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The Excellent Empire or the Prison of the Peoples?
A review of Pieter Judson's “The Habsburg Empire: A New History”
Writing a history of the Habsburg Empire from the Napoleonic wars to the dissolution of the Empire must be one of the most daunting tasks for a historian. The variety of institutional and political arrangements, interacted with a bewildering multitude of social classes and nationalities that were in a state of permanent incipient conflict among themselves or with the Viennese center, makes such histories either too dull, as they become chronicles of events, or courting superficiality as they need to drop out a number of relevant developments to concentrate on a few they deem crucial.
Pieter Judson’s new “The Habsburg Empire: A New History” belongs to the latter group. Judson decides to go for a revisionist tack where the second half of the 19th century is argued to have been both economically and socially successful for the Empire. The Empire moreover is not considered too different (in its complexity) from other continental powers like Spain or France. Judson mentions, for example, several times that in 1863, one-fourth of the French population could not speak French. And then, the most contentious part, that the Empire might have found a way to create a sustainable federalist structure. I will concentrate, in this review, on the last point.
Judson needs to address two big issues here. First, why were nations that composed the Empire chronically unsatisfied, and why were institutional arrangements, reacting to this, in a state of a permanent flux? And second, why did the Empire ultimately dissolve, to the apparent delight of most, including the Austrians? For the latter, Judson blames the unreasonable harshness of the military dictatorship that took place at the onset of the Great War, as if that military dictatorship, which Judson acknowledges was much more hysterical and brutal than in any other belligerent nation, could be considered in isolation from the nationality and social questions that plagued the Empire before the war.
However, the most important part of the book is whether the constitutional arrangements after 1867 in the Austrian part of the Empire (the Hungarian part was ruled much less inclusively by a narrow band of hidebound gentry) were sustainable. Judson’s main hypotheses are all made clear on two pages (pp. 272-3) of a 500-page long book: “What made..the Austrian half of the dual monarchy unique... was not so much its ethnic make-up but rather the legal and administrative structures it developed to manage questions of linguistic and religious difference”. And, “[n]ationalist conflict was not an inevitable result of multilingual quality of Austrian and Hungarian societies but was the product of institutions…A political program that demands legal, social, and institutional rights for speakers of one of those languages would…encourage the people in a locality to see themselves and others largely in terms of language-based categories.”
It is those institutional arrangements that emphasized linguistic and ethnic diversity that, according to Judson, deepened ethnic cleavages and in the end broke the back of the Monarchy. Had the unifying and liberal bourgeoisie that tended to regard such differences with indifference and disdain prevailed, economic growth would have flattened out inequalities between peasants and regional urban bourgeoisies, and then between different regions, from Bukovina and Galicia to Bohemia and Upper Austria. An economically vibrant precursor to the European Union would have been created, under a benevolent monarchical rule.
Why it did not happen was due to political agitation by nationalist politicians that found spreading nationalism a convenient way both to fight their own regional nobilities and acquire political power which, in the era of mass politics and increasing democratization in the Austrian lands (with the full male franchise introduced in 1907, that is, eleven years before Britain) was the way to power.
Judson thus sets the race between capitalist economic development on the one hand, and nationalist emancipation on the other. Had economic development been sufficiently strong to outpace nationalist demagogues the Austrian part of the monarchy might have found a durable solution for holding restless nationalities together.
This is not an unreasonable supposition. Economic development is often the glue that binds nations. “Material advantages will prove much stronger force for binding the peoples of the different crownlands” wrote a Viennese paper, quoted by Judson, in 1850. But two things must give us pause before we accept Judson’s institutionalist and economic arguments. First, the chicken-and-egg problem. The monarchy had to devise ever more complicated institutional fixes to preserve itself exactly because of national complaints. Thus institutional responses cannot be blamed for creating the nationalities problem if they just reacted to something that already existed there. Second, it is economic growth and educational progress (notably in literacy) that created the nationalist intelligentsias and nationalist politicians whom Judson sees as responsible for sowing the seeds of dissension.
Here we encounter the following problem: keeping the monarchy poor and uneducated could, in the short-run, reduce political problems, as Habsburgs surely knew how to negotiate and bargain with local nobilities. But in the medium term, it doomed monarchy to political irrelevance in Europe. To save itself from such a fate, the monarchy unleashed the forces of economic and educational progress, but that “created” nationalities and mass politics which then required new ethnic-based institutional framework. That framework eventually broke the country apart.
This was the key dilemma that the Habsburgs were unable to solve, and that Judson sidesteps. But the Habsburgs were not the only ones that failed here. The fact that the successor states of the monarchy, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, and further East, Poland and the Soviet Union, showed themselves unable to solve the same problem should have made Judson think twice about his explanation.
For what is very obvious in the history of Central and Eastern Europe of the past two centuries is that all humanly possible political arrangements—centralized monarchy, decentralized monarchy, federalized monarchy, democratic state, dictatorial state, centralized republic, decentralized republic, feudal economy, capitalist economy, socialist economy—were all tried—and they all failed. Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia collapsed at the first whiff of international tensions and wars (in 1938-41 and then again 1989-92); Poland was structurally unstable through the inter-War years as Poles, Ukrainians and Jews vied for influence; the Soviet Union self-destructed in 1989-1992.
Judson does in his Epilogue rightly point out that all of the countries that succeeded the Habsburg Monarchy replicated its problems, but he fails to draw the conclusion from the multitude of institutional solutions they tried, from 1918 to 1989, that it does not seem to have been a fixable problem.
It seems, with historical hindsight, that only the creation of more or less pure nation-states (which, with the exception of Bosnia, has been the product of the latest set of national revolutions) is consistent with cold peace in Eastern and Central Europe. These are restless nations that, it seems, could find their peace only when left to their own devices, and freed from the distraction of inter-ethnic local politics.
Note: This is already a long enough review that I did not want to engage with a surprising omission of Habsburg foreign policy in Judson’s book. The numerous wars into which the Empire, more of less gratuitously careened (civil war in/with Hungary in 1848 that was “solved” only thanks to Russian intervention, then anti-Russian Crimean war mobilization in 1852-3, war with the Piedmont and France in 1859, support for Prussia against Denmark re. Schleswig-Holstein, then war with the self-same Prussia in 1866, annexation of Bosnia in 1908, and finally the World War in 1914) are treated as if they were so many falls of the meteorites and not revealing the deeply contradictory nature of the Empire. Moreover, wars' effects on domestic politics are left undiscussed: the 1867 agreement with Hungary was precipitated by the 1866 defeat against Prussia etc. Prussia is mentioned only four times in a book of more than 500 pages.