Part of the Empire

Natasha Wheatley

  • The Habsburg Empire: A New History by Pieter Judson
    Harvard, 567 pp, £17.95, September 2018, ISBN 978 0 674 98676 3

When the 25-year-old Ottoman prince Süleyman became sultan in 1520, his empire curled from Athens down to Mecca and tied the Red Sea to the Black. Selim, his father, had tended eastern frontiers; Süleyman turned towards the west. His campaigns carried Ottoman rule past Belgrade to Budapest and – almost – to Vienna. Riding up the Danube Valley with 100,000 men late in the summer of 1526, Süleyman crushed a ramshackle Hungarian army in a mere ninety minutes. Among the Hungarian dead lay seven bishops, a swag of barons, and the king. The twenty-year-old Hungarian sovereign, Louis II, had fallen from his horse as he fled the battlefield and drowned in a shallow stream – a quiet death that fuelled conspiracy theories for centuries to come. The death of the heirless king led to a succession battle among Europe’s intermarried monarchies, and ended up handing one of them – the Habsburgs – a vast empire they would hold until the First World War.

Louis had become king of Hungary in 1516 at the age of ten. He also wore the crown of Bohemia, which made his inheritance a two-part prize. The Habsburg archduke Ferdinand I emerged as a leading contender. At the time of Louis’s death, Ferdinand ruled over a modest collection of alpine principalities roughly corresponding to today’s Austria and Slovenia. But his grandfather Maximilian had signed a pact in 1506 with the Hungarian king Vladislaus II: Ferdinand was to marry Vladislaus’s daughter Anna, and Ferdinand’s sister Maria was to marry Anna’s brother Louis, at that point not yet born, let alone crowned king of Hungary. This web of marriages made Ferdinand’s claim to the crowns of his brother-in-law hard to resist, and by December 1526, both kingdoms were his. Ferdinand’s domain thus ballooned across central Europe, and the Habsburg Empire emerged as a continental power of the first rank.

No one did conjugal empire-building quite like the Habsburgs. Tu felix Austria nube – you, lucky Austria, marry – became the unofficial dynastic motto. But their reputation as the beneficiaries of shrewd royal matchmaking came back to haunt them. As ideas of popular sovereignty and ethnic nationalism transformed political sensibilities over the course of the 19th century, it fed perceptions of the Habsburg Empire as a glaring anachronism in modern Europe – a brittle dynastic shell that had no real relationship to the lives and identities of its diverse inhabitants. ‘In other countries dynasties are episodes in the history of the people,’ A.J.P. Taylor wrote in his 1941 history of the monarchy; ‘in the Habsburg Empire peoples are a complication in the history of the dynasty.’

The new ‘modern’ political morality wanted something quite different: bonds of deep identification that could tie rulers to the ruled. With the revolutions of 1848, a series of national movements arrived on the political stage and never went away. Surely the Czechs, Croats, Italians, Hungarians, Poles and others deserve a state that bore their own name? A state that would be theirs, in a way the Habsburg Empire never could be? By the time of the First World War, dynastic state-building had itself become a sort of crime, a symbol of the old world order, singled out by President Woodrow Wilson when he laid out plans for the future peace in February 1918: ‘Peoples and provinces are not to be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were mere chattels and pawns in a game.’ Had the empire’s multi-national nature demanded its eventual collapse? Taylor’s history articulated the near universal consensus: ‘The conflict between a supernational dynastic state and the national principle had to be fought to the finish.’ Modernity itself had doomed the empire. By the late 19th century, Habsburg ministers ‘no longer dreamed of “solving” the national question’, Taylor wrote. ‘Their highest ambition was that the members of the Reichsrat should cease to throw inkpots at the Speaker.’

But what if this standard story has it all the wrong way round? What if the Habsburg Empire formed a true community of sentiment, and even became a vehicle for self-determination, just as much as the nation-states that replaced it? That is the provocative argument of Pieter Judson’s history. To accept the idea that only ethnic nations can elicit the devotion of their members, Judson argues, is to buy into a nationalist view of history. Not coincidentally, the narratives of a crumbling, pre-modern Habsburg monarchy can be traced back to the nationalists who, busy building new states in the empire’s wake, had a vested interest in portraying Austria as the relic of a world in which kings and queens knew little and cared less about their subjects.

Retelling its history from the 18th century forward, Judson resurrects an empire that drew increasingly close to its citizens and tied them to one another. Every day in towns, cities and villages across the Habsburg lands, people worked the levers of the imperial state. These commoners were not merely passive subjects of a ‘unified and unifying imperial state’, but its co-creators, as ‘state-building from below’ combined with parallel efforts from above. The unpredictable interaction of ‘high’ and ‘low’ statemakers leads to the book’s most incendiary claim. Once upon a time, we all knew that nationalism destroyed the Habsburg Empire; that nation and empire were (and are) the neat antonyms of modern history. Yet Judson presents nationalism not as a symptom of the unravelling of this common imperial framework, but as a curious sign of its success: ironically, the empire’s institutions created the nationalist movements that became its gravediggers.

When a prince like Ferdinand acquired principalities such as Hungary or Bohemia, they were added to his dynastic possessions as discrete entities, their political identity and institutions left intact. Bukovina might have nothing to do with Dalmatia apart from their shared Habsburg sovereign. Each territory reproduced the empire’s diversity in miniature: languages and confessions piled on top of one another in marketplaces and town halls. This pluralism may be more important for the fact that no one thought it was an issue. Much of modern European history turns on the ‘discovery’ of that pluralism (in its political, legal and demographic forms) as a problem, and varied attempts to solve it. The diagnosis and treatment of the Habsburg Empire’s problems had its accidental origin in another young monarch – this time a woman.

When Maria Theresa ascended to the Habsburg throne in 1740 at the age of 23, she inherited from her father, Charles VI, a patchwork of territories, a ransacked army, a treasury stripped of cash and the scepticism of Europe. Inside her domain, a female sovereign proved more palatable to the Hungarians if on paper she continued to be described as ‘king’ and ‘archduke’; outside it, male rulers invaded from all sides. When the subsequent wars of succession subsided eight years later, the queen set out to ensure that she and her descendants would never be so vulnerable again. She needed funds, and she needed a decent army, but to extract either money or men from her territories required knowledge of them, which was another thing she did not have. She launched a string of fact-finding missions to discover who lived in her lands, where and how – setting in motion a long and winding process of state centralisation.

For the first census, conducted in 1770, Maria Theresa asked the military to visit every village and town, to give house numbers to each dwelling, and report on the number of residents, their sex, age and health (how many potential soldiers?), their relative wealth, level of education and living conditions. Many sensed an opportunity to speak directly to their sovereign, and showered the visitors with grievances, suggestions and observations. Peasants complained bitterly about the crushing burden of feudal dues, and sparked an unlikely but consequential alliance with their queen against the nobility.

Over the subsequent decades, Maria Theresa and her sons gradually ended unfree labour, abolished feudal dues, and curtailed the power and status of the aristocratic elite by transferring their traditional prerogatives (taxation, justice, military recruitment) to the central ‘state’. The General Civil Law Code of 1811 capped the process by acknowledging the equality of all before the law. A uniform understanding of citizenship thus emerged alongside a state bureaucracy capable of making that status meaningful. Gradually, through reforms to suffrage and civil rights, commerce and industry, transport and infrastructure, schooling and administration, the state became a presence in the lives of its inhabitants, and those inhabitants coloured in the outlines of dynastic rule with shared experiences and expectations.

So how, if you lived in a Galician village, or in Trieste on the Adriatic, or in one of Bohemia’s industrial boom towns in 1914, would you know you were part of this empire? The Habsburg double-headed eagles looked out from hospitals and police helmets, and coffeehouses ‘with vaulted smoky ceilings, with dark niches where chess players sat hunkered like alert fowls’ lined the city streets. At ‘every railway station, every kiosk, every public building, every school and every church in all the Crownlands of the Empire’, Joseph Roth wrote in 1935, were ‘certain specific and unmistakeable manifestations that recurred’. ‘All over, the wooden doors of the K. and K. Trafik stores were painted in black and yellow diagonals; all over, tax inspectors wore the same green (burgeoning almost) swordknot on their spotless sabers.’ (Black and yellow ribbons also tied the files of the imperial bureaucracy.) Municipal expansion unfolded in the same neo-baroque style: a single architectural firm, Fellner and Helmer, constructed theatres and city halls in Brno, Zagreb, Graz and almost fifty other places.

You came into contact with the state every day in the form of postal system and telegraph networks and welfare entitlements (the government set up compulsory health and accident insurance for most workers in the 1880s). A constitutional court kept watch over the equality enjoyed by all citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religion. You voted in elections, often rancorously contested, to nominate local officials and to send delegates to the imperial parliament on Vienna’s Ringstrasse. (The suffrage reforms of 1907 enfranchised all men regardless of income; women remained disenfranchised.) Children, if you had them, attended state-funded schools made mandatory in the late 18th century, long before most of Europe. They had the right to be schooled in whichever of the monarchy’s 12 (or so) official languages they spoke, as long as at least forty students who also spoke that language lived within a two-hour walk of the school. When boys departed for their compulsory military service – one of the engines of imperial integration, with young recruits sent to unfamiliar corners of the polity – their tongue would (most likely) become one of the regiment’s official languages, adopted for instruction and sung on parade, in an elaborate but ‘functional institutional multilingualism, unique among Europe’s militaries’. German remained the language of administration, but citizens could use their own language when speaking to the state.

A celebratory tone occasionally seeps in as Judson tracks the evolution of this ‘modern’, progressive state, though he is careful to note that ‘liberal’ initiatives did not always result from conviction or generosity. It wasn’t humanitarian sentiment that inspired the emancipation of the peasantry and equal citizenship. The dynasty needed new sources of revenue, and an emancipated, tax-paying peasantry was an unexploited goldmine. For the same reason, it suited the state to improve agricultural productivity, which then spurred social and economic reform. Education, it was thought, would improve hygiene and health (necessary for military service), and guard against the risk of moral dissolution in newly liberated peasant communities. That the common people should become ‘more rational, more sober, cleaner, more affluent and happier’ seemed to the government in Vienna to be in its own interests.

As government expanded over the course of the 19th century, officials argued that the imperial state needed a common language of administration (German) as well as the capacity to work in the empire’s other languages. As a result, ‘Vienna’s dual policies of using German as an imperial bureaucratic language on one hand, while encouraging the use of vernacular languages for local usage and education on the other,’ Judson writes, ‘drew increasing attention to an emerging and unintended hierarchy of languages and by extension, as could be argued, of the people who spoke them.’ The equality of citizenship required ‘that all languages in use in the empire be considered equal as well’.

How does one make languages ‘equal’? Bold new constitutional provisions in 1849 and 1867 declared that all ethnicities (Volkstämme) possessed equal rights, including the right to cultivate their language. But these new rights quickly outran the intentions of their framers, and swelled into a new ground for politics, where claims and counter-claims against the state could be made. Ironically, they did not so much diffuse tension as enshrine it in the state’s architecture. Activists and politicians increasingly understood regional interests as questions of language rights. Czech-dominated Prague resisted the opening of a German school, for example, and German-dominated Brno resisted a Czech one; and local associations everywhere mobilised for more schools in ‘their’ language. An 1897 ordinance enshrining the equality of Czech and German in the Bohemian civil service led to riots, a duel and a suicide.

With state resources (and social peace) at stake, the government felt it needed to know who spoke what language and where. It included a new, seemingly innocuous question on the census form, asking respondents to name their ‘language of everyday use’. The formulation was careful – it did not mention ‘nationality’ or ‘native tongue’, emphasising the more practical question of communication – but it unleashed a political storm. This new category made space for multilingual citizens who might nominate one language over another for pragmatic reasons, and change their choice from one census to the next. Husbands and wives could (and did) report different ‘languages of everyday use’. But from the perspective of those who viewed national communities as primal, organic affiliations, this was intolerable anarchy. Obsessed with the ‘health’ of their national community and its standing in the market for state resources, they launched frenzied campaigns ahead of every census to make sure constituents reported the ‘correct’ language, staging rallies and producing pamphlets with sample census questions and answers. The census results – analysed in painstaking detail – in turn gave them new ways of understanding these ‘nations’, tracking their fluctuations, and charting their geographical dimensions. National agitators may have claimed to be speaking for already existing, discrete national communities, but their anxious activism played a significant role in creating those identifications in the first place. In an era of expanding suffrage and new political parties, it was often these encounters with the new arms of the centralising imperial state (census, parliament, elections) that led people to understand their worlds in terms of singular, linguistically defined nations for the first time – not the other way around.

These concepts of nationhood came to saturate public life, and the consequences would remake the map of Europe. In the empire’s last decades, local, national and imperial patriotisms developed together and could be mutually reinforcing, rather than competing allegiances. This didn’t change after the First World War broke out in 1914 (sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Habsburg heir, at the hands of a Serbian nationalist). What did change was the military’s reading of the situation. In a wartime state of emergency, a newly empowered and paranoid Habsburg military misread all national patriotisms as treasonous. In this new climate, citizens began policing patriotism themselves, leading to an ‘uncontrollable orgy of denunciation’. Did neighbour X’s donation to the Serbian Red Cross reveal his true colours? Why had the local priest been slow to hoist a black flag over his church after the archduke’s assassination?

As suspicions and conspiracies multiplied, military defeats were blamed on internal subversion. German nationalists inside the empire began peddling false stories of Czechs and Serbs who shot into the air rather than at the Allies, or who deserted altogether. Rebuffing these accusations, Czech-speakers pointed to reports of Czech sacrifice in the service of the Habsburg state. But in the final year of the war, something peculiar happened. When the Allies began to waver in their commitment to the empire’s preservation, and the future of central Europe grew increasingly uncertain, Czech politicians appropriated the stories German propagandists had made up and presented them to Allied powerbrokers as evidence that the Czechs had been against the war, had tried to undermine the Habsburg state and had long sought their ‘liberation’. The (fake) stories of Czech desertion became sources of legitimacy for the new state of Czechoslovakia. This was propaganda twisted inside out. As German nationalists were equally invested in these myths, they persisted long after the armistice, and shaped understandings of the empire as a ‘prison house of nationalities’. These characterisations in turn structured popular and professional accounts of the Habsburg Empire for generations to come.

Judson wants us to stop seeing the empire as a nationalist would. This leads him to the counterintuitive claim that nationalism can be understood as a manifestation of imperial centralisation, rather than its undoing. In arguing that nationalist movements relied on Habsburg institutions for their form, direction and coherence, he treats them as expressions of the empire itself. When nationalists tried to prevent the use of rival languages in local cemeteries, or contested the language tallies in the imperial census, Judson interprets this as showing how much they cared about imperial institutions, not how badly they wanted to leave them – at least until the very end of the war. Nations are demoted from historical protagonists (they appear nowhere in the table of contents) to polemical positions in one of the ‘culture wars’ that galvanised late imperial politics, like liberals v. Catholics or workers v. the bourgeoisie.

Yet if we abandon nations as the natural units of modern history, do we affirm the naturalness of empires instead? Judson’s book suggests that a world of nation-states – and the violence done in their name during the 20th century – was not inevitably our fate. Histories of empire have lately become a means of reimagining contemporary politics and sovereignty beyond the tribal ‘us’ and ‘them’ of ethnic nationalism. But would a world of empires (recalibrated or otherwise) be preferable? The vaunted pluralism of empires cannot be extricated from their violence. Judson, however, argues that, unlike many other empires, racial hierarchies did not meaningfully structure life in the Habsburg one, and actually featured far more in the nation-states that unpicked it. Successor states like Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia were just as ethnically diverse as the empire, but swapped its commitment to equal rights for a hierarchical ordering of ethnic-linguistic groups. He calls them ‘little empires’. The very concept of a minority only makes sense in a nation-state (the empire had no ‘majority’), and, needless to say, the history of minorities in interwar Europe isn’t a happy one.


Judson reverses the standard historical sequence of hierarchy to equality, dynasty to democracy. In some senses, this is nothing new: historians of the region have been chipping away at the idea the empire was backward for a generation. They discovered a bustling civil society, or a dynamic imperial bureaucracy. By far the most popular technique has been to undermine the claims of nationalists. The Chicago professor (and Judson student) Tara Zahra argued in her book Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the Bohemian Lands 1900-48 (2008) that many Habsburg citizens were seized not by nationalist passion but ‘national indifference’: they thought pragmatically when deciding whether to send their bilingual child to a Czech school or a German one.

In Judson’s diagnosis, all these revisions to the old narrative of the Habsburg Empire left its essential structure intact. Moving from village to village or institution to institution, historians replaced lazy generalisations, but they couldn’t offer another big story. As a result, non-specialists routinely fall back on the traditional account. Analyses of ‘indifference’ aren’t the stuff of compelling popular history. Judson wants to change the impression formed by anyone who first encountered the monarchy in a lesson on the First World War, where virtually all one needed to know about this arcane, double-barrelled polity, sprawling over Europe’s prewar map, was that it disappeared. ‘We desperately need new general narratives,’ he writes, ‘around which to organise our findings.’ The Habsburg Empire is Judson’s attempt at a grand, unified history of Austria-Hungary for our times.

But grand narratives require grand protagonists. Judson’s protagonist is not the empire-as-royal dynasty (as in Taylor’s account), but the empire as a collective social subject – pan-ethnic and transregional. This transformation ironically requires him to use the techniques of national history to tell his imperial history. In asserting that the empire could be modern too, he accepts the logic of the nationalist critique. Personal investment remains the key ingredient – he just wants to prove that the empire had the capacity to elicit that sense of collective ownership. So he reads events as a nationalist might, showing how specific actions in fact demonstrated a deep affinity with the community in question (now imperial rather than national), and presenting that community as a ‘thing’ that exists independently of the (historian’s) act of linking those discrete instances together. If Judson argues that national identities were situational – activated in particular moments like elections – then surely imperial loyalties were too, as he partially acknowledges. National history is disavowed even as its methods and structures are used for new ends. Future historians might adapt those techniques that Zahra (and Judson himself) developed to combat nationalist historiography and write of ‘imperial indifference’ instead. Or, maybe, in having reversed the binary nationalism-modernity/empire-premodernity, Judson’s book will release us from its terms. Either way, Habsburg history is not the same after this book.