In defence of the Habsburgs

The failure of the Austro-Hungarian order spelt the end of the most cosmopolitan culture in Europe's history.

Habsburgs map
Habsburgs map

To try to discuss in a short essay the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s experiences of what we now label as cosmopolitan is not easy. Such an under-taking borders on either feeble-mindedness or hubris, or perhaps both simultaneously. Yet it is still worth attempting, for few empires have been given such an undeservedly dismal, almost dismissive posthumous reputation as this one. Historians and others have concentrated on its final days, on the unheroic and somewhat ignominious end of ‘the people’s prison’. The rest is silence. Yet this is strange, given that we are dealing with an empire which from a historical perspective could equally well have been held up as a model and which could for a very long time demonstrate creditable, even surprising successes in dealing with problems caused by the diversity of peoples, languages, religions and cultures within its borders. A large number of the empire’s inhabitants held the same view,  and this opinion even intensified after the downfall. Nostalgia? Perhaps it was that too – but not without a core of dispassionately documented facts. Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday is still the apotheosis of the world which after 1914 would finally disappear. With gentle melancholy Zweig emphasises the security which characterized this world, its thorough predictability and tolerance. He was by no means alone in this view. People other than the empire’s German-speaking Jews have also borne witness to the same thing: the different nations of the empire can point to writers of the same opinion as Zweig, all of whom are part of their own national canons.

What was it that really held together this empire, as fragile as a honey-comb? In this essay it is only possible to suggest a tentative answer, to single out a few institutions which right to the end – and perhaps primarily during the last fifty years of the empire – acted as a form of unifying putty, all of them equipped with qualities which we could identify as being cosmopolitan. I will refrain from ranking them here, but it is still difficult not to name among them first and foremost the house of Habsburg itself and the emperor as an individual in particular. In practice we mean here Franz Josef, emperor from 1848 until his death in 1916.

Franz Josef reigned for what then corresponded roughly to a normal lifespan. In purely physical terms this means that he was always there and had always been there, an emperor in a light pigeon-blue uniform who gazed down at his subjects from the wall of the railway station, the office, the coffee house or the barracks as he had gazed down at their parents and grandparents, and in future would gaze down also at the next generation. Somehow he had always been old, older than anyone else in the empire.

This emperor was, of course, no democrat, but his authoritarian claims were mitigated by the empire’s own special form of Schlamperei (sloppiness), by court etiquette and by what we would today call his charismatic personality. To many people he seemed to be an almost divine father figure who somewhat over-protectively tended to describe his subjects as meine Völker (my peoples). But his patriarchal assertions contained both consideration and the endeavour to be just: the emperor was pedantically eager to treat the empire’s different nations and creeds equally. The fragile honeycomb would crumble at once if any nation were allowed to be superior to the others. As an individual, the emperor himself symbolized this order. He spoke his empire’s most important languages almost fluently, all with the aim of coming as close as possible to each and every one of his subjects in order to show that no one was being favoured at the expense of another.

In this Franz Josef succeeded. The German-speaking writer Johannes Urzidil from Prague has given this success a name. He uses the term ‘hinternational’: the empire manifested itself behind (ie on a level with), and not above the sense of belonging to a nation, and so became part of the individual’s identity. The narrowly national was thereby dissolved by a kind of cosmopolitan transcendence.

In his turn, the emperor would have been inconceivable without the Catholic Church. This was the completely dominant religious institution in the empire, and was by tradition closely tied to both the imperial dynasty and its claim to authority. The church must therefore also be named as one of the institutions which helped hold the empire together. Like the House of Habsburg, the church was by definition opposed to the particular and the unilateral. The Catholic Church had global ambitions, a universal set of teachings and its centre in Rome, geographically and politically outside the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where it operated at a time when people still believed in God. The church was also an open institution: it did not ask where churchgoers came from as long as they did not question its teachings and organization. The same was true for the priests, monks or nuns who were recruited without regard to their national origins or class, and who were later sent in the service of the church from one corner of the empire to the other (and sometimes to places outside it).

This opportunity for geographical mobility and a personal career – often in the form of rapid social mobility – was shared by the Catholic Church with another institution in the empire – the army. This was sometimes referred to as die grosse Schweigerin (the great silent one), an expression which reveals that questions about one’s background and previous existence were asked just as seldom in the military academies, the mess-rooms or the barrack squares, as in the Catholic Church. But a label like die grosse Schweigerin can also be given a narrower, more cosmopolitan interpretation: in an army there can only be one language of command, and that could only be the empire’s lingua franca, German. In the army all the other languages had to subordinate themselves – they were forced to be silent. Accordingly, the army also became something of a language school where even the simple enlisted soldier in the ranks learned quite a lot of a language that was far more widespread than the one he spoke at home. This alone contributed to breaking up provincialism and all kinds of limitations.

Finally, I would like to single out my own favourite among the empire’s cohesive institutions – the coffee house. Probably nowhere else in Europe has the coffee house (das Kaffeehaus) had the same importance as in the Austro-Hungarian empire. For a start it was not so much a place to drink coffee as to read newspapers, so that the visitor could then discuss their contents with other readers. The coffee house was the venue for political and artistic discourse, and a coffee house of quality provided not only the local papers but also the leading papers from the major cities of the empire. The railway also brought the most important European newspapers to these coffee houses, often only a few days late. Some famous coffee houses provided more than 100 newspapers every day. In the provinces, of course, this was not possible, but every self-respecting hamlet had at least one coffee house where the local intelligentsia could, despite everything, devote themselves to what was simultaneously going on in completely different circumstances in cities such as Vienna, Budapest or Trieste. We can perhaps liken this kind of coffee house to today’s internet café, though the Austro-Hungarian coffee houses were far more numerous, more sociable, and of course more cosy.

I would argue that the four institutions I have listed contributed more than any others to the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and over a long period of time created, if not harmony, then a modus vivendi for the large majority of the double monarchy’s inhabitants.

Is this an apologetic glossing over of the situation after the fact? An idealistic construction? I do not believe so. As so often is the case when it comes to European history, we can use the situation of the Jews as the litmus test – and the overwhelming majority of them were Habsburg und kaisertreu. Nor was there any better alternative close at hand. Tsarist Russia with its pogroms? Faraway America? True, some people did set off on the risky and very expensive voyage to America, almost all of them in the hope of escaping poverty, not because they felt persecuted or discriminated against. But almost all stayed where they were and no other ethnic group mourned the empire when it disappeared more than the Jews. In his novels and stories, Joseph Roth has given us a highly realistic picture of their warm and almost naive devotion to their emperor and his empire. In his perhaps best-known work, the novel Hiob (‘the story of a simple man’), Mendel Singer flees to America to escape Europe’s wars and pogroms, but then does nothing else than long to return home to Europe again.


The empire was held together, but it was continually threatened by forces wanting to carve it up and create a new divided order. The strongest of them was, of course, nationalism. At first this was not much of a problem. Nationalistic ideas were limited to a small core group of intellectuals, some journalists, a few village schoolteachers, a handful of eccentric noblemen and a priest or two. One of these was the Croatian and Catholic bishop, Josip Strossmayer, who was the leading advocate of what was called Illyrianism, an early and peaceable version of what would later become a far more violent pan-Slavism among Southern Slavs. But common to them all was that they represented a nationalism which had not yet left the coffee houses in order to start erecting barricades on the streets. The Austro-Hungarian Empire could live with this kind of nationalism. Things would first become critical in the latter part of the nineteenth century, when this core group of intellectuals acquired a large following thanks to two completely new social phenomena: mass education and industrialization.

Compulsory schooling and the education of a population which had previously been condemned to illiteracy made a breakthrough in large parts of Europe in the nineteenth century. But the problem with people who have learned to read and write is that they demand jobs. Only a few of them are prepared to return to their previous ignorant existence, ruled by the weather and seasons of the year. And those who have received higher education demand even more: their own office, their own secretary, an official stamp, a title.

There were, however, not many jobs to be found in a society which was still in some ways feudalistic. Almost the only jobs the empire could offer the masses which it had now begun to educate were in its own bureaucracy. This expanded at a furious rate during this period, while at the same time competition for the office jobs grew tougher. The old class of bureaucrats, who often spoke only German, felt threatened, and nor could they understand why it should now suddenly be necessary to speak with subordinates in Bohemia or Galicia in their own local language when that had not been required before. But a typical feature of the new mass education was that it was provided in the recipients’ own local language. The newly educated masses now also demanded the right to use their language in all communication with the imperial bureaucracy, if not always out of consideration for their countrymen, then in order to increase their own chances of getting a job. In this way and for perhaps the first time in history, people’s own language and culture were in the process of becoming a purely existential matter. This issue would poison the political atmosphere during the empire’s last decades, in practice right up to the fall of the Habsburgs.

Compulsory schooling and the education of the masses, however, would not have become such a major threat to the empire’s cosmopolitanism if they had not coincided with industrialization. The factory was the temple of the new modernism. It was suddenly possible to leave farming; a gigantic process of emancipation swept across all of Europe. Millions upon millions abandoned the countryside and headed for the cities, at once fascinated and frustrated by the possibilities of urban life. But this new freedom was associated with great hardships. In the cities, new arrivals encountered not only a completely new and unknown way of living but also misery. They had lost their roots, were confused, and needed something to cling to which was no longer tied to their old values. For this is also part of the industrialization process: there is no longer a way back.

The beginning of the Industrial Age was also an age of ideology. We have forgotten how strongly the times were characterized by various programmes and teachings of salvation – everything from vegetarianism via astrology to what would in the longer term become more attractive, such as communism, fascism or nationalism. We have also forgotten that this move from the country to the city – a formative move for so many confused young men – also determined the era’s political choreography. Here we find the typical political biography of the age. Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini are all examples of future politicians whose world view was shaped by their painful encounter with an urban world. The very same pattern was later repeated in far-off corners of Europe, for instance, in our own times, in the Balkans. Radovan Karadzic was born in a Montenegrin village without real contact with the outside world. As a boy he was so poor that he had to run about barefoot, often with nothing to eat. But as a young man he came to the cosmopolitan and refined Sarajevo, a city which overwhelmed him but also humiliated him by making him feel hopelessly inferior and primitive. Today we know that Radovan Karadzic would one day take his revenge on the city.

The term “nationalism” would become the fairly vague label given to the forces which many people argue destroyed the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its cosmopolitanism. The rootless masses in the big cities and the unemployed or frustrated intelligentsia gathered under the same banners. Multinational and multicultural empires like that of the Habsburgs were particularly vulnerable. Was it not a Serbian nationalist who murdered the heir apparent Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo? And was it not those fatal shots which triggered World War I?

I wonder, though, if we are not dealing here with the Hollywood version of the Habsburgs’ decline and fall. The empire could presumably also have been able to live with this terroristic version of Serbian or other nationalism, although not with the subsequent five years of a new kind of war, far more terrible than any before known. I would also argue that it was not even nationalism which triggered the war. Rather, it was the war which gave a large number of different nationalistic programmes an opportunity. This war was triggered far more by the political behaviour of the European great powers, all of whom were deeply suspicious of each other and eager in the name of self-interest and prestige not to make any concessions whatsoever to another country. And so the war became inevitable, a war which would condemn the Austro-Hungarian Empire to destruction (and not this empire alone).

And what of the empire’s four key institutions? Almost five years of war would either destroy or severely discredit them. The emperor died. The father figure who had always been there was suddenly gone. Many people have described the shock this caused, the premonition or feeling that something far more than an ordinary mortal man went into the grave with Franz Josef. And the Catholic Church? It had been deeply discredited by its decision so militantly to support a war which had become unpopular so quickly. Perhaps the horrors of modern war had also shaken many people’s faith. The coffee houses? They no longer offered real coffee, just a substitute, and the railways were now shipping soldiers instead of newspapers. The few papers which remained on the coffee houses’ wooden rods were thin and almost unreadable due to censorship. And the army? During a few weeks in the autumn of 1918 it began to dissolve; soldiers left the front and went home – the Czechs to their home, the Poles to theirs, even the Croats to theirs; and the Italians had already left, as usual slightly sooner than everyone else.

There is a novel which very graphically depicts what happened to these four institutions, which actually constitute both the artistic driving force and the setting of the novel. I am, of course, refering to The Good Soldier Svejk, written by Czech author Jaroslav Hašek and published as a serial novel in a Prague newspaper some years after the end of the war. In Hašek’s work there is no longer anything left of the emperor other than a portrait or two, but these are dirty or spotted by fly specks. The representatives of the church – not least the army chaplain Katz – are all drunkards and hypocrites. The coffee house is no longer the place for intellectual discussions but for endless monologues, and the coffee cups have long been replaced by (far too many) beer tankards. And all the while the army has revealed itself to be a gigantic slaughterhouse with a single task: to supply new soldiers to be put to death at the front. By the end of the novel – after some five hundred pages – Svejk has still not reached the front; it is the greatest of this civilian’s many triumphs over militarism.

Jaroslav Hašek was in many ways characteristic of his age. He began as an anarchist, became a Marxist and then a communist; he was a bigamist, in time a nationalist and would die an alcoholic. Under the influence of the war Hašek, like so many others, welcomed what succeeded the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was the national programme. According to the European fashion of the times, as dictated by Woodrow Wilson, the states which succeeded the Austro-Hungarian Empire were both in name and in their political practice nation states. In reality, though, they were small, shrunken versions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which immediately and almost without exception began to discriminate against and to persecute their minorities in a manner that would have been completely unthinkable in the empire of Franz Josef.

The result was a situation of permanent internal instability which was mirrored on the outside; the new nation-states were too small and powerless to be able to safeguard their own interests. Nor were they capable of more than traces of mutual co-operation. The Habsburgs’ dilemma would remain also their fate. But the roof had been ripped off the house in which they had all previously lived together in a reasonably decent manner, and nothing had replaced it. Nothing protected them any more, at least nothing that could have saved them from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The First World War would be followed by a second, and there are those who argue that this entire period from 1914 to 1945 can be best understood as a single long European civil war. It took more than half a century to mend and cure this Europe to the extent that it was possible to return to the agenda which had been so brusquely – and unsuspectingly – swept off the table in the summer of 1914.

It is only now that it appears we may be prepared once again to deal with the issues the Habsburgs left behind – but with the European Union as the new company logo and, nota bene, with democracy, not an apostolic majesty, as the guiding star.

Translated from Swedish by Fenela Childs

This essay by Richard Swartz was first published under the titled The Habsburgs and Us in Cosmopolitanism: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess Publishing, 2006


Richard Swartz