How Important is ‘Colonial’ Nationalism in Shaping Decolonisation?

Nationalism played a significant role in many historical processes of decolonisation. This was particularly apparent in the decolonisation of colonies such as India, Angola and the Thirteen British colonies of America. But the extent to which nationalism played a prominent role in shaping decolonisation is debatable. Nationalism can be defined as the aspirations common to a nation, usually expressed through patriotism and social movements. However, in imperial colonies nationalism took a rather different form, acquiring characteristics produced by the circumstances of foreign rule. Aspirations for independence and further rights for indigenous peoples, came to dominate this particular form of nationalism. The colonised desired decolonisation in order to govern their own people, implement self-rule, and ensure cultural continuity without the threat of external dominance and influences.

This paper will explore the role of nationalism in the disintegration of the land-based empire of Austria-Hungary. As a multi-national empire, national unity had been achieved to a great extent which ensured its considerably long existence. But nationalism was an ongoing issue that developed as attitudes and ideas changed over time, ultimately contributing to the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Yet how much did nationalism account as a factor in the break-up of empire? This analysis will consider the developments that proceeded the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire, in order to explain the extent to which nationalism shaped decolonisation in Austria-Hungary, as opposed to the contribution of other factors.

Most historians agree that nationalism was a growing problem for the Dual Monarchy, particularly towards the end of the empire. John W. Mason has suggested that a nationalist challenge was present since the revolutions of 1848, yet not all national minorities desired independence (Mason, 1997). Many were content with concessions from the state. However, Solomon Wank has argued that the emperor’s error in granting certain national minorities concessions at the exclusion others ‘stoked the fires of national rivalry’ within the empire (Mombauer, 2009, p. 62). Similiarly, Steven Beller claims that domestic and foreign problems were present due to demands and competition between different nationalities, and it was the emperor’s failure to meet many of these demands as well as adopting certain foreign policies, such as the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which led to a heightened nationalist challenge before the war. Even during the war nationalist aspirations were intensified, when the Emperor Franz Joseph was replaced by Emperor Karl, whose decisions during the First World War led to calls for independent nation states. In contrast Alan Sked has argued that the Austro-Hungarian empire may have survived if the war had resulted in a victory, as most nationalities fought for the empire in the war, until defeat. Yet Wank disputes this claim, suggesting that even victory would have reduced the empire into ‘a military and economic appendage of Germany, with little future as an independent state’ (Mombauer, p. 76).

Austria-Hungary was a dynastic empire that built up its territories over time through marriage, treaty and conquest. It was a vast empire that combined a large number of different territories and language groups, and was inhabited by diverse cultural groups (Mombauer, p. 47). When the empire was founded, nationalistic feeling was low and some form of national unity existed within the empire. However, during the nineteenth century affiliation and belonging to a particular national group increased among the population. This resulted in heightened competition between different nationalities within the empire, causing domestic conflict. Certain policies may have contributed to nationalism within Austria-Hungary. Irredentism was the policy pursued by countries trying to recover former subjects and territories, and was certainly one of the factors that led to the outbreak of hostilities between the empire and Serbia. The annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 by the Dual Monarchy, alarmed Serbia as it was perceived by them as part of a potential Greater Serbian empire. This resulted in the threat of war between the two countries. Such a threat boosted the discontent of nationalist groups.

Pan-Slavism also played its part in the outbreak of war and heightened nationalism, as many Slavs within the empire aspired for the unity of all Slavic people. Although the government did make some concessions to certain minorities, this did not stop them in their nationalist aspirations. Demands and competition between different nationalities caused domestic and foreign problems for the empire, that would ultimately lead to its demise. Yet these problems between the empire’s different nationalities were present before the First World War, and many had nationalist aspirations that the empire simply could not meet. The plurality of nationalities that made up the empire would help to shape decolonisation, and the way Austria-Hungary was carved up after the war into new nation states.

The empire had been successful to some extent in creating national unity through the person of Emperor Franz Joseph, who captured the sympathy and admiration of many of his subjects. He ‘embodied empire, and at times this role was purposely used to create unity’ (Mombauer, p. 52). The celebration parade of his diamond jubilee in 1908 was the perfect opportunity for the empire to foster patriotism and create a sense of unity between the different nationalities. The parade presented and celebrated the empire’s many nationalities. This celebration gave the impression of national unity between Austria-Hungary’s diverse national communities. Yet at the same time it also highlighted the many differences between the different nationalities, and conflicts between them continued. Franz Joseph’s successor Emperor Karl had a rather difficult time creating unity. His lack of ability to do so rested on the fact that he did not receive the same respect and admiration as his predecessor, and many of his decisions made during the war were highly unpopular, particularly with national minorities.

The war also had the effect of exacerbating the nationalist problem. Shortages led to unrest and further national rivalry, including racial abuse, contributing to increasing demands of autonomy among the different nationalities. Despite the nationalist situation within the empire, the army was largely unaffected by nationalism. Most soldiers of different nationalities fought side by side until the end of the war. It was only with defeat that such unity eroded. Cornwall has suggested that the ‘unresolved political and national issues from the prewar period … festered increasingly during the war’ (Mombauer, p. 71-2). The war did make domestic problems worse, nationalism being one of them, but it also gave nationalists the opportunity to make demands and calls for independence, at such a crucial time when unity and support were important for the empire’s survival. Emperor Karl was unable to create such a unity among the different nationalities, and so they fell apart with the fall of the empire in 1918 into new nation states.

As well as nationalism there are other factors that can be said to have caused the dissolution of the empire and its decolonisation. The First World War was one such factor. Austria-Hungary was at the brink of falling to a second-rate power and out of fear of losing its great power status it needed to demonstrate such power. Wank has argued that ‘the ability of the empire to play the role of a Great Power was the sole justification for its existence, even though it lacked the requisite political and economic conditions’ (Mombauer, p. 67). They had tried this previously with the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but now they would even risk war that had an uncertain victory, then fade away as a former great power. The opportunity presented itself with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a young Serb. Austria-Hungary had to show the world that they would deal with the Serbs forcefully. In addition, Austria-Hungary also had the ‘blank-cheque’ from the German Kaiser, guaranteeing German support in the event of war. With this opportunity the empire declared war on Serbia unleashing the First World War. The effects of the war were felt at home and many people suffered due to food and fuel shortages, as the population was severely weakened by malnutrition resulting in an increase of civilian mortality. Such domestic problems caused unrest among the general population as well as between national minorities, and caused discontent within the empire. With defeat in war the emperor abdicated and soon after the empire collapsed, giving birth to new nation states.

However, the extent to which the end of the empire was attributed to war can be challenged. While the empire was already in decline before war broke out, it was the fear of losing its power position that ultimately led to its downfall. The war can thus be seen as a gamble on the part of the Dual Monarchy. If they won, the empire may have survived but defeat would certainly mean the end of its empire. They were willing to take this risk as ‘accepting the status of a middling power … would be a sign of weakness and convey the wrong signal to all the domains under Vienna’s control’ (Mombauer, p.68). In addition, the decision to deal forcefully with the Serbs was in the hope of deterring nationalists from acting against Austria-Hungary. The ultimatum the empire presented to Serbia was drafted purposefully to be rejected, to ensure this. But the war actually made the domestic situation worse.

The allied blockade led to shortages that caused unrest among the empire’s subjects. It also raised nationalist aspirations, demonstrating how nationalism contributed to decolonisation. It was the war that ultimately led to the dissolution of the empire but nationalism was heightened during the war which helped shape decolonisation. The Austrian Republic was a small German-speaking area and the empire had lost much of its territories to its neighbours. and the nationalities that had been competing within the empire. There were other factors that can be said to have played a part in decolonisation. Dynasties were no longer seen as an effective form of rule, and the twentieth century favoured constitutional monarchies. It may also have been the case that the empire was being outmoded. Other land empires like China and Russia were also coming to an end at this time and it may have been that it was only a matter of time before Austria-Hungary would have collapsed with or without the war. Even European maritime imperialism was reaching its peak, and not long after many other European empires ended.

Nationalism had been a long term problem for the empire. Multi-nationalism had worked for the empire for many years, but over time attitudes and ideas changed, and events and policies contributed to the nationalistic aspirations of the empire’s minorities. The war may have bought the empire’s defeat and ultimate dissolution, but the empire was already on its last leg, and the war helped it along. Other factors need to be considered when looking at the Dual Monarchy’s decolonisation. The war and even worldly ideas about land-based empires may have contributed significantly to its downfall, but the role of nationalism cannot be downplayed in decolonisation. Without the different nationalist aspirations, Austria-Hungary after the war would have taken a very different shape. There would not have been so many new nation states after its dissolution and the empire may have retained far more territory. Ultimately, colonial nationalism did play an important role in shaping the decolonisation of Austria-Hungary. Without it, decolonisation and the formation of nation states would have looked very different to the Europe we know today.


Primary Sources

‘Imperial and Foreign Intelligence: The Austrian Jubilee Pageant in Vienna’ (1908) The Times, 13 June, Issue 38672

Secondary Sources

Beller, S. (2006) A Concise History of Austria, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, Chapter 4, pp. 141–155, 158–169, 177–82

Beller, S. (2006) A Concise History of Austria, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 182–95

Mason, J.W. (1997) The Dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1867–1918, Harlow, Longman, pp. 1–5

Mombauer, A. (2009) ‘Unit 18: The end of the Austro-Hungarian empire’ in A326 Block 5, Why do empires end?, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Hamann, B. (1999) Hitler’s Vienna: A Dictator’s Apprenticeship, New York, Oxford University Press, pp. 93–103

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