The Naval Policy of Austria-Hungary, 1867-1918, Navalism, Industrial Development, and the Politics of Dualism
Lawrence Sondhaus. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1994. 450 pp. Append. Ind. Maps.
Reviewed by Dr. Gary E. Weir
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and rending of the Balkans over ancient national animosities, how often do policymakers look to Austria-Hungary’s experiment in multinationalism for context and understanding? From the Ausgleich of 1867 to the Empire’s collapse at the end of World War I, the architects of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy sustained a multinational state for 51 years with a remarkable degree of success. When historians of modern Germany have used with great profit the history of Germany’s Imperial Navy as a vehicle to explore German society, politics, and economy, this new study of the Habsburg Imperial and Royal Navy by Lawrence Sondhaus provides an opportunity to extend this profitable investigation into a multinational setting.
Paul Halpern’s books The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1914-1918 (Naval Institute Press, 1987) and A Naval History of World War 1 (Naval Institute Press, 1994) provide a broad overview of policy and operations, but The Naval Policy of Austria-Hungary contributes the particulars and the analytical focus plentiful in British, American, and German historiography but lacking for Franz Josefs Navy. As Sondhaus demonstrates, naval history can provide penetrating insights into the political climate of the time, the complexities of industrial development, and the cultural character of the Empire.
The persistent conflict between Italy and the Habsburgs in the Adriatic and Mediterranean provided the raison d’etre for the Imperial and Royal Navy. Its role in the post-Ausgleich Empire was assured by Tegetthoffs victory at Lissa in 1866 against a superior Italian force. From then on, the Navy’s fortunes rose or declined according to a variety of factors—not all of which Austria-Hungary shared with its naval rivals. These factors included Habsburg competition with Italy in the Adriatic Sea and the vigorous international debate over strategies designed to threaten commerce or provoke the decisive engagement between fleets. Which formula suited the Empire’s political and economic condition in the late 19th century—the decisive battle views of Mahan and Tirpitz or the commerce war advocated by the Jeune Ecole of France’s Admiral Aube? Debating strategy and foreign policy ensured mixed fortunes for the Navy in the budgetary process until the advent of navalism at the turn of the century assured regular growth. In addition, naval prosperity depended very heavily upon the influence of the army and the effectiveness of naval patrons such as the Archdukes Ferdinand Max and Franz Ferdinand. As always, the Navy’s fate also depended heavily upon the importance of naval power in the agendas of the various contentious national minorities under Habsburg rule.
Under Admirals von Puck and von Sterneck, the officer corps began the process of professionalizing, the education of Austro-Hungarian officers became more formal, and the Navy demonstrated a remarkable ability to integrate the nationalities effectively, thus providing one of the strongest pillars of the multinational system. This latter role is one of the most interesting and important aspects of the author's analysis of the Navy’s roles and missions. Open to innovation, the Habsburg Empire also provided a home for Robert Whitehead and his torpedo when other naval powers found the invention intimidating or less than promising. An Austro-Hungarian officer even perfected one of the first gyroscope guidance systems for the weapon. When navalism became a driving force in the quest for great power status at the turn of the century and political support became more consistent, the Navy grew, at first under Admiral Hermann von Spaun, along with public and private shipyards and vital arms contractors such as Whitehead and Skoda essential to the construction and maintenance of a viable battlefleet.
Although other naval powers experienced many of the same trends, because of its unusual political environment, Austria-Hungary was at once the rule and the exception. Sondhaus convincingly shows that studying the Austro-Hungarian Navy can reveal the forces and issues that regularly divided the Empire while at the same time demonstrate the remarkable internal cohesion displayed by the many nationalities that went to sea on Habsburg warships.
This work comes as a follow-on to the author’s previous book The Austrian Empire and the Sea: Austrian Naval Policy, 1797-1866. As in that book, Sondhaus based this new study on painstaking research, mining not only the best secondary works and articles in the field but also the primary source collections of the Finanzarchiv, Haus-Hof und Staatsarchiv, and Kriegsarchiv in Vienna. He also demonstrates a comfort with the Italian language that permits him to provide a relatively complete picture of the essential role of Italy in the formulation of Austro- Hungarian foreign and naval policy.
The strength of this work is twofold. On the one hand, Sondhaus deftly blends his analysis of the naval community of Austria-Hungary with the critical industrial, technological, and budgetary factors that every naval power faced in the last half of the 19th century. In this way, he has crafted an excellent Habsburg component to the corpus of literature that has emerged since the early 1930s on the growth of navalism and the role played by shipbuilding, naval personnel, and marine technology in shaping modem western society. On the other, he has placed these developments effectively in the multinational setting that permits the reader to investigate the multiplicity of ethnic factors that make the role of the Navy in the Habsburg domain far more complex and more important to internal political cohesion than the navies of the United States, France, or Great Britain.
Although he does draw the occasional comparison between the Imperial and Royal Navy and its Imperial German counterpart, more of this, especially in the author’s conclusions, would have enriched this volume further. To what extent, for example, might the Austro-Hungarian experience provide a total contrast to the primacy of domestic policy in German fleet expansion as argued by Eckart Kehr and tempered by others contributing to the German literature over the past 60 years? Might one compare the important alliances forged by German sammlungspolitik to the role played by the Habsburg navy in integrating the Empire’s nationalities and contributing to internal political cohesion? Did the multinational politics of the Empire preclude the possibility of Spaun rising to become the Habsburg Fisher or Tirpitz? These questions are valid, because the high quality of current naval literature and Sondhaus’s excellent research and insights immediately call them to mind and invite further fruitful comparison. When a book informs and intellectually provokes, as this one does, a reviewer can only recommend it highly.
Books of Interest
By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)
United States Naval Air Stations of World War II: Volume I: Eastern States
M. L. Shettle, Jr. Bowersville, GA: Schaertel Publishing, 1995. 241 pp. Append. Bib. Gloss. Ind. Photos. $30.00 (27.00).
During World War II, there were nearly a hundred naval air stations in the eastern United States from Maine to Florida to Michigan. Each one is described in this reference book, accompanied by photographs that provide aerial and ground-level views of these bases. Some of these installations have stood the test of time and will be familiar to many readers, but others have long since vanished and exist only on these pages.
Shipwrecks: An Encyclopedia of the World’s Worst Disasters at Sea
David Ritchie. New York: Facts on File, 1996. 305 pp. Append. Bib. Illus. Ind. Photos. $40.00 (38.00).
“For those in peril on the sea” are words that all mariners know and understand. The sea is a wondrous place full of incredible beauty, tempting mysteries, a wealth of resources, and a host of opportunities. But it is also a place of great danger and any true sailor tempers his love of the great waters with a healthy respect. This book catalogues the reasons for that needed respect. Great storms, icebergs, construction flaws, poor seamanship, and raging fires are just some of the reasons that ships have been lost at sea. Ferry boats, nuclear submarines, gigantic tankers, and passenger liners are just some of the many victims of disaster at sea. This may be a reference book, but it reads like an adventure story.
The Coast Guard Expands, 1865- 1915: New Roles, New Frontiers
Irving H. King. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996. 305 pp. Append. Bib. Ind. Notes. Photos. Tables. $37.95 ($30.36)
The third volume in a series that, when completed, will cover the entire history of the U.S. Coast Guard and its forerunners. The Coast Guard holds a unique position in that it is a military service in many senses of the word, yet it plays a vital role in peacetime as well. King, a professor of history at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, has done extensive research into primary source materials in order to produce this informative series. This volume explores the history of the Revenue Cutter Service which, in 1915, was combined with the U.S. Life-Saving Service to create the U.S. Coast Guard.