Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire
Belknap Press, 2016, 1,008 pp., $39.95
The Habsburg Empire: A New History
Belknap Press, 2016, 592 pp., $35
Prague’s Municipal House (1912) is an expression of confidence in a booming Austria-Hungary, far from the ramshackle, decaying empire of legend. Art Nouveau master Alphonse Mucha’s ceiling fresco in the Mayor’s Hall, “The Slavic Concord,” features the Empire’s Slavic nationalities circling in cultural harmony. A few rooms down, a Secession-style take on Islamic architecture was originally the Bosnian Parlor, hastily renamed the Oriental Parlor after Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination triggered World War I. By 1918, the new Republic of Czechoslovakia declared its independence at the Municipal House, followed less than twenty years later by Nazi and then Soviet takeovers. After the fall of Communism, the Municipal House was a wreck until the city restored its former splendor. But even the mini-Slavic unity of democratic Czechoslovakia (on display in the Moravian-Slovak Parlor) didn’t last, as the country fragmented into separate Czech and Slovak Republics.
For nearly the entirety of the past 1,200 years, Central Europe has been a multiethnic space governed by overlapping political entities. We don’t think of it that way after the 20th century’s waves of ethnic cleaning, followed by a Cold War division opposing advanced, democratic Western Europe with feudal, primitive, totalitarian Eastern Europe—even though Vienna is 150 miles southeast of Prague. In fact, Central Europe had gotten a bad rap since the 19th century, when German historians started touting the nation-state as the end of history. While the nation-states of the far west of Europe papered over their fractures early on with nominally unified countries (pay no attention to the Irish or Basques behind the curtain!), German historians were appalled by Central Europe’s fragmentation into multiple Germanic, Slavic, and Italian polities under the Holy Roman Empire. The earlier institutional arrangements, they claimed, had kept Germans from their national destiny. With the creation of the German Empire in 1871, they hastily invented an imperial past for the Hohenzollerns. The new German Empire engaged in a series of Kulturkampfs—not just Bismarck’s famous one against the Catholic Church, but also against its numerous Slavic and Balt minorities in an effort to turn them into Germans.
We are in a new revisionist period. Peter Wilson and Pieter Judson, in their respective books, are each trying to rescue Central Europe from the Stanley Kowalski Theory of History, in which Adolf Hitler constantly shrieks, “We’ve had this state from the very beginning!” With today’s increasing nationalism and anger at multinational institutions, the Holy Roman and Austrian Empires offer a perspective on an earlier era of European union, when subdivided power attempted to channel conflict into peaceful resolutions. The eclipse of that tradition over the long 19th century (1789–1914) led to the disasters of the 20th.
These books synthesize two generations of research in a huge number of languages and archives; their task is made even more difficult by the repeated border changes in the region from 1740 to 1993. The authors heroically simplify the story of these large, long-running entities, emphasizing longer-term institutional developments above grand strategy, diplomacy, or political history. (More economic and demographic history would have added context, but even syntheses can only stuff so much into a single book.) General readers may still find the detail daunting. The authors will hopefully one day abandon all caveats and boil their works down to the length of an Oxford Very Short Introduction.
Austria’s Maria Theresa hastened to get her husband named Holy Roman Emperor, despite calling his coronation a “Punch and Judy Show” and the imperial crown a “fool’s hat.” In the 18th-century heyday of absolute monarchy, the Holy Roman Emperor had no such absolutist pretensions. He sat at the apex of a system of local, regional, and empire-wide legislative, judicial, and diplomatic structures. The Holy Roman Empire, during its final two centuries starting with the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) was roughly contiguous with today’s Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Belgium, and northeast Italy. Modern maps of the Empire portray a chaotic congeries of more than three hundred German entities waiting for Destiny to make them proper nation-states, but the reality was closer to a federal system. Starting in the early Middle Ages, each territory (many quite small) evolved its own political arrangements: a variety of princely, episcopal, and merchant-controlled states.
Most of the states were represented in regional assemblies called Kreise, or circles. Within even quasi-monarchial states, diets generally held the taxing power. Rulers who abused their taxing power or embezzled the people’s money could get sued in the Empire’s regional and Empire-wide courts, which also adjudicated property rights, including disputes between rulers and peasant communes. If the courts disappeared, one official prophesied on the eve of the Holy Roman Empire’s dissolution, “The only robbers threatening the subjects’ property will be the tax collector and the French and German soldiers.”
Groups and states jealously guarded their traditional liberties, when they weren’t retroactively inventing them. These liberties were corporate and status-based, rather than the individual equality established (in principle) by the American and French Revolutions. As in England and the Dutch Republic, everyone had liberties, but the controlling groups, which in different combinations included urban merchants, landed gentry engaged in commercial farming, aristocrats, and monarchial elements, had more. In the Holy Roman Empire, religious minorities were more disadvantaged and often had little choice but to convert or migrate. Serfs were at the bottom of the heap but had enforceable traditional rights, unlike slaves in English colonies.
At the Holy Roman Empire’s apex sat the Reichstag, the Empire-wide parliament (representing Estates, not people), whose powers included raising money for common defense and regulating internal tariffs. The Reichstag was proto-modern, sitting in permanent session from 1663 until the end of the Empire; the British Parliament only began permanently sitting in 1717. Given the era’s poor transportation, the Reichstag increasingly became a virtual body that conducted its business through the imperial postal network. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton condemned the Holy Roman Empire’s weak central authority and frequent gridlock, although the Empire’s dynamics fit the model of Federalist 10 and Federalist 51.
The territories of the seven Electors (with the power to select the Emperor) were generally the most powerful states within the Empire, but the individual Electors typically had important dynastic territories outside the Empire, including Hungary (Austria) and Prussia (Brandenburg). Thus the Empire served as Europe’s “soft center,” in historian Tim Blanning’s phrase, with promises of collective defense creating coalitions to counter overaggressive members and external interests counterbalancing imperial ones.
Nobles might hold widely scattered territory. The Liechtensteins, still hereditary monarchs in their tiny principality today, had their major holdings far to the east. When there were territorial disputes within the Empire, the Holy Roman Emperor functioned as a persuader rather than a decider, since mediation was more likely to lead to greater buy-in and to defuse military conflict than straight win-lose adjudications. In the early modern period, as territorial states slowly consolidated and the Reformation swept through, political conflicts exploded into military ones every few decades—some catastrophic, like the Thirty Years’ War, which killed about 30 percent of the population. Wilson’s focus on institutional continuities underplays this, although Madison and Hamilton highlighted the internecine wars for their readers.
Beginning with the Brandenburg Elector (and Prussian King) Frederick the Great’s seizure of Silesia from Austria’s Maria Theresa in 1740, which launched the War of the Austrian Succession, the Holy Roman Empire declined in relative importance. Its judicial and trade functions continued, so that even though Austria ended the Empire in 1806 under pressure from Napoleon, many of the polities hoped that some version could be revived after 1815. It took 24 years to work out which jurisdictions inherited the central legal records, and five more to distribute them across Germany, to the torment of future historians.
Silesia is famous for more than its sorrel soup, which puts New York schav to shame: As the Austrian Empire’s most economically advanced province in the 18th century, its loss was devastating. This is where Judson’s book picks up the story. In a race for survival, Austria moved to modernize its military and state, but the sheer size and diversity of its territories made French- and Prussian-style centralization implausible (not to mention that those states were less centralized than suggested by their absolutist claims). To meet the threat, the Austrian Empire cycled through phases of monarchial-aristocratic deal-making, reforming absolutism, Napoleonic quasi-puppet status, reactionary absolutism, democratic/nationalist revolution, and bureaucratic police state. Finally, after disastrous defeat in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War, the rebranded Austro-Hungarian Empire emerged as a relatively stable constitutional monarchy until collapsing in World War I a half-century later. Only a Game of Thrones addict could follow the political details, but each regime grappled with similar issues. Modernization required widespread education, literacy, and economic freedom, but generated political and cultural demands from the people—and reaction from the aristocrats who were losing their privileged position.
The mid-18th-century world of the Austrian Empire is remote. Austria today has one of the highest incomes in the world, and even those constituents of the Empire that were later trapped behind the Iron Curtain are highly educated and at least middle income. The 18th-century population was overwhelmingly rural, subject to frequent feudal dues (including physical coercion of labor), illiterate, and often in poor health. Fragmented by a formidable series of mountain ranges from the Austrian Alps through the Balkans and Carpathians, the Empire was extremely ethnically diverse, with multiple languages spoken in most towns. Most of today’s regional languages did not exist in anything like their current form: There was a wide variety of local, often mutually incomprehensible, dialects, and apart from German virtually none had a vernacular written literature. Making matters even more difficult, the Austrian Empire had just expanded to the east, reconquering what are now Hungary and the Romanian province of Transylvania from the Ottomans and incorporating many Protestants into what had been an ideologically Catholic empire.
This congeries of peoples did not bode well for creating a unified, modernized state, but Maria Theresa was a world-class schmoozer who was willing to cut deals. She wooed the Hungarians and, while she disliked Jews, privileged their settlement in the economically important port of Trieste. In the 1770s, needing to improve agricultural productivity, she mandated primary schooling for all children of both sexes, placing the Austrian Empire at the forefront of European educational developments. The Empire had already begun the process of codifying the dialects into the languages we are familiar with today, the better to disseminate publications on agricultural improvements and to issue comprehensible military commands to peasant armies. With wider literacy, people using the now standardized vernacular languages were able to communicate in larger groups. Hungarian and Slovak newspapers appeared in the 1780s.
Maria Theresa’s son, the officious Joseph II, accelerated the pace of reform, provoking revolts across the Empire that make Brexit seem pale by comparison. Powerful Hungarian magnates (that country’s great nobility) were particularly infuriated by his ban on Latin, their longtime administrative lingua franca. By the time of his premature death in 1790, Joseph despaired, regretting that he had ever tried to institute reforms. But while the Austrian Empire suffered repeated defeats in the coming French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, Joseph had modernized well enough, and it survived.
Maria Theresa and her pricklier successors realized the need for an honest, efficient imperial bureaucracy, much of it drawn from the newly literate middle class. Nobles also participated, leading to inevitable complaints about precedence and comparative workload. Dressed in their colorful uniforms (now the source of operetta costumes), the new bureaucrats were loyal to the Empire, their means of advancement. By interacting with the peasantry, the bureaucrats created a new politics. Starting in the 1770s, many peasants identified with the Empire and its officials as a counterweight to local aristocratic control.
The state continued to modernize during Metternich’s post-1815 political reaction. That regime ended with the 1848 revolutions, spearheaded by radical intellectuals who carried the banner for language as the signifier of each group’s essential national culture. Their vision of government as an expression of cultural purity soon collapsed because they preferred posturing to legislative deal-making. The new, young Emperor staged a countercoup eliminating all promised democratic rights. (Judson calls him Francis Joseph, but this review, following U.S. custom, will use his German name of Franz Josef. He was also Ferenc József in Hungarian, Franjo Josip in Croatian, František Josef in Czech and Slovakian, and Francesco Giuseppe in Italian. As Franc Jožef, his enthusiastic endorsement of Slovenia’s Kranjska sausage still sways the European Commission.) The Emperor’s bureaucratic police state sought to micromanage every aspect of society, putting the Obama Administration’s regulatory tidal wave to shame; IRS apparatchik Lois Lerner would weep at her comparatively puny persecutorial powers.
It didn’t last. Emperor Franz Josef was an incompetent commander-in-chief who destroyed the dictatorship’s credibility in a series of losing wars culminating in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War. The following year, the Hungarian magnates seized the opportunity to create a federal state with domestic autonomy for Hungary, unified with the Austrian half of the Empire only for military and foreign policy purposes. Both parts of what was now known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire had functioning parliaments, with strong provincial parliaments and expanding franchises on the Austrian side. Franz Josef’s military deficiencies were outweighed by his political gifts. Ostentatiously bourgeois, as befitted the First Bureaucrat (tours of both of his Vienna palaces feature his iron beds), he continued to successfully play the nationalities card to build popular support. You can still get a glimmer of the imperial cult in Vienna’s tchotchke stores, which are shrines to Franz Josef and his big-haired, bulimic, assassinated consort, Empress Sisi.
Once the genie of identity politics was launched from its souvenir Franz Josef tankard, it was hard to contain. More groups demanded recognition—and their leaders began aggressively policing the approved ethnic boundaries. Ethnic leaders insisted on schooling in their own regional languages—and on preventing their followers from learning other languages, even those spoken by neighbors in the same town. Group leaders also made it difficult for people to opt out of their assigned ethnic identity.
The biggest conflicts were in Hungary, still magnate-dominated, which imposed an aggressive Hungarianization program across the populations of today’s Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, and Romanian Transylvania. The Austrian half was more relaxed. While Prague was a center of Czech linguistic nationalism, by the 20th century, the system was moving toward an ethnic variation on the Holy Roman Empire’s Kreis Assemblies, with a proposed third national parliament for Slavs in addition to the existing Austrian German and Hungarian ones, atop the provincial parliaments.
Whatever the ethnic tensions, many of the common people identified with parliamentary democracy under the Empire, even across ethnicities. The impoverished eastern province of Galicia was run by Polish aristocrats with the assistance of Jewish estate managers. When the upper crust rigged a 1911 parliamentary election in the town of Drohobych, working-class Jews and Ruthenian peasants recently enfranchised by universal manhood suffrage joined in protest; 26 people were killed as the elites quashed the demonstration. Not all interethnic relations were rosy: In rapidly growing Vienna, Mayor Karl Lueger’s populist anti-Semitic party dominated local politics for years.
Franz Josef’s reign saw rapid growth and urbanization, with rising living standards. Judson’s treatment of economic history, however, is regrettably cursory. He emphasizes the harmonious look of the Empire’s cities, regardless of region—a judgment I can confirm after visits to Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Olomouc, Kraków, and Karlovy Vary (the former Carlsbad in the Sudetenland). An Imperial city typically still has its central square and some medieval buildings. In newer neighborhoods, sinuous caryatids still hold up late 19th-century doors, while early 20th-century neighborhoods feature Art Nouveau/Secession styles. Every city still has its theater, usually stuccoed in a bright yellow. And as late as July 1914 every city was racing to modernize: In the month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, provincial officials across the Austrian half of the Empire were warning of the imminent disaster that would befall…if they were unable to get additional staff to deal with anything from insurance to medical technology.
World War I brought this to a sudden end. In Judson’s telling, the aristocrats controlling the military and foreign policy, who were outside parliamentary control, plunged into war because they feared the continued erosion of their status in the Empire’s political system. Perhaps also, as with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s intervention in the Presidential election earlier this year, the octogenarian Emperor had lost his political touch. The Empire snapped into a military dictatorship and immediate catastrophe: In the war’s opening months, the Russians conquered the Empire’s key eastern grain-growing regions. Having grabbed total power, the military proved unable to provide food or run a war machine, even as the Emperor’s peoples fought loyally and endured huge casualties. Franz Josef’s death at age 86 in 1916 felt like the seal on the Empire’s doom. With the collapse of economic links, famine, and impending defeat, the Empire began breaking up despite the frantic efforts of Franz Josef’s successor, the young Emperor Karl. By the time of the Versailles postwar conference, the Empire’s regions had already become independent mini-states, even though, Judson writes, the Allies (but not the American “associate”) would have preferred to keep Austria-Hungary together.
If 1848 was the Springtime of Peoples, 1918 was the beginning of their long, hot summer. Radical pro-independence bourgeois national elites, who had been tiny minorities before the war, now led the triumphant new nation-states; in an effort to stay relevant, pre-war pro-Imperial elites claimed that they had always favored independence. Emperor Karl died, destitute, a few years after the war. As we now know from post-euro crisis research, the breakup of the Empire’s single currency and trade zone compounded the war’s economic dislocations. With no central parliament or Emperor to build coalitions or play one ethnic group off against another, the new states modeled themselves on pre-war Hungary, with politicians from the dominant ethnic group whipping up support by oppressing local minorities. The new states were too small to defend themselves militarily, leading to the Nuclear Winter of Peoples in 1939, which lasted fifty years (sixty in the South Slavic provinces incorporated into the former Yugoslavia). On a happier note for tourists and those locals who can now make a living off them, this left the Empire’s city centers frozen in time, allowing us to be enchanted by their beautiful architecture (and tchotchke stores) today.
The Holy Roman and Austrian Empires were hardly paradises—particularly for peasants and oppressed minorities—except in a Madisonian sense. With the Empires too multifarious for anyone to control for long, they created environments in which common people could usually manage and, by the 19th century, flourish. As it turned out, when the 19th-century ideal of the unitary nation-state became reality, elites posing as populists could easily make it an engine of oppression.
To paraphrase Voltaire, if the Empires didn’t exist, they would have to be reinvented—and they were. The year 1949 saw the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Federal Republic of Germany, the latter re-creating powerful states (Bundesländer) that were loosely coterminous with their boundaries in 1815. They were followed by more of the overlapping, gridlock-creating multinational entities that European publics love to hate: today’s European Union and Eurozone, joined by world organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the Bank for International Settlements, and the World Trade Organization. Emperor Karl’s son Otto spent the last third of his long life trying to pull things back together, serving as a member of the European Parliament for twenty years. Maria Theresa would empathize.