished from their citizens, they proved that troops, and by extension, civilians, could hold political identities without letting those identities affect their commitment to the republic as a concept. Furthermore, they had a Germanic connection to the Danube region, and the vast majority demonstrated their Catholic faith, marking them out as different to other German-speakers, who, the government argued, had strayed from the path laid out for them by their Germanic predecessors, a path that the Habsburgs had walked throughout their long reign. A crucial test of the military’s capacity to portray itself as a representative of all citizens of Austria came about in 1934. In February of that year, the socialist paramilitary, the Schutzbund, rose up in open rebellion against the government. Aggravated by frequent raids on their bases by Heimwehr operatives, and by the government’s perceived decision to inflict harsher sentences on Schutzbund activity than Heimwehr actions, the Schutzbund ordered a national strike which almost immediately descended into a civil war between Schutzbund forces and the Heimwehr, which was supported by federal forces, including the military. Schutzbund resistance was suppressed in only four days, and the rebels were utterly defeated. This incident reflected particularly well on the army, as any lingering suggestion that the military might have been a leftist institution harbouring socialist sympathies was silenced by the speed and professionalism with which the army handled the Schutzbund fighters, thereby embodying the apolitical Habsburg German ideal. In July of the same year, there was an attempted coup, this time launched by Nazi operatives, some of whom had been soldiers in the federal army before they were dismissed, often for extremist political views. These dismissals are important to note, as they suggest that not only was the army no longer socialist in outlook, but that by 1934 it could hardly be considered to be a harbour for fascist thinkers either. Instead, it occupied a generally conservative position on the centre-right of the political spectrum, while simultaneously representing a belief in commitment to the government, regardless of whether they shared a political outlook, as the constitution had intended. Though the motivation to make the army centre-right had begun as a political endeavour, the act of making it so placed it in a position whereby it appeared to have become a national army, preserved to an extent from subjection to the political extremism which was dividing Austria and the wider world. Nazism was the fastest-growing political movement in Austria in the 1930s, assisted by the manner in which it slipped beneath the radar for some time before the government understood the full extent of the threat which was facing them. Nazi arguments for an extended German-Austrian union were not unfamiliar in Austria, advocated for by the pan-German movement. The difference between the two movements was that pan-Germans saw the union as a potential partnership between equals, while many Nazis saw it as the sublimation of the Austria Republic into the German Reich. However, existing familiarity with the general sentiment in support of union caused the government to underestimate Nazi radicalism. The National Socialist movement gained strength so quickly because it promised the kind of economic improvement which Austrian traditional parties seemed incapable of providing.  By the 1930s most other European states had seen significant economic improvements, and Germany had regained its role as a major European power. Austria, meanwhile, was little more than a backwater, with high unemployment and poor economic prospects. In the early years after the First World War, the federal army had struggled to fill its vacancies each year, but as respect for the armed forces increased and the economic situation failed to improve, the military began to find itself with up to ten thousand applicants for only three thousand vacancies, despite the military pay cut of 1927. Citizens were becoming increasingly desperate and increasingly frustrated as conditions worsened after the 1929 Wall Street Crash. This was a long way for the former seat of the Habsburg Empire to fall, and the promise inherent in the Nazi claim to be able to restore respect and strength to the people of Austria proved potent in winning supporters to their movement, even if not all of those supporters necessarily hoped for the complete erasure of Austria which would come in 1938. Though the army as an institution was not so inclined towards right-wing ideologies as the police or the gendarmerie this did not make individual soldiers immune to the ideas of the Nazi party. Secret Nazi organisations were discovered within the armed forces, the primary purpose of which was to win more converts to their cause. The Nazis grew slowly bolder as the response to their actions on the part of the government remained lacklustre, though they struggled to gain the kind of political support which both the Heimwehr and the Schutzbund had in the federal government, with one leader of the Heimwehr, Prince Starhemberg, even becoming the Vice Chancellor of Austria in 1935. The military responded to growing support for the Nazi party in a number of ways. Officers accused of membership in Nazi groups were encouraged to sign a sworn document stating that they were not a member of any secret organisation, and social clubs and events were investigated for political content. The administration also continued to promote associations between the Austrian Republic and the Habsburgs, encouraging troops to look into the regiments which had occupied their barracks before them, suggesting that they take on this Habsburg history as their own legacy, in an effort to draw them away from the fundamental idea of Nazism, a union with Germany. High-ranking officers joined neutral political organisations, or those which supported the democratically elected government, and were extremely vocal in their support for this government, stating in letters, books and memoirs that it was the responsibility of the Austrian soldier to serve the government as it was, without consideration for politics. However, there was a stark division in the army between old soldiers, many of whom had served in the imperial army and who took pride in the apolitical role which that army had fulfilled, and newer recruits, many of whom were professed supporters of the Nazi party. When the Austrian air force was established in the interwar period it drew many young Nazis to it, recruits who were often on the opposite side of the political debate compared to their instructors. In the early years of the 1930s, the Nazis were considered to be one more paramilitary group with grievances which could be handled through democratic means. However, after Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, this situation began to change rapidly. Over the course of the 1930s, Austria was abandoned by international neighbours who had promised to protect the republic against invasion, particularly invasion from Germany. Italy abandoned promises of support when it became apparent that they required German agreement to pursue their agenda in Abyssinia and elsewhere. The UK similarly stepped back from promises of protection in the later 1930s, pursing a policy of appeasement by which they hoped to avert a war like that which still loomed large in the history of the continent. The result of this international abandonment was that Chancellor Schuschnigg became convinced by 1938 that Austria could not withstand the force of German aggression, despite increasingly desperate efforts on the part of the government to demonstrate to the rest of Europe that Austrian citizens viewed the republic as a nation in its own right, to which they and their armed forces could pledge their allegiance. Therefore, when Anschluss became inevitable, Chancellor Schuschnigg ordered the army not to resist the invasion, in an effort to avoid a slaughter and save Austrian lives. Historiographical efforts to explain the immensely complex issues surrounding the Anschluss often highlight the support for the Nazis which was exhibited in Austria in the preceding years, and they speak of the huge outpouring of celebration which followed Hitler’s victorious ride into Austria.  However, anecdotal evidence of people hiding from the celebrations in their homes, of weeping and avoidance, put forward a more complicated story. Shortly after the Anschluss, Hitler ordered a victory parade through Vienna. The German troops were met with cheers and jubilation, while it was reported that the Austrian troops came in for significantly less applause, suggesting that while Austrians felt hopeful with the arrival in their country of their economically more powerful neighbour, they still saw the events of the Anschluss as a defeat, if perhaps an existential one. They believed that their nation had been destroyed, that something definite had been lost, and they saw the military as the physical embodiment of that loss, the symbol of hopes which had been abandoned, of a nation which had failed to achieve the potential which Woodrow Wilson had considered all nations capable of when he spoke of self-determination in 1918. The military, in particular, mourned the passing of their nation. On the day of the German invasion, a group of high-ranking officers and their grandchildren marched to St Stephen’s Cathedral, carrying the flags of their regiments, to be stored in the church for safe-keeping. They refused to let German hands sully the regimental flags that represented their long history, in the same way that soldiers on battlefields had fought for centuries to keep their flags out of the hands of conquering foes. These men were not Germans, and they were certainly not Nazis, but, as this thesis will argue, they had become Habsburg Germans, with an identity distinct from that of neighbouring national Germans. 
Date of Award1 Sept 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorMichael Rowe (Supervisor)

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