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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 6:93–97.


Embourgeoisement of the Habsburg Army


At first sight, one is tempted to doubt the validity of the very topic of the conference, the embourgeoisement of the Habsburg army. Indeed, there are many good reasons for arguing that, although the proportion of non-noble gradually increased in the Austro-Hungarian officer corps in the last fifty years of its existence, this army was so deeply rooted in its feudal, noble tradition that bourgeois morality and lifestyle were never among its characteristics. Here are some of the reasons which seem to militate against the idea that the Habsburg officer corps as undergoing a process of embourgeoisement.

Until its demise in the fall of 1918, or at least until the death of Emperor- King Francis Joseph in November 1916, the comportment of officers in the Dual Monarchy was defined by a code of honor that prescribed that they behave in the manner of medieval knights in an industrializing society and a constitutional state. Officers were under the absolute obligation to defend the honor of their suzerain, their fatherland, their caste, their fellow officers, their wives, daughters, and other female relatives. Above all, however, the officers were expected to defend their own honor, if necessary with the sword and at a great personal risk to themselves. The alternative was public humiliation, the loss of honor, dismissal from the officer corps, and hence exclusion from the society of honorable gentlemen. Thus the loss of personal honor involved the loss of employment and the risk of never finding another employment in a respectable occupation.

The obligation to conduct oneself according to one’s status in society was rigorously enforced, with the connivance of the Emperor-King, the Ministry of War, and the courts of justice. Yet, dueling with a duel-worthy adversary as well as Ehrennotwehr, the latter indicating an officer’s right and duty to silence with the sword any person who insulted him in public, and who himself was clearly not a gentleman able to offer satisfaction in an honorable battle, were strictly prohibited by the laws of the state, the church, and the Austro-Hungarian army.

By forcing the officers regularly to violate the very laws that they, as soldiers, had sworn to uphold, the emperor-king, who was their supreme commander, turned the officers into felons. Yet he also raised them above the law, for in reality, few among the officers were punished for the crime of dueling or that of Ehrennotwehr. This made the officers both a part of society and separate from it. Like the medieval knights of lore, the officers were expected to be models of Christian moral purity, piety, modesty, and compassion, yet at the same time the official rules regarding officer’s conduct caused them to violate the tenets of Christianity. After all, they had to be prepared to kill – a mortal sin – for no other reason than that they had been insulted.

Consider, moreover, that the officers’ code of honor applied not only to career officers but also to those of the reserve, who by 1914 numbered about 14 000 individuals. These bank clerks, university students, high school teachers, lawyers, medical doctors, landowners, etc. were expected to obey the rules of knightly conduct not only when in uniform but at all times, or risk losing their commission and thus their place in respectable society. This meant that the officers of the reserve and all reserve officer candidates, the latter a larger group than that of the commissioned officers became morally and ideologically separate from all such civilians who were not reserve officers or reserve officer candidates. Therefore, rather than penetrating the officer corps, bourgeois mentality actually lost ground within the middle classes through the institution, in 1868, of a large body of reserve officers.

Besides the cult of knightly, noble ideals we find numerous other reasons why the army should not be seen as conductive to the spread of bourgeois customs and morality and an eventual take-over by the middle classes. There was, for instance, the career officers’ guaranteed right to enter the hereditary nobility after forty years (before 1900 after only thirty years) of satisfactory service. It is true that this meant receiving a patent of nobility generally only upon one’s retirement when one could no longer play a significant role in the politics of the army. But because career military service was to a large degree a hereditary family occupation, the sons of freshly ennobled officers entered active service no longer as commoners but as members of the hereditary nobility. Thus, the Habsburg system provided for an almost inexhaustible supply of noble officers. It is true that members of the old nobility knew how to distinguish socially between themselves and the upstart members of the new or service nobility but this, rather than alienating the sons of newly ennobled officers, or, the sons of a newly ennobled ministerial councilors and bankers, caused them generally to hasten their assimilation into the old nobility. Their goal was to adopt the purported ideals of the latter illustrious group.

Furthermore, the essentially non-bourgeois character of the officer corps was preserved by such things as the existence of several, admittedly very small, units of noble body guards near the person of the monarch, and the unwritten rule according to which the elegant cavalry regiments would complement their ranks largely from among the aristocracy. Finally, there was the Habsburg dynastic system’s prevailing ideology which, among other things, guaranteed automatic access to the imperial court to such officers only who were members of the highest aristocracy. The same system carefully distinguished, through such institutions as that of the imperial and royal chamberlains, between ordinary nobles and those who could prove an impeccable aristocratic background. Finally, there was, to mention just one more example, the custom of Francis Joseph to shake hands with only such officers who belonged to the highest aristocracy.


Having briefly argued against the thesis of embourgeoisement, I must admit that the officer corps which went to war in 1914 was quite different from the officer corps that had gone to war in, for instance, 1866.

The social composition of the corps changed significantly in those years. The Austrian historian Ulf Sereinigg, although unable to differentiate between the old and new service nobility, demonstrates that the proportion of noblemen as a whole among field-grade officers (major to colonel) declined between 1880 and 1910. More specifically, according to Sereinigg proportion of majors with a noble predicate decreased from 37,7 percent to 18,2 percent between 1880 and 1910; that of lieutenant colonels, from 38,7 percent to 26,8 percent; and that of colonels, from 46,7 percent to 27,0 percent.1

These figures become all the more significant if one considers that back in 1850 more than half of the field-grade officers were noblemen.

The military historian Nikolaus von Preradovich reports that, whereas 90 percent of the high-ranking generals in 1859 were noblemen, the proportion had decreased to 41 percent by 1908 and to 25 percent by 1918. This is a remarkable change even when taking into account that fact that, in the 1850s, the thirty-year rule had applied and in the 1900s, the forty-year rule. What is significant is that, by the end of World War I, three out of four commanding generals in the Austro-Hungarian army were commoners.2

It is also noteworthy that of the nine Austro-Hungarian field marshals active during World War I, aside from the three who were Habsburg arch- dukes, not a single one belonged to the old nobility.

Again, however, the above mentioned historians are unable to distinguish between the old nobility of the blood and the new or service nobility. My own calculations show that, in 1870, in a sample of 95 randomly selected noble lieutenants, 29 or 45,3 percent belonged to the old nobility (Altadel). Without any doubt, the proportion of the old nobility further declined by the eve of World War I. According to my admittedly non-scientific investigation of 75 families from the Habsburg aristocracy (Hochadel), in 1905 only 95 individuals from these families served as professional officers in the army and navy. Even from this modest number, far less than for instance in mid-nineteenth century, 66 served in the increasingly useless cavalry.3

Consider, finally, that the social composition of the military academicians also changed considerably over the years, so that in the year 1913, of the 113 newly commissioned lieutenants at the Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt only a single lieutenant had an aristocratic title. He was a baron, whose father was a two-star general and whose aristocratic title represented a mark of personal distinction. There were also two knights (Ritter) and 29 lower nobles, almost all from the new or service nobility.4


The ultimate question is, therefore, whether the doubtlessly increasing proportion of commoners in both the career and reserve officer corps contributed to the embourgeoisement of the officers. Proofs are difficult to furnish as the officers were forbidden to vote, or in general, to engage in politics. No doubt most were un-political, which does not mean that they harbored any affection for the middle-class parties and for parliamentary politics. All available evidence shows that, especially as a result of the experiences in 1848, the great majority of officers disliked the politicians and the parliaments that never voted enough money for their pay and other military expenditures. In general, officers perceived all liberals, democrats, and socialists as enemies. On the other hand, there was the astonishing facility with which the professional officer corps accepted the presence among them of reserve officers, often Jews, who came from the bourgeoisie. Whereas the Prussian officer corps categorically refused to accept Jews as fellow officers, in 1900 nearly one out of every five reserve officers in the Imperial and Royal Army was a Jew. There can be no doubt that had the career officers objected to such developments, they would have been able to prevent them through votes taken in their regimental officers’ assembly.

On balance, however, I see such developments as, for instance, the admission of Jews and other members of the middle classes in the officer corps not as signs of any embourgeoisement but rather as (1) a manifestation of the army high command’s pressing need for educated officers in a society where the noble class was no longer doing its duty to the emperor, and (2) as a manifestation of the officers’ pre-modern, feudal, pre-nationalist, and pre-Social Darwinist mentality. After all, the surest sign of embourgeoisement would have been the increasing tendency of career officers to discover their ethnic „roots”, and to embrace one or another xenophobic, nationalist movement. No doubt, many officers did precisely that, especially among the Germans and Hungarians (see, for instance, the behavior in the General Staff of the later right-wing Hungarian prime minister Gyula Gömbös), but there is also no doubt that for the majority of officers their loyalty to the emperor and thus to pre-modern and pre-bourgeois values remained foremost until the collapse of the entire edifice in 1918.




Ulf Sereinigg, „Der altösterreichische Offizierskorps 1868–1914. Bildung, Avancement, Sozialstruktur, wirtschaftliche Verhältnisse”, unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Vienna, 1983, p. 97.


Nikolaus von Preradovich, Die Führungsschichten in Österreich und Preußen 1804–1918, mit einem Ausblick zum Jahre 1945. („Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Europäische Geschichte Mainz”, Bd. 11; Wiesbaden 1955), p. 44.


István Deák, Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848–1918 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 164.


I have computed the statistical data on the Military Academy class of 1913 from the resumes contained in the 1909–1919 (unpublished) supplement to J. Svoboda, Die Theresianische Militär-Akademie zur Wiener-Neustadt und ihre Zöglinge von der Gründung der Anstalt bis auf unsere Tage, 3 vols. (Vienna, 1894–1897), with three supplementary manuscript volumes.