Neo-Imperialist History

Review: Pieter M. Judson, ‘The Habsburg Empire: A New History’ (Updated)

Tourists pose for photos near the street corner in downtown Sarajevo where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated
Tourists pose for photos near the street corner in downtown Sarajevo where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated / AP

In the west, at least, you don’t hear much about the Habsburgs anymore. Like Galicia, or Tyrol, or Bohemia and Transylvania—constituent parts of that family’s empire that were subsumed or reinvented in the firestorms of the twentieth century—the dynasty has faded from public memory. When it does come up, it is liable to be in the context of a joke: in the form of the ridiculous Emperor Joseph II in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, who complains that Mozart’s music has "too many notes"; or when Jane Krakowski’s character in a 2007 episode of 30 Rock inadvertently causes the death of Paul Reubens’ Prince Gerhardt, fictional last of the Habsburgs, by inspiring him to toast with champagne—an act that his sickly constitution ("centuries of inbreeding") cannot tolerate.

The real last of his line, the Archduke Otto von Habsburg, died not long thereafter in 2011, at the age of 98. A decent-seeming fellow, in his long and remarkable career he had opposed both communists and fascists and ended up serving as a Member of European Parliament. Maybe seeing his family becoming the occasional object of gentle mockery was a kindness, because when people had taken the time to think about the Habsburg Empire seriously, their thoughts had been liable to be hostile. An ill-considered assembly of nations at home, with predatory ambitions beyond its borders, historians considered it to be both an anachronistic political project for the twentieth century and deserving of much of the blame for World War One. As Churchill put it, in characteristically restrained prose:

Vain to assemble such contrary elements in an Empire Parliament house. Vain to suppose that the processes and amenities of English House of Commons procedure would afford expression to such bitter divergencies. Parliaments can only flourish when fundamentals are agreed or at least accepted by the great majorities of all parties. In the Parliaments of the Hapsburgs bands of excited deputies sat and howled at each other by the hour in rival languages, accompanying their choruses with the ceaseless slamming of desks which eventually by a sudden crescendo swelled into a cannonade. All gave rein to hatred; and all have paid for its indulgence with blood and tears.

Pieter M. Judson, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, will have none of this. His new history of the modern empire, covering the period from its consolidation under Maria Theresa in the eighteenth century through the dissolution of its final manifestation, Austria-Hungary, in the receding flood tide of the Great War, is impressive in the breadth of its research and the ambition of its argument. Judson is not playing small ball here, and the book presents a revisionist and frankly admiring view of the empire.

The tone is set by the book’s jacket photograph—annoyingly uncaptioned, but evidently Blessed Karl, last ruler of the empire, and his wife Zita, beaming at the cheers of a happy crowd as they are handed bouquets by the children of some central European city. The Habsburgs and their eventually vast bureaucracy were not without their faults, Judson readily concedes and documents. But, in general, their effort at centralized administration was a positive force, opposing as it did the typically selfish and opportunistic local powerbrokers and aristocrats in places like Budapest and Lvov. The enlightened despotism of Maria Theresa’s era was, by the 19th century, a true Rechtsstaat, increasingly constrained by a healthy constitutionalism, and Habsburg rule was characterized throughout by rationality and reformist instincts to a much greater extent than past historical consensus would admit.

What about (frequent, sometimes violent) local efforts to resist centralization and control from Austria? Well, Judson doesn’t think much of those. In his view, the evidence shows that more often than not the common folk of what is today southern Poland or the Czech Republic saw the Habsburgs as guarantors of their rights against the depredations of local oligarchs. Like the brotherhood of man before a loving God, all were equal in the eyes of Viennese administration, and the last were very often first. Frequent outbursts of nationalist sentiment were generally artificial exercises springing not from the people, but from local aristocrats scrambling to stay atop their petty little heaps, and using this artificial, irrational, and dangerous tool to whip up support. This was especially true, it appears, in Hungary. Judson doesn’t seem to like Hungary very much.

When the Habsburgs set themselves up for periods of underperformance, as in the lead up to the 1848 uprisings, it was not because of an excess of centralization, but because of an absence of reform. And even when aspects of imperial rule were obviously regrettable, as with Metternich’s feared secret police, well, it wasn’t that bad. There were far too few police to make it a true authoritarian state, after all. And the empire was far from deaf to the legitimate cries of the (brutally suppressed) revolutionaries of 1848:

While the regime treated the Hungarian rebels harshly, imprisoning and executing many, while marshal [sic] law reigned in Hungary and other parts of Austria, and while harsh censorship regained its sway, the regime nevertheless proceeded in the fall of 1850 to hold elections to the new municipal councils.

Thank goodness for that.

If you can’t already tell, Judson’s revisionist zeal seems often to acquire an apologetic—and predictable—quality. There are any number of humorous and revealing moments in this vein. Recounting the vast empire’s collapse—an entirely contingent affair, mind you ("The war was not the proverbial final straw that broke a flailing empire's back. It did not accelerate an inevitable collapse")—Judson laments the political situation that followed: "In the next weeks and months, both the nationalist politicians and the people of Bohemia, Moravia, and northern Hungary (now to be known as ‘Slovakia') participated in an orgy of renunciation of empire…" But even in the midst of such an "orgy," it should not be forgotten that the bureaucrats did their duty: "…as imperial symbols fell, imperial administrators, police officers, and even many military officers often remained in their posts."

The consistency of Judson’s commitments is so great as to make an impressive (in many respects) work of scholarship feel untrustworthy. European nationalism is, for obvious reasons, worthy of much harsh examination, as are the local gentries in all of the former imperial lands. But the verdict, with Judson, is virtually always delivered in the same direction. No human story, let alone one as vast as his chosen topic, is so tidy.

What is going on here? Is Judson on the take? Did the family of dear, departed Otto get to him? Is he a partisan of some underground neo-Habsburgian revanchist cell? More seriously: it is hard not to see Judson’s Habsburg Empire as a stalking horse for the EU, and this book as less an open act of analysis and more as a theological exercise. I very much doubt that any of this is intentional, but the parallels are clear: multi-, indeed supra-national, rational administrative states, at war with local inequities and irrational forms of association, all for the good of the common man. It may not be common to think of the Habsburgs as the forerunners of modern Brussels, but it makes excellent sense.

Let’s hope the EU ends better.

UPDATE THURSDAY JULY 7, 6:00 P.M.: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that the jacket photograph of The Habsburg Empire depicts the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. The photograph actually depicts the Emperor Karl and his wife Zita.