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11-08-2015, 17:41

Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf (1852-1925)

Conrad was chief of the Austrian general staff from 1906 to the spring of 1917 and the most important military leader on the Austro-Hungarian side during World War I. He occupies a notable place in the history of the conflict for three principal reasons. First, he was the only supreme military leader to occupy such a position for almost a decade before the war, then to lead his country's armed forces for most of the wartime period. Second, Conrad stands as the epitome of the bellicose military leader, pressing for a preventive war before 1914 (and exercising a major influence in the summer crisis that led to the outbreak of hostilities). Third, Conrad's paradoxical position during the war, formally independent as the Austrian military commander but in fact a subordinate under Germany's leaders, illustrates how Austria-Hungary itself came under the sway of its powerful coalition partner. Some historians add a final note of distinction for Conrad. They praise him as the most skilled and imaginative strategist on either side. But his actual record during World War I lends little support for such praise. Conrad was the scion of a military family, his father having been a colonel in the Austrian army. He was bom on November 11,1 852, in the Austrian town of Penzing, outside Vienna. He became an army lieutenant in 1871, distinguished himself as a staff officer, then taught with notable success at the War Academy, reaching the rank of brigadier general in 1 899. A personal fie with Archduke Franz Ferdinand combined with his sterling reputation in the army to elevate him to chief of the general staff in 1906. As the leader of the Dual Empire's army, Conrad became a modemizer, albeit one hindered by the scant resources the governments of Austria and, especially, Hungary would give to the national force. He also made a name for himself as a military hothead. Since the Dual Empire faced three dangerous enemies in Russia, Serbia, and Italy, Conrad saw the salvation of the Habsburg state depending upon preventive wars. His call for waging such a war against Italy in 1911, when the Italians were bogged down in hostilities against Ottoman Turkey, led to dismissal from his post. He was restored to his position of supreme commander in late 1912. The First Balkan War had led to an expansion of the kingdom of Serbia; with Russia mobilizing to support the Serbs, Emperor Franz Joseph needed his most renowned general as chief of staff. Conrad remained obsessed by the mortal danger Serbia posed for the Dual Monarchy. Throughout the last year and a half of peace, he urged preventive war against this enemy along his country's southern border. Thus, the Austrian firebrand saw Franz Ferdinand's assassinadon as an opportunity to setfie things with Serbia. He helped stoke the fires of the July crisis of 1914 by urging immediate mobilization and an attack on the Dual Empire's dangerous Balkan neighbor. If Austria-Hungary failed to act quickly and decisively, Conrad expected its prestige in southeastern Europe, as well as its status as one of the continent's Great Powers, to collapse. Once war had begun, Conrad failed to coordinate the fighting on Austria's two battlefronts, shifting his twelve-division reserve first toward Serbia, then reversing course and ordering it to meet the Russians. In the end, most of these troops played no role in the first weeks' fighting. The weak Austro-Hungarian force facing Serbia under General Oscar Potiorek was defeated when it took the offensive southward. Meanwhile, the armies under Conrad's direct command faced the Russians and also tried an offensive. Their failure permitted a Russian attack to reach the Carpathian Mountains, thereby threatening an advance into the Hungarian plain in the spring of 1915. Conrad claimed credit for the Austro-German attack at Gorlice-Tamow in May 1915 that forestalled the danger to Hungary. Nonetheless, other generals such as Germany's Erich von Falkenhayn had an equally good claim to be the father of the concept. In the full flood of success, the offensive then drove the Russians from the entire western portion of their empire by September. In the months following, Austro-German forces, linked to an offensive by the Bulgarians, drove the Serbian army from its home territory and permitted the Central Powers to dominate the Balkans. In both cases, despite a paper arrangement that gave Conrad the role of overall commander, the Austrian general found himself under the effective command of German leaders. It was their forces that provided the offensive striking power that brought victory, and their generals, such as August von Mackensen and Hans von Seeckt, his brilliant chief of staff, who actually directed operations. Conrad's status and Austria-Hungary's role took a climacdc fall in the summer of 1916. The Austrian commander launched an attack on the Trentino front against the Italians. Fighting without German units to add hitting power to his forces, he found he could not break through the enemy's defenses even after a month's effort. Meanwhile, a Russian offensive under General Alexis Brusilov struck Austro-Hungarian positions on the eastern front. It succeeded for several weeks, aided by the fact that Conrad had pulled a large number of troops away for use in Italy. Once again, German forces had to play the role of firemen to save Austria's house. The humiliadon was compounded at summer's end. Rumania entered the war on August 27 and launched an assault across the border of the Dual Empire into Transylvania. This new enemy was brought under control, as usual, by the efforts of German field armies. The death of Emperor Franz Joseph in November 1916 led to the end of Conrad's long run as chief of staff. Emperor Charles removed him from his post on March 1,1917. Conrad managed to obtain command of an army group on the Italian front, but his major offensive there in the spring and summer of 1918 failed. Charles now dismissed him from high command for good in mid-July. The Austrian leader died in Germany on August 25, 1925.