The Tragedy of History
The Fading Shadow of the Habsburgs

Some thoughts on the Austro-Hungarian empire’s legacy on the occasion of the passing of Otto von Habsburg.

Published on: July 20, 2011
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  • Larry, San Francisco

    The fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a huge disaster. What is interesting was that few thought it would be. I think Robert Musil’s epic unfinished novel “The Man Without Qualities” is a fascinating look at that period and the sentiments of people who did not appreciate what they had.

  • John Barker

    The historian John Lukacs has written of the Habsburgs with ideas similar to this post. I wonder if Berger has ever reviewed any of Lukacs books on this topic. I would like to read more about how empires keep nationalities in check.

  • I don’t know why I’ve always had a sort of admiration for the Hapsburgs. Maybe because they preferred to acquire territory through marriage instead of war.
    If Austria-Hungary had managed to stay together,perhaps as a federation, Hitler wouldn’t have been able to make his first conquests, etc.

  • WigWag

    “There is a conventional view that this state was doomed by the conflicts between its various nationalities. I am skeptical about this. The conflicts were real enough. But one can easily imagine counterfactual scenarios in which the conflicts are resolved—for instance, if the Slavophile Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was assassinated in 1914 (ironically by a pan-Slav nationalist), had succeeded to the throne. The Habsburg state was destroyed by the folly of its starting what became World War I, and by the folly of Wilsonian idealism which encouraged every separatist nationalism in the region.” (Peter Berger)

    I think the most brilliant description ever written of the events leading up to the assassination of the archduke can be found in Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb Gray Falcon.” I am in love with this book and find myself re-reading the chapter on the the Franz Ferdinand murder quite often. I was always perplexed about how West could write about this event with such intense passion until an article about the book by Christopher Hitchens provided me with an answer. Hitchens pointed out that “when one scans these pages, one must continually bear in mind that for her, as for most educated English people of her generation, the events of 28 June 1914 were the moral and emotionaly equivalent of 11 September 2001, the terrible date on which everything suddenly changed for the worst.”

    Franz Ferdinand may have been a “Slavophile” but his love was not requited. While the Croats in particular appreciated the protection the Hapsburgs offered them from the Ottoman Turks, for the most part, Franz Ferdinand and his kinsmen were detested; even worse, the arch duke was considered by much of the Slavic world to be an officious moron(which he was.)

    Unsurprisngly West, who wrote “Black Lamb Gray Falcon” about two decades after the the conclusion of the Great War and only a few short years before the start of World War II had no great love for the Hapsburgs; nor did she think very much of the Austrians. Near the end of the second volume of her work she said, speaking of the Austrians,

    “The were witless and careless to a degree that can be judged by their tolerance of the Hapsburgs as their rulers, century after century. This family, from the unlucky day in 1273 when the College of Electors chose Rudolf of Hapsburg to be King of the Romans, on account of his mediocrity, till the abdication of Charles II, in 1918 produced no genius, only two rulers of ability in Charles V and Maria Theresa, countless dullards and not a few imbeciles and lunatics.”

    In his recent article about West, Hitchens seems to agree. He points out that Hitler was an Austrian and repeats the ditty that “Austria’s twin achievement was to have persuaded the world that Hitler was a German and Beethoven a Viennese.”

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Dr. Berger’s ending comments is eerily timely about how the Habsburg Empire plausibly could have preempted Nazism.

    Anders Breivik, a Norwegian Nationalist member of the Masonic Order with a Postmodern-like hodge podge ideology opposed to “cultural Marxism,” mass murdered some 90 people, many innocent children at a Labor Party Youth Retreat in Norway after Berger’s column was posted

    Oddly, Breivki claims in a 1,500 page online book that he is a supporter of the “Vienna School of Thought.”

    Reuters News states that Breivik’s reference to Vienna concerns the halt of the Ottoman Turkish invasion in Vienna in 1683. Link:

    But as Berger presciently states: “If the Habsburgs had still ruled in the 1940s, “Auschwitz” would not have happened.”

    Breivik has used the same terrorist methods as the 1914 assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that triggered Word War I. Perhaps, Breivik believed he could also foment a Nationalistic war?

    However, Berger points out that it was the folly of Wilsonian idealism that encouraged separatist Nationalism.

    Prof. Berger reminds us that the Habsburg’s are apparently still with us just as Wilsonian universalism and the Postmodern-Nationalistic reaction to it.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Dr. Berger’s above column “The Fading Shadow of the Habsburgs” on the end of the Habsburg dynasty and family is eerily timely.

    After Prof. Berger’s column was posted, Anders Breivik, a 32-year old Norwegian nationalist and a Freemason with a Postmodern hodge-podge ideology opposed to “cultural Marxism” and Muslim immigration, mass murdered some 90 Norwegians in Norway, mostly innocent children attending a Labor Party Summer Youth Camp. reported that in his 1,500 page online book, Breivik supported the “Vienna School of Thought” referring to the halt of the Ottoman Turkish invasion of Vienna in 1683. Link:

    Dr. Berger coincidentally points out that the Slavic supremicist Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in 1914 by a pan-Slavic Serbian nationalist, resulting in the start of World War I.

    Berger adds: “The Habsburg state was destroyed by the folly of its starting what became World War I, and by the folly of Wilsonian idealism which encouraged every separatist nationalism in the region.” And: “If the Habsburgs had still ruled in the 1940s, “Auschwitz” would not have happened.”

    Breivik apparently used the terrorist methods of the assassin of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and an unrecognizable Neo-Nazi nationalistic Aryan ideology but the apparent impetus for his acts was opposition to the perceived folly of idealistic Neo-Wilsonianism of the Norwegian Labor Party.

    Perhaps the shadow of the Habsburgs is not fading but casting a mirrored image that foreshadows our time?

  • Tom AKT

    “Austrian Poland must have been acquired by the Habsburgs, most likely by way of a dynastic marriage”
    Instead of revisionist misty eye junk, why don’t you spend half a second looking up data? You don’t even need to trouble yourself by going to the library now days.
    1) the Habsburgs dismantled Poland out of existence in 1772, this was not friendly; and nothing very “Christian”, but rather the act of paranoid rulers. This is despite the fact that Poles saved Vienna from the Turks 89 years earlier. The ensuing so called “stability” was marked by repeated uprisings by Poles, trying to gain back independence. 2) Austrians on the whole, welcomed with opened arms the Nazis, and later confiscated Polish owned properties even before the second war started (and still will not give it back). Take a few seconds to look up your data before posting garbage.

  • Matt Scofield

    Good article, but Tom’s got 2 good points, one about doing some brief research, and two about the Poles always getting the shafted by the West. I have no Polish ancestry myself, but its clear from history the inverse relationship between value they have consistently provided and the respect accorded to them.

  • joe

    Mr. Berger, ORF broadcast Otto von Habsburg’s funeral live: They included Herzog von Auschwitz again and without further commentary.

  • John Lund

    The Habsburgs are back!

    Austrian Habsburgs Claim Responsibility For the Kidnapping; Will Marry First Daughter to Habsburg Prince and Form Austro-American Empire

    The Daily Alp has the full story:

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