Austria-Hungary and the Middle East

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Austria and Hungary joined to form the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867, under Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, a member of the Hapsburg dynasty that had ruled since 1278.

During the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries, before Hungary joined Austria, both countries had been repeatedly attacked, first by the Turks and then by the Ottoman Empire attempting to expand into Europe by way of the Balkan Peninsula. In the sixteenth century, western and northern Hungary accepted Austrian rule to escape Ottoman occupation. In 1683, the Ottoman armies were halted at Vienna, but fighting continued in the Balkans until a peace was signed in 1699, the Treaty of Karlowitz. After suppression of the 1848 revolt of Hungary against Austrian rule, the dual monarchy was formed in 1867, as a Christian empire, but one relatively tolerant of the religious and ethnic diversity that characterized its citizens.

Austro-Hungarian policy toward the Middle East was focused on two main concernspreservation of the Ottoman Empire and containment of Balkan nationalism, which had emerged in the Serbian revolt of 1804 against Ottoman rule. The Balkan Peninsula was inhabited by both Christians and Muslims, most of them Slavs. Russia was in the process of instigating a pan-Slavic movement (in an attempt to link Russian Slavs with Poland and the Balkans and gain access to the warm-water ports of the eastern Mediterraneancrucial to Russian trade interests before aviation allowed a way around frozen northern ports). As a multinational empire encompassing several Slavic groups, Austria-Hungary was vulnerable to these same forces of Slavic nationalism and pan-Slavism that threatened the European possessions of the Ottoman Empire. Austro-Hungarian Slavs included Poles, Ukrainians, Czechs, Slovenes, Serbs, Croats, and Slavonized Bulgars. Nationalism in the Balkan Peninsula was seen as the beginning of the potential breakup of both the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires.

Even before the eruption of Balkan nationalism in the nineteenth century, Austrian statesmen had been concerned with the potential breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the resulting politics that would affect the Austrian Empire. Therefore, Austria-Hungary adopted a dual strategy: (1) help preserve Ottoman suzerainty over the Slavs where possible and (2) make sure that Austria, not Russia, gained when preservation of Ottoman authority was no longer possible. Toward this end, Austro-Hungarian bankers floated loans to the Ottomans and, to improve communications, sponsored the construction of the Vienna-Istanbul railroad. Under Klemens von Metternich, Austria's foreign minister from 1809 to 1848, and for the rest of the nineteenth century, Austria looked to expand its domain over the northwestern Balkan territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina. By the beginning of the great Eastern Crisis of 18751878, Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Julius Andrássy sent the Andrássy Note of 30 December 1875, calling for autonomy for Bosnia-Herzegovina and Ottoman reform of its administration of its Balkan provinces. Andrássy was simultaneously trying to curtail Russian pan-Slavism, which dictated Russian support for Serbian and Bulgarian expansion. The resulting crisis led to the defeat of the Ottomans by the Russians in the RussianOttoman War of 18771878 and the subsequent Treaty of San Stephano, which resulted in a vastly enlarged Bulgaria and a clear advantage for Russia in the Balkans. Andrássy sided with the British to attempt to force a revision of the treaty in Austria-Hungary's favor and, at the July 1878 Congress of Berlin, he prevailed, when a virtual protectorate over a technically autonomous Bosnia-Herzegovina was given to Austria-Hungary.

The following years saw increasing nationalist activity in the Balkans and increasingly complex alliances among the European powers. During the height of the Macedonian crisis at the turn of the twentieth century, Austria-Hungary at times supported Serbia and at times opposed itall with the overall goal of obtaining Austrian influence on the northern Aegean. When the Albanians revolted against the Ottomans in 1912, Austro-Hungarian pressure on the Ottomans led to the creation of an independent state, which was advantageous from an Austrian perspective, because Albania provided a buffer against Serbian expansion to the Adriatic. The Ottoman defeat in the two Balkan wars, fought just prior to World War I, was disadvantageous to Austria-Hungary. Spurred by victories in the Balkan wars, Serbia overran northern Albania to the Adriatic. Serbian ambitions in Bosnia-Herzegovina led to the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in July 1914; this was used as a symbolic outrage that allowed for the beginning of World War I in August.

Ultimately, both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were on the losing side of that war, and their territories were allowed to become independent states or protectorates of the winning European countriesmainly Britain and Franceby the peace treaties and the League of Nations.

see also balkans; balkan wars (19121913); berlin, congress and treaty of; nationalism; ottoman empire; russian ottoman wars; world war i.


Anderson, M. S. The Eastern Question, 17741923: A Study in International Relations. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's, 1966.

Langer, William L. European Alliance and Alignments, 18711890, 2d edition. New York: Knopf, 1950.

Shaw, Stanford, and Shaw, Ezel Kural. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 19761977.

Taylor, A. J. P. The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 18481918. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954.

Zachary Karabell

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Austria-Hungary and the Middle East

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