Edelweiss and Fez: Officer Diversity in Imperial Austria

07/30/2013 05:41 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2014

Up until 1918 no other army in the world produced more Jewish officers than the Austrian-Hungarian Army.

Vienna, Austria

Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler, Arnold Schoenberg and Joseph Roth, to name a few, all did it: during their military service they became officer candidates or reserve officers in the kaiserlich und königliche Armee (the Imperial and Royal Army of the Austrian Hungarian Empire). Indeed, most Jewish intellectuals of fin de siècle Vienna, a city which the historian Carl Schorske called: "'one of the most fertile breeding grounds of our century's a-historical culture," served in the old imperial and royal officer corps. Visiting both the Jewish Museum and Army Museum in Vienna in a day, I realized that the role of Jewish officers is a much neglected subject in Central European history books and that the military careers of prominent Jewish intellectuals in the old imperial army deserve attention.

The Hapsburg Army is one of the most peculiar and interesting institutions in military history. It comprised soldiers from a host of nations (e.g., Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Ukraine, Italy, Bosnia and Serbia) and multiple religions (Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, Islam, and Judaism). Regiments were, with few exceptions, multilingual, and although the language of command was German, every officer had to learn the "regimental language" (the language spoken by the majority of recruits of a regiment) within two years of joining a new unit. The professional officer corps cared very little about the ethnicity or religion of its members. Indeed after the dissolution of the empire in 1918 many former imperial officers were confused which nationality they actually held and which country to settle down in. Officers of all ranks addressed each other in the informal "du" rather than the formal "Sie," which, given Austria's obsession with titles and proper etiquette, is an astounding example of the army's brotherly esprit de corps.

Up until 1918, as the historian Istvan Deak points out in his book, Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps 1848 -- 1918, no other army in the world produced more Jewish officers than the Austrian-Hungarian military. Between 1885 and 1914, the Prussian Army trained more than 30.000 Jewish officer candidates, but not a single candidate received a commission. The number of Jewish officers serving in the French, and British armies was negligible and, in the case of Russia, practically non-existent.

In 1897, a census revealed 1993 Habsburg Reserve Officers who classified themselves as Jewish, which constituted an astounding 18.7 percent of the entire Austrian-Hungarian Reserve Officer Corps. In 1911, that number had dropped to 1871 officers, or 17 percent, mostly due to an increase in nationalism and the desire of many Jews to be assimilated within their host culture. This, however, is still a remarkable figure considering that the Jewish population in the empire was estimated at 2.1 million out of a total population of 52 million according to the 1911 census of the empire.

The reason for the high number of Jewish reserve officers is the proportionally higher level of education of people with a Jewish background in the empire. Jews constituted around 15 percent of the student population at universities in imperial Austria. Similar to today, only students with a Matura or secondary education degree were eligible to join the army as officer candidates. Also, amidst rising anti-Semitism, the officer corps constituted the last bastion of supra-nationalist sentiments in the last decades of Austria-Hungary where nationality and religion did not play a significant role according to Istvan Deak. One only has to compare the sentiment of the officer corps with that of the notorious anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, in the late 19th century.

In 1914, the reckless decisions of an inept Austrian military command nearly wiped out the professional officer corps in various failed offenses on the Eastern Front in the first few months of World War I. Reserve officers had to rise to prominent positions and lead the army for the duration of the war. At the end of the First World War, there were 24 Jewish generals serving in the imperial and royal army. Jewish officers commanded troops in such crack outfits as the k.k. Kaiserschuetzenregiment 1, "the Imperial Hunters," a mountain warfare unit sporting an Edelweiss Flower insignia on their caps, who were recruited in Tyrolia. Even more surprising, though consistent with this practical diversity, Muslims and Jewish officers were included in the most elite unit of the Habsburg army -- the Bosnia-Hercegovina Infantry Regiment No.2, recruited in Banja Luka and prominately wearing the red fez as headgear. Overall, 25.000 Jewish officers (including 78 rabbis with the rank of captain) served in the First World War fighting for the Austrian Kaiser, more than in any other force of that time. Notably, the British Army only had 1800 Jewish soldiers on their muster roll during the war.

The Jewish playwright and novelist, Arthur Schnitzler, revolutionized literature in 1900 with his novella Lieutenant Gustl, by using a new literally device: the stream of conscious technique. Schnitzler is said to have inspired James Joyce in his writing Ulysses. (Joyce lived for many years in Trieste, the biggest port of the Habsburg Empire.) The story is about a young imperial officer trying to defend his honor and offers a sharp critique of turn of the century militarism and the officer class. As a result, Schnitzler lost his reserve officer commission through the ruling of an army 'honor court'. While blind to religion and ethnicity, the Habsburg officer corps, like most militaries throughout the centuries, was a bastion of political and social conservatism and intolerant of criticism. In a world, however, that increasingly tries to move beyond the parochial dogmas of nationalism, the history of a multinational "Rechtsstaat" such as Austria-Hungary, and its inclusive institutions such as the multinational, multi-religious yet conservative army, is a historical precedent worth reexamining.