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Response to Review no. 226

Many thanks to Ian Armour for his generous and meticulous reading of my monograph. While commenting briefly on the review I want to highlight some extra dimensions, at the core of the book’s argument, which indicate a variety of ways in which it may be used by other historians.

The main thrust of the monograph is indeed an exploration of the ‘weapon of propaganda’ as it affected the Habsburg Empire in the First World War. There has been no comparable analysis of this phenomenon on any front in the Great War. This justifies the detail, all the more so in view of the range of central European archives consulted. Ian Armour rightly underlines a central thesis of the book. It is to adjust the British-focused historiography; and to reveal, through the fullest study of the Italian front that we now have in English, the importance of Italy’s contribution to the ‘science’ of front propaganda. If this is at odds with a traditional stereotype of Italian military incompetence, it was a natural derivative from the Italians’ own wartime dealings with the Austro-Hungarian army. My study gives particular attention to the Italian campaign of 1918, as the most sophisticated of its kind and the one where western historiography has needed serious adjustment. I argue, however, that the notion of a concerted and ‘modern’ psychological campaign, with carefully worked-out arguments and objectives, was first pursued by the Central Powers in 1917. The psychological offensives launched by Austria-Hungary against Russia, Serbia and Italy in 1917 are completely absent from the historiography in any language. Chapters 3 and 4 of the book go far in filling this omission and deserve to be highlighted. They show how the Austrian military in 1917 was surprisingly innovative and flexible in quickly treating the ‘new’ weapon of front propaganda with some respect. While many old soldiers still viewed it as unchivalrous, it seemed to be reaping rewards, not least in its alleged contribution to the Russian army’s disintegration. Whatever the truth of that claim, the Habsburg war machine learnt important lessons from its Russian campaign and hoped for a similar psychological success against Italy. The use of front propaganda snowballed in this way, stirring a response in the West in late 1917, and evolving into the tighter ideological campaigns of 1918.

Following from this, I would take issue with one element of Ian Armour’s review. He is sceptical about the need for any ‘theory of front propaganda’ and, indeed, implies that the book does not offer one anyway. It is true that the introductory chapter is primarily a historiographical survey. Yet from the start it supplies some ideas about why modern front propaganda emerged when it did. It then shows how and why our understanding of its practice in the European framework has been distorted in the historiography. In other words, there has for decades existed a disjointed interpretation of front propaganda which the book sets out to correct. The subsequent chapters not only build up a new interpretation based on fresh evidence. They indicate that the practitioners on both sides of the front gradually developed what one might term a ‘science’ of front propaganda, learning lessons and rules about how the weapon could best be employed in their theatre. In my final chapter, I bring together these threads from the different campaigns to show that there was indeed a certain ‘theory of front propaganda’ which contemporary practitioners came to understand. This concluding analysis also provides historians with a clearer framework within which to think about the potential, the exercise and the limitations of this weapon. The book would be failing if it did not, alongside its firm evidential base, supply some theoretical framework for assessing front propaganda on the one hand, and the disintegration of the Habsburg Empire on the other.

For it is through the prism of front propaganda that a second issue is examined: the nature of Austria-Hungary’s wartime dissolution. The broad context is available through my other writings, notably the forthcoming revised edition of The Last Years of Austria-Hungary: A Multinational Experiment in Early Twentieth Century Europe (University of Exeter Press, 2002). In the monograph, the emphasis is upon how ideas from outside the Monarchy penetrated and increasingly interacted with mounting domestic agitation and the spread of poisonous ideas. The authorities’ failure to meet this challenge is assessed fully in chapter 7, particularly (and for the first time) in terms of the vain efforts at Habsburg ‘patriotic instruction’ in the army. The reader can also, through the book’s detailed index, explore the ideological threat to the Habsburg mission in different parts of the Empire, whether among the Czechs, Hungarians, Poles or Romanians.

The Yugoslav dimension is covered in detail. The book here supplies new material about the disunity – the diverse interpretations of a South Slav utopia – on the eve of an independent Yugoslav state. It does so in three inter-related contexts. Firstly (as Ian Armour notes) the subject is covered in the Italian context, chiefly through the confusion which emerged when Italians tried to formulate specifically Yugoslav propaganda for Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. It is clear that the Yugoslav ideal, propagated by a few influential enthusiasts, was anathema not just to many Italians but also to many Croats and Slovenes in Italian captivity. Two other contexts deserve attention because of their focus upon ‘Yugoslavs’ in the Monarchy itself. Thus, in a case study, a Croat division on the Italian front is examined in detail to reveal the mixture of Habsburg, Croatian and radical Yugoslav loyalties which prevailed there. Lastly, the hinterland Yugoslav agitation of 1917-18 is discussed, both as it evolved on the ground and how it was reported in enemy propaganda. The Slovene-led grass-roots ‘declaration movement’ (which is ignored in western historiography) was particularly important as a key basis for a new, if fragile, Yugoslav identity on Slovene-Croatian terms. Through the interaction of these three contexts – enemy, front, hinterland – the book seeks to explain why the Habsburg Empire slowly lost its legitimacy and collapsed at the end of the war.

As to the impact of front propaganda in this disintegration, I would confirm Ian Armour’s suggestion that it worked ‘in a limited sense’. It acted as a small catalyst upon the centrifugal trends in the Monarchy, or rather, upon the trend towards popular mobilisation around new (non-Habsburg) centres of unrest in the imperial provinces. It is a natural perhaps that one is urged to make a definitive pronouncement on the elusive question: whether or not propaganda was really effective. Thus Professor Holger Herwig has recently implied (in The Slavic Review, vol.60 no.3) that I fudge on committing myself in the book’s conclusion. On the contrary, I am careful to show the limits of what we can ever deduce about the impact of such propaganda. In its written form, it probably had a minor effect in the Austrian trenches (as in the Italian trenches). But it certainly had potential for educated soldiers, in that it was repeating and mirroring the arguments already prevalent in the radical Habsburg press; this feeds into my emphasis on the Austro-Hungarian front and hinterland being closely intertwined. Where front propaganda was undoubtedly most effective was in the shape of the Czech legionaries who, I suggest (p.440), were ‘the single most important piece of Italy’s front propaganda’, providing a real psychological presence opposite the Austrian front lines. It seems clear that this personal ‘trench propaganda’, when wielded on the Italian or Eastern fronts, always had a greater impact than the printed word. It was an extra tool in the armoury of military Intelligence; and its effect was more easily quantifiable than any propaganda manifestos. The importance of the latter is more subtle. They enable us to gauge mentalities and perceptions on both sides of the front. Through their language and images the leaflets reveal much about prevalent national stereotypes, and allow us to explore how and why these stereotypes took firmer root in the final years of the war. For it was through this negative ‘imagining of the other’ that the Monarchy in 1918 experienced a national polarisation and disintegrated.

In conclusion, my monograph sets out a number of fruitful lines for future historical enquiry. Firstly, the other contemporary campaigns of front propaganda now await similar detailed analysis, notably those on the Western front, in the Balkans and against Turkey. It was from this joint foundation that front propaganda achieved its reputation and thrived in the twentieth century: up to the current conflict in Afghanistan. Secondly, the Austro-Hungarian war effort would benefit from being approached with a more critically ‘cultural’ eye. This would bring to the subject the cultural dimension advocated by historians such as Jay Winter (but so far largely confined to the Western European experience). Thirdly, the book offers many new thoughts, some of which are summarised in chapters 2 and 7, about the short-term causes of the Habsburg Empire’s collapse. One of my own future tasks is to provide a wider and longer-term context for the dissolution. Thereby we will be able to trace more clearly the disintegrative threads which the propaganda weapon began to pull at in the last years of the Monarchy’s existence.