It all started like a bar fight by Jenő Rejtő: the other hit back. In April 1918, the Foreign Minister of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy came into a debate confuting each other with the French Prime Minister, Clemenceau, which made it clear that Czernin had made a fatal mistake. He accused France of sticking to Alsace-Lorraine and refusing to accept peace for this reason. Because of this, Clemenceau made the letters of Czernin’s “boss”, Charles IV Austrian Emperor and Hungarian King to the French (Sixtus letters), in which he practically accepts Paris’s demand for the provinces, public. Czernin was not fully informed of what his emperor and king had been writing about, and in response to the scandal, he also tried to persuade Charles to retreat (at least to keep the distance from politics). But Charles chose to watch Czernin’s fall rather than retiring from active governance.
Because of the scandal, however, Charles got into an impossible position, and the only way out was to humble himself in the German “grand headquarters” to Emperor William II and the generals in real power, Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The Habsburg ruler “has committed himself not to engage in any negotiations with the enemy without the German ally being aware of it, but that was not enough. He had to appear before Emperor William in Spa on May 12 to sign a military convention that essentially placed his army under joint (German) command. He has also committed himself to a tighter economic alliance, but there was no time left to arrange this, though the preparatory negotiations started.”
The latter was the starting point for a series of talks aimed at implementing the German Mitteleuropa plans. The essence of the Mitteleuropa plan would have been a customs union covering Central Europe, which would of course have been determined by German economic interests. The German Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg gave momentum to the Mitteleuropa concept and supported the developer of the plan, the German Liberal Representative, Friedrich Naumann. The plan came to light in 1915, and as we have already written on elsovh.hu, “the idea of a customs union and close economic cooperation between the states of the central powers” was brought forward, which was also argued over in Hungary by Hungarian intellectuals in Huszadik Század already back in 1916.
However, in 1918, when the prestige of the Monarchy collapsed in front of both the Entente and the Germans, the tone was quite different from 1915-1916. At that time, due to the temporary German dominance, Austro-Hungary became vulnerable to their own ally as well, and both empires continued on the road to collapse. In the meantime, heated debates formed about unfinished businesses and the economic and customs alliance.
On May 14, 1918, Pesti Hírlap still wrote as follows in the editorial – entitled New federal treaty with Germany –, showing loyalty to the Monarchy’s: “Historiography will not attach great military events to the date of May 12, 1918. Nothing significant happened on the battlefields this day, and the Entente still suffered such a defeat that measured up to May 2, when we struck a deadly blow to Tsarist Russia at Gorlice. On this day, King Charles visited Emperor William at the headquarters and the foundations of another dual alliance were laid at the meeting of the two rulers. For one year now, the Entente and above all France would have been able to make use of the peace love of our king; they let the great opportunity glide past unexploited and now have lost it irreversibly.”
That is, Pesti Hírlap wrote about the renewal of the dual alliance of the Monarchy and Germany, when in fact the Viennese ruler subordinated himself to the Berlin emperor. The article, which was partially censured (even despite its flattering tone!), wrote that France wanted to drive a wedge between Germany and Austria-Hungary, but as a result, “on May 12, William and Charles decided to build and deepen the old alliance and the conceptual agreement was made also in view of the political, economic and military agreements that have already been planned.”
As the paper argued: “The new alliance is as much a Hungarian interest as a German one. We can never forget that German guns helped reconquer Transylvania, that Romania and Serbia were made harmless with the support of German guns. So the value of our alliance was not shown only against Russia during the war. Now, built and deepened: after the war, the beneficial effect in sustaining the state can also be felt in internal politics against the state disintegration aspirations of the Czechs and the Southern Slavs.” That is, the paper, flattering to the government (at this time, Népszava sharply attacked Pesti Hírlap in the controversy about censorship) openly expressed the motivation of the Hungarian political elite: maintaining the oppression of nationalities would be impossible without the help of Germany, so a few months before the fall of the Monarchy, the Hungarian elite made a catastrophic decision to commit themselves to Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Emperor William, who were heading for disaster. It was not the first time that the Hungarian elite made a strategically tragic decision, and not the last one either. The fate of the historic Hungary and the Monarchy, subordinating to the Germans, was sealed by this joining with Berlin in the eyes of the Entente powers. From this point onwards, for the Entente, the Monarchy was not the weak point of the central powers, which would have made it possible to separate it from Germany through some concessions, but rather a mindless server of German power aspirations. Ignác Romsics wrote about it in his 1996 study as follows: “The agreement [between Emperor William and Charles] was also about long-term and close political alliance, military union and an economic and trade cooperation leading towards a customs union. All of these seemed to justify Charles’s selflessness and Austria’s vassal status, that is, the old position of the anti-Monarchy British circles. The fate of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Great Britain was stamped at this time and with this series of events.” According to Romsics, then “the new standpoint of British foreign politics was expressed also by the fact that after territorial promises to Italy, Serbia and Romania in 1915-1916, on June 3, 1918, the allies publicly took their stand in favour of Poland’s independence, then separately – France on June 29, England on August 9 and the United States on September 2 – recognized the emigrant Czechoslovak National Council as the foundation of the prospective Czechoslovak government“. So, according to the Hungarian historian, “from the summer of 1918, the question was no longer whether the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy can survive, and if so, with what conditions, but where the borders of succession states will lie.”
However, the logic of Pesti Hírlap in 1918 regarding the German and Austrian-Hungarian cooperation is interesting – it sounds quite exciting in 2018, when eurosceptic populist parties has come to power in Italy: “But the new alliance is a European, and ultimately a global concern. Outwards, its state preservation nature will not be filled with the spirit of conquest, but of defence. It can be the crystallization point of the permanent peace in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, and can provide a centre for the crystallization of the Bulgarian, Turkish, Polish, Ukrainian, Romanian and Finnish state preservation concept, which will always be the same as the interests of Central Europe, while territorial integration and peaceful economic advancement are kept in view. In the end, if Italy and France both get disappointed and resign from their silly conquer plans, the Central European alliance can be the basis for the peace of the West and the South and the whole continent of Europe and even of the “alliance of peoples” proclaimed by the Entente and of the restarting cultural work of the tortured humanity.”
By the way, Italy was also among German military goals in 1914. These were drafted by Bethmann-Hollweg: “The establishment of a Central European economic alliance shall be achieved through joint customs agreements with the involvement of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria-Hungary, Poland and perhaps Italy, Sweden and Norway. This alliance shall, probably without a common constitutional peak organization, with the formal equality of members, but in fact, under German leadership, stabilize Germany’s economic dominance over Central Europe.”
Of course, less was discussed regarding Italy in 1918, but the currently allied Turks, Bulgarians and Finns who had left the Russian Empire were included in the article of Pesti Hírlap. The fact that German, Austrian and Hungarian closer cooperation was the primary interest of Hungarians was also warned about by the German Ambassador in Vienna in his statement on June 12, 1918. In an interview to Az Est, Botho von Wedel German Ambassador told in early June that discussions are continued “about the development and deepening of the Hungarian-Austrian-German alliance”. The ambassador expressed his hope: “Our alliance shall be and shall remain a friendly blood contract that relies on the natural unity and joint interest of the contracting states, and that is renewed by excluding all offensive thoughts, only for the protection and safeguarding of our possessions and interests.”
Wedel also pointed out that “the autonomy and independence of allied states shall remain intact in any case”, and added: “The political insight of Hungarians will recognize that the numerously smaller Hungarian nation does not suffer any reductions by establishing a favourable relationship with the great German people, and even more, this is how it will find the best and most lasting assurance of its real interests without the slightest restriction of its proven ancient rights and traditions.” That is, this was a clear hint that the numerically small Hungarian nation can rely on the Germans to maintain “Hungarian supremacy” in the historical Hungary against the Slavs (although this was not the subject of the interview) (that was the purpose of the Hungarian political elite, of course, not the topic of Germans).
Mihály Károlyi was not so enthusiastic about the German alliance; he represented the real opposition together with the Social Democrats in the Hungarian political life. A report of Az Est on June 18, 1918 (published next to the statement of the ambassador) quoted Károlyi’s speech on an electoral meeting in Szeged. In his speech, Károlyi told the following about the “deepening” German alliance, about which he had recently read the statement of Friedrich von Payer German Vice-Chancellor: “Payer says that in the future Germany wants an alliance with the monarchy and the central powers that makes the borders completely useless. He also adds that the borders of each country must be removed as quickly as possible. He demands a long-term contract and the centralized management of railways, waterways and transport facilities. It is inconceivable that there is anyone in the Independence Party and the Constitution Party wishing to name themselves ‘48ers or even ‘48ers without markers who would accept the deepening of the alliance this way. It is such an unthinkable thing for me that a ’48er could never contribute to; since the alliance deepening that Payer wants would create a much closer and a much more subordinate relationship between Germany and Hungary than there is today between Hungary and Austria.” Károlyi continued, amid cheers and applause: After the Payer-type alliance deepening, the value of our agricultural products would completely fall, just like that of our industrial values. If Payer’s rule becomes true, we, Germany’s good ally will be their faithful slaves and subjects in the future. This is an issue against which we must protest solemnly now.”
Károlyi raised a very sensitive issue indeed by mentioning agricultural products. In fact, this case has already caused a great stir in the first days of the economic alliance planned with the Germans. Ernst Seidler, the Prime Minister of the starving Austria, when interpreting the “deepening” of the German-Austrian-Hungarian alliance, said already in May 1918 that as its first result, “the German Empire will be a unified provisioning area with Hungary and Austria, so the food supplies required for the population will have to be produced according to a unified plan”. This was reported by Az Est on May 18 and 19, 1918. Count János Hadik (who previously dealt with public food supply in Hungary) said: “I know well the Austrian aspiration that has strived to establish a unified provisioning area since the establishment of the joint food committee so that it can thereby influence the management of Hungary’s production and other economic policies. All those who are called to defend Hungary’s interests are obliged to protest in the strongest manner, and I look forward to learning primarily about the solidary standpoint of the Hungarian government in this matter.”
Prince Lajos Windischgrätz, the incumbent food minister quickly made a declaration following Seidler’s statements: “This is not about forming a joint provisioning area, but about how we should make our excess grain crops available to our allies, of course, primarily to Austria and probably Germany. At present, there are relevant professional discussions in Berlin, which I cannot participate in owing to other engagements, but my representative is present.”
However, Mitteleuropa plans were getting farther and farther away from realization: not only the Germans and Austrians longing for Hungarian agricultural products had long negotiations with Budapest, but the German army also collapsed on the Western front (the Austro-Hungarian armies had already failed in June and suffered a decisive defeat in Italy, on the Piave front). The “black day” of the German army came on 8 August, and it is no coincidence that even Pesti Hírlap wrote pessimistically six days after about the negotiations on the customs union and the economic alliance by the German, Austrian and Hungarian participants in Salzburg. Referencing a Swiss paper, the Hungarian newspaper wrote the following on August 14: “A Swiss paper published an interesting article about the development and fall of Mitteleuropa, written by a German economic writer. His arguments are attached to the outcome of the negotiations in Salzburg, and he sums them up by stating that the Mitteleuropa plan, built on the German-Hungarian-Austrian customs union, has failed once and for all.”
Before the complete failure, however, the negotiating parties in Salzburg recorded their negotiations on Mitteleuropa in minutes. This was reported on by Az Est on September 8, 1918 as follows: “The first chapter of the negotiations that had taken place in Salzburg for weeks between the German, Hungarian and Austrian minister delegates came to an end. The conceptual arrangements are ready, all three parties included them in the minutes, which were sent to the relevant governments. Negotiations in Salzburg only specify the details from now on.” Based on the article, the idea of the customs union and trade contract has come farther away from implementation, but according to Az Est, “the preferential agreement was supported by the Austrians and they were joined by the Hungarian industrial interested parties and the German anti-Mitteleuropa-camp”. (Under preferential agreement, Az Est meant that “Germany and the Monarchy may grant to each other or to other countries in the customs agreement or customs union such special benefits that other contracting states may not claim for themselves”.) So, according to Az Est, “of the three standpoints, preference won, and the idea of customs union would be dropped. We will conclude a trade agreement with Germany and in this contract we will provide special benefits to each other that cannot be claimed by other states contracting us”.
However, these contracts could not be established in the autumn between the collapsing Monarchy and the defeated Germany. József Galántai summarized the career and fall of the Mitteleuropa plan in 1918: “The collapse of the Monarchy’s economy has strengthened the direction of tight connection to Germany. The Mitteleuropa customs union had more and more supporters. Preparations for such negotiations between Germany and the Monarchy started in June 1918. Károlyi, then [Albert] Apponyi protested, [István] Tisza also opposed the customs union, but the Germans strongly urged it; in early July, negotiations started in Salzburg, but the representatives of the Monarchy abstained from the final decision.”
The Mitteleuropa plan fell through in 1918, but as we have seen, some of its elements, the permeability of borders and the customs union have become such principles of the European Union, about which debates have not ceased completely even by 2018.
Új szövetségi szerződés Németországgal = Pesti Hírlap, 1918. május 14.
Egységes élelmezési terület lesz Németország, Magyarország és Ausztria. Seidler miniszterelnök leleplezése az „élelmezési szövetségről”. Windischgraetz herceg közélelmezési miniszter nyilatkozata = Az Est, 1918. május 18.
Gróf Hadik János felel Windischgraetz hercegnek = Az Est, 1918. május 19.
A fegyverszövetségi tárgyalások = Az Est, 1918. május 24.
Dr. Lázár Jenő: Beszélgetés a bécsi német nagykövettel Magyarország szerepéről az új „elmélyített” szövetségben = Az Est, 1918. június 13.
Az osztrák németek tüntettek a csehek és a zsidók ellen. Sürgették a szövetség kimélyítését a nagynémetekkel = Az Est, 1918. június 18.
Károlyi Mihály a német szövetség „kimélyítése” ellen = Az Est, 1918. június 18.
Vilmos császár a porosz militarizmusról és a világháború erkölcsi jelentőségéről. A császár ünneplése uralkodásának harmincadik évfordulóján = Az Est, 1918. június 18.
A „Mitteleuropa” eszméje.= Pesti Hírlap, 1918. augusztus 14.
Preferenciális szerződésünk lesz Németországgal. Jegyzőkönyvbe foglalták a salzburgi tanácskozás elvi eredményeit. = Az Est, 1918. szeptember 8.
Romsics Ignác: A brit külpolitika és a „magyar kérdés” 1914–1946 = Századok, 1996/2.
Galántai József: Magyarország az első világháborúban. In: Magyarország története 1890–1918. Főszerk.: Hanák Péter. Budapest, 1988. 1083–1234.
Német annexiós célok. Részlet Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg birodalmi kancellár 1914. szeptember 9-i úgynevezett szeptemberi programjából. In: Az első világháború. A 20. század őskatasztrófája. (Szerk.: Stephan Burgdorff és Klaus Wiegrefe) Budapest, 2010. V. melléklet. 252-253.
Hajdu Tibor–Pollmann Ferenc: A régi Magyarország utolsó háborúja. 1914–1918. Budapest, 2014.
Szegő Iván Miklós: Czernin gróf és Clemenceau vitája, az osztrák–magyar külügyminiszter bukása = Elsovh.hu
Created by: Iván Miklós Szegő