The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire by A. Wess Mitchell

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

We read these days of Big History, a study of the universe from a split-second after the Big Bang to the demise of the last Black Hole. That was a long, long time interval. In a different context we can view another long interval though measured on a different scale. The history of the Habsburg Empire from its foundations in 1700 through all the political machinations of non-member and member countries until the world war of 1914 – 18 caused a re-definition of boundaries, is a remarkable phenomenon. Frederick the Great could not destroy it, and Napoleon failed in his attempts to incorporate it into his Empire. Yet Austrian armies were no better than those of any contemporary nation. The Habsburg grasp of financial management was nothing splendid, and ethnic rivalries were terse and liable to flare. Yet the Habsburg Empire remained a dominating force that just would not go away. How did it survive?

A Wess Mitchell believes he has found an answer. He openly admits that Austrian forces in most of its conflicts were led by indifferent generals and backed by shaky finances. It faced enemies who were superior in both technical power and numbers. In 1815, as everyone knows, at the Congress of Vienna, the Austrian Metternich ushered in an era in which Austria dominated international policy.

Conventional explanations argue that the Empire was a necessity. It existed to provide a public service that blocked the strenuous and often bitter rivalries between the growing national states. It was there to maintain peace and the major powers dared not demolish it. Quite rightly, Mitchell sees that as an insufficient explanation of Austria’s success. In Mitchell’s words: “the mere fact of being a necessity was not in itself a solid enough foundation on which to gamble the monarchy’s existence” (8).

The Austro-Hungarian Empire’s continued existence required a companion, or alternatively, a completely new explanation. Mitchell finds it in strategy, a grand strategy. Defining ‘grand strategy’ Mitchell thinks of three dimensions, a ‘what’, a ‘how’ and a ‘when’. The functional aspect of this device occurs repeatedly across the life of the Empire, and requires a structural component (a ‘how’), the method by which means-ends calculations are transmitted with and between generations. Finally, there is the means-ends calculations forcing leaders “to act beyond the demands of the present” and “think about the future in terms of the goals of the political entity” (11). States that field many threats to their sovereignty require the continued development of higher-level strategies, moreso than a place like the UK that is not so threatened. Hence Mitchell identifies three main thrusts to support his thesis: the maintenance of secure buffers, the preservation of an army in being, and coalitions with allies.

Chapter One provides the argument, the evidence and approach, and the purpose for the book. Chapters 2 – 4 examine the constraints on Habsburg power and the effect they had on Austrian strategic thinking. Unable to fight all their enemies at once the Habsburgs used terrain, technology and their allies to sequence and stagger their conflicts. Chapters 5 – 7 focuses on individual frontiers, while Chapters 8 – 10 place particular emphasis on the Metternichian and Franz Joseph eras. With the Habsburgs persuading their friends of the moment to voluntarily play their part in managing the Empire’s lengthy borders we see a benign relationship rather than a fractious one separating various nation states. Chapter 10 is more discursive than most of the chapters and contains observations for geopolitics in our own time.

It is a very big argument, a brave and challenging thesis. The book is thoroughly researched, written in clear and delightful prose, and thoroughly documented in a Notes section and a huge bibliography of scholarly books and journal articles.  The support from colleagues never falters. I support the view that Jacqueline Deal reveals when she “describes a path breaking analysis of the grand strategy of the Habsburg Empire.” Critics write about the compelling need for this book and describe the author’s analyses as original and convincing.

The book is presented as a hard cover edition, and is a reference that European scholars cannot afford to not have on their shelves. A remarkable piece of scholarship.

The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire


By A. Wess Mitchell

Princeton UP

ISBN: 978-0-691-17670-3

$35.00; 416pp (hardback)

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