[Austria-Hungary, 1916] While the battles of Verdun and the Somme were raging in the West, the Russians attacked again in June 1916 and pushed forward to the Carpathians. Austria-Hungary seemed lost.
Hundreds of thousands soldiers of the Central Powers, most of them Austro-Hungarians, were taken prisoners. The Austro-Hungarian troops were pushed far back; millions of people fled. Romania entered the war on the part of the Entente.
“Our troops cannot go on,” Joscha wrote. “We have so many injured people here, but very soon these exhausted men have to go back to the front, they are already practicing with machine guns, shells, and gas masks … how harmless is the handling of the field kitchen and the mobile oven! I am doing it myself because there is no one else left to do it. Tomorrow I will bring food and supplies to the front in our truck. I will stay there for another few days, stand at the field kitchen and serve our men. Some men are just happy when they can talk to me again in their mother tongue. May God protect us all.”
But the Russian army also suffered devastating losses and was utterly exhausted, moreover they had problems transporting supplies and ammunition. Supported by German troops, the Austro-Hungarians could halt a Russian breakthrough and then even launch an offensive and conquer Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania. However, Austria-Hungary had to agree that the German High Command would take over.
Austria-Hungary in decay
On November 21, 1916, the 86-year-old Emperor Franz Joseph died in Vienna. On the 30th of November he was buried in the splendor of the decaying Habsburg monarchy. All church bells rang, thousands stood on the sidewalks when the coffin was brought from the Hofburg to St. Stephan’s Cathedral. Representatives of the House of Habsburg, the German Princes and Austria’s allies accompanied the Emperor on his last ride through Vienna. Then he was buried on the side of his wife Elisabeth and his son Rudolf in the Imperial Crypt.
Also count Andras Csabany and his son Joscha stood on the side of the road and paid their respects to their emperor. What would Austria-Hungary’s future be like? Would their multi-ethnic state, which many had long regarded as an anachronism, perish with him?
A world falling apart
Count Andras, too, saw his world fall apart. What he saw and heard from the war zones, the misery of battered cities, villages burnt down and devastated fields, deeply shocked him. Not only prisoners of war, but also “unreliable” citizens of Austria-Hungary were interned or even executed. In Galicia, Bosnia, and Serbia, many civilians were executed by the Austro-Hungarian army without legal proceedings. Austria-Hungary was not prepared for a long war, but the military leaders, certain of victory had not done anything for their men. It embittered him. As a young soldier in the Austro-Prussian War, he had complained about the bad equipment of the Austrian troops, but hardly anyone had wanted to hear it. In contrary, they had transferred him to Galicia on disciplinary grounds, and for months he had not seen Sophie. Little had changed since those days.
The old emperor’s grandnephew and successor Charles I led the funeral procession. “He will not be able to do much,” said Joscha, “even if he is of good will, our Austria-Hungary is about to collapse, he must soon make peace if our country is to survive. But the Germans are too superior, we are long since under the influence of the German General Staff, and there the hardliners are in command.” Then he gave his father a hug and tried to sound optimistic. “But now you come with us and spend Christmas at our family estate, we’ll celebrate as best we can in these days. We just have to work, hope, and pray, just like Mama, Grandma and you did back then when you were in Galicia.”
Farewell to Andras Csabany
A few weeks later, Count Csabany spent Christmas at the Csabany family estate in Hungary. Now he was sitting by the window, all wrapped up in a warm blanket. Outside, the people were looking for fir green – a bit of Christmas decoration despite of war and destruction. As a boy he had been happy here, then the hard time in exile after the failed revolution in 1848, then finally the Hungarian-Austrian settlement of 1866 which had allowed his elderly parents to return and spend some happy years on the family estate. Now they were buried here. With Sophie, he had come here often and with great pleasure. Sophie … the death of his beloved wife had deeply shaken him. He was doing worse than he had admitted to his children Lottie and Joscha.
On Christmas Eve, he called Lottie and her family, asked everyone how they were, how Matthias was healing from his injury, and what he could do for Jacob’s soup-kitchen. With a happy smile, he finally put the receiver on the cradle.
A few days later the old gentleman became very weak. Joscha was sitting by his bed. His father was composed and in peace. “You need not be sad,” he said, “it was wonderful with you all, you have become wonderful human beings. Please do not grieve at my grave, your people need you now, both you here in Hungary and Lottie in the Rhineland. I’ll see your dear Mama again, and I have so much to tell her … ” With a slight smile on his face, Count Csabany died.
Austria-Hungary will not remain
Count Andras’s gloomy premonitions were to be confirmed the very next year. Austria-Hungary was about to fall apart. The Poles of Galicia wanted to join a newly emerging Polish state, but not the Ukrainians of Galicia. The Czechs wanted their own Czechoslovak state, which in turn worried the German-speakers in Bohemia and Moravia. The Slovenes and Croats wanted to form a Southern Slav state with the Serbs. Slovaks, Romanians, and Croats wanted to get away from Hungary which had been very restrictive on the non-Magyars.
At least the USA had not yet become an enemy. Former President Theodore Roosevelt had visited Vienna in 1910 and had been impressed by the old Emperor Franz Joseph; President Woodrow Wilson had paid the USA’s respects after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. Despite of all sympathy for the Entente and growing antipathy against Germany, there was no anti-Austrian mood in the USA yet.