Habsburg, baby, Habsburg

Franz Joseph II.

Readers of this blog know that I’ve never denied my fascination with the Habsburg Empire and especially Vienna. Yesterday a friend of mine sent along a few links that feed this fascination, which is a combination of false nostalgia (the Vienna in which I feel most at home is the pre-WWI Vienna, somewhat before my time) and uneasy admiration (especially since I know how it ended). In the June 21, 2018, issue of the Economist, an essay noted that I’m not the only one fascinated with the era:

The reasons for this burst of enthusiasm are nuanced, even contradictory. This year’s centennial of the end of the first world war, and of the empire’s collapse, is part of the explanation. So is a sense that the anxieties of the late imperial period, years of disorienting change in politics and society, overlap with today’s. “It’s a dangerous time and we need to look very closely at signs from the past,” says Mr Simons. “We do live in worrying times,” agrees Mr Habsburg; “everything is shifting, you have a feeling you are walking in a fog.”

The centenary of the beginning of WWI four years ago led to a variety of reconsiderations of the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the Habsburgs, especially under Emperor Franz Joseph II, the most significant of which was Pieter Judson’s The Habsburg Empire; this revisionist history examined not the reasons for the empire’s collapse but for its surprising successes. A staggeringly polyglot culture (over 15 languages could be heard in its Parliament), the Empire was composed of a dozen or more ethnic groups, from Italians to Ukrainians and Bosnians; a cumbersome bureaucracy under the direction of the aging and increasingly out-of-touch emperor oversaw it all. But until 1914, it was a relatively peaceful empire, and it was only the emerging nationalisms not only of Hungary but also of Serbia and other groups that led to the fatal assassination of Franz Ferdinand (himself a pacifist who believed war would be the end of the empire) in 1914. A sense of dread permeated Vienna and other imperial cities, but this dread led to a flowering of art, philosophy, music and literature defined modernity and our own world.

In 2012, British diplomat Robert Cooper compared the European Union with the Habsburg Empire in this essay for Eurozine, noting:

The Habsburg Monarchy was threatened first by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which brought it physically too close to Russia and in consequence also became politically too dependent on Germany. Long before the Great War it had begun to lose its multi-national character (visible in the use of German as the official language of the Empire). And then it was destroyed by the War itself and by its manifest inability to provide physical protection for its people and political protection for its nations.

These were then awarded self-determination by the victorious nation states. This turned out to be a poisoned gift, since they were left naked in the face of powerful neighbours and their own weak political culture. That they have regained their freedom and re-established democracy within the European Union is their credit, and also that of the EU and of NATO.

And finally, in 2016, Caroline de Gruyter said in this essay for Carnegie Europe, “Most Habsburg emperors loathed warfare, just like the Europeans who, traumatized by two world wars, set up the European Economic Community in the 1950s. The emperors preferred to acquire territories peacefully by marrying off family members all over Europe. And like in the EU, small nations felt relatively safe and protected in the empire: being part of it meant being protected from invasion by bigger neighbors. All nations were granted equal rights under the Crown.”

Of the making of books about the Habsburgs there is no end. Among the most entertaining and lively of the recent crop is the somewhat pre-revisionist Danubia by Simon Winder. The best recent documentary about Vienna itself remains Joseph Leo Koerner’s Vienna: City of Dreams, which first aired on the BBC in 2017. You can watch that below.

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