The Political Logics of Disintegration: the Habsburg Experience

A word about what kept the Habsburg monarchy together, what actually brought it apart, and what this might mean for the European Union.

In Central Europe, in Western Europe, and in the West in general, there is the sense that the Habsburg monarchy was doomed, that it had inherent flaws, that it had to collapse. This sort of thinking arose as a result of the fact that on the one hand Britain, the United States and France won the First World War and on the other, the Habsburgs were an enemy, but it wasn’t really clear exactly why they were the enemy. Therefore we have a guilty sense of triumphalism, with respect to the Habsburg monarchy, which led us to the sentiment that the Habsburg monarchs, the emperors, were to quote a famous judgement “mad, bad and unfit to rule.” Some of them were indeed mad, some of them were indeed bad, some of them were indeed unfit to rule. But nevertheless we are dealing with an institution, we are dealing with a state, which lasted for ten times longer than the European integration project has lasted and three times longer than the United States has lasted. We are looking at a project, we are looking at a state which lasted for something like 600 years.

I think it’s fair and just to begin with this question of duration. How could something like this have lasted so long? Because frankly if the European integration project lasts another 550 years, we would all consider that to be a great success. 600 years is a very long time. Six hundred years of endurance, also as very different kinds of states, as a kingdom in the middle of Europe, as the largest empire in the history of the world. The notion that the sun never sets on an empire was originally not applied to the British Empire, but to the Habsburg monarchy. The Habsburg monarchs in the early modern period controlled the Spanish and the Portuguese possessions, and the Dutch possessions later on, which meant that literally they controlled much of the globe. And then their final phase as a multinational European empire, in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries.

How did the Habsburgs deal with the problem of nationalism, which we now see as central for the European Union? I would stress that for the Habsburgs, as for the European Union, nationalism was a kind of European problem, it wasn’t exactly a particular problem. The easiest way to think about nationalism is that there are these particular faiths, there are these minorities who cause problems for majorities. I think the proper way to think about nationalism in the 19th century as today is that it is a European problem which has to be handled on a large institutional scale.

What I mean by it, is that inside the Habsburg monarchy, the monarchy had institutional ways of dealing with national questions. Over the course of the 19th century, nationalism washes across the empire quite literally, with Napoleon in the beginning of the 19th century, nationalism washes through the empire again during the revolutions of 1848 and nationalism surrounds the empire, but there are responses. The responses involve, first, cooperation with elites. The “Ausgleich”, the famous compromise of 1867 that turned Austria into Austria-Hungary, as a compromise with Hungarian elites, the less famous but perhaps equally significant compromise with Polish elites in Galicia, allows Habsburg rule to continue in the East, and then after that there are a series of even more forgotten compromises, with one nation after another, which in their sheer intricacy, rival anything which the European Union has ever done.

The Parliament and the Emperor

The notion of a European Union that seeks peace by finding ways to keep people negotiating in rooms for extraordinary long times, certainly also applies to the Habsburg monarchy in the early 20th century. The Moravian compromise, in which every Moravian school child is going to be given a nationality, so that school attendance would be done by nationality. The Galician compromise which was interrupted by the First World War, which was going to do the same thing for Poles, Ukrainians and Jews in Galicia. These things are forgotten except by historians of law in Central Europe. But these things are incredibly interesting, because they demonstrate that the monarchy had the capacity not just to compromise with elites, which in a way is an easy thing to do, but to pursue these incredibly intricate anticipatory compromises which were meant to deal with generations to come. They might have not worked, but the impulse for compromise was certainly there from within.

Then of course there are other ways of handling nationalism. One of them was parliament. After we have the elite compromises, the compromises with the Hungarian nobility; then we have dissatisfaction from the non-Hungarian majority in South Hungary; after we have a compromise with the Polish nobility; we then have dissatisfaction from the non-noble and also non-Polish majority in Galicia. The compromises with the elites then had the effect that they had to do something else. That something else was parliament. That something else was the expansion of what eventually became in 1907 the universal suffrage. To the point where, the parliament of Austria was truly national and if one overlooks the exclusion of women, it was an incredibly inclusive parliament. So for example, just to give you a comparison: When Woodrow Wilson at the end of the First World War made his famous speech about the 14 points, there were no blacks in the American congress. In the Austrian parliament, every single nationality was represented and this was in some sense a way of diffusing the national question.

Another way the national question was diffused was by central institutions and most important in the 19th century was the emperor himself. There was the same emperor from 1848 until 1916, which meant that in the early 20th century almost everybody who was alive had lived under no other emperor than Franz Josef, and the emperor, as a head of state, was able to absorb national questions in a certain way. He spoke most of the languages that it was possible to speak. He spoke them locally, as he travelled from place to place, and he presented himself as a non-national figure. The other non-national central institution which was incredibly important was the bureaucracy and in particular the officer class. The constitution of the officer class of the Habsburg monarchy shows very well that it had an influential class which was non-national, which was loyal to the institutions and the monarchy as such.

Some of the nations were also centralizing, so if you think of national interest, we have this highladder thinking, when nations are unreasonable, all they want to do is spin off from empires and cause trouble, but very often what nations want to do is preserve empires. Take the critical case of the Czechs, the trouble-making Czechs. The Czechs were right in the middle of the Habsburg monarchy and basically every Czech political thinker in the 19th and 20th century, from Palacký to Masaryk, thought, the best thing to do is to presume the Habsburg monarchy, not to take it apart. Why? Because the moment that the Habsburg monarchy falls apart, we are going to be absorbed or threatened by a unified German nation state, a critical analysis which proved to be exactly correct about the 20th century and that’s exactly why the Czechs wanted the Habsburg monarchy to prevail. Which shows also why small nation states in Eastern Europe like the European Union.

Vulnerable nations within a multinational institution understand that it is in their own interest for that institution to continue, because a return to nation states, will be threatening for them. The Czechs only changed their mind about this, during the First World War, and the reason they changed their mind, is because it’s clear that after the war there is going to be a German nation state anyway. So while there is some possibility that the Habsburg monarchy is going to survive, the Czechs are largely in favour of it; which leads me to the German problem.

The German Problem

If you think of a nation that betrays the Habsburg monarchy, it’s not the ones that are difficult to pronounce, it’s the Germans; it’s the ones who are already in the middle. The one political party, which was the closest to be truly treacherous, was the German national party of Schönerer which was important right here in Vienna. It is the German speakers here and elsewhere in Austria, who wanted to join Greater Germany after 1871, who were closest to being political traitors, while the monarchy still existed. I want to draw a certain analogy to the possibilities of the 21st century. Mainly because I want to make a transition to the way that the threat of nationalism was actually posed. The way the threat of nationalism was actually posed was not from within. The Habsburg monarchy was not a collection of nationalities yearning to be free, battling against the monarchy, trying to break out. The Habsburg monarchy was a collection of problematic complexity, which also had very complex solutions. The reason why nationalism was a problem, was not that the Habsburg monarchy was a prison-house of nations, which it most certainly was not. The reason why nationalism was a problem, had to deal with the rest of the world. In the rest of the world, you had, what might be seen as counter-integration.

Everything that the Habsburgs were doing you can think of as a kind of policy of integration: the monarch, the parliament, the officer class. This is one way of integration. But meanwhile on the borders of the Habsburg monarchy you have something that you can see as counter-integration. Now the more familiar word for counter-integration, is national- reunification, I’m avoiding that name, because it’s so theological. When we say national reunification, it makes it sound like, the Germans were just there to be unified, the Italians were just there to be unified and so on. As a matter of fact, there was an Italian unification, and there was a German unification and there was started a Yugoslavian and a Polish unification. All this was on the borders of the Habsburg monarchy. And this of course posed a problem in principle. The problem in principle was; if you have national-self-determination, the multinational monarchy can’t exist; the problem in practise though, was that these were counter-integrations which drew attention from the Germans and others inside the monarchy. So how does the monarchy actually fall apart? Even given the attraction these counter-integrations, it takes the most punishing war in the history of modern Europe, four years of that, and defeat in that war, for the Habsburg monarchy to fall apart.

The Balkan Solution

So what is it that brings about the end of the monarchy? I will tell you a little story, which is going to be a bit unfamiliar. What brings about the monarchy are not its internal problems. What brings about the monarchy is one of these external counter-integrations, the Balkan one. The War that brings down the Habsburg monarchy, is the third Balkan war. There is a Balkan War in 1912, there is a Balkan War in 1913 and there is a Balkan War in 1914. The first two Balkan Wars were directed against the Ottoman empire, the third Balkan war was directed against the Habsburg monarchy. By a series of coincidences that war became a World War and that World War in turn brought down the Habsburg monarchy.

Why is this Balkan War important? It’s an example of a general pattern. Serbia was trying to unify what dissolves the Serbian nation. This was one of these counter-integrations, it was one of these national- unifications. It so happened to be the one that provoked the Habsburgs into a very stupid war, which is a point I’m going to return to. How did it destroy the Habsburg monarchy? First of all it physically eliminated the officer class. By Christmas of 1914 a huge majority of the officer class was dead, or wounded to such an extent that they were not going to be participating in politics or anything else. The War physically eliminated the loyal classes, and exposed the whole populations to national propaganda from outside. So the British, and then the Americans used nationalist propaganda against the Habsburg monarchy quite consistently throughout the war, in an effort to try to get the monarchy to come apart.

The only way that the war destroyed the monarchy was that it generated hunger, and hunger made the inter-ethnic differences much more sensitive than they would have been otherwise. And the final way that the war brought an end to the Habsburg monarchy, was that it ended with a series of peace treaties, which balkanized central Europe. So the war began because of Balkan nationalism, the war began because of the Balkan idea of nation states, and the end of the war by applying the Balkan solution to the rest of Europe, and that’s what we did, that’s exactly what we did. We brought to an end a multinational state, by applying the notion of national-sovereignty. Thereby taking the problem that begun the war and applying it to much of the rest of Europe. That meant the end of the Habsburg monarchy of course.

What does this mean for today? Let me just try to tick off a few points. The first thing that this story shows, is that integration over a very long term is possible. The Habsburg monarchy integrated over a very long period. The second thing this shows is that neutral top-level institutions are crucial. I even dream of a European monarchy, but something like that that could absorb symbolic weight, a European soccer team, again another dream. Something that could absorb symbolic weight is very important. Top-level institutions also include a parliament, not just as a log-in-buddy but as something that absorbs national questions. Top-level institutions of the Habsburg monarchy also included a treasury which seems to me to be also very important. A top-level institution is also an officer class, and one of my obsessions in the last couple of decades is a European military academy. The lesson is you should have a very large officer class, but you should not let them fight stupid wars. That’s the conclusion, because as long as there is peace the officer class integrates. When you fight stupid wars and you kill off your officer class, then you have defeated the purpose.

The very last word is about the threat. The threat to the Habsburg monarchy came not from the inside, and not exactly from the outside. It came when rival projects of integration began to affect the inside of the Habsburg monarchy. The reason to worry about the European Union would be projects of counter-integration which actually are tempting to people inside the European Union. With the worrisome exception of Hungary, which one can see as the leader of a future authoritarian camp, I don’t think is really the case.

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