Austria's Civilizing Mission

By An Austrian Diplomat

[World's Work, September 1914]

At this portentous moment in history, when the activities of Austria-Hungary in the Near East have suddenly been made a world-issue by the outbreak of the most terrible war in the history of civilization, the aims and methods of the dual monarchy are of paramount significance.

Situated upon the outskirts of Central Europe in the debatable region between the West and the East, Austria stands in a peculiar sense as the connecting link between civilization and vanishing barbarism, between to-day and yesterday. The double eagle of Austria is the symbol that connects racial fragments in a civic bond which spells progress and peace. The aims of Austria, whether in the Balkans or further east, are mainly commercial and cultural. They are political only in so far as the geographical situation of the dual Empire makes it incumbent upon her statesmen to maintain her territorial integrity and to provide for the normal expansion of her industrial output.

The attempt to centralize and Germanize the Austrian Empire as a whole has been twice made—once under the Emperor Joseph II, toward the end of the eighteenth century, and again under Francis Joseph after the suppression of the revolution of 1848. In each case the attempt failed, and it was abandoned as impracticable by the present Emperor-King. Hungary had always retained its old liberties under the hegemony of the Magyars. By the compromise of 1867 the dual form of the monarchy was definitely fixed. So carefully were the rights of the various races in the Empire safeguarded under this readjustment that in Hungary, for instance, the Croatians were recognized as a separate entity, under their own Ban or Governor, their separate diet, and their distinct machinery of local and provincial administration.

In Austria proper the constitution of 1867 created a central parliament in Vienna and left a large measure of autonomy to the old provinces. One of the most important articles of the constitution guarantees to every nationality the free use of its language in word and writing. By this means it made forever impossible any attempt to interfere with the legitimate aspirations of the various races in the Empire. In fact, the entire spirit of the new constitution was to assure to each race the greatest and freest use of its language in its educational system, from the primary school to the university, in the diets, in the provincial legislatures and in the administration, excluding only the ministries at Vienna, and in the courts, with the sole exception of the Supreme Court in the imperial capital.

Even to this last reservation in favor of a central authority an exception is made. In Polish litigation the entire process of litigation and judicature, including the highest court, may be carried on in the Polish language.

Only in the army common to the Empire is there a common language, and that language is the German. This arrangement is not based jupon any propaganda, but is the outcome of the entirely practical consideration that an army made up of so many races as is the Austro-Hungarian would be badly handicapped in the performance of its duties if it did not have a common language of command and communication. The selection of the German language for this purpose was the logical outcome of the German origin of the Empire.

The tangible result of this practically unlimited freedom of race-development is presented by the present complexion of the Reichstag in Vienna. So long as the franchise was based upon property qualifications the votes of the landed proprietors kept a disunited German majority in the Reichstag, but the granting of universal suffrage upon the personal initiative of the Emperor a few years ago resulted in the return of a Slavic majority in the imperial legislative chamber—a remarkable result if one is to believe the persistent charges that Austria has sought to destroy or Germanize the Slavic nationalities within its boundaries.

This presence of a Slavic majority in the chamber has brought about a state of affairs wherein no Austrian administration can neglect the wishes of the Slavic groups without being forced to resort to the short-lived and unpopular expedient of imperial decrees.

Thanks to its liberal treatment of the claims of contending nationalities, the German element in many parts of Austria is already on the defensive, and the ascendancy of the Slav element is more and more felt in the political and intellectual life of the Empire. The Slav has taken the offensive all along the line, and the Germans have lost many important positions in the civil and financial administration and in the courts. Bohemia is the centre of the Slavic movement.

In Prague, the capital of Bohemia, the new Czech university is a dangerous rival to the old German, university, the renowned Carolina, founded in 1348 by the Emperor Charles of Luxemburg. This Czech university has become the focus of Slav science, literature, and thought—and, unfortunately, also of pan-Slavic agitation, as hundreds of Servian and Croatian students have flocked to its gates to be imbued with the dreams of the future universal Slavic domination.

In the midst of these contending racial forces, the mission of Austria has been, first, to introduce among the great Slavic populations within her borders the ideals of German culture and German civilization. Her greatest achievements in this direction have been in Bohemia. It is recognized by the Slavic world universally that the Slavic movement in Prague is the outcome of German culture inculcated by Austria. It is one of the tragic circumstances of history that the German culture imparted to the Czechs is now operating in favor of the pan-Slavic cause, intellectual and political.

In the east, the mission of Austria has been suggestively indicated by the flow of the Danube. Eastward and southward, with the current of the mighty river, have gone Austrian cultural and industrial activities, hand in hand. And one of the earliest stations of the commercial and moral expansion—the stations of Austria's Drang nach Osten—are Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The destinies of Bosnia and Herzegovina came under the purview of Austria in 1876-77, when the revolutionary movement in the provinces, in conjunction with the Servian war against Turkey, was suppressed with unexampled severities by the Ottoman government. At that time the natural refuge for the stricken Christians of Bosnia-Herzegovina was Austria. Two hundred thousand of them were cast upon the resources of the authorities and had to be taken care of. As there was no promise of the immediate amelioration of the stricken provinces the question of the day at Vienna became the final solution of the problem of introducing order and personal security in the territory infested by brigands and terrorized by official severities, just across the Turkish border.

The relation of Austria to Bosnia and Herzegovina duplicated in a marked degree that of the United States and Texas during the Texan uprising against Mexico, and the solution of the problem in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as in that of Texas, appeared to be an Austrian occupation. This destiny of the distracted provinces was recognized by the Congress of Berlin, which adjusted the affairs of southeastern Europe after the defeat of Turkey by Russia in 1877. The congress, after a thorough balancing of international interests and international jealousies, handed, over the two provinces to Austria for pacification and administration, and conceded to Austria the right to occupy the Sanjak of Novibazar, the narrow strip of territory which lay between Servia and Montenegro. This occupation was in the nature of a condominium with Turkey.

Installed in Bosnia-Herzegovina by the mandate of Europe, Austria entered upon its task of cleaning the Augean stable of Bosnian affairs with an energetic realization of the difficulties of its undertaking. The first obstacle that confronted the newly installed authorities was an uprising of the Begs, or Mohammedan nobility. Aroused by the land-owning Moslems, secretly instigated, by the Sultan, they undertook to oppose by force of arms the peaceful entrance of Austria into its new functions. The outcome of the contumacy of the Begs was a six months' war, which ended in the suppression of the Moslem resistance and the restoration of internal peace. Next, Austria undertook the task of cleaning out the brigands who infested the country and made travel and commerce practically impossible.

Side by side with measures for the pacification of the provinces and the restoration of internal order, the new Austrian administration accomplished wonders in the construction of a system of roads, the first that Bosnia and Herzegovina had had since the Ottoman conquest.

The land question in the newly occupied provinces was extremely delicate. When Austria marched into Bosnia she found there a survival of the feudal ages in the distribution of the land. The entire area of the provinces, with rare exceptions, was owned by the Begs, and the tenants who cultivated them for the scant reward of one-half the produce were in a condition of peonage. Two alternative solutions of the question presented themselves. One was the forcible expropriation of the lands of the nobles, and the other was the gradual distribution of the holdings through a period of years.

It is one of the foremost grievances of the Servian agitators on the Austrian border provinces that the administration of the dual monarchy did not at once proceed to the seizure of the land and its distribution among the peasantry by arbitrary means, after the method employed by the Servians after the fall of the Ottoman power in Servia. Such, however, was not the Austrian method of dealing with the rights of property, and it had been understood by the signatories to the treaty of Berlin that no agrarian revolutionary measures would be undertaken by Austria.

Baron Kallay, the first Austrian civil administrator of Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, adopted the much more equitable and on the whole far more successful plan of encouraging thrift among the peasants, and at the same time enabling them to achieve independence by the gradual acquisition of the lands they cultivated. This conservative reorganization of the agrarian system of the country was accomplished through the aid of the Land Bank of Bosnia, an institution of private finance under the rigid supervision of the Government. Baron Kallay's project, which produced highly satisfactory results, was carried on by his successors, Burian and Bilinski.

The educational problem of the provinces was no less difficult than that presented by the distribution of the land. When Austria entered Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878, she found no schools there, with the exception of a few mosque classes and madrasahs for the chanting of Arabic prayers and verses from Al Koran. Far from attempting to make German the language of the people, or even the language of the more highly educated among them, the Austrian authorities at once undertook the establishment of native schools, in which the instruction should be carried on in Serb or in Croatian, the former written in the Cyrillic or Bulgarian alphabet, and the latter in Latin characters. Not only was no attempt made to introduce German schools, but the Government declined to permit the expenditure of public money for instruction in any language except the two named idioms of the Slavic language.

This liberal policy stands out in sharp contrast to the destructive activities of the Servians in the newly occupied Macedonian lands, where they have closed all the Bulgarian schools amid circumstances of severity, to which some reference is made in the Report of the Carnegie Commission. Certainly there is nothing in the establishment of Serb schools by Austria in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to justify the contention of the Servians that Austria is seeking to crush out Serb nationality under the rule of the double eagle.

Nevertheless, the Servian propaganda in Bosnia and Herzegovina, following closely the Servian propaganda in its first stage in Macedonia, was conducted along cultural lines, quite regardless of the palpable fact that the people of Servia themselves stood in need of all the cultural efforts of which their Government and their financial resources were capable. This fact is easily demonstrable when it is remembered that in 1909 the Slavs of Bosnia and Herzegovina after thirty years of Austrian administration, stood higher educationally than any of the independent Slavic nations of the Balkan Peninsula. Despite the manifestly hostile purposes of the so-called cultural Servian propaganda in the border provinces, the Austrian authorities took no measures to combat it until it had entered the phase of bomb throwing, in which the Servians had become adepts in the course of their abortive struggle for the conversion of Macedonia to Serbism. And that final and intolerable phase of the Serb nationalist propaganda was close at hand. The crisis began in 1909, when the Austrian Government declared the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This annexation was based upon three essential considerations, each one of which would have been considered sufficient in itself by any nation. The first of these considerations was the mandate of Europe; the second was the right, of conquest, established at the beginning of the occupation by the suppression of the armed resistance of the recalcitrant Begs; the third was the expenditure of about $250,000,000 by the dual monarchy for the construction of railroads and other means of communication, public works of various sorts, and education and local improvements; and the fourth was the duty of continuing a regime which had brought peace and prosperity to the country itself. All the signatories to the treaty of Berlin readily acquiesced in the accomplished fact as a logical outcome of accomplished events.

Servia, however, conceived that it had been robbed by the act of the Austrian Government; and the press of that country launched a campaign of bitter and indecent vilification of the dual monarchy. The contention of the Serbs that they were entitled to the annexed provinces was based upon two considerations, each easily demonstrable as absurd. The first was that Bosnia and Herzegovina had been a part of the great Servian Empire under Stefan Dushan about five hundred years ago. This argument may best be compared with a Mexican claim to Texas because that state had formerly been a part of Mexico. And the Servian pretension to Bosnia-Herzegovina is very much weaker than the-hypothetical Mexican claim to possession of Texas, because the inclusion of the contested provinces in the gigantic empire of Dushan (The Strangler), which was only one tenth as large as the State of Texas, lasted, as did the empire, only about twenty years.

The second basis of the Servian claim to Bosnia-Herzegovina is the allegation that the provinces are inhabited by people of Serb race, of Servian language and of Serb faith. Not one of these contentions even approaches the facts. Of the less than two millions of people who populate the provinces, only 800,000 at the most are orthodox Serbs. The remainder are Roman Catholic Croatians, whose written language the Orthodox Serb cannot even read unless he has a knowledge of the Latin characters, or Mohammedans, who detest the Servians heartily and despise them profoundly.

The frothing protests which the Servian press continued to make against the act of annexation, it was realized clearly at Vienna, were instigated partly from St. Petersburg, where the statesmen saw, or pretended to see, a fresh sign of Austrian encroachment upon the Southern Slavs, those dear Southern Slavs whose destinies have been for centuries the pawns on the chessboard of Russian diplomacy. But the Russian statesmen did not observe, or, observing, did not care to admit, that Austria, while annexing Bosnia and Herzegovina, had definitely abandoned her alleged road to Salonika by the withdrawal of her troops from the Sanjak of Novibazar, which was the key to the military situation in any advance further south and east. A glance at the map will convince event the most hostile critic of Austrian policy in the Balkans that the abandonment Novibazar by Austria is incompatible with any suspicion of an Austrian design of territorial expansion; in the direction of Salonika or of Constantinople.

Thus events wore on toward the culminating tragedy of Sarajevo. In 1913 the Serbs had attained a wild dream through the annexation of a large part of Bulgarian Macedonia by the defeat of Bulgaria in the second Balkan War. The Servian campaign in Bosnia-Herzegovina, following out its previous metamorphosis in the Macedonian agitation that preceded the alliance with Bulgaria for the first Balkan War, emerged from the "cultural" stage and entered the bomb-throwing phase. The assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his consort at Sarajevo by a young Serb patriot this summer startled the world and aroused Austria to the imperative need of energetic action to put a check upon a political and racial movement which had degenerated into a conspiracy to commit murder.

The tremendous events which have cast the world in gloom since July 23d are the outcome of Servians resistance to Austria's demand for a cessation of this orgy of violence. The Servians have opposed Austria's civilizing mission with unpardonable venom, and Austria has not flinched before the task of undertaking to crush that opposition.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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