The satirical magazine Simplicissimus took up the topic of the linguistic diversity in the Habsburg army. Caricature by Josef Benedikt Engl (1907) © Public Domain

If you speak German, then you are loyal to Austria. That statement sounds oddly topical. And yet it is old, a hundred years old to be precise. “With the beginning of the First World War in 1914, languages and the people speaking them were divided into loyal and disloyal”, says Tamara Scheer in the interview with scilog. In the context of the FWF funded project Language Diversity in the Habsburg Army and Civil Society this historian from Vienna studied how language diversity was dealt with in the monarchy’s army from 1868 onward. The Austro-Hungarian Compromise brought in its wake a different approach in the combined army to the great language diversity existing within the monarchy. Although German was the language of command and the official internal language, the so-called regimental languages catered to the respective nationalities. “Eleven languages were in use”, notes Scheer. A twelfth was added later. “The objective was to give soldiers the possibility to express themselves in their own language and not be forced to use another one during their three-year conscription term”, explains Scheer.


This decision was also motivated by the expectation that such largesse would foster a higher level of loyalty towards the Emperor among the soldiers. “It worked quite well in times of peace”, reports Scheer. On the other hand, there were also rivalries that centred on the regimental languages. Should a regiment in Galicia for instance speak Polish or Ruthenian? Since the language balance was reviewed annually, this could change from one year to the next, notes the historian. Results could depend on whether the review was conducted by a nationally minded Pole or a nationally minded Ruthene. “In such a case the Jews who spoke Yiddish – which was not a designated regimental language – were counted either among the Poles or the Ruthenes, depending on whoever did the headcount.”

A tool for doctors and patients: in a war, there were not always enough doctors speaking the language of wounded soldiers. © Public Domain

Not ideal

In an empire in which large areas were bilingual or even multilingual, the system soon reached its limits (in the Vojvodina, for example, people spoke not only Hungarian but also Croatian, Serbian and German). What is more, contrary to the underlying intention it even promoted a national mindset. Scheer: “If someone living in Moravia, a largely bilingual area, declared that of the two languages it was Czech he spoke more often, he was assigned to a Czech regiment.” Thus that soldier was turned into a Czech, while a friend or brother for his part might well have been assigned under this scheme to a German regiment and was hence turned into a German. “It’s interesting to note”, says Scheer, “that the deficiencies of the system were recognised but never remedied.” No one wanted to touch it. Least of all the Emperor, who delegated all decisions to the periphery of his administrative apparatus, the 15 different corps headquarters, in order to avoid exposing himself to criticism. As a consequence, linguistic controversies were usually decided on a case-by-case basis. In this way the regulations became more flexible, which made the whole system more resilient.

Distrust at the front

The big endurance test for the system occurred during the First World War 1914-1918. Scheer reports that there was a confusion of languages on the battlefields in Galicia, Serbia, Italy and wherever else the Habsburg army was engaged in fighting. The soldiers of the Emperor found themselves in a linguistic Babel. – It was a situation of mutual incomprehension and misunderstanding, which Slovene and Croat soldiers counteracted by developing a type of “army Slav” which was also understood by many Germans, Hungarians, Italians and Romanians.

The so-called "I am in good health and quite well-card": in order not to betray the deployment of troops during wartime, soldiers were given standardised postcards in all languages of the Habsburg Monarchy. © Public Domain

According to the historian, who investigated in this FWF project archives, correspondence and journals in all languages and from all regions of the old monarchy, a more insidious influence was exerted by the distrust which quickly spread during the First World War. “German-speaking Austrians insinuated that the Czechs were not loyal to the Emperor”, says Scheer. And there was worse. The Poles suspected and denounced the Ruthenes as being spies of the Czar, and German-speaking soldiers backed these allegations. As a consequence, the army committed massive crimes and atrocities among the monarchy’s own civilian populations in Galicia. They were not to remain the only atrocities. The longer the war lasted, the more openly the suspicions directed against other languages came to the fore. “There were violations which would have been prosecuted firmly in times of peace”, declares Scheer. In the confusion of war, however, no investigations occurred. “Nonetheless this system did allow people to be nationally minded Czechs and yet loyal to the Emperor and to the army”, notes Tamara Scheer. This was indeed what its creators had in mind. “There are different categories of loyalty. Language alone is an insufficient criterion.”

Personal details Tamara Scheer has been teaching at the University of Vienna since 2009. As of 2012, a Hertha-Firnberg grant from the FWF enabled her to work at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Social Science History. As of October 2017, she has been conducting research at the University of Vienna’s Department of Eastern European History funded by an Elise-Richter grant from the FWF. Scheer has also been a visiting researcher at the Czech Academy of Sciences, the European University in Florence and Trinity College Dublin.

Publications and contributions (in German)

Konstruktionen von ethnischer Zugehörigkeit und Loyalität in der k.u.k. Armee der Habsburgermonarchie (1868-1914), in: Alexandra Millner, Katalin Teller (Hrsg.), Gemengelagen. Transdifferenz, Migration und Alterität in den Literaturen und Kulturen Österreich-Ungarns, transcript Verlag (Bielefeld) in der Reihe „lettre“ 2017
Die k.u.k. Regimentssprachen: Eine Institutionalisierung der Sprachenvielfalt in der Habsburgermonarchie (1867/8-1914) in: Niedhammer, Martina/ Nekula, Marek et al. (Hg.), Sprache, Gesellschaft und Nation in Ostmitteleuropa. Institutionalisierung und Alltagspraxis. Göttingen 2014, 75-92
Habsburg Languages at War: „The linguistic confusion at the tower of Babel couldn´t have been worse“, in: Languages and the First World War (Volume 1: Languages and the First World War: Communicating in a Transnational War), ed. by Christophe Declercq & Julian Walker, Palgrave: Basingstoke 2016, 62-78

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