There is a field of academic theory called realism, more popular in America than here in Europe, which holds that states are, for practical purposes, like billiard balls: Given certain power realities, geographical positions and other material criteria, all states will behave identically under similar circumstances without regard to domestic political culture, distinct histories or the idiosyncrasies of leaders. As academic realists see it, neither emotion nor happenstance has anything to do with the choices leaders make.
I have never known a statesman, let alone a neuroscientist, who takes the strong expression of this theory seriously. When professional diplomats consider their subject matter, they invariably combine objective knowledge with what, for lack of a better term, is a feel for the situation that they have acquired from experience. A unique psychological interplay defines any given diplomatic engagement. It matters, for example, if a state’s leadership thinks that the national honor of the nation has been recently violated and requires redress; the emotional substrata of a revisionist—or revanchist, to use the classical French term of art—state is a reality ignored at one’s peril.
For example, no one who deals today with the Russian leadership and its coterie of diplomats thinks that the country’s traumatic recent history makes no difference to how it acts. At the end of the Cold War, Russia lost not only its artificial 20th century name but also many territories it had controlled since the time of Catherine the Great. Russia plunged from superpower to the uncertain status of a country with a dysfunctional economy, a murky multiethnic and ideological identity, and lots of nuclear weapons for which no practical purpose could be identified. Many claimed that Russians did not lose the Cold War, but rather that they had liberated their country from communism. This is not, however, what the situation actually felt like, either for those within the country or for those outside it. Dealing with Russia became in short order for Europeans and Americans alike bound up with Russia’s wounded pride. Diplomats sensed that their Russian counterparts were particularly sensitive to slights of respect, and that a certain deference was necessary to do business with them. There was a price to be paid for not at least pretending to take the Russians seriously; the U.S. government, in fact, has paid that price several times in recent years.
Russia’s collective state of mind over the past two decades is singular, but hardy unique. The post-World War I transformation of the Ottoman Empire into the Republic of Turkey and the Hapsburg Empire into Austria are other examples of vast and long-standing imperial domains being suddenly shorn away, leaving a rump remainder of uncertain status and self-understanding. At that time Russia was also convulsed by revolution, civil war and the loss of territory. In such circumstances context is critical, and it is never the same from case to case. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder if there are not some similarities amid the contextual differences, with lessons to learn from them. The thought often crossed my mind when I served as the Austrian Ambassador to Russia from 1999 to 2003, and it has returned to visit now and again ever since. What follows is a belated attempt to interrogate the post-Hapsburg and post-Soviet cases together, to see what insights the comparison may yield.
The differences between the Habsburg and Soviet episodes of imperial collapse and national political reconsolidation are of course many and obvious. Not least among them is the fact that they are separated in time by 71 rather eventful years, during which norms, technology and more besides changed significantly. But other differences may be more germane; of these, five stand out.
First, although both empires lost considerable territory, post-Hapsburg Austria ended up a small, landlocked country while the post-Soviet Russian Federation has remained the largest country in the world and a purveyor of enormous natural resource wealth.
Second, Austria was rendered militarily insignificant after World War I, while Russia is still a nuclear power with a large army. Russia’s size and military prowess justify to most observers its retention of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and its continued status as a major player in global affairs. The Austrian Republic neither had nor could dream of seeking such a post-imperial status.
Third, Soviet totalitarianism can in no way be compared to Habsburg political culture. Despite its dark sides and weaknesses, Habsburg Vienna was not Communist Moscow. The Habsburg dynasty aspired to the creation of no “new” man, nor did it ever perfect the methodologies of domestic terror to regiment its population. As a consequence, its passing gave rise in time to nostalgia amid the non-German speaking populations of its lost provinces; that has not been the case among non-Russians in former Soviet territories.
Fourth, the collapse of the Habsburg Empire sent sparks of leftist revolution through much of central Europe, followed in most places by a sharp right-wing reaction. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to far less ideological extremism and consequent political polarization in either eastern Europe or in the former territories of the Soviet Union. In contrast to the short-lived Bela Kun communist government in Budapest, for example, in the post-Soviet space old communist parties were often able to quickly recast themselves as socialist or even social democratic ones. In many cases autocratic leaders of former Soviet republics remained autocratic leaders of newly independent states. Whereas political energies exploded in and around Vienna in 1918–19, they imploded into a muffled heap in and around Moscow after December 1991.
Fifth, while post-World War I Austria never seriously entertained revisionist aspirations to regain part or all of its lost empire, post-Soviet Russia may well do so. Certainly, since the summer 2008 Russia-Georgia War, it is no longer possible to take for granted Russia’s acceptance of the post-Cold War territorial status quo. Vladimir Putin declared the collapse of the Soviet Union “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, implying that if it were possible to reverse that catastrophe he would do so. No Austrian leader has ever made a similar remark about the dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy.
Notwithstanding these important differences, five similarities are worth exploring. At the low points in the Austrian and Russian experiences, both post-imperial national leaderships faced the shock of lost empire; the issue of legal/political continuity; an ideological watershed; a search for a post-imperial political identity; and tension between the sirens of multi-ethnicity and a more parochial nationalism. More broadly, both collapses bore implications for the wider balance of world power, generating issues not only for the former imperial metropoles but for the rest of the world as well. Let us look at these similarities in turn.
The shock of lost empire: The Austro-Hungarian Empire disintegrated almost literally overnight. The Treaty of Saint-Germain, of September 10, 1919, drew the borders of the newly established Republic of Austria in a way that justified French Prime Minister Clémenceau’s description: “Le reste c’est l’Autriche.” Compared with the territory of the former Dual Monarchy, only a small fraction of the lands previously under Habsburg rule remained within the borders of Austria. Some non-German-speaking Habsburg territories were added to the newly recreated Poland and the newly created Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (subsequently Yugoslavia). Austria also lost sizable areas with a predominantly German-speaking population: South Tyrol and the Carinthian Canal Valley were assigned to Italy; the southern part of Styria went to the new Kingdom of the Southern Slavs; a large strip of German-speaking territories in the northern part of the country was given to the new state of Czechoslovakia, and independent Hungary came into existence as well. With all these territorial excisions, Austria lost its predominant role in Mitteleuropa. “The world of yesterday”, as the famous Austrian writer Stefan Zweig put it in the title of his last book, “abruptly disappeared, bringing to a close the illusory stability of the Habsburg monarchy.”
In Vienna, Emperor Charles had to abdicate as the monarchy gave way to a hastily constructed first Austrian Republic. The abdication constituted the concentrated symbolic shock of abrupt change: A 261,000 square-mile European state stretching from Lake Constance in the west to the confines of the Russian Empire in the east was reduced to a territory of hardly more than 52,000 square miles; a multiethnic population of more than fifty million was reduced to about seven million German speakers. Vienna, the former capital of a great European power and one of the largest European cities at the time, suddenly became the confused hydrocephalus of a small country.
The disappearance of Austria-Hungary disrupted the close cultural ties and ethno-political balances that had bound together the various parts of the Habsburg commonwealth, but the harsh realities of 1918–19 were so severe that few had the luxury of dwelling on Austria’s prewar role in European political culture. Indeed, the dislocations caused by four years of war and the sudden economic fragmentation of the realm had made basic living conditions in the first Austrian Republic precarious. The shock of lost empire and even the threat of civil war paled next to the pressing concerns of daily survival in a country facing a serious hunger crisis. Complete exhaustion after the military defeat of World War I and the prevailing catastrophic living conditions generated a climate of political apathy and general depression. Thus, despite the political chaos that followed the collapse of the monarchy, the population remained remarkably calm, politically sleep-walking from one elusive meal to the next. Not knowing how to think about politics in a sudden void of familiarity, people simply stopped thinking about it altogether.
Things were so bad that much of the new political leadership and large segments of the population doubted that Austria could survive as an independent state. Most took the view that Austria should unify with Germany, an objective that was, however, explicitly ruled out by the Allies in the Treaty of Saint-Germain. Hellmut Andics expertly captured the general mood when he called his popular 1962 book on the history of Austria in the interwar period Der Staat, der keiner wollte (“The State Nobody Wanted”).
There is little to be gained from recapitulating the situation in Moscow and the rest of the former Soviet Union after December 1991. It is recent enough to be familiar to many of us. But it is worth reminding ourselves that there was fear of a hunger crisis in the winter immediately following the collapse. It is worth noting, too, that just as the threat of political violence in Vienna receded in the face of exhaustion, apathy and worry about more basic concerns such as personal security from crime and finding dinner also meant that there was little political violence in Moscow or in any of the soon-to-be-former Soviet space. Even though the situation seemed to approach civil war when, in August 1991, Communist hardliners attempted to stage a coup d‘état, nothing of the sort happened. Certainly Boris Yeltsin’s resolute action played a role, but it may have been more important that so few people could summon any energy for a new armed politics. Not even in the Baltic States, where Russia unsuccessfully tried to use military force to prevent secession, did many people get killed. The lesson seems to be that the sudden loss of empire has a way of taking the wind out of politics in general.
Legal/political continuity: The victorious Allied Powers considered the First Republic of Austria to be the legal successor to the Habsburg Monarchy. They thereby proceeded from the assumption that Austria had the same legal identity as the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and therefore bore responsibility for the war. In the negotiations for the Treaty of Saint-Germain, the government in Vienna was simply too weak to challenge the legal fiction of continuity imposed by the Paris Peace Conference. However, Austrian leaders soon took a diametrically opposite position, claiming that the new Republic of Austria was legally distinct from the former Monarchy. This led to extended arguments over a series of financial and diplomatic issues.
In addition to disagreement about the issue of continuity, the Allies and Austria were divided over the fundamental question of Austrian independence. As noted, under the shock of defeat and disintegration an overwhelming majority of Austrians, together with the country’s most influential politicians, favored Austria’s accession to Germany. But, as also noted, the Allies forbade that option. The name Austrians originally chose for the new state was Deutschösterreich (“German Austria”). The Allies insisted on the deletion of the qualifier “Deutsch.” None of this was fair or legally proper, but it was what it was.
The issue of state succession also became an issue when the Soviet Union disappeared from the political landscape: To what extent was the Russian Federation entitled under international law to assume the rights and obligations of the former Soviet Union? This question clearly bore on Moscow’s relationship with the newly independent states that emerged on the territory of the former Soviet Union and with the rest of the world. The matter turned out not to be particularly contentious because of a pre-eminent parallel concern among the interested parties. Western capitals wanted Russia to assume full responsibility for the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the Soviets, including insofar as possible those deployed in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and elsewhere outside the Russian Federation’s territory; Russia wanted control of Soviet nukes to save as much of its superpower status as possible and so was eager to take responsibility for Soviet nukes. The new Russian leadership clearly had no interest in an independent Ukrainian state having a nuclear weapons arsenal.
The official Russian position was based on the claim that the Russian Federation was legally identical with the former Soviet Union and that, therefore, Russia simply continued the legal destiny of the Soviet Union as a subject of international law. Once accepted, this thesis had the remarkable consequence that the Russian Federation was not considered a new state and did not need to apply for international recognition. In the United Nations, for example, Russia took over the permanent seat in the Security Council previously held by the Soviet Union without any objection being raised by the other permanent members of that body.
This, of course, marks a difference from the extended legal quarrels about the status of Austria as a successor of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1918, but it is not clear even today that there should have been a difference. I was directly involved in the discussions on Russian state succession. Shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Austrian Foreign Ministry challenged the Russian Federation’s official position that it was a legal continuation of the Soviet Union. Austria argued that, on the contrary, the Russian Federation had to be considered a new subject of international law. Austria called into question the validity of the international treaties concluded by the former Soviet Union, including, of course, the Austrian State Treaty of 1955 that ensured de facto Austrian neutrality.
Austria’s stand on the Russian state succession turned out to be a lonely one. As the legal adviser to the Austrian Foreign Ministry at that time, I faced an uphill battle trying to explain the Austrian view to my Russian Foreign Ministry counterpart. The atmosphere turned rather tense as he offered a lengthy lecture of Russian history beginning with the first written documents of the Nestor chronicle, dating back to the 13th century. Russia, he explained, has always been and always would be Russia whether it was called the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation or Brigadoon, for that matter.
The Austrian-Russian legal dispute could be swept under the carpet only when Austria joined the European Union in 1995. As a member country, Austria was bound to accept the official position of the European Union, which had recognized the legal opinion of Russia on this matter. On the other hand, since EU accession negated de facto Austria’s neutral status, the one legal hand washed the other, so to speak.
Ideological watersheds: In the course of its disintegration, many people held the Habsburg dynasty responsible for the war and the catastrophe of defeat. In Budapest, as already noted, the turmoil brought forth a Communist Party regime. In Vienna, Communist Party activists tried to follow the Hungarian example but failed. The majority of the Viennese working class did not support a Communist takeover, but what it did support took some time to work out.
In the first general elections held after the war in February 1919, the Socialist Party emerged as the dominant force in a coalition government with the Christian Social Party. The new political leaders did not agree on much regarding Austria’s political direction, but they did agree to officially end the rights and privileges of the former reigning dynasty and to summarily abolish all privileges and titles of the old Austrian aristocracy. Emperor Charles and his family were driven into exile, all property belonging to the crown was confiscated, and the Habsburgs’ return to Austria was prohibited by law. The old monarchical order thus quickly gave way to the egalitarian concepts of a democratic Republic, at least on the surface.
Obviously, the transition from a centuries-old dynastic regime to a democratic system was anything but frictionless. Once the shock of collapse had worn off and food reappeared on shelves, the political climate of postwar Vienna heated up. In most respects it remained extremely warm until the Anschluss put an end to Austrian independence in 1938. Few advocated the restoration of the monarchy. (Even so, Charles tried and failed to gain control of the crown of Hungary.) But political life in the first Austrian Republic remained unsteady, as its democracy tried to function amidst acute tension between the extreme Left and the extreme Right, with almost no practiced democrats on hand to broken compromise.
Something not so different happened in Russia. The dissolution of the Soviet Empire was accompanied by the evaporation of communist ideology as the theoretical infrastructure of the Soviet dictatorship. The complete collapse of Soviet communism as a political regime was compounded by the total failure of communist ideology. The fact that, in the course of the failed putsch in Moscow in August 1991, the Communist Party was totally discredited to the point of being dissolved speaks volumes about the drama of a system that had held a monopoly on power for two generations. As the rights and privileges of the Habsburg aristocracy were abolished, so were those of the Soviet nomenclatura—again, at least on the surface.
Russian politics formally embraced democracy, but as was the case in post-Habsburg Austria, there were few genuine democrats available to operate it. There were, however, lots of people with vested interests in the old social and economic order who were not about to abandon their leverage. Just as the political creeds that attracted the most support left little room for the genuine principles of democratic politics to thrive in interwar Austria, so too did the Yeltsin period see the development of neither real mass-based political parties nor the rule of law. The state remained the locus of wealth and power, and political organization flowed downward in the form of patronage. In the Putin era, the hold of the state over society and the economy tightened, giving rise to a managed or imitation Russian democracy, at best.1
To a considerable extent, too, post-Habsburg and post-Soviet politics adopted the political-ideological form (but not necessarily the content) of the victors of the wars that had brought them down. After World War I, all the great autocratic empires were gone, and so those picking up the pieces in Vienna, Berlin, Istanbul and Moscow pledged themselves to egalitarianism, which seemed to be the rhythm to which modern politics moved in London, Paris and Washington. After December 1991, the Washington Consensus dominated thinking about political economy far and wide, even to some extent, in Beijing and Hanoi. But reflected and reflexive orthodoxies of this sort do not easily take root and thrive. A society cannot simply pick up a political economy like one buys a suit off the rack. As was the case in Austria from 1919 to 1938, what has characterized Russia since 1992 is an ideological miasma. Beneath the façade of democracy is a lowest-common-denominator politics of self-interest and short-term maneuver. The existence of democracy as a formal structure actually helps political actors avoid naming the neo-feudal system in which they are really engaged, and it also serves to fool inexpert and hopeful onlookers, at least for a time.
Post-imperial identity: There is, of course, a connection between ideology and identity. If one knows the higher purposes of politics, the source of its ideological aspirations helps to identify the constituencies for whose benefit those purposes are sought. If the former is wanting, the latter can become problematic.
So it was for post-Habsburg Austrians. One could fill entire libraries with the literature on the problematique of Austrian identity. During the monarchy all the various nationalities, the Catholic Church, the army, the public bureaucracy and the aristocracy professed allegiance to “God, Emperor and Fatherland.” Emperor Franz Josef’s reign as head of state from 1848 to 1916 ran so long that some of his subjects reportedly didn’t know who was older, the Emperor or God. The subjects of the Empire had good reasons to believe that they belonged to a great European power whose achievements in science, education, public administration and many other areas compared well with that of the most advanced countries of the civilized world. The Emperor’s authoritarianism wore lightly; citizens enjoyed a considerable degree of personal freedom. Cultural life thrived and fin de siècle Vienna developed as a major center of the arts and sciences. This Central European civilization provided people with a sense of identity characterized by common features and a certain way of life. Its politics remained for the most part politely behind the curtains.
The Habsburg formula for identity was in a sense pre-modern, stressing faith, personality and country, in that order, and subordinating almost entirely the awareness of the role played by the state. When the state collapsed, however, people suddenly noticed its absence. Once the political structure that had bound together Vienna, Budapest and Prague disappeared it began to dawn that balances many decades and even centuries in the making were now gone. It was as if the music had suddenly stopped and people awakened to the fact that they had waltzed themselves to places they did not recognize.
With the political, economic and cultural links between the three capitals disrupted and the unifying symbol of the monarchy gone, the now-unbalanced forces of nationalism gathered strength. Within the Austrian borders drawn by the Allies, the population consisted predominantly of German speakers, so into the vacuum of ideology poured the notion of “German identity.” The quandary of the day was whether a genuine Austrian nation existed at all, or whether the German-speaking Austrians instead formed part of a larger German nation.
One answer to this question was given by the then-Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, who proclaimed that Austria was the second German state. With the thuggish Nazis rising in neighboring Germany, he added with the air of an aristocrat that Austria was the “better Germany.” This sort of pan-Germanic thinking contributed considerably to the fiasco of 1938. It took the bitter lessons of another world war to convince the Austrians that they were better off in their own state, and to be able to say “small is beautiful” with some conviction.
Oddly enough, however, having accomplished that feat within a generation after World War II, Austrians were soon confounded once again by the question of political and national identity thanks to Austria’s accession to the European Union in 1995. Given their history, Austrians were quick to ask themselves how much was left of their national identity as national prerogatives kept creeping away from EU-member states to Brussels. With a reunified Germany clearly the largest state in the European Union, and, with the economic crisis of recent years, clearly in command of the austerity regime designed to save the eurozone, some Austrians have begun to murmur about a second Anschluss achieved through the intermediate stage of EU membership.
The issue of Russian identity is hardly less complex. Like the Habsburg Empire, the Russian Empire in both its pre-Soviet and Soviet forms was multicultural. The Habsburg German-speaking elite may have taken a somewhat jaundiced view of Austro-Hungarian multiculturalism, but that multiculturalism was genuine. So was the pre-Soviet Russian version, though Russian royalty indulged it much less than did the Habsburg monarchs. The Soviet “internationalist” theme-park version, however, was an artifice of Russian domination simply more hypocritical than the earlier sort, this notwithstanding the rise into the elite of some who were not ethnic Russians.
When the official truth—the Pravda of the Communist Party—revealed itself to be anything but the truth in late 1991, there was nothing readily available to replace it. Although no one believed anymore in the Homo Sovieticus of the official state ideology, the end of the Soviet Union made plain that hardly anyone believed in anything. Russians nationalism had always been a mystical admixture of Orthodox religion and a sense of peoplehood neither entirely European nor entirely Asiatic, but both nationalism and religion had been anathema for so long that no nationalist formula worked as an option for most. The result for a great many was a profound feeling of puzzlement followed by a sense of general disorientation.
Just as it was natural for Russians to look to the West for ideological mooring, they looked that way for a sense of identity as well. The Western model of the free market economy became fashionable in Moscow, and so Russian identity became Homo Chicagoensis. This was, after all, the time of the “Chicago boys”, Jeffrey Sachs and company, who came to Moscow with economic advice that turned out to fit about as well with Russian economic conditions as democracy fit with post-Habsburg and post-Soviet political conditions.
Other Russians eventually turned to the Orthodox Church for inspiration and positive values. The Yeltsin and Putin Administrations supported the Orthodox revival and used it in their quest to erect a post-communist Russian identity. For the sake of continuity, if not also for other purposes, the common folk were also told that the Russian Federation remained a “world power” on a par with the United States, China and other global actors. Most wanted to believe this, and so they did. This belief in turn provided a bridge to the widespread nostalgia for the “previous times.” That nostalgia in turn abets to this day a complacency about the return of elements of the old Soviet mentality so vividly displayed in the later Putin era.
Where does this leave the Russians in terms of political identity? Confused. Hardly anyone desires a return to the Communist era, but few have embraced parochial nationalism, as shown by the surprising weakness of post-Soviet anti-Semitism. The early enthusiasm for aping Western materialism could never work for the many, or for long, even if the economy had been able to support it. The murky waters of the post-Soviet identity are thus still dark and difficult to see through. There are very few communists, few fascists, few genuine liberal democrats, and few partisans of any identifiable political identity. Instead, there are successful sycophants of the state, and there is everyone else. After the fall of the Habsburg monarchy, the Austrian people had asked themselves: Are we German or are we Austrian in character? After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian-speakers within the Russian Federation have yet to ask themselves a similar question. Perhaps Russian speakers in the Ukraine will end up posing it for them.
Multiethnicity and nationalism: Just as ideology and political identity are related, so are identity and the question of ethnicity and nationalism. The death of the Habsburg Double Eagle put an end to a multiethnic empire that was in many respects a forerunner of the ideas of the European Union. The idea that the different nationalities making up the Empire were bound together in a single political and economic space resembles somewhat the concept of the European integration.
Habsburg rulers obviously failed to establish a regime that created a fair balance among all major nationalities. In 1867, a legal arrangement created a confederation between the Austrian part of the Monarchy and the Hungarians. That seemed to work tolerably well for a time, but the Habsburgs failed to devise similar compromises with the other ethnic groups of the crown, especially the Czechs and Moravians. This may have contributed to the ultimate disintegration of the Empire in the throes of the World War. Yet despite the weaknesses of the constitutional arrangement post-1867, Habsburg rulers never attempted to “Germanize” the empire as French rulers in an earlier time tried to “francify” all the denizens of territorial France. For Austrians, then, the year 1918 marked a total paradigm shift, away from being primus inter pares in a multiethnic state to being defined, in the absence of any other obvious alternative, by language.
Yet this was odd, as speaking German did not make Austrians ethnically Austrian. The very idea of an Austrian ethnicity has never made much sense, and it certainly didn’t in 1919. One reason is that ethnicity is a relative concept. If there are hardly any other people within the boundaries of a country who are ethnically different from the majority, then that majority cannot be an ethnicity. It just is what it is, as is the case in Austria, which has only ever had a tiny number of Slovenians and Croats within its borders.
This is the Austrian conundrum: Austrians can’t be politically correct members of a multiethnic state, but they can’t readily constitute an Austrian ethnic supermajority either. All they can be is ethnically German, if one takes the linguistic trait as definitive. Yet Austrians have learned the hard way that they don’t want to be that either.
Unlike post-Hapsburg Austria, the Russian Federation is still multiethnic. But just as was the case with the Soviet Union before it, Russian ethnic consciousness and the old impulse toward “Russification” remain strong. Russian leaders overtly turned to the values of Russian nationalism (designated as “patriotism”) during times of war and crisis. Based on the majority of ethnic Russians living in the territory of the Russian Federation, the post-Soviet government has pursued a de facto policy of “Russians first.” This policy has increasingly alienated the non-Russian components of the Russian Federation, especially the Muslims in the North Caucasus.
In the end, we are left with a strange situation: The Austrians don’t have a coherent formula to deal with the multiethnic/nationalism dilemma, but it works for them; the Russians do have a coherent and traditionally validated formula, but it is failing.
Picking up where the Habsburg and Soviet Empires left off obviously hasn’t been easy either for Austrians or for Russians. In both situations the forces of disintegration prevailed when the basic aspirations and interests of the constituent parts of the two entities could no longer be either suppressed or balanced in a unitary political framework. But what have these imperial collapses meant for everyone else?
Let us begin an answer by noting that from the time of Peter the Great until the unification of Germany, both Russia and Austria were two of the five pillars of the classic European balance of power, along with Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire. The unification of Germany and the rise of America began to upset this balance before the onset of World War I, but the basic purpose of the balance, codified in the Congress of Vienna, was vindicated: No one of these five powers was able to dominate Europe and, more important perhaps, none tried. The result was more than a century of peace between the great powers.
When the Habsburg Empire ended up on the losing side of World War I, its dissolution was not inevitable. But the overweening idealism of Woodrow Wilson combined with the outsized ambitions of France (and to a lesser degree Britain) joined to ensure it. The various smaller nations and ethnic groups that had been part of Austro-Hungary, now alone and unprotected, soon became the pawns of a chess game between a revisionist Germany and a revolutionary Russia. In a phrase, Rapallo devoured Locarno. The Petite Entente, devised by the French at Versailles, never could never substitute for the structural role in the European balance that the Habsburg Empire had played, so that its rapid dismemberment was clearly one of several causes of World War II, and the Holocaust with it.2 Thus, while the end of the Habsburg Empire was bloodless at the time, the fuller consequences of its dissolution were anything but.
The collapse of the Soviet Empire was also relatively bloodless. But it, too, undid a balance, albeit a bipolar one that spanned not just Europe but the globe. The question is, will there be a bloody delayed response to the Soviet collapse as there was to the Habsburg one seven decades before it?
Clearly, all that Peter the Great achieved and the Soviets extended and reinforced is gone. The Baltic States are once again independent, and most of central and eastern Europe now forms part of the European Union and NATO. These nations have at last found the kind of protection they had within the fold of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the difference being that they are now formally equal partners within multilateral alliance systems and not mere subjects of imperial rule. The institutions of the Atlantic Alliance, in other words, are the functional equivalent for these purposes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In a sense, what was lost in 1919 because of what happened to Austria was found again in 1991 because of what happened to Russia.
Multiethnic empires have gotten a bad rap now for a long time. Only one large one remains, and that is China; but it does so in ideological disguise, at least for the time being. Yet multiethnic polities are popular again in another form, as the successes of the European Union show. What history seems to suggest is that multiethnic empires can survive for a considerable length of time under one of two conditions: either domestic order is maintained from above by a strong military and police force, or the imperial order is not challenged in the first place because it is seen to be either legitimate within prescribed limits or superior to the available alternatives. The latter condition is, after all, how the European Union endures despite its many frailties.
The Austro-Hungarian monarchy probably could not have survived long past 1919 because it increasingly lacked the consent of the different nations governed from Vienna. It was being challenged by the empire’s minorities, whether ethnic, ideological or religious, and its military and police forces were not up to the task of suppressing multiple and simultaneous rebellions. But had it not been for the World War, and had its dissolution not been mandated as an immediate one, the monarchy might have lasted several more decades and its eventual devolution might not have contributed to another world war. That, however, we cannot know.
Such speculation is nevertheless not entirely idle, because the aftermath of the Soviet collapse has not yet played itself out. We have witnessed what the full collapse of a multiethnic entity can look like: We saw it in the several phases of the Yugoslav bloodbath, which itself may not be completely finished. The future of Russia is not finished or foreordained either. Russia may try to reacquire its historic sphere of influence; if so, the war with Georgia is only the first phase of a long campaign. Or the Russian Federation itself, multiethnic and without any ideological glue to hold it together, may disintegrate, slowly or rapidly, from the North Caucasus all the way to the Pacific Ocean, greatly affecting the future of Central Asia, India, China, Japan and Korea. Knowing what we do now about the eventual consequences of the Habsburg fall, that is perhaps something to think about.
1See Lilia Shevtsova, “Imitation Russia”, The American Interest (November/December 2006).
2One can argue, too, that the wars of Yugoslav Succession were also the consequence of the absence of the Habsburg pillar of European security. See Adam Garfinkle, “Franz Josef Clinton”, The National Interest (Spring 1999).