03 December 2016

The Radetzky March, Johann Strauss I and the Austrian army

I know the Radetzky March and can hum along with the best of Strauss fans. See it performed by the Vienna Philharmonic in 2011.

The composer Johann Strauss I had left Vienna in 1833 on the first of his many European tours in 1838. In spite of all the revolutionary sentiments then, the German-speaking Austrians were not prepared to yield national sovereignty to the other peoples of the Hapsburg Empire. In fact there was great rejoicing in Vienna when news of Field Marshall Radetzky’s victory in Italy arrived. In August 1848 there took was a “…victory celebration in honour of our brave army in Italy and in support of our wounded soldiers”; it was then that Strauss’s Radetzky March was heard for the first time.

Despite 1848 being the year of revolutions across Europe, or because of it, The Radetzky March became popular. During his final tour in 1849 across Central Europe and Britain, Strauss sensed that many people regarded the Radetzky March as an affirmation of political power [although some sympathised with the Italians and Hungarians’ quest for freedom]. The tradition among officers was to start clapping and stomping their feet whenever the chorus was played. And this tradition carried on.
Emperor Franz Josef and Archduke Franz Ferdinand parading 
while the brass band played The Radetzky March.

The main thing I did not know was: who the individual called Johann Josef Wenzel Anton Franz Karl Graf/Count Radetzky von Radetz (1766–1858)? Thanks to Graham Darby and the Mad Monarchist Blog for the history.

Radetzky was born in Trebnice Bohemia (Czech Republic now) to a noble family. His parents died when he was young and he was raised by his grandfather until he became a student in Vienna’s Theresa Academy. In 1786 he became an officer-cadet in the Imperial Army, received his commission as an officer and was posted to a heavy cavalry regiment. His first battle was in the Turkish War and then he served in the Austrian Netherlands in the 1790s.

He first really distinguished himself in the wars against Revol­ut­ion­ary and Napoleonic France. He led a successful infiltration of the enemy lines in 1794, fought along the Rhine in 1795 and in 1796 led a troop of hussars into northern Italy.

Radetzky served in the siege of Mantua against Napoleon, was promoted within the military ranks while still in Italy and received the pres­tigious Military Order of Maria Theresa. As a hands-on staff colonel, he was constantly advocating improve­ments in the Austrian Army.

In 1798 he somehow managed to find time to go home and marry Countess Francisca von Strassoldo Grafenberg with whom he had eight children.

In 1805 he was promoted to major general and assigned in Italy under the command of Archduke Charles of Austria, but this time it did not lead to success. Soon Radetzky was back in the field leading a brig­ade in battle in 1809 and became a field marshal. Then he became colonel-in-chief of the Fifth Radetzky Hussars. However in what was a major problem for the Aust­rian armed forces, the government refused to allocate the funds nec­essary to implement Radetzky’s recommended changes. Eventually the colonel re­signed in disgust and returned to the field. In 1813 he served as chief of staff to Field Marshal the Prince of Schwarzenberg.

Portrait of Fieldmarshal Radetzky, in 1850
painted by Georg Decker
Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna

Graf Radetzky helped plan the operation that led to the allied victory at Leipzig. He marched in triumph through Paris in 1814 when Napoleon was defeated and played a part in the Congress of Vienna, helping Austria-Russia ties. Unfortunately the ensuing peace only brought about a greater disinterest on the part of the Austrian government for Radetzky's plans for a more efficient organisation, improved tactics and overall a stronger commitment to national defence.

To get him out the way, Radetzky’s seniors promoted him to General of the Cavalry and placed him in command of a fortress. But when the fear of revolution rose again, Graf Radetzky was called on to save the monarchy. When rebellion broke out in the Papal States, his part of the Austrian army suppressed it and in 1834 he was placed in command of the Austrian Imperial troops in Italy.

At 70, he was promoted to Field Marshal. He ensured that his troops were the best trained and most disciplined force in Austria. But it was a dang­erous mistake not to do the same across the Empire, as was proven when the Revolutions of 1848 erupted. Radetzky struggled against large-scale rebellions in the Austrian-ruled territories of Italy and in the war being waged by the king of Piedmont-Sardinia.

Yet he succeeded in holding off the Italian forces until reinforcements arrived, ending in his great victory at the Battle of Novara in March 1849. Radetzky crushed the Italian nation­alists and reconquered Venice, bringing it firmly back under Austrian control. This was the pinnacle of his military career; he was awarded the a] Order of the Golden Fleece for his victories against the Hapsburg monarchy’s enemies and b] Viceroyship of the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia.

The Austrians troops certainly adored Radetzky because he always tried to get them better weapons and equipment, and his victories meant that fewer Austrian lads lost their lives. In fact his men referred to him as Father Radetzky. I imagine being idol­ised by his troops was an uncommon event amongst Austrian generals. He was a rock solid defender of his Emperor and of his men, until his death at the grand old age of 91 in 1858.

Radetzky was one of the most significant Austrian military figures of the late 18th (against the Turks in the 1780s) and first half of the C19th (against Napol­eon in 1813 and in the 1848 risings in Italy). His successful career spanned 70+ years! By the 1850s the old soldier was becoming frail, but that does not explain why we largely know his name only via the Strauss March. Perhaps it was because the soldiers clearly liked Strauss’s music, but the liberal critics believed it encouraged unthinking Habsburg nationalism. 

Radetzky March score, 1848

Wait a moment! Now everyone knows his name! Radetzkyplatz is a well known square in the Weißgerber­viertel in the 3rd district of Vienna, near the Danube Canal. It was named after our man in 1876.

Radetzky Mem­orial was built in Central Prague in the 1890s.

Hotel Radetzky is a traditional Austrian hotel facing the water in Sankt Gilgen, Salzburg.

There is an important chapter in the book Military Culture and Popular Pat­riot­ism in Late Imperial Austria by Laurence Cole called “Embodying Patriotism: Field Marshall Radetzky as Military Hero”.

And there are Café Radetzskys in Prague, Vienna, Turin and everywhere else.


Deb said...

Military music is normally too military, but Radetzky March is catchy.

Andrew said...

Even non Strauss fans know that music, like me. I always thought it was Hapsburg, but since the days of the net it seems to be Habsburg and I guessed for many years I had misread the word, but it seems not, as I note you use the former. Any thoughts?

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I hadn't known the history behind the Radetzky March, although since it was one that we played when I was in the college band, I should have checked. A few years ago I bought an amazing CD collection called Heritage of the March, which contains over three thousand marches. It of course includes the Radetzky March, expertly played by the Illinois State Alumni Band.

So many of the marches are named after military heroes or troops of soldiers. Just a few in the set are "Newport Light Infantry," "10th Regiment March," "General Pershing March," and so on. A favorite from band days and since is Sousa's "Black Horse Troop," which (I swear I didn't know at the time) was named after Cleveland's 1st Calvary Troop A.


Hels said...


German and Austrian marches intentionally sounded very military, I am assuming. Apart from lots of men in strict formation, polished uniforms and vigorous marching movement, there was always a strong oom-pah feeling from the brass instruments. No wonder armies loved those marches!

Hels said...


I don't like spelling errors in either my own writing or in other writers' work. If an Australian tv programme is summarised using the word defense instead of defence, I immediately write to that tv station.

But the Habsburg-Hapsburg decision is not really in that category. In German, it was always spelled Habsburg; the use of the p would have seemed woosy. But once the name appeared in other languages, I think the p could be used because it softened the sound.

Hels said...


Who knew that there was an organised collection of CDs called Heritage of the March, containing thousands of marches? I really hope your collection contains marches from all over the world, given that each army marched to a different beat. I think of German marches as the "real" style, but the French, Italians, Americans, Spanish etc would disagree strongly.

Like you, I played in a school band but it was in primary school. Every Monday morning after an outdoor assembly, raising the flag and honouring God & the Queen, the fifes and drums would march the children back into their classrooms. It was certainly marching music, but not really military.

Joseph said...

Radetzky invented the strategy that in a matter of months defeated Napoleon. Russia and Prussia had failed to defeat Napoleon, but Minister Klemens von Metternich and Radetzky were victorious. So Sked claims that Count Radetzky played the crucial role in Napoleon's defeat - it was the count's battles that led to Napoleon's abdication and first exile in 1814.

See Alan Sked, "Radetzky: Imperial Victor and Military Genius", 2011.