The Great War in the East


In An American in Vienna, much of the story of Andy Bishop and his Austrian relatives and friends takes place in the first years of the Great War that became World War I. The war increasingly affects their lives, overwhelming them at times. Perhaps because the American army fought on the so-called “Western Front” against Germany, side-by-side with the French and British, little is known by most Americans about an entirely different war fought on the other side of Europe between Austria-Hungary and its ally Germany against the Russian Empire.

Most Americans’ conception of World War I is of the trench warfare, massive artillery barrages and mindless frontal attacks through barbed wire into machine guns that characterized the fighting on the Western Front. The Great War is remembered by most Americans as a massive four year siege and stalemate until Germany gave up when the arrival of millions of American soldiers toward the end of the War tipped the scales in favor of the Allies.

Austrian field artillery rolling toward the Eastern Front in 1914

While the Western front was a relatively constricted zone for warfare that degenerated into entrenched positions from Switzerland to the English Channel, the front in the East was vast and open. While entrenching was a tactic used often in the East for temporary cover, the war was one of movement and maneuver compared to the West. Vast areas of territory were gained and lost and regained by each side until the Russian collapse in late 1917.

Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914 and had initially begun concentrating its army for a quick, decisive campaign there. When Russia mobilized her army in support of Serbia, Germany came to the support of Austria, declaring war on Russia on August 1, 1914 and Russia’s ally France on August 3. In doing so, Germany was required to fight a war on two fronts; against France, Britain and Belgium in the West and against Russia in the East.

Germany’s military thinkers had long contemplated this dire possibility and devised a war plan to deal with it. Given Russia’s vast size and poor rail transport, Germany believed it might be able to win a two front war if it could quickly and decisively defeat the French and then concentrate its entire strength against Russia in what would probably be a long struggle. An unspoken assumption was that Austria-Hungary would bear the brunt of any initial Russian offensive or, indeed, mount an offensive itself until France and Britain could be defeated in the West. Accordingly, the Austrian high command reluctantly called off the offensive against Serbia, leaving only a token force to engage the Serbians in 1914 and turned its attention to the East to face Russia.

Austrian Propaganda Poster: “For our Zoo”

Contrary to popular belief, the Russian armies in the first years of the Great War were not badly led and fought quite well. In fact, the Russian Army nearly eliminated Austria-Hungary from the war in the first few months of fighting until Germany could spare additional forces to help when its campaign against France and Britain on the Western Front degenerated into a defensive stalemate. Furthermore, the Russian mobilization occurred much more quickly than had been thought possible, leading to a Russian invasion of eastern Germany and northeastern Austria-Hungary sooner than expected. Despite Russia’s alliance with France which compelled Russia to engage Germany as quickly as possible, Russia mobilized the vast majority of its army on the frontier with Austria-Hungary whose demise was the principle object of Russian diplomatic and geopolitical effort prior to and during the war.

In An American in Vienna, the ebb and flow of battle in the East is the background of much of the second part of the story affecting the characters. One of the major battles of particular importance was the siege of Przemysl, a huge fortress city on the Austrian frontier in what was then the province of Galicia, or “Austrian Poland”. Today, it is part of modern day Poland. A good account of this battle can be found at The siege of Przemysl was the largest and longest siege of the Great War, bitterly contested by Austria-Hungary and Russia with enormous casualties on both sides.

A Gate into the Fortress City of Przemysl after Recapture with Austrian soldiers

Three great Austrian generals involved in the siege of Przemysl and whose personalities are described in An American in Vienna are depicted below. Due to the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 and the relative obscurity of the fighting in the East, these military figures have not gotten the fame that they truly deserve, nor their Russian counterpart, Aleksei Brusilov. Of all the commanders of the great powers involved in the war, Austria’s Conrad von Hötzendorf lasted the longest; indeed almost to the end of the war. Most of the other commanders, such as Germany’s Helmut von Moltke, were cashiered during the time period of An American in Vienna for incompetence and failure.

Conrad von Hötzendorf

Borojević von Bonja


As one becomes acquainted with the Great War in the East, many important facts emerge that are crucial to understanding the politics and history of Central and Eastern Europe, including the Balkans, which continued to affect the course of world history to the present day. Many historians suggest a certain inevitability to the Austro-Hungarian collapse in the Great War which, upon closer examination, appears false. There was nothing inevitable about the dismemberment of the Habsburg Empire during the war and, in fact, the resiliency of the Monarchy astonished the world and even its own citizens.

At the outset of the war, many politicians and generals in the West and within the Empire believed that Austria-Hungary would fall apart with the slightest push from the outside. It was deemed to be militarily weak and subject to fracture along the fault lines of the various ethnic and linguistic minorities that made up the Monarchy in 1914. In truth, Austria-Hungary was never militarily defeated in the Great War. Austria-Hungary was defeated by starvation and the collapse of Germany in November, 1918. In the meantime, despite suffering numerous military defeats, privation and enormous casualties, Austria-Hungary emerged victorious in its wars with Serbia, Rumania and Russia. With regard to Italy, the Empire fended off a succession of disastrous Italian offensives along the Isonzo River frontier until 1918 when the Battle of Caporetto essentially knocked Italy out of the war. This campaign is also described in part in An American in Vienna.

The Great War was a war of coalitions. Each of the great powers depended upon its alliance partners to survive the war, but Austria-Hungary is often wrongly singled out as being somehow more dependent upon Germany than, say, France was on Great Britain or the United States. It is true that Austria-Hungary would undoubtedly have lost the war had it not been for help from Germany from time to time, but the same could be said about France, Italy or indeed Germany. In 1914, had Austria not borne the brunt of the Russian offensives and had the Russians concentrated most of their forces against Germany, the war might have ended quickly with a German defeat.

Austria’s supposed weakness with respect to rallying its multiple minorities to war was also belied by the cold facts. While the Czechs and Italians often deserted and were unreliable nationalities in the imperial army during the war, the other minorities fought hard and well. Poles, Croats, Slovenes, Hungarians, Jews and other groups not only fought savagely but made up significant parts of the Austro-Hungarian officer corps and high command.

It is often forgotten that there were mutinies in the British Empire (the Irish Rebellion of 1916), in the French army (in 1917) and, of course, in the Russian Empire (March and October, 1917). There was even a mutiny in the German navy (1918) that led to the German collapse. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had its share of food riots and desertions during the war, but compared to the other great powers, it was no better or worse in the cohesiveness of its population than the others. It was not until the war was essentially over that the disintegration of the Monarchy occurred.

Austrian Propaganda Poster 1915

One of the great accomplishments of the peace after World War I, according to diplomats, politicians and journalists of the time, was the dismemberment of the Empire and the rise of small, weak successor states as a result of ‘national self-determination’. The disappearance of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Habsburg dynasty from the map of Europe was thought in 1919 and even today by some to be a good thing. In fact, a political vacuum was created that was filled quite soon by fascism or communism in the aftermath. Ethnic genocide and slaughter continued on and off in the successor states of the Empire and in the Balkans as late as the 1990s. The War in the East, described in part in An American in Vienna, was truly a prelude to further disasters including the Second World War less than twenty years after the end of the First.

© 2011

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