The Habsburg Army 1619-1918

Wednesday 4th March 2015, Gonville & Caius College Senior Parlour, 5-6pm

Richard Bassett (former Times correspondent for Central and Eastern Europe)

“To understand the milieu in which he lived it seems necessary to say a few words about that vanished entity, the Austrian army which was a world in itself—it was quite unlike the British army and bore no resemblance whatever to the Prussian army which eventually infused its spirit into the whole German military machine……” (Nora Wydenbruck: Rilke: Man and Poet, London 1950)

In this paper, Richard Bassett, author of a forthcoming history of the Imperial Austrian Army, presented an exploration of the eccentricities and structure of an institution whose study offers many insights for historians of Europe and students of literature. As he explained, the evolving structure of the Army reflected the development of the Habsburg Empire between 1619 and 1918. During that period the institution confronted national and confessional challenges which were resolved more successfully than in other European armies. At the same time it fought with great distinction on the battlefields of Europe, often proving a critical factor in maintaining the balance of power. The demise of the Habsburg Empire in November 1918 brought the end of the k. (u.) k. Army but its international traditions and accomplishments continued to inspire a later generation. Joseph Roth, Alexander Lernet-Holenia and in Hollywood, Erich von Stroheim, all bestowed upon it the literary and cinematographic equivalent of its “Last Rites”.

The talk was well-received by the group, and discussion afterwards revolved around the issue of tolerance and diversity within the ranks of the army, and also the role of personal ties of loyalty to the Emperor (or Empress) in enabling the institution to maintain cohesion whilst frequently re-inventing itself in response to changing circumstances over three centuries.


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