50 years ago: The Letter of the 1.700

Peter Corrieri

The letter of the 1.700s was a political stir in a time that was not particularly poor in terms of relevant emotions in the early 1970s. It was the first and only time that the officers of the Federal Army addressed the political leadership and the legislator directly and presented their expert opinion on an intended military law amendment without taking into account the route of service.

This was not a question of preventing, as is always falsely claimed, the reduction of the ordinary presence service to six months, which had long been accepted by all political parties. Instead, the officers raised their voices to point out the largely missing accompanying measures and prerequisites for the meaningful construction of the militia and the standby force.

The essay at hand is essentially an excerpt from the book "The Letter of the 1700 - Democratic Officer Resistance against Political Populism", which was published in 2013 as volume 21 of the “Writings on the History of the Austrian Federal Army”, published by the General Staff and the Army History Museum. Since almost exactly half a century has passed since this “letter”, it seems necessary to precede the development of the armed forces until the beginning of the 1970s. The author of this essay is himself a member of 1961 “Gschwandtner” and the 5th General Staff Course.

The SPÖ continued to pursue the objective of reducing the presence service to six months and leaving everything else essentially to the future. It was hoped that a consensual decision would be reached for the popular six months, because all parties had already swung to this line. For the unpopular accompanying measures, such as the extent of the weapons exercises or even compulsory cadre exercises, one thought to be over-voted by the majority of the opposition and then to blame them for the resulting additional burden on the voters. However, the opposition was by no means prepared to allow itself to be pushed into this role, so that intensive and protracted negotiations followed. Both the results of the Federal Army Reform Commission and the letter dominated the concerns of the opposition, because they reflected on the one hand the expert opinion of the “generals” and on the other hand that of the overwhelming majority of the younger officer corps.

The sometimes hectic discussions continued until immediately before the parliamentary referral to the Defence Law Amendment on 14th and 15 th July 1971. Until the very end, the opposition's requests for change were incorporated. The 1971 amendment to the Military Rights Act, which was adopted on 15th July 1971 with the votes of the SPÖ and the FPÖ, partly complied with the demands of the officers, but not so in some parts. It is undeniable that things were going up again, but from a very low level and only according to Austrian standards. The cadre was slowly recovering. Budgets increased and material equipment and armaments were improved to a modest extent. After all, even the possibility of mandatory cadre weapons exercises was enshrined in law and the availability of civilian vehicles was significantly improved under the Military Service Act 1968. These were political factual decisions beyond any cheap populism.