Austria Table of Contents
Although Austria-Hungary's aim in 1914 was to fight a limited war to punish Serbia after the assassination of the heir to the Habsburg crown, Franz Ferdinand, the crisis quickly flared out of control as European powers mobilized their mass armies in accordance with their treaty commitments. Although poorly prepared for conflict and lacking essential weapons and unit cohesiveness, the Austro-Hungarians were immediately faced with a two-front war against Serbia and Russia. Their fifty-nine divisions (which included hastily raised reserve units) had to secure a front running from the Adriatic Sea to central Poland. The superior Russian army drove the Austro-Hungarians back with immense losses in Polish Galicia. The Russian front was stabilized only after German officers assumed command. Although Austria-Hungary had expected to conquer Serbia quickly, Serbia was not defeated until late 1915 after terrible fighting in the Carpathian Mountains and in Bosnia. The campaigns against Italy, which had entered on the side of the Allies in May 1915, were somewhat more successful, the Habsburg armies fighting with stubbornness and at times with great skill. In spite of rebellious secession movements among some non-Germans, the bulk of the army remained loyal, holding together until the last months of the war. Only among Czech soldiers affected by Slavic nationalism were there serious defections to the Russians. At the last, however, front-line troops in Italy abandoned their guns, and the revolt spread as even German-speaking troops refused to obey orders. Austro-Hungarian military casualties of 1.4 million killed or died in captivity and 3.6 million wounded were greater than those of Germany on a proportional basis.
Truncated Austria, reduced to some 6.5 million primarily German speakers after the war, was to some degree divided even against itself between a conservative population in the rural western areas of the nation and the urban socialists of Vienna and other industrial centers of the east. A regular Austrian army of 30,000 men was established in 1922, and, although free from political involvement, it had conservative leanings in the imperial tradition. Both police and army were weak; they could not prevent the formation of paramilitary groups by rival political blocs. The Social Democratic Workers' Party (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei--SDAP) formed the Republikanischer Schutzbund (Republican Defense League), and the right-wing Christian Social Party (Christlichsoziale Partei--CSP) had links with the various rightist militias that sprang up after the war. Both groups had impressive arsenals. In 1934, reacting to pressures by the CSP chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, and to provocations by rightist militias, the SDAP called a general strike and the Republikanischer Schutzbund rose in a number of cities. The uprising was put down in four days after the army used artillery against workers' apartment blocks in Vienna where the socialist revolt was centered. Although the army's actions were approved by Dollfuss, the episode seemed to attest to the army's alignment with rightist elements and its antagonism to the interests of the urban industrial workers.
Germany's annexation (Anschluss) of Austria in 1938 was accomplished without resistance under orders of the government. The armed forces suffered from low morale and were infused with pro-Nazi sentiment. Austrian troops in Salzburg and Innsbruck reportedly put themselves immediately under German command and participated in joint victory parades. The troops were dispersed throughout the army, the German Wehrmacht; no purely Austrian units were retained. Most of the generals and many field-grade officers were purged or were shifted to administrative posts. The thirty-five divisions raised on Austrian territory following the outbreak of World War II were composed mainly of Austrians. For the most part, they were assigned to the Russian front.
Austria suffered tremendous losses in the war, yet its 247,000 military deaths were fewer proportionately than German losses. A further 750,000 were made prisoners of war, the last of these returning from the Soviet Union as late as 1955.
During the postwar occupation (1945-55) by the Four Powers (Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, and the United States), the three Western occupying powers permitted the Austrian government to equip a mobile regiment of the Gendarmerie, organized into "shock battalions." Their primary mission was to control communist-inspired disturbances. Headquartered in Linz, the First Battalion was responsible for the provinces of Salzburg and Upper Austria--south of the Danube (the American Zone), the Second Battalion for Styria (the British Zone), and the Third Battalion for Tirol and Vorarlberg (the French Zone). (The Russian Zone consisted of Lower Austria, Burgenland, and Upper Austria north of the Danube. Vienna was occupied by the Four Powers.) Surplus equipment and vehicles were transferred to the Austrian battalions by the Western powers. In 1956 when the Austria army, the Bundesheer (Federal Army) was reconstituted, 6,500 officers and enlisted men of these special units formed its nucleus.
Data as of December 1993
Austria Table of Contents