And it had nothing to do with the battlefield. For all of its longevity and prestige, the Hapsburg Monarchy was not usually associated with military strength. They were badly walloped by Napoleon and any number of other Europeans, were saved by Poles and the weather when Suleiman came knocking, but when the Ottoman Empire was in decline and Napoleon long defeated, the Hapsburg Empire remained. Gone were the days of their global empire, ruled from Spain and gone was the German Empire ruled from Austria, yet at the dawn of the 20th century the Hapsburg Dynasty under Franz Joseph was creating a new empire; one of nations.
As the Ottoman Empire regressed the Austrian (from here on out, I refer to Austria to represent the Hapsburg Empire, the Emperor of Austria being one of numerous royal titles held) one advanced, except where met by newly freed Orthodox Christian states such as Serbia and Greece. It was in this theatre where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the military overseer of the Balkans was assassinated by a political activist who wished to remove the Austrian military presence. As the story goes, this single act, and one that was not at all unusual for the day, brought about World War One.
Now prior to the war and during it, Franz Joseph and his successor, Emperor Karl attempted a truly amazing thing: to harness the powers of nationalism for the betterment of the Hapsburg Empire. In part it was attempted because of the disparate population in the Empire already, so instead of conquering new peoples, it was bringing the brethren of current subjects into the fold. Austria fared poorly at first (supposedly 82% of the pre-war army of 1 million men were casualties by three months in), but the tide turned and by 1918 Austria possessed Northern Italy, half of Ukraine, Poland and Serbia and wanted peace.
Yet the two objectives were actually Poland and Ukraine, to be annexed by Archduke Stefan and his son Wilhelm respectively. The plan was thus: allow these men and any family they had to ingratiate themselves with their respective country, using flattery, privileges to the minority in Austria, natural linguistic skill (Wilhelm spoke English, French, Ukrainian, German, Italian and Polish all with near fluency), and absolute adoption of the country’s cause to actually become a member of that society. From there they could use their Hapsburg lineage to become national monarchs or at least the regent of the territory for the Hapsburg Monarch.
In reality these would be little more than provinces, but they would be self-governing provinces ruled in their best interest by a direct representative of the Hapsburg Emperor.
At first this seems ludicrous, something akin to showing up, saying you are king and having everyone acquiesce. Then comes the realization that it almost worked. The Hapsburgs offered national unity within a united Eastern Europe (more or less). Stefan and most of his family fervently adopted the cause of Poland, while Wilhelm was unequivocally pro-Ukrainian. Further, both ethnic groups were already in the Hapsburg fold, and so it was merely unifying the groups.
All of this was not enough for Woodrow Wilson, who wanted true independence, and certainly this pleased neither France, Britain, Tsarist Russia, nor Bolshevik Russia, but with Russia driven back and torn within, had Austria persuaded Germany to end the war about the time the Americans joined–and before the Serbs and Italians could regroup, then they would have come out on top. There is a real possibility that both Poland and Ukraine would have become Austrian provinces, while Germany was defeated, but not destroyed (perhaps thwarting the Nazi movement) and the Kaiser may have not abdicated and the status quo remained in Western Europe. Who knows what would have happened with the Great Depression lurking around the corner, but if Austria could have repainted themselves as ending the bloodshed, then it would have doubled in size and changed the face of Europe as we know it.
It didn’t work, but it was damn clever.