Paris Peace Conf. 863.48/3

Memorandum by the Secretary of Embassy at Paris (Gibson), for the Secretary of State

Conditions in the Countries of the Former Austro-Hungarian Empire

The observations in this memorandum are based on a trip through the countries of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire lasting from January 1st to February 1st, with a Mission despatched by the United States Food Administrator to investigate food conditions in German Austria.

The Mission visited Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Trieste, Fiume, Agram, Belgrade, Kladno, Teplitz, Ostrau and Karwin. It talked with government officials, business men, railroad employees, miners, and workmen—in fact, with all classes.

german austria

There seems to be no one in the government at Vienna with any particular force and no well-qualified potential leaders are in evidence. The men with whom we talked seemed to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task before them and the disaster that has overtaken their country. They seem, however, to have succeeded in wiping out of their minds any misgivings as to Austrian responsibility or liability to suffer for what has been done and turn confidently to the Allies for help. Their whole attitude was very much like that of people who had suffered from some great natural calamity, such as a flood or famine. Their attitude and their arguments were much like those of a delegation seeking help for the famine sufferers of India, and there was a complete assumption that we were free from resentment and filled with a sympathetic desire to put them on their feet.

A large part of the functionaries of the old regime have been retained and seem to be responsible for much of the friction with neighboring countries. It has been their habit for years to harass the Czechs and other subject races, and they seem unable to overcome the impulse, even under changed conditions, to keep up their old policy of [Page 229] pinpricks. This, of course, results in reprisals from people who are no longer obliged to submit and makes for disagreement and friction. The complement of this state of mind is found in the other countries, as for instance in Bohemia, where some of the functionaries of the new government are men who served under the old imperial regime, suffered all sorts of indignities, and are now only too anxious to get even. When tangles arise and it is pointed out to them that they are no longer fighting the old imperial regime, they retort with a certain amount of justice that, although the Emperor is no longer there, the same nagging tactics are displayed and that, in fact, they are fighting the same people they have always fought. The people at the top in German Austria and the other countries seem to realize the stupidity of these tactics, but they do not always know what is going on underneath and are unable to keep things running smoothly.

The morale of the entire country is very low. The German Austrians do not share the feeling of the Germans that they are unbeaten. They are appalled at the completeness of their collapse and seem to have no hope for the future. They point out that Vienna was the capital of a vast and rich empire which was tributary to it, that the prosperity and brilliancy of the capital was artificially created, and not only Vienna, but German Austria carried along on the wealth and labor of the subject portions of the country. Now they are reduced to a territory no larger than that of Belgium with very little natural wealth or industry. The newly liberated countries will shun relations with Vienna and German Austria and they expect to see their city drop to a relatively unimportant place. Most of them say it will retain some importance as the capital of an independent German Austria, but if they should join Germany, it will fall to the place of Stuttgart or Baden. The low morale of the country is due, not only to the political situation, but also in large measure to unemployment and suffering from hunger and cold.

Owing to the great shortage of coal, the industries are generally shut down or working on a very small scale. There is practically no coal for domestic use and there are great restrictions for its use in public places. There are no express trains in the whole of the former Empire. On many of the smaller lines, no trains are running. On the principal lines, there is not more than one train a day in each direction. This takes from three to five times the usual time to make its journey and is quite inadequate to handle necessary traffic. The trains are usually packed to suffocation, the platforms and steps crowded, people hanging on to the sides of the cars and sitting huddled on the roofs. Needless to say there is no travel for pleasure but the volume of really necessary travel is abnormally large because of the numbers of demobilized soldiers returning to their homes, refugees returning [Page 230] from exile, and those who travel from foodless districts to more fortunate districts where they can find something to eat.

In Vienna the theatres are allowed to open only once a week. The restaurants must close at 9 p.m. and the shops at 4 p.m. There are in Vienna alone about 125,000 unemployed—some of them drawing unemployment allowances and some utterly destitute. Many thousands are daily fed in the soup kitchens which we investigated carefully. These are established in school-houses and other suitable buildings and feed from 3000 to 10,000 each. They give one meal a day consisting one day of a villainous soup containing some chopped turnips, carrots and beets with a little meal of some sort worked in. Another day they get a small dish of chopped turnips, carrots and beets. Both of these dishes at a cost of 30 heller. Once a week there is a meal of meat, consisting of chopped turnips, carrots and beets with the addition of a small slice of horse or mule. This costs one crown and a half. This ration is, of course, utterly inadequate to maintain any sort of life and the suffering of these people is only too evident even to the untrained eye.

There is a rather extensive illicit trade (Schleichhandel) in meat, butter, sugar, flour, and other commodities, which have been kept hidden or which are smuggled into the country in small quantities. The prices on these things are so exorbitant that only the very rich can afford them and the poor get none of its benefits.

Not only in German Austria, but in all the other countries we visited, there is an astonishing amount of ignorance in regard to conditions in neighboring countries. Communications are utterly demoralized, railroad travel is of course reduced to the limits of absolute necessity, and the newspapers seem to delight in the spread of trouble-making reports.

In discussing the coal situation in Vienna, we soon discovered that there was a crisis that must be met. The coal experts told us that there were vast surplus stores of coal in Bohemia, but that the Czechs were holding it back in the desire to ruin German Austria. One official told us apparently in good faith that the surplus coal in Bohemia was piled up in such quantities that it was in danger of internal combustion. After a careful first-hand investigation in Bohemia it was found that, not only was there no surplus supply, but that the Bohemian railroads and trams were running a greatly reduced service on less than two days’ reserve, that there was practically no coal for domestic use, that there were severe restrictions in regard to the use of electric light, and that the industries which were not shut down were working at only a small percentage of their capacity. The misinformation of the Czechs in regard to the coal situation was equally noticeable. One official told us that, while they wanted to [Page 231] make enough shipments to maintain order in German Austria, it was an aggravating thing to have to deprive themselves when the Viennese were wasting coal in the most criminal manner, running factories for articles of luxury, keeping their restaurants and cabarets going all night, and having no restrictions on the domestic use of coal. When we succeeded in convincing him of the true situation, he was frankly surprised. The foregoing is merely an instance of the sort of ignorance on conditions which adds to the misunderstanding and friction among the countries of the former Empire.

The one matter of interest in German Austria is, of course, the question as to whether they shall join Germany or shall set up an independent republic with some standing in the proposed Danubian Federation. So far as we could observe, the desire to join Germany exists chiefly among the Socialists who feel that the step would strengthen their party. Many, even among the Socialists, feel that the disadvantages of this union to the country outweigh the advantages to the Socialist Party and express themselves as opposed to any union with Germany. All people of other classes to whom I talked expressed themselves as strongly opposed to any union with Germany. The old feeling of dislike for that country has been greatly intensified during the war and it is generally believed in Vienna that, if the elections are at all fair, they will result in a decision to keep out of the German union. There may be people outside the Socialist Party who are in favor of the union but I was unable to discover any of them although I made careful inquiry.

It is generally said that the existing government knows that the movement to join Germany is unpopular and would not carry if fair elections were held; that for this reason the elections have been deferred from time to time, and all sorts of doubtful methods have been used to increase the vote for the union. For instance, there are in Vienna about 40,000 officers of the old Austrian army which has been demobilized. Although there is no work for them to do, they are receiving full salaries because the government does not wish to provoke them to open opposition. Some further evidence of the government’s attitude comes from members of the various liquidation committees who are settling the affairs between the countries of the former Empire. The Czecho-Slovak Minister at Vienna told me that the German-Austrian government was disposed to accept any and all demands, however unreasonable, made upon it by functionaries or the laboring classes so as to gain their support for the elections and that, when it was manifestly necessary to refuse any of their demands, the German Austrians begged the Czechs and Hungarians to assume responsibility for the refusal. One instance that he gave was that the functionaries of the Imperial War Office had asked a definite [Page 232] undertaking that the work of liquidating the Ministry should be prolonged for the period of one year so that their salaries might be paid for that period. The other countries objected to this but the German Austrian government was afraid to take any action and said that, if the request was to be refused, it must be done on the sole responsibility of the Czechs and Hungarians.

Unemployment allowances are being paid and there are many stories of political jobbery to increase the strength of the Socialists for the coming elections.

There seems to be much apprehension of disorders after the election on January 16th, no matter what the result. Even allowing for the morbid pessimism of nearly everybody in Austria at the present time, there seems to be some justification for the fear that there may be trouble. The present government is certainly in no position to cope with any organized outbreak. The police force is being well cared for by the Socialists but they apparently do not put much trust in it. The Volkswehr (often spoken of as the Red Guard) is not to be depended on by the government for support.


The Mission made two visits to Budapest at about two weeks’ interval and had a number of interviews with Karolyi. I also had an opportunity of talking to Count Apponyi, Count Festetiks, Baron Ambrózy, and a number of others of different shades of opinion.

The food situation in Hungary is not so bad as in German Austria although it is rapidly becoming worse and will doubtless be productive of trouble. Under normal conditions Hungary could not only take care of herself but would have a large surplus available for export. The great bulk of her food supply comes, however, from the southern provinces which have been occupied under the armistice, leaving the unoccupied part in a bad situation as regards food.

The coal situation is much more critical and has an important bearing on the political situation as the stopping of the wheels of industry has turned loose in the country, in addition to the demobilized armies, a large mass of unemployed.

President Karolyi talks very frankly of his problems. He says that when the breakup came, the French Commander-in-Chief appealed to Hungarians to rally around Karolyi as the man best qualified to secure favorable terms for them. He was accordingly chosen and went to Belgrade where he concluded the Armistice in the belief that he would secure consideration for his people. He says that since that time he has addressed a large number of communications to the French Commander-in-Chief but he has not received a single reply. He says his position would be better if he had occasionally received [Page 233] even a refusal but he has been totally ignored. He complains bitterly that while Hungary has loyally observed the conditions of the Armistice, the Serbs and Roumanians have frequently violated them and occupied large portions of Hungarian territory not included in the limits set by the Armistice. Further, that the Czechs have occupied the whole Slovak country peopled by more than three million souls and that his protest was met with the bare statement that this territory was not mentioned in the Armistice and that the action of the Czechs had been taken with the approval of the Entente. President Karolyi and others with whom I talked are particularly bitter against the actions of the Roumanians whom they consider an inferior race and who have acted in a very arbitrary and brutal way according to their reports. They are careful to say however, that the behavior of the Serbian troops has been invariably good, and I found no one who was not willing to give them credit for having behaved well, particularly after what they themselves have suffered. Colonel Vix, Chief of the French Armistice Commission at Budapest expressed himself as very unhappy over the entire situation. He had been sent to Budapest to see that the Hungarians carried out their undertakings. The Hungarians had come to him frequently, protesting against the unwarranted actions of the Allies; actions which he had been unable to explain or excuse. He had been put in the position of having merely to refuse to receive the protests. He had on his own responsibility protested to the French Commander-in-Chief against some of the actions of the Allied forces, and considered his own position so undignified that he had asked to be relieved.

The first time we were in Budapest there was a strong Bolshevik movement in progress. On the day of our departure we were with President Karolyi when a member of the Cabinet came in to say that a meeting of many thousand people was in progress and that it had been decided to take Karolyi out and hang him. There were machine guns in the streets and great excitement. Every one was advised to stay in after dark unless obliged to go out. Karolyi had taken no steps against the Bolshevik agitators and had not even arrested them on the rather quaint theory that while they were agitating he knew what they were doing, but that if he put them out of the country, he would not know. One blunt-minded member of our party suggested that, if he put them in jail, he would know what they were doing and he seems to have acted on that or some other similar suggestion. Two weeks later the entire aspect of the place had changed. We were surprised to be told by every one that there was no longer any fear of the Bolsheviks. Karolyi himself, while he had more serious troubles than ever, said that Bolshevism was a thing of the past; that he had rounded up all that were to be found, was allowing no one to bring in [Page 234] large sums of money from abroad, that he had imprisoned one party of twenty-seven Bolsheviks coming from Vienna and had presented the entire collection to Colonel Vix who had, as he said, “put them in a safe place”. The drastic measures taken by the Hungarian authorities seem to have discouraged the other adherents of the movement and the Bolshevik danger seems to be non-existent for the present. On the other hand, there is a very dangerous state of feeling because of the encroachments of the Allied Armies, particularly of the Roumanians, who seem to have inflamed public feeling to a very dangerous degree. Of course, it is impossible to estimate the accuracy of the stories we were told, but whether they are accurate or not, they have had a highly exciting influence on Hungarian public opinion, and while Karolyi has exerted his whole strength for the maintenance of order, he fears that there will be a national uprising against the Roumanians. He is, of course, intelligent enough to know that this would only result in the complete occupation of his country by the Allied forces and much more severe conditions at the Peace Conference, but he says that however true this may be there is no use to reason with the people when they are inflamed with feeling against the Roumanians and rise up in desperation to strike out against them.

Karolyi has of course, carried on an active and open propaganda for several years for a peace on the terms proposed by President Wilson, and has persevered in this course at great personal risk to himself. The Hungarian nobility naturally look upon him as a renegade and traitor, and some sections of the lower classes are inclined to mistrust him. He seems, however, to be a man of the greatest sincerity, though quixotic and without much balance. He has, however, succeeded to a remarkable degree in holding the people together with one line of propaganda, to the effect that there is just one hope for Hungary and that is that she would get justice from a peace on the lines laid down by President Wilson. Papers which he influences are filled from day to day with articles preaching calm and patience, and saying that when the time comes for the President to make his influence felt, they may be sure the Hungarians will get justice. The walls of Budapest are covered with great posters put up by Karolyi bearing the President’s portrait and the inscription “A Wilson Peace is the only Peace for Hungary”. In one of his recent speeches he said “The future hope of Hungary can be stated in just three words—Wilson, Wilson, and again, Wilson”. In another speech to a large crowd he said—”Our only hope lies in God and Wilson”. His insistent propaganda has had a remarkable influence, not only on the lower classes but on the old reactionaries who have come to see that if there is any hope at all for Hungary, it will be in the way that Karolyi points out. They are not any of them so foolish as to believe that they can escape [Page 235] scot-free, but they look to President Wilson and to him alone for justice at the peace table.

The last time we were in Budapest about January 20th President Karolyi said that his position was desperate, and that he feared he would not be able to keep on holding things together from day to day. We asked him what in his opinion was the proper solution for his troubles. He answered without hesitation that he would be immeasurably strengthened in his endeavor to maintain public order if President Wilson would make or cause to be issued a statement to the effect that the occupation of Hungarian soil by foreign armies was not to be considered definitive, that such occupation was not considered as vesting title in the occupant and that title would be determined by the Peace Conference. We had already left Budapest when we heard that a statement along these lines had been issued.1 We were further told by Hungarians in Vienna and other places that this statement had greatly strengthened Karolyi’s hold on the situation and had calmed public opinion to an almost incredible extent.


The Mission made a journey of inspection to Jugo-Slavia in an endeavor to ascertain whether there were any considerable stocks of foodstuffs available for export.

We first visited at Trieste and Fiume, then went to Agram where we had very satisfactory talks with the authorities. The Jugo-Slav National Council had already moved to Belgrade but had left an intelligent group of men for the administration of Croatia and Slavonia. From there we went to Belgrade which seemed to be the best place to learn of conditions in the Banat and other southern districts of Hungary. From what we saw first hand and from what we were able to learn, it is evident that there are very large stocks of cattle, swine, and corn in Croatia, Slavonia, and the occupied districts of Hungary. Owing to the present shortage of coal which is very desperate, these stocks cannot be moved. People are actually dying of starvation in Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Dalmatia, and will continue to do so until these stocks are put in movement. In old Serbia the destruction wrought by the enemy was so complete and ruthless that it has been impossible to even make a start at re-construction, and there will undoubtedly be a great deal of suffering before the railroads and bridges can be re-built and normal life begun afresh.

Our journey through this country was very rapid and devoted almost entirely to investigation of food and coal matters so that I did not gather any noteworthy impressions in regard to political matters.

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czecho-slovak republic

The Mission made two visits to Prague and visited other parts of the country including the Ostrau, Karwin, Kladno and Teplitz coal fields. We had several talks with President Masaryk, the Prime Minister, Dr. Kramarcz, Mr. Štanek, Minister of Public Works, various mine operators, workmen, and representatives of all classes.

Of all the people whom we saw in the course of our journey, the Czechs seemed to have the most ability and common sense, the best organization, and the best leaders. They seem, however, to have been seized lately with a strong attack of imperialism, and a desire to dominate central Europe. This was evident in frank conversations with President Masaryk, the Prime Minister, Dr. Kramarcz, and many others. Among the officials of the new Republic are many who had served under the old imperial regime, and the wrongs of the past still leave a bitter sting. They are filled with a desire to strike back at German-Austria, but do not seem to realize that the imperial regime which they hate is no longer there. They have, it seems, learned too well, the methods of the old empire, and in some instances are adopting them in their own country; for instance, in dealing with the Germans of Bohemia, where there has been discrimination in the distribution of food to such an extent that the deaths from malnutrition are really frightful. The figures which we got from the Government at Prague are quite convincing enough but I paid a visit to Teplitz and saw at first hand enough to convince me if I had not heard anything else. Malnutrition in this district seems to take chiefly the form of dropsy and the only treatment for it being adequate nourishment, an extra ration is doled out to those who are certified by official doctors as suffering from dropsy caused by malnutrition. In the castle of an old friend of mine, Prince Clary, I found over eighty of these people gathered to receive their weekly ration of one pound of flour which was all that could be scraped together for them. They were most of them, monstrosities with swollen feet and legs, and very few of them have any hope of recovery.

The Czecho-Slovak troops have maintained order in the German districts of Bohemia, but there have been many petty persecutions, and the general attitude toward the Germans of Bohemia cannot be considered a sensible propaganda if they wish to reconcile the people to becoming subjects of the new state. A number of the manufacturers and exporters are quite ready to be included in the Czechoslovak state as they feel their goods will be better received as coming from Bohemia than if they have a German taint. There are other classes however, which feel that they belong to German Austria in race and speech and are very much alarmed at the antagonistic attitude [Page 237] adopted toward them by the government at Prague. Some of them told me that they would not have any particular feeling as to whether they belonged to Bohemia or German Austria if they felt that they were sure of equally good terms, but that if the Czechs are going to be antagonistic, they propose to agitate for union with German Austria.

As previously mentioned, we visited the coal fields at Teplitz, Kladno, Karwin and Ostrau, and talked with the operators and miners. I was particularly interested in the question of Bolshevism but got at the question by indirection. We usually asked the miners what they thought was necessary to increase the production from the mines. Their answers were practically always the same; food to build up the strength of the miners so that they could do the heavy work; certain essential supplies and equipment, and finally troops to maintain order. They stated that they had no use for Bolshevism; they had seen its effect in other places; that it was wanted only by a negligible number of men who inveigled a certain number of the foolish and intimated some of the timid to follow them; that a small force of troops, particularly if they were Americans, British or French would maintain complete order, materially increasing the output. There is something radically different in the Czech mentality from the mentality of the other Slavs, and they do not seem to lend themselves in any degree to the preachings of the Bolshevik agitators.

As a result of visits to the coal fields, the Mission formulated certain views as to how the output of coal could be increased and local consumption reduced so as to increase the export supply to German Austria and Hungary. At the conclusion of our investigation at Karwin, we were planning to return to Paris to report, but at the last minute decided to go first to Prague and ascertain the views of the Czech government.

We had a long talk with Minister Štanek and Dr. Oberthor, an official of the old imperial regime in charge of coal distribution. We elaborated our ideas at some length and Minister Štanek, although very conciliatory and friendly, gave us no hope that anything could be done for German Austria and Hungary even if the output were increased. He said that he quite realized that an increase in coal supply to those countries was essential if public order was to be preserved, but that he could not see how Bohemia could increase Ker contributions. She was already suffering from coal shortage, large numbers of people going without work and the government had been compelled, in order to avert suffering, to resort to the demoralizing practice of paying unemployment allowances. He said that this had assumed considerable proportions, and that in the Skoda Munition Works alone these allowances amounted to six million crowns a month. [Page 238] He said that the Czech government was very much concerned over this matter as under such a system people soon became disinclined to work; that the industry of the Czechs was their greatest asset; and that if they were to become lazy and shiftless, they would lose one of their strongest hopes for the future. He said further that, although he and his colleagues in the Ministry recognized the need of keeping the neighboring countries supplied with coal, the people did not understand or approve it, and that a vigorous campaign was being waged against the government for shipping coal to the former Austro-Hungarian oppressors while the Czechs were suffering. Certain shipments have been held up at Budweis and other points and threats made to the government that future shipments would be seized and distributed by the local authorities. Nothing of the sort has happened thus far but the Minister felt that his position was very shaky and he was quite receptive of sympathy.

The Minister added that the situation in the Slovak countries was very bad and that he had been obliged to go there himself to investigate and take emergency measures. This country was cut off by the Czech occupation from its ordinary Hungarian supply of coal. The sugar refineries were shut down although this was the usual time for operation, the beets were rotting in the ground, and all work had come to a standstill. Angry farmers and mill operators had been rioting and the Slovaks were going to the government and saying, as he put it: “We thank you for nothing. You say you have rescued us from the political oppression of the Hungarians which was in fact pretty bad but now we are under martial law, we have no work, little food, we suffer from cold and our future is black. Now that we have a taste of both, we do not know but that we prefer the evils we endured before to what we have now. We thank you for nothing”.

After a long conversation we finally got down to the real reason for the Minister’s discouraging attitude. After he had exhausted all other arguments, he finally said he would tell us something in strict confidence which he had no right to say—that the situation of the country was so bad that desperate measures had to be taken; that a secret meeting of the Cabinet had been held on the previous day (January 27th) and that it had been unanimously decided—not only that coal shipments should not be increased—but that an absolute embargo should be placed upon all future shipments and that the entire output should be devoted to the needs of the Czecho-Slovak country.

We were shocked by the possibilities of such a step and pointed them out in no uncertain terms. He was able to see, when it was pointed out to him, that, when the people of Vienna and Budapest woke up on the morning of January 29th and learned that they had received their last shipment of coal, that railroad and tram service [Page 239] would stop within 24 hours, that lighting and heating would cease, that there could be no importations of food from the outside world, and that all industry must come to a standstill, there would be an immediate explosion and that the ensuing anarchy would not be long in making itself felt in Bohemia.

We left the Minister in a bad state of depression, but after a call upon President Masaryk, we found at our hotel a messenger from Minister Štanek to say that, after our visit he consulted his colleagues, and that another meeting of the Cabinet had been summoned for that evening to revoke the embargo decision.

While this action has insured the continuance of the present situation, the supply of coal for German Austria and Hungary must be materially increased unless those countries are to drift into anarchy. The Karwin district, recently seized by the Czechs from the Poles, has been producing 8,000 tons per day and it is believed that, with careful management, the maintenance of order and a moderate supply of new cables and explosives, this can be materially increased. Under an equitable plan of distribution, some of this coal at least will probably be sent south but relative small amounts are involved. It is highly desirable that further supplies be made available. There are two ways in which this can be done.

Occupation of the Prussian Silesian fields or some pressure brought to bear on Germany to work the fields which are now producing very little and to ship as much as possible of the coal to German Austria and Hungary. From these fields in normal times 20,000 tons per day are shipped thither. Anything approaching that amount would save the situation.
A part at least of the needs can be met from the large coal deposits at Pola which were seized by the Italian authorities. They are said to contain from 140,000 to 200,000 tons. It might be worth considering whether an arrangement could be made for using this as an emergency fund to be replaced by shipments from England and from surplus coal in the United States.
Hugh Gibson