- Richard Bassett.
“What is Austria? Five Habsburgs and a hundred Jews“ - Anthony Eden.
These two quotations typify the traditional European viewpoint of Austria and its army and have never been robustly challenged. However, as Austrian writer Herman Bahr observes, “Austria has not been lucky with its biographers.“
Now, in Richard Bassett, we have a new champion for the Austrian cause. Formerly a correspondent for The Times in Vienna, Rome and Warsaw, Bassett has produced an eminently readable and long overdue history of the Habsburgs and their army which should redress this rather one-sided perspective. His detailed research and deep knowledge of Austrian life and culture has resulted in a resounding rebuttal of the conventionally held view of its role in European affairs.
Some five hundred pages are devoted to the three hundred years leading up to the end of the First World War, when Emperor Charles' request to President Wilson for a separate armistice was refused and we see the end of the Habsburg and their army and the fragmentation of their former Empire, the effects of which still rumble on today in Central Europe.
The “Emperor's Army“ was born on 5th June, 1619, when the then Archduke Ferdinand was saved from a group of rebellious Protestant noblemen, intent on challenging the Habsburgs' authority and Ferdinand's bid to become the next Holy Roman Emperor, by the timely arrival of a regiment of Imperial Curiassiers. From that day on, until it ceased to exist in 1918, the army served first and foremost to protect the dynasty, even to the extent of defending the Habsburgs against its own aristocracy. This “raison d'etre“ was reflected in its military strategy, which could never be said to be adventurous; spontaneity or daring moves which might hazard its ability to defend the Emperor had no place in it's manual of arms. However, between 1620 and 1918, the army achieved more than 350 major victories, a far greater number than its defeats, from which it was always able to recover quickly due to its in-built resilience. Contrast this with the annihilation, in just one afternoon, of the Prussian army at Jena in 1806, after which it was crippled for many years .
Shortly after Ferdinand's rescue from the rebels he was unanimously elected as Holy Roman Emperor, which, in theory, gave him access to an army of 40,000 soldiers to be provided by the nobility; in fact, the only way in which the new Emperor could have a reliable army was to establish and pay for one himself. Sadly, the coffers were empty and Ferdinand's still precarious position required a reliable and effective army. However, he did have an abundance of land and titles stripped from the rebellious Bohemian nobility and these were given to men prepared to embrace the Catholic faith and support him.
One such man, Alfred Eusebius Wallenstein, whom Ferdinand trusted, was prepared to raise and pay for an army on the Emperor's behalf in exchange for land and titles. Such was Wallenstein's military and logistical genius, that he created a well organised, modern army and put in place the foundations on which others were to build. Sadly, he would later be assassinated, with Ferdinand's consent, due to his obvious and open defiance of the Emperor; disloyalty would never be tolerated by any Habsburg!
From these early beginnings, Bassett convincingly demonstrates how the Imperial Army was consistently a decisive player in the development of Europe, maintaining the balance of power and defending Christian Europe from the depredations of the Ottomans. Few realize that, even in its early form, it was a truly pan-European army, comprising many nationalities and religions, including Christians, Muslims and Jews, but without the internecine squabbles that could be expected in such circumstances.
The importance of the army is illustrated by the number of campaigns and battles it took part in; as well as providing full accounts of these, the author also describes the social and technical developments of the time and examines the part played by the great (and not so great) military and political leaders of the time.
This is an excellent book well suited to all levels of readership and will go a long way to redress the long held misconceptions of Austria's place in Europe.
5/5 mushroom heads.