While military records are usually considered a secondary resource for genealogical researchers, knowledge of military service adds depth to a family history and goes beyond just having a list of names and dates. It provides insight into what an ancestor may have experienced during their lifetime and gives a perspective of the history at that period.
To find military records for the Austro-Hungarian Army, one first needs to determine where and how to look for them since they were kept at different locations during various periods of time. The records were also kept differently for the various states within the Empire. Consequently, it can be a little confusing if one does not understand a bit about the history of the Austrian Empire and the subsequent Austro-Hungarian Empire.
A Short History of the Empires
The first thing to recognize is that eventually there were at least eleven different ethnic groups in the Austrian Empire. Initially, it was just Austria and the Czech regions of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. The Kingdom of Hungary was not even part of the original Empire. But after the Ottomans invaded Hungary in 1526, the Austrian Hapsburgs used it as an opportunity to gain control of the Hungarian Monarchy. When Austria finally drove the Ottomans out of Hungary in the 1680s, they reached a peace agreement with the Turks that gave them control of most of the Hungarian lands and Transylvania. The Hungarian diet then gave the Austrian Emperor the hereditary rights to the Hungarian Crown.
The Austrian Emperor thus became the King of Hungary as well (Kaiser und Konig). Austria continued to gain control of additional lands from a series of wars in the 1700 and 1800s. When they partitioned Poland with Prussia and Russia, Austria took over the southern section of Poland which was known as Galicia. They also gained the northern section of Italy in wars with the French and, as the Ottomans were driven out of Balkans, Austria and Hungary took over Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is important to recognize that during this initial period, all these regions were now part of the Austrian Empire and all the ethnic groups were Austrian subjects.
As such, all men had a military obligation to the Emperor and could be conscripted to serve in the Austrian Army. Hungary, however, had a unique status. Although the Austrian Kaiser was also the King of Hungary, the Hungarians were allowed to maintain their own parliament and could manage their Kingdom with their own set of laws. Hungary was also allowed to rule over the Slovaks, Ruthenians, Croatians and people in the former area of Transylvania which were all part of greater Hungary at that time. Austria maintained direct control over the Czech regions, Galicia and northern Italy. But most importantly, Austria controlled the armies within the Empire.
Nevertheless, there was a lot of ethnic unrest and the army was used, not only for protection against external threats, but also to maintain control of the various ethnic groups within. Over the years, it was necessary for Austria to use the army to put down a number of internal revolts including one in Hungary in 1848. As a result of this revolt, Austria took direct control over Hungary. But when Austria lost the war with Prussia in 1866, Hungary once again used it as an opportunity to regain control of some of their own affairs.
A compromise was reached in 1867, know as the Ausgleich, by which Hungary was given equal status with Austria. The Austrian Emperor was still recognized as being the King of Hungary but the Hungarian diet regained powers over Hungarian lands and the people residing within their borders like the Slovaks and Ruthenians. The Empire now became known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It would last until the end of World War I, after which, the Empire was broken down into many separate countries. After 1867, a Hungarian homeland army emerged. In addition to the joint AustroHungarian Army, known as the Royal and Imperial Army (the k.u.k.), Hungary formed a new, separate army which they called the Honved known as the Royal Hungarian Army (k.u.).
Austria already had its own homeland army which they called the Landwehr or the Imperial Royal Army (the k.k.).3 Men could be conscripted to serve in either the joint army or their homeland army. My focus has been on pre-1867 records for my Slovak ancestors, but I will give reference to other ethnic regions and timeframes. I’ve concentrated on pre-1867 records because they were centrally maintained at the Kriegs Archives in Vienna and are now available on microfilm from the LDS Family History Center. These include records for both officers and enlisted personnel. After 1867, Hungary began keeping the records for their own soldiers, including those from the districts now in present-day Slovakia.
Although the records for the officers still exist, the records for the enlisted men are no longer available. Another reason I’ve avoided looking for post 1867 records is that after the Ausgleich, Hungary formed a home guard called the Honved. Therefore, many men from Hungary served in this homeland army instead of the joint army (the k.u.k). Unfortunately, the records for the Honved units also appear to have been lost. And finally, after the war with Prussia in 1866, the Austro-Hungarian Empire enjoyed an extended period of relative calm and was not involved in any major external conflicts for almost fifty years until WWI.
During this period, the Army was used primarily to maintain control of the various ethnic groups, especially those in the Balkans. But in the years prior to 1866, Austria was a major power in Europe and fought a number of wars against France (the Napoleonic Wars), Denmark, Prussia, Russia and even England and Sweden. Consequently, there is a lot of interesting military history in these earlier years. The events are all well documented in numerous books and various accounts.
They provide a rich source of information about the times. However, after 1866, Austria’s power waned as Prussia became the main force in the German Confederation. By treaty, Austria was eliminated from all participation after having controlled the federation for a century.