Austrian Army at Wagram

Why was the Habsburg army slower and less brilliant than its European rivals between 1649 and 1918?

I am certainly no expert on this topic, having read only very generally on Austrian history, but in the interest of providing a basis of discussion, I’ll posit the following general ideas:

1) The Habsburgs were almost always broke due to shambolic administration and regional economic underdevelopment. As a result, they were more dependent upon using their soldiers to gather the harvest or to forage, most memorably in the Potato War. They were also dependent upon foreign subsidies to finance distant campaigns and were less able to modernize their equipment or to maintain large standing forces. Their chronic financial problems were accentuated by the Ausgleich of 1867, which required the military budget to pass not one but two legislatures.

2) The Habsburgs were restrained by the balance of power, internally and externally. Internally, the need to watch their subject populations absorbed large garrisons or armies (i.e. the Hungarian revolt during the War of Spanish Succession). Externally, the Austrians were often tied down by war on two fronts (typically the French and the Turks) or by the threat of war on two fronts (the French, Turks, Prussians, Russians and Piedmont-Sardinia/Italy). Further, as perennial Emperors, the frequent need to consult with independent-minded Imperial electors restrained the Habsburgs and reduced the possibility of conducting a reckless Prussian-style foreign policy along the lines of a Frederick the Great or Bismarck.

3) Poor interior lines of communication. Other countries, of course, were faced with the problem of two-front wars, but they were either more compact (Prussia) or had better roads (France). Being in control of an underdeveloped region in Europe, the Austrians were less able to conduct rapid troop movements, particularly in the impoverished areas in the south-east reclaimed from the Turks. On this note, it is worth pointing that even the lavishly equipped NATO has had difficulty moving troops into Bosnia and Kosovo.

4) Cultural passivism. A broad and problematic category, but nevertheless one worth considering. It encompasses Catholic fatalism, leadership, and a court which did not place an unduly high value on martial prowess. Whereas the Prussian military was based upon an aggressive, militaristic, barracks-hall culture, perhaps best embodied by Frederck William II’s kitchen cabinet, and by Wilhelm II’s personal involvement in field maneuvers, in contrast Vienna was a centre of culture and art, where a significant proportion of the aristocracy and court would rather attend opera, hunts, or masked balls. Here leadership played a role. Whereas France’s borders where shaped by adventurous and ambitious spirits such as Louis XIV and the two Napoleons, the final 150 years of Austrian history were dominated by leaders who were not themselves soldiers—Maria Theresa, von Kaunitz, Metternich, and Franz Josef II. Of the lot, Maria Theresa was the most warlike, but even she was more concerned about maintaining her inheritance from the depredations of that robber-baron Frederick to the north than in extensive territorial aggrandizement. Summing up, the Habsburgs preferred peace to war, diplomacy over fighting, and the status quo in lieu of imperial aggrandizement.

5) Lastly, and least importantly, one of their strengths was also a weakness. Austrian light irregular forces are generally conceded to be amongst the best in Europe in their day, but being specialists in the “small war,” these are not the types of soldiers likely to win dramatic decisive victories of the Napoleonic type.

I hope that these comments provide some food for thought.

All the best,

Rob Hanks.

Ph. Candidate

University of Toronto

Coming to that period, Monteccucoli indeed advised defensive tactics against the Turks. That changed after Vienna, and a commander like Prince Eugene of Savoy was by no means a defensive tactician, neither against the Ottomans nor on western battlefields in the war of succession. And at the end of the 18th century, Count Kinsky, a professor of military science rated the Ottomans rather low; due to the decline of Ottoman troop quality. Cf. my account Schwendi, Monteccucoli, Kinsky: Analysen der Osmanischen Kriegsmacht vom 16. bis zum 18. Jahrhundert, in: CIEPO VII: Sempozyumu Bildirileri, Ankara 1994, pp. 201 – 214.

As for later times, the Austrians’ seemingly mediocre performance was partially due to their bad luck—their armies were put against a bunch of military geniuses like Frederick the Great or Napoleon, who made almost every opponent look rather mediocre! But one should not forget that a commander like Archduke Charles was virtually the first one who succesfully made a stand against the so far invincible Frenchman at Aspern-Essling and fought him into a draw.

Thomas Scheben

I continue to be (cheerfully) amazed at the diversity of websites/discussion groups/etc. that the Internet has enabled to be created, that can so readily bring together people who share common interests . . . so now there’s a Habsburg discussion group!!! I love it!!!

As far as this question is concerned, I believe the ultimate answer to be “culture,” although I don’t really know how to go about proving this objectively. If you look at the entire history of the Hapsburg dynasty/empire, its development was never primarily “martial,” though they certainly made use of war as an instrument of policy when convenient. They seemed always to prefer other means of acquiring territory or power, particularly dynastic marriages. This character was encapsulated in the famous proverb that went something like “Other nations make war, you, happy Austria, marry.” They never tried to build an unitary state but continued the old medieval tradition of “localism in empire.”

One of the big what-ifs of modern history is what might have happened in the early 20th century if in the 19th century the Hapsburgs had worked with the rising nationalist spirit and capitalized on their empire’s diversity to build a kind of United States of Central Europe . . .

Notwithstanding Austria-Hungary’s poor showing in the Balkan Wars, significant elements of the empire’s foreign ministry as well as military continued to lobby for war—a localized, successful one, of course—to shore up the dynasty in the critical years right before World War I. The decay and centrifugal forces pulling the old empire apart were quite apparent to people on the scene at the time, not just in retrospect.

Strikingly like the Russian autocracy, whose solution for recovering the prestige and authority sacrificed by its incompetent, losing war with Japan was another war.


This is a question that has been bothering me since grade school:

how did a state with such an unimpressive military get to be such a great power? I looked through the few H-Habsburg responses to this and found that they tended to minimize Habsburg ineptness, which I would challenge.

My specialty is the Thirty Years’ War, and, in my opinion, if the (Austrian) Habsburgs had been only average, they would have come out of the war much better. Almost all of their victories were won in the first half of the war, and they tended to be against outsized rebel forces. Tilly was very successful, but he wasn’t Habsburg. Nordlingen was very successful, but that had a large Spanish contingent. That leaves Wallenstein, and his greatest accomplishment was Lutzen, a draw.

That’s the good half of the war. In the second half, it was nothing but one defeat after another: Wittstock (1636), Second Breitenfeld (1642), Jankov (1645), and Zusmarshausen (1648), not to mention several other disastrous campaigns that did not include a major battle (1644 and 1646 come to mind). I’m amazed that Austria managed to escape from this war in as good shape as it did.

I’m tempted to blame the political selection of leaders, especially Leopold Wilhelm (why the Spanish ever took him on as governor-general of the Low Countries after his previous career is a mystery). However, in 1647 they gave command to Peter Melander, who was not only not a Catholic, but was actually a Calvinist. He turned things around for a while, but then lost at Zusmarshausen; and that clearly can’t be blamed on politics.

After the death of Franz von Mercy in 1645, the Bavarians also had some highly inadequate commanders. Perhaps they and the Habsurgs look so bad at this time because they were facing some of the best generals of the century, including Turenne, Conde, Torstensson, and Wrangel. But that’s only a short-term explanation—if you blame commanders for more than a few years, you have to start asking why the Habsburgs couldn’t get better ones.

In conclusion, I have no idea what the answer to the question is. I do, however, think that it is a serious question that someone should deal with. Austria’s military not only seems bad, it was bad; yet somehow, they survived and even prospered for centuries. Perhaps this is a tribute to amazingly successful statecraft.



My former colleague Charles Ingrao asked the question what factor, or indeed factors, were the causes for the Habsburg army earning the respect of its opponents, but ‘rarely the kind of admiration that we associate with the military instruments of notable adversaries like Louis VIV, Frederick the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte or even the tiny Serbian kingdom of World War I’. He goes on to declare that the Habsburg military usually were less aggressive and less likely to achieve a decisive victory and that these shortcomings were contributing factors to the Monarchy’s ‘decline’ and eventual dissolution in 1918.

This statement, of course, is correct and the question is very well put. As a French historian, A. Sorel, once pointed out, ‘the Hapsburg always were one idea and one army behind, but they always had an idea and an army.’ The idea was the preservation of the dynasty and its empire and as Jaszi pointed out, the army was one of the main—I would assert—the main, pillar of the dynasty.

At the same time, however, the Habsburg rulers had few martial talents, while since the days of Wallenstein they were suspicious of military commanders and always hesitated placing too much power into the hands of any one general. Hence the famous conflict between the Emperor Francis and his brother the Archduke Charles discussed by Rauchensteiner and Craig, suspicions and misgivings which survived into the long years of the Emperor Francis Joseph. For that matter, even the most talented of the Habsburg generals, the Archduke Charles, was a cautious conservative who clearly never was prepared to risk the army to achieve the complete destruction of an opponent, with his curious inactivity in the weeks following Aspern-Essling but one example.

No other army commander, save Eugene as Professor Ingrao points out, ever achieved decisive victory, though here I would add Radetzky who in a six week campaign in 1848 destroyed his Italian opponents to the short list of Habsburg generals achieving a decisive victory. Naturally, victory placed the Monarchy in a better geopolitical position, but one needs to ask what constituted a decisive victory? Montecuccoli defeated the Turks in 1664, but they returned in 1683, and only the campaigns in Hungary after 1683 achieved a ‘decisive result’. The Turks were driven out of Hungary, though the Ottoman presence in the western Balkans remained a worry to the Habsburg authorities. Eugene’s victories in Italy, Spain, Flanders all had no decisive impact. In 1714, the Monarchy clearly had become a great power but also was beset by continuing and intensifying internal problems which sapped its strength.

To be sure, the problem of a luxurious court and an often starving army were common in the eighteenth century, except perhaps in Prussia, and in fact the question how to pay for a large, well-equipped, and well officered army was never really solved either in Austria or in Austria-Hungary. By the last decade of the 18th century, the ‘Austrian Monarchy,’ a convenient misnomer for territories collected by an ambitious dynasty, stretched from the Lower Rhine to Galicia and from Bohemia to northern Italy, but such a collection of lands not only lacked unity and purpose but also created a geostrategic position where the Monarchy always faced the problem of war on several fronts.

This problem, recognized clearly as Ingrao has pointed out by Joseph I, became even more complicated from the second half of the century on, when proto-nationalism, with perhaps a full fledged nationalism in Hungary, began to take hold in the various lands. Given this, the only possible orientation for the army was to retain its traditional dynastic character. This had proved adequate in the wars against the Prussians and the French, but according to Wawro, by 1866 led to an army that while brave, was extremely poorly led and trained, and handled with remarkable incompetence during the decisive campaign in Bohemia.

Many historians have considered Hungarian resistance to make a proportionate contribution for military purposes of the Monarchy, and in fact to assert the right to maintain its own separate national army, as one of the major problems of the monarchy from 1790 on, becoming critical after 1867. The threat of another 1704 or 1848 was always present in the thinking of the Habsburg authorities, and by the third decade of the 19th century the feelings of the Slavic majority in the empire had to be taken into consideration. These matters were real and were hardly resolved by the Military Compromise of 1868, which Miskolcy described as the ‘greatest liability of the Ausgleich.’ Perhaps this goes too far, but Stone asserted that in 1914 the weaknesses of the k.u.k Armee were largely due to the obstinate politicians in Budapest.

There is the possibility that defeat in 1866, according to Friedjung primarily due to sociopolitical backwardness, could have opened the way towards genuine army reform, turning the army into a people’s army, a multinational rather than a dynastic force. This point was raised some years ago by Peball, but whether this ever was a realistic option may be doubted. As it was, the army went to war in 1914 lacking national cohesion and motivation, in part lacking training and modern weapons, but still managed, to the astonishment of many, to maintain itself against a superior enemy for over four years.

Given the constraints imposed by the character of the Austrian monarchy and the cautious conservatism of its rulers, with an administrative structure that still reflected much of an old particularism, its industrial resources perhaps not equal to the demands of the Material Schlacht, the army reflected the shortcomings of the body politic that created it, and to the extent that these problems could not be resolved outside the army, they also could not be resolved within.

Gunther E Rothenberg

Professor Emeritus Purdue University

Research Associate Monash University

Actually, I’m not reading the events of the mid-19th century back into the mid-18th. I’m reasoning almost entirely on the basis of contemporary evidence and modern scholarship. I’ve been reading scholarship on Theresian policy for over ten years now, and I’ve never even seen it suggested that Austrian policymakers seriously considered forcing Frederick to abdicate in favor of one of his brothers, let alone an entirely different dynasty. (If you do have a citation, please let me know.) As a rule, in eighteenth-century Europe one did not depose legitimate dynasties from the outside (Poland, being an elective monarchy, didn’t quite count). One might take pieces of territory, and one might wait for a male line to die out and fight over the spoils (which is essentially what happened to Maria Theresia, whose claim was contested, albeit on rather weak grounds, by the Saxon and Bavarian electors as well as by Frederick), but one didn’t simply depose reigning dynasties because they were considered dangerous (that would be reading the Napoleonic experience back into the eighteenth century, and we should remember that the rest of Europe didn’t really consider the Bonapartes legitimate in the first place). The only possible counterexample I can think of is that of Lorraine, to which the French had laid claim as early as the seventeenth century (if not earlier), and whose ruler was compensated with Tuscany once the Medicis died out a few years later.

Furthermore, Theresian policymakers (and here I’ll include Bartenstein here as well as Kaunitz and the Empress) knew perfectly well that Austria had connived in Prussia’s rise by relying too heavily on Prussian military prowess and political reliability in Imperial conflicts with the Bourbons, and in rewarding the Hohenzollerns a little too lavishly for their assistance. Charles VI was already aware of the House of Hohenzollern’s growing ambitions, but his own attempts to keep the problem under control were too little and too late.

And thus I return to my original point—the Austrian war aim was not to depose the Hohenzollerns, or even Frederick himself, but rather to reduce Prussia’s size and resources to the point where it could no longer be a threat to its neighbors. And, having done that, MT would leave a lesson for the instruction of future Habsburgs about letting little allies become big powers in their own right.

Ken MacLennan