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What Austria-Hungary tells us about the Danube basin



The Danube region is an often-overlooked part of Europe. The nations in it search after more integration with the western part of the continent and between themselves. The history of the region and the interactions between the various nationalities are tied to the old occupant of most of the region, Austria-Hungary. The failure of its federalist project and the violence its collapse caused should be regarded in more consideration as it showed the consequences of the lack of cooperation among the different actors in the region.


On 29 June 2022, the Ministers of Transport of 14 European states met in Lyon, France, to sign the Danube ministerial conclusions 2022. They are part of the Danube Macro Regional Strategy, an EU project that aims at facilitating interregional cooperation between participating states. Among these nations, 9 are EU member states and 5 are non-EU countries - namely Ukraine, Serbia and Bosnia, European hotspots of instability. What they share is the basin of the giant river flowing through them, historical traumas, and a link to the state that occupied most of the Danube region for centuries, Austria-Hungary.

Before its collapse in 1918, the Habsburg empire ruled, completely or partly, over 11 of those 14 states, the exceptions being Montenegro and Bulgaria. Within its borders, 51 million people (1910 census), 10 million more than France in the same year, more than 13 languages and even more ethnicities. This multiethnic empire had been severely weakened during the decades before its demise by the force that was sweeping like wildfire through Europe in the 1800s: nationalism. Today that fire is still burning in the region, with tensions present between the various ethnic groups in Bosnia, the border regions with Hungary and Kosovo. These tensions, especially in Kosovo and Bosnia, are perceived as great threats to European security. It is important to notice, however, that these conflicts exist in a far less diverse landscape than in 1918, reached deportation after deportation, bloodshed after bloodshed.

The present situation of the Danube region and the existing frameworks for cooperation between the countries in it can only be understood by looking at the shadow cast upon the river basin.

The Dual monarchy

With the Ausgleich, the Austro-Hungarian compromise in 1867, the Habsburg empire took the form that it would hold until 1918: a union between the states of Austria, or Cisleithania and Hungary, or Transleithania, joint trough the common institutions of the Monarchy and the ministers of foreign affairs, military, and finances. the compromise didn’t solve the ethnic problem, as minorities, notably the Slavs, western and southern, and Romanians were not on the same representation level as Germans and Hungarians and sought for more autonomy for themselves.

Still, the conditions for minorities in the empire were far better than neighbouring countries. Before the First World War only three European countries had laws defending ethnic minority rights: Belgium (1898), Austria (1867), and Hungary (1868). In the Austrian part of the empire schools were set up for all nationalities and the parliament didn’t have an official language. The Hungarian part was less inclined towards sharing power with its minorities. There was a process of assimilation, often in violation of existing norms, called Magyarization. This alienated especially the Croatian component of the population, especially after 1906, when the minority supported Liberal Party lost to the Hungarian nationalists.

It is also noteworthy to look at the condition of Jews in the country: there were 2.000.000 people of Jewish religion in 1900 in Austria Hungary. Unlike the widespread antisemitism in Germany, France and Russia, the Jewish community in the empire made up a large part of the country’s elite and the governments never enacted antisemitic policies, driven by the preoccupation of avoiding any possible ethnic and religious conflict.

Balancing between the different nationalities inside their territories, the two governments tried to keep the empire together. They failed, among other things due to their inability or delay in compromising to the necessary degree, spelling the end for a Europe where ethnic groups weren’t divided by borders. Nationalisms proved too powerful for partial compromise.

The federalist debate

There have been four important theorists of federalism in the empire: Hungarian Laos Kossuth, Czech Frantisek Palacky, Austrian German Karl Renner and Romanian Aurel Popovici.

Kossuth, a major figure in the Hungarian revolution in 1848, changed its intransigent nationalist views after its failure, and the 1862 revised version of its Danube Confederation opened to Transylvanian autonomy and the issue of language, proposing French as Lingua Franca. If he had applied these changes during the revolution, he would have won a lot of support from the Slavic and Romanian minorities, that instead chose to support the Austrians in the face of Hungarian unwillingness to share power and rights. Those minorities saw the Hungarian language as Kossuth saw German, as an instrument of oppression.

Palacky was a proponent of Austro-Slavism, an idea that saw the Slavic population of the empire as one, united as a counterbalance to Germans and Hungarians. After the Ausgleich this idea lost momentum, also because of Magyarization, and many Slavs turned towards Pan-Slavism, an idea championed by Serbia and Russia that further weakened the Empire. Even if weakened, Austro-Slavism found a true proponent in the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, that saw it, rightfully, as the only way to save the empire. His reform plans were a major cause in the involvement of the Serbian government in is assassination. The idea didn’t die with him, and Charles I, the last emperor, tried to implement them during the first world war, as a last desperate attempt to save the Habsburg empire.

Karl Renner is an interesting exception, as he refused the territorial principle and proposed the concept of personal autonomy, that gave the people the freedom of speaking their own language and expressing their culture in every part of the empire, separating the concepts of nationalism and territory. He called the resulting state a “Staatenstaat” a Hegelian supranational state of states that transcended nation states. Austria Hungary, where the idea was born, remained its partial expression with the way the parliament and the school system were organized. Still, he proposed German as the language of mediation, incapable to see how unacceptable that would be to the minorities.

Popovici, like Kossuth and Palancky was a firm believer in the territorial principle and in monarchy. He was the main driver in the intellectual circle surrounding Franz Ferdinand and devised the plan that divided the empire in smaller federal states that the Archduke planned to implement in the form of the United States of Greater Austria. He wasn’t supported by part of the Hungarian Elite for his radical plans for North Transylvanian autonomy. his plans died with the Archduke and the outbreak of the First World War. The image of this article is Popovici’s project


In the end, a main problem with the federalist project was the inability of its proponents to compromise on ethnic demands, and the unwillingness of already powerful minorities, like the Hungarians, to devolve power towards Slavs and Rumanians. During the war, the project was repeatedly vetoed by Hungarian notables and was finally approved, too late, on 23 October 1918 under strong pressure by Charles.

Wilson’s 14 points drove the final nail in the Austro-Hungarian coffin, even if they explicitly stated the intention to preserve the perceived territorial integrity of the country. The concept of self determination doesn’t include the form in which it has to be achieved, but from the interpretation of the Slavic minority, Serbia, and France it was clear: it meant the dissolution of the empire. It is also interesting to look at the American position on the issue, that went from supporting territorial integrity and even the federalist project, to supporting Czech independence.

The Danube region today

With hindsight, one thing is clear: the end of Austria-Hungary and the prevailing of national territorial interests spelt doom for the population of the region, in the form of loss of integration of society, transport systems, economy and, more importantly, through the violent reshaping of ethnic borders.

Today the Danube region is seen as a macro region by the EU and there is a search for more cooperation among its states. During the cold war the Danube commission represented an important mediation forum between east and west and it still can be a platform on which to engage with Balkan non-EU countries like Bosnia and Serbia. Two of the strongest proponents of the integration of Serbia in the EU are Austria and Hungary, as they seek bring the economic and energetic potential of the river to its maximum. The Danube effectively connects western Europe with the East and represents a cheap and efficient transport system and a source of hydroelectric power. Integration of Serbia would mean an EU waterway effectively connecting Germany and the North Sea to the Black Sea. This could be also important for further connecting Ukraine with the Eu. Even if we won’t be able to bring back the multiethnic European society of the region, more cooperation, even if driven by economic interests, could be an important step for the European society that was built on the ashes of the old.

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