Why did Europe's imperial houses crumble?

June 19, 1998

Taking a reign check

During the 19th and 20th centuries, European monarchies rose and fell in astonishing numbers. Included were three great monarchies that crumbled between 1917 and 1919.

The crucial change arrived during and after the first world war, when the Habsburg (Austro-Hungarian), Hohenzollern (German) and Romanov (Russian) monarchies were destroyed. The fall of both the Hohenzollern and Romanov dynasties was due to Germany and Russia losing the war. The imperial houses were made to shoulder the blame for defeat, not only by the revolutionary forces but by the elites who sacrificed the dynastics in an attempt to safeguard their own position in a new society.

Over the same period, the multinational empire of the Habsburg regime disappeared. The Austro-Hungarian monarchy, which was deeply troubled by ethnic conflicts, was splintered by the demand for national self-determination.

Its downfall was also partly due to the rise of a secularised middle class that had less and less use for a traditional order. The main support of the House of Austria had been the peasants, the urban guilds, the landed nobility and the army officer corps. It was their decision back in the revolutionary days of 1848 not to allow the collapse of the empire and the dynasty.

But by 1900, much of the peasantry and middle classes had replaced their imperial loyalty with national loyalty and much of the landed nobility had disappeared.

The officer corps remained loyal. But then the first world war decimated its ranks. The eight million civilians in uniform realised that the dynasty that had driven them to war was unable to extricate them from it. The Habsburgs, like other multinational monarchies, met their end through a conflict that was lost.

Istvan Deak is professor of history at Columbia University.

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