The Scandalous Love Affair That Started World War I
In the midst of a crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, General Franz Conrad von Hoetzendorf’s romantic obsessions may have fueled the flames of war.
After the first five months of World War I, the Austro-Hungarian forces, under the leadership, if that is the right word, of General Conrad von Hoetzendorf, suffered stupefying losses--189,000 dead, 490,000 wounded, and 278,000 missing and prisoners of war. Among those who fell was Hoetzendorf’s favorite son, Herbert, who was killed near Lviv in modern-day Ukraine in a botched battle planned by his father. A year later, in a letter to Virginia von Reininghaus, Conrad is still overcome by grief: “Erwin (his other son) and I can still not talk about Herbert because our words are suffocating in tears!” At the end of the letter, however, he reverts to his dearest subject—his longing for Virginia: “Could I just be with you! I am not well, our separation . . . farewell for today, be hotly and intimately kissed! Yours, Franz.” A few weeks later in 1915, in a conversation with a fellow officer, Conrad exclaimed in complete despair: “If this woman is not finally making a decision whether to become my wife, I am not sure what will become of me!”
The Chief of Staff of the Austro-Hungarian Army, the highest ranking soldier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, responsible for the lives of millions of soldiers and the survival of one of the oldest European powers at that time, appeared to have an unusual priority--winning the heart of a woman, a married Italian aristocrat named Virginia (“Gina”) von Reininghaus, while the old world around him was plunging into the abyss. In the midst of the slaughter in Central Europe, a love-crazed and heartbroken Conrad, branded the ‘architect of the apocalypse’ by one biographer, still managed to compose one letter a day, often two or three, to his inamorata; between 1907 and 1915 he would end up composing more than 3,000 letters to her—some more than sixty pages in length. This tumultuous relationship played the most important role in Conrad’s life and may have vicariously contributed to his prewar obsession with launching a preventive war against Italy and Serbia. Indeed, it may have contributed to the outbreak of the First World War, given Austria’s pivotal role in the conflict.
In his book, The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark states:
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this relationship; it was at the center of Conrad’s life throughout the years from 1907 to the outbreak of the war, eclipsing all other concerns, including the military and political questions that came to his desk.
It is an irony of history that the most important soldier in an already oscillating and directionless empire, owing to its exposed geographical location and multiethnic makeup, was himself in the critical years leading up to 1914 vacillating between fatalism and despair because he was besotted with Reininghaus.
The two first met in 1900 in Trieste, where Hoetzendorf was commanding an army brigade, but it was an encounter during a dinner in Vienna seven years later in 1907, where they both were seated next to each other, that lead to the beginning of his infatuation with her. Conrad’s first wife, Wilhelmine, had died of cancer in April 1905 in Innsbruck, and he only reluctantly forced himself to attend the soiree. However, after dinner he told his aide-de-camp: “I have to leave Vienna immediately . . . From now on this woman will be my destiny.” At that time, Virginia was married to a wealthy Austrian businessman from Graz and the mother of six children.
Despite Virginia’s marriage, a few days after the dinner Conrad appeared at her residence declaring his love: “I am namelessly in love with you and want you to become my wife!” She rejected him. After the rebuff, in a letter he sent from Berlin, he threatened to resign his army post: “If I don’t know where I stand with you, I shall resign my position, and you will never see me again!” As with military matters, he proved to be just as uncompromising in his pursuit of her.
Hoetzendorf had enjoyed a brilliant military career. Born in Vienna on November 11, 1852, into a military family—his father, Vincent, was a retired Colonel, who in 1813, along with his Chevauleger-Regiment had escorted Napoleon for parts of the way on his exile to Elba—he quickly ascended the promotion ladder as a general staff officer, and participated in the military occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878-79, his only real combat experience. From 1888-92, he taught at the prestigious Kriegsschule (War School), the highest academic institution within the military. The instruction manual for infantry combat, which he wrote at the Kriegsschule, was in use up until the First World War. Later on he commanded the elite Infantry Regiment Nr.1 Kaiser, an infantry brigade in Trieste, and created Austria’s Alpine Corps, the Kaiserschuetzen, in Tyrolia, while serving as a division commander in the Alps. In 1906, mostly due to the intervention of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, who saw him as a useful pawn in his quest for influence, Conrad became the chief of staff of the entire imperial and royal army, a position that moved him to the epicenter of power in the Dual Monarchy.
During his tenure as chief of staff he instigated various reforms, and pushed for an increase in military spending. Between 1906 and 1913 military expenditure in the empire rose from 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent, but this increase was negligible in comparison to 5.1 percent in Russia, 5.1 percent in Italy, and 4.9 percent in Germany, and many reforms were stalled due to lack of funding and the domestic political standoff between the multifarious and feuding nationalities of the empire. Conrad was also open to new technologies. For example, he championed the creation of an air force with 250 planes, before other European militaries saw the value in air power. However, his quest for more modern equipment and better training was overshadowed by his lack of self-reflection and the absence of a reassessment of his own strategy and tactics, which were principally based on frontal infantry assaults and strategic offensives. In the age of the machine gun, this presaged disastrous results for the army during the war. He also expanded the influence of the general staff and actively sought to influence foreign policy. His authority reached a point where Conrad was allowed to represent the emperor himself on matters of military diplomacy vis-à-vis civilian ministers.
Like many officers in the armies of Europe, he followed a radical interpretation of Social Darwinism, which, permeated by a culture of pessimism, made war almost a certainty. Hostilities were supposed to stem the decay of society with its modern obsessions of individualism, hedonism and economic pursuit. The officers in the Austro-Hungarian Army were especially prone to such reactionary modes of thought. Conrad was not only no exception to this sort of thinking, he actively promoted it in the officer corps. During his tenure at the Kriegsschule he defined the warlike exploit as a “constitutional act in the life of nations.”
Conrad’s belief in deterministic belligerency, as well as the geostrategic position of the monarchy, transformed him into a proponent of preventive war against Italy and Serbia in order to avoid warfare on multiple fronts. He believed that a confrontation with Russia was inevitable and constituted the biggest danger to the survival of the Dual Monarchy. Consequently, he advocated punishing or annexing both Italy and Serbia, Russia’s potential allies, so as to be able to focus on the Czarist Empire in the future. The aggressiveness of Conrad’s demands for preventive war led to open clashes with the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Aehrenthal and eventually to Conrad’s dismissal as Chief of Staff in 1911. However, after the death of Aehrenthal in 1912, he was quickly reinstated and lost no time in telling the new Foreign Minister Berchtold: “I keep on coming back to the argument that we have to risk a great war or war with Serbia.”
Oddly enough, Reininghaus was also playing a role in his deliberations on preventive war: Conrad thought he could only win her love and marry her should he return victoriously from a glorious campaign. In the recently published biography, Des Kaisers Falke (The Emperor’s Hawk), the authors of the book state: “[Conrad] went to war hoping that he could marry her upon a victorious return; in the case of defeat, he feared he would lose her forever.” Thus, evoking the mythological coupling of Ares and Aphrodite, the general was caught in his own erotic net:
Times are serious and the coming year will in all likelihood bring war. Should I perish in it you are relieved of me. Should I return laden with failure, then I shall disappear in the nothingness of solitude, if I can bear this strike at all. Should I, however, what I shyly dare to hope—return crowned by success—then, Gina, I shall break all bonds, in order to conquer “You” the greatest happiness of my life, you as my dear wife. But what if things turn out different and everything drags on in lazy peace, Gina, what then? In your hands, I lay my fate, solely in your hands …