Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf

Franz Xaver Josef Conrad von Hötzendorf (after 1919 Franz Conrad; 11 November 1852 – 25 August 1925), sometimes anglicised as Hoetzendorf, was an Austrian general who played a central role in World War I. He served as K.u.k. Feldmarschall (field marshal) and Chief of the General Staff of the military of the Austro-Hungarian Army and Navy from 1906 to 1917. He was in charge during the July Crisis of 1914 that caused World War I.[1]

Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf
1915 portrait, Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna
Born(1852-11-11)11 November 1852
Penzing, Vienna, Austrian Empire
Died25 August 1925(1925-08-25) (aged 72)
Mergentheim, Württemberg, Weimar Republic
Allegiance Austria-Hungary
Service/branch Austro-Hungarian Army
Years of service1871–1918
Battles/warsFirst World War
AwardsSee below

For years he had repeatedly called for preemptive war against Serbia to rescue the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was, he believed, nearing disintegration. Later on, he came to believe that the Dual Monarchy had taken action at the eleventh hour. The army was also unprepared and he had resorted to politics to further his goals. He was unaware that Germany would relocate the majority of its forces to the Eastern Front, rather than in the Balkans.[2]

Conrad was anxious about invading Russia and when the Tsar's armies had captured the Carpathian mountain passes and were on the verge of invading Hungary, Italy entered the war on the side of the Allies. The Austro-Germans cleared Galicia and Poland during the Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive in the summer of 1915 and later conquered Serbia in October with the help of Bulgaria. From 1915 his troops were increasingly reliant on German support and command. Without support from its German allies the Austro-Hungarian Army was an exhausted force.[3]

In March 1917, Charles I dismissed him as Chief of Staff after Emperor Franz Joseph died and Conrad's Trentino Offensive had failed to achieve its objective; he then commanded an army group on the Italian Front until he retired in the summer of 1918.[4] He died in 1925.



Conrad was born in Penzing, a suburb of Vienna, to an Austrian officers' family. His great-grandfather Franz Anton Conrad (1738–1827) had been ennobled and added to his name the nobiliary particle von Hötzendorf as a predicate in 1815, referring to the surname of his first wife who descended from the Bavarian Upper Palatinate region. His father Franz Xaver Conrad (1793–1878) was a retired colonel of Hussars, originally from southern Moravia, who had fought in the Battle of Leipzig and took part in the suppression of the Vienna Uprising of 1848, wherein he was severely wounded.

Conrad married Wilhelmine le Beau (1860–1905) in 1886, with whom he had four sons.

In the latter part of his life, he was known to hold doubts about his fitness for office and occasionally suffered severe bouts of depression. These worsened after the death of his wife in 1905. In 1907, while attending a dinner party in Vienna, Conrad met Virginia von Reininghaus, an Italian aristocrat, and became quickly enamoured. In the weeks following this, he made many attempts to court Reininghaus, despite the fact that she was already married and with six children, which eventually resulted in the two conducting an affair. This illegitimate pairing continued until their marriage in 1915.

Upon his death in 1925, a journal titled "Diary of my Sufferings" was found. The journal compiled over 3,000 letters written to Reininghaus, some over 60 pages in length, detailing the extent of Conrad's love for her. In order to prevent a scandal breaking out from a potential leak, Conrad kept the letters private and they were never sent to their intended recipient.[5]

Military career


Conrad joined the cadet corps of the Hainburg garrison and was educated at the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt. He developed a strong interest in natural science, especially in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. In 1871, at age 19, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in a Jäger battalion.[6] After graduating from the Kriegsschule military academy in 1876, he was transferred to the General Staff Corps of the Austro-Hungarian Army.[7]

In 1878–1879, upon the Treaty of Berlin, these duties brought him to the Condominium of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Sanjak of Novi Pazar, when those Ottoman provinces were assigned to the military administration of Austria-Hungary. He was a Captain (Hauptmann) and served as a staff officer during the 1882 insurrection in the Austrian Kingdom of Dalmatia. In 1886, he was appointed Chief of Staff of the 11th Infantry Division at Lemberg, where he showed great ability in reforming field exercise. In the fall of 1888, Conrad was promoted to major and appointed professor of military tactics in the Kriegsschule in Vienna,[6] a position he prepared for by touring the battlefields of the Franco-Prussian War. Conrad proved to be a good teacher who was quite popular among his students.[8]

Return to command and Chief of Staff

Chief of Staff, 1906

In 1892 he requested transfer back to command and took charge of the 93rd Infantry Regiment at Olomouc. From 1895 he commanded the 1st Infantry Regiment Kaiser at Kraków and from 1899 the 55th Infantry Brigade in Trieste, promoted to a Generalmajor.[7] After acting against a major Italian uprising in the city in 1902, he was made Feldmarschalleutnant and took command of the 8th Infantry Division at Innsbruck in 1903.[7]

By the time of his appointment as Chief of Staff for the Austro-Hungarian military forces at the suggestion of the heir to the throne (Thronfolger), Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in November 1906, Conrad had established a reputation as a teacher and writer. Like other Austro-Hungarian officers of his generation, he had little or no direct combat experience,[8] but had studied and written extensively about theory and tactics. His published works on infantry tactics sold well and were printed in multiple editions.[9] He was a tireless campaigner for modernization of the armed forces. He was made General der Infanterie in November 1908.

Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria conferred the noble rank of a Freiherr on Conrad in 1910. Conrad's differences with Foreign Minister Alois Lexa von Aehrenthal, who objected several times to Conrad's suggestion of a preventive war with Italy, ultimately led to Conrad's dismissal as Chief of Staff in 1911, partly under the pretext of objection to Conrad's affair with Virginia von Reininghaus, who later became his wife. After Aehrenthal resigned and died the next year, Archduke Franz Ferdinand urged Conrad's re-appointment, which took place during the Balkan Wars in December 1912.

Although Conrad's ideas had considerable impact in the decision making process of the government, especially in the lead-up to the First World War, historian John Leslie describes him as a "loner" who did not easily win friends or influence people and was politically inept.[10]

First World War




Conrad and his admirers took special pride in his elaborate war plans that were designed individually against various possible opponents, but did not take into account having to fight a two front war against Russia and Serbia simultaneously. His plans were kept secret from his own diplomatic and political leadership—he promised his secret operations would bring quick victory. Conrad assumed far more soldiers than were available, with much better training than they actually had. In practice, his soldiers were inferior to the enemy. His plans were based on railroad timetables from the 1870s, and ignored German warnings that Russia had much improved its own railroad capabilities.[11]

Conrad assumed the war would result in victory in six weeks. He assumed it would take Russia 30 days to mobilize its troops, and he assumed his own armies could be operational against Serbia in two weeks. When the war started, there were repeated delays, which were made worse when Conrad radically changed plans in the middle of mobilization. Russia did much better than expected, mobilizing two thirds of its army within 18 days, and operating 362 trains a day – compared to 153 trains a day by Austria-Hungary.[12]

During the July Crisis upon the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Conrad was the first proponent of war against the Kingdom of Serbia in response.[10] Germany is thought to have requested an immediate invasion of Serbia, but Conrad delayed for over a month. Many Army units were on leave to harvest crops and not scheduled to return until 25 July. To cancel those leaves would disrupt the harvest and the nation's food supply, scramble complex railroad schedules, alert Europe to Vienna's plans, and give the opposition time to mobilize. Meanwhile, Emperor Franz Joseph went on his long-scheduled three week summer vacation.[13]

Victories and defeats

Conrad at the map table, 1914

On 12 August 1914, Conrad sent an army of 400,000 men into Serbia where it suffered a humiliating defeat at the hand of the Serbs in the first months of the war.[14] On 22 August he launched an even larger campaign against Russia through Galicia, after early victories at Kraśnik and Komarów which were followed by defeat and the loss of Lemberg.[15] Conrad unexpectedly had to deal with a massive incursion of Imperial Russian troops into Austrian Galicia. His plans had underestimated Russian strength and speed, while ignoring the glaring weaknesses in his own army. His forces did win a great victory at Limanowa in December 1914 saving Kraków.[16]

After the Germans scored major victories especially at Tannenberg, and after the Western front was bogged down in stalemate, Germany had resources to help Austria. Although Conrad was officially in command, the German forces alongside him increasingly took control of the situation. Berlin sent in large armies and together they conquered large parts of Serbia, Montenegro and Romania and stabilised the Italian front.

He urged the new Foreign Minister Stephan Burián von Rajecz to annex the occupied lands, and he continuously intrigued against the Hungarian prime minister István Tisza as well as against the Austrian minister president Count Karl von Stürgkh, whom he considered a fool, though to no avail. In addition, relations with the German Supreme Army Command (OHL) worsened due to the uneasy relationship between Conrad and General Erich von Falkenhayn.

Eased out of power


Following the accession of Emperor Charles I of Austria to the throne in November 1916, Conrad was elevated to the rank of field marshal, one of only three men in Austria-Hungary to hold that rank at the time.[17] While still the heir-apparent, Charles had reported to Emperor Franz Josef that the "mismanagement" in the army's high command could not be cleared out until Conrad was replaced, but admitted that finding someone to take his role would not be easy.[17] Yet under the new emperor, Conrad's powers were gradually eroded. In December, the commander-in-chief Archduke Friedrich of Austria-Teschen was removed from office, which the new emperor assumed himself. Charles took operational control of all combat units in the army and navy and on 1 March 1917 officially dismissed Conrad, who then requested retirement. The emperor personally asked him to remain on active duty, and when Conrad accepted, he was placed in command of the South Tyrolean Army Group.[18]

In the late spring of 1918, the failure of the Austro-Hungarian offensives against the Italians, with costly and bloody assaults led by both Conrad and Boroević, brought condemnation upon the imperial leadership.[19] Further complicating Conrad's image was his identification with those in the government intent on continuing the war.[17] In this atmosphere, Conrad, described as a "broken man", was dismissed on 15 July, perhaps in an effort to deflect further criticism.[20] At the same time he was promoted from Freiherr to the noble rank of a Graf (count) and received the honorific post of a Guard colonel.



After the war, Conrad denied any personal guilt for the outbreak and the results of the war and blamed the Imperial court and politicians for it. Embittered and sickened, he died on 25 August 1925, while taking a cure in Mergentheim, Germany.

When he was buried at Hietzing Cemetery in Vienna on 2 September 1925, more than 100,000 mourners participated in observances. After long discussion, his grave of honor (German: Ehrengrab) was redesignated a historical grave in 2012.

Ennobled as Freiherr, usually translated as Baron, in 1910 and made a Graf, usually translated as count, in 1918, Conrad became simply Franz Conrad-Hötzendorf in April 1919, when the First Austrian Republic abolished nobility for its citizens.[Note 1]

Strategies and performance

Conrad late in life

Conrad's legacy as a commander remains controversial, with earlier historians regarding him as a military genius, while more recent works characterize him as an utter failure; at least one military historian considered him to be "probably the best strategist of the war."[21] In military matters, Conrad emphasized the importance of aggressive, well-trained infantry and the strategic and tactical offensive.[7] Historian Gunther E. Rothenberg argued that his unrealistically grandiose plans disregarded the realities of terrain and climate, and that the plans which he drew up frequently underestimated the power of the enemy and the potential of quick-firing artillery forces.[22] Conrad refused to take responsibility for the start of the war, or for Austria-Hungary's defeat, arguing that he had "been 'just a military expert' with no voice in the key decisions".[23]

To his admirers he was a military genius. Soviet general and theorist Boris Shaposhnikov presented Conrad as a model for a good Chief of the General Staff in his 1927 book Mozg Armii.[24] The historian Cyril Falls, in his 1959 book The Great War, argues that Conrad was probably the best strategist of the war and that his plans were brilliant in conception. He argues that German generals in the east based most of their successful offensive operations on Conrad's plans.[25] German general Paul von Hindenburg praised Conrad as a man of superior ability and a bold general, only hindered by the weaknesses of his army.[26]

Conrad's critics contend that his mistakes led to the disastrous first year of war that crippled Austro-Hungarian military capabilities. For example, in the 1914 Serbian Campaign, led by General Oskar Potiorek, the Serbian Army proved far more effective than Conrad had expected despite the Austro-Hungarian manpower advantage. Undefeated in all major battles, it enforced a full-scale retreat of Conrad's troops by the end of the year. The first Austro-Hungarian offensives against Russia were remarkable for their lack of effect, culminating in the lost Battle of Galicia and the disastrous Siege of Przemyśl combined with massive human cost.

Conrad was fully responsible for this disaster, for he had committed too many troops in Serbia, leaving severely outnumbered units to resist the Russian advance. Conrad blamed the German allies, who had driven out the Russian Army from East Prussia in the Battle of Tannenberg, for the lack of military support. The most disastrous defeat came in 1916, in the Russian Brusilov Offensive, one of the most lethal battles in world history, whereby the Austro-Hungarian forces under Conrad's command lost more than 600,000 men, and were never again capable of mounting an offensive without German help.

The disaster was mostly due to Austrian overconfidence as well as Conrad having sent reinforcements to Italy, ignoring the Russian threat. Most of Austria's victories on the eastern front were possible only in cooperation with the German High Command (OHL), on which the Austro-Hungarian army became increasingly dependent. After his defeats of the first year, Conrad was increasingly sidelined by the Germans on the eastern front.

Conrad was a Social Darwinist, and believed life consisted of "an unremitting struggle for existence" in which the offensive was the only effective form of defence.[10] The power of the Magyar elite within Austria-Hungary troubled him, as he believed it weakened and diluted what he saw as an essentially German-Austrian empire. He worried about Italian ambitions in the Balkans. His greatest ambition was for a pre-emptive war against Serbia in order to neutralize the threat that he believed they posed, and at the same time change the political balance within the Dual Monarchy against the Magyars by incorporating more Slavs in a third Yugoslavian component under Austrian control, denying the principle of self-determination. According to Hew Strachan, "Conrad von Hötzendorf first proposed preventive war against Serbia in 1906, and he did so again in 1908–09, in 1912–13, in October 1913, and May 1914: between 1 January 1913 and 1 January 1914 he proposed a Serbian war twenty-five times".[27]



For decades, the reputation of the Austro-Hungarian Army and Conrad as one of the greatest military commanders in modern history was a matter of national pride among patriotic circles in post-war Austria—though his policies and tactics had already been criticized by contemporaries like Karl Kraus, who in his satirical drama The Last Days of Mankind portrayed him as a vain poser (I 2). Not until the 1960s, in the course of the renewed controversy over the causes of World War I, did the evaluation of his role shift from hagiography towards a widespread perception as a warmonger and imperialist. The massive casualties his forces took through wave attacks rather than any tactical or strategic acumen has given him a reputation of being a callous and incompetent commander.[citation needed]

Conrad's guard uniform and some of his personal belongings are on display at the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna. In 1938 the Wehrmacht barracks of the 1st Mountain Division in Oberammergau, Bavaria were named Conrad-von-Hötzendorf-Kaserne; it is today operated by the Bundeswehr and site of the NATO School. The medical service centre of the Austrian Armed Forces in Innsbruck is named after Field Marshal Conrad. In the Austrian cities of Graz and Berndorf streets were named Conrad-von-Hötzendorf-Straße.

Decorations and awards




Informational notes

  1. ^ the proper family name is Conrad.
  • Regarding personal names: Until 1919, Graf was a title, translated as Count, not a first or middle name. The female form is Gräfin. In Germany, it has formed part of family names since 1919. From April 1919 Conrad's official name was Franz Conrad-Hötzendorf, since the Republic of Austria abolished nobility for its citizens by law.


  1. ^ Geoffrey Wawro, A mad catastrophe: the outbreak of World War I and the collapse of the Habsburg Empire (2014).
  2. ^ Geoffrey Wawro, A mad catastrophe: the outbreak of World War I and the collapse of the Habsburg Empire (2014).
  3. ^ Geoffrey Wawro, A mad catastrophe: the outbreak of World War I and the collapse of the Habsburg Empire (2014).
  4. ^ Richard Holmes, ed. The Oxford companion to military history (2001) p 224.
  5. ^ Clark 2013, pp. 101–103, 360.
  6. ^ a b Reynolds, Francis J., ed. (1921). "Hoetzendorf, Baron Franz Conrad von" . Collier's New Encyclopedia. New York: P. F. Collier & Son Company.
  7. ^ a b c d Rothenburg 1976, p. 143.
  8. ^ a b Sondhaus 2000, p. 37.
  9. ^ Rothenburg 1976, p. 43.
  10. ^ a b c Leslie, John (1993). Elisabeth Springer and Leopold Kammerhofer (ed.). "The Antecedents of Austria-Hungary's War Aims". Wiener Beiträge zur Geschichte der Neuzeit. 20: 307–394.
  11. ^ Herweg, 1997, pp 53-56.
  12. ^ Herweg, 1997, pp 53-56.
  13. ^ Richard F. Hamilton; Holger H. Herwig (2004). Decisions for War, 1914-1917. Cambridge University Press. p. 64. ISBN 9780521545303.
  14. ^ Jordan, D. (2012). The Balkans, Italy & Africa 1914–1918: From Sarajevo to the Piave and Lake Tanganyika. The History of World War I. Amber Books. p. 28. ISBN 978-1-906626-14-3.
  15. ^ Herweg, 1997, pp 52-53.
  16. ^ Herweg, 1997, pp 87-96, 112-13.
  17. ^ a b c Rothenburg 1976, p. 202.
  18. ^ Rothenburg 1976, pp. 202–203.
  19. ^ Rothenburg 1976, pp. 213–214.
  20. ^ Rothenburg 1976, p. 214.
  21. ^ Edmonds, Sir James E. (1951) A Short History of World War I London: Greenwood Press. ISBN 083710405X; cited by Terraine, John (1965) The First World War 1914-1918 London: Macmillan. p.15 ISBN 0-333-37913-6
  22. ^ Rothenburg 1976.
  23. ^ Sondhaus 2000, p. 244.
  24. ^ Sondhaus 2000, p. 240-241.
  25. ^ Falls, Cyril: The Great War, Putnam, New York 1959, p. 36.
  26. ^ World war I, the global revolution, Lawrence Sondhaus
  27. ^ Strachan, Hew. The First World War: Volume 1: To Arms. Oxford, 2001.
  28. ^ a b "K. und K. Heer", Hof- und Staatshandbuch der Österreichisch-Ungarischen Monarchie, 1914, p. 314, retrieved 23 July 2020
  29. ^ a b c "Ritter-orden", Hof- und Staatshandbuch des österreichischen Kaiserthumes, 1860, pp. 52, 58, 82, retrieved 23 July 2020
  30. ^ "Foreign Pour le Mérite Awards: Foreign Awards During World War I". Archived from the original on 31 October 2019. Retrieved 12 August 2020.

Further reading

  • Beaver, Jan G. Collision Course: Franz Conrad Von Hötzendorf, Serbia, and the Politics of Preventive War (2009).
  • Fellner, Fritz. "Some reflections on Conrad von Hötzendorf and his Memoirs based on Old and New Sources." Austrian History Yearbook 1 (1965): 74-89. His memoirs contain many documents
  • Fried, Marvin. Austro-Hungarian War Aims in the Balkans During World War I (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
  • Clark, Christopher (2013). "Chapter 2 Hawks and Doves". The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-114665-7.
  • Hadley, Tim. "Military Diplomacy in the Dual Alliance: German Military Attaché Reporting from Vienna, 1906—1914." War in History 17#3 (2010): 294-312.
  • Rothenburg, G. E. (1976). The Army of Francis Joseph (Eurospan 1998 ed.). West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press. ISBN 978-0-91119-841-6.
  • Sondhaus, L (2000). Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf. Architect of the apocalypse. Boston: Humanity Press. ISBN 978-0-391-04097-7.
  • Wawro, Geoffrey (2014). A Mad Catastrophe - The Outbreak of World War 1 and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-02835-1.
  • Zametica, John. Folly and Malice: The Habsburg Empire, the Balkans and the Start of World War One (2017)
Military offices
Preceded by Chief of the General Staff
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chief of the General Staff
Succeeded by
Preceded by
New Creation
Commander Army Group Conrad
Succeeded by