The Habsburg world we have lost

  • Themes: History

The Habsburg monarchy’s political culture persisted in odd and varied ways, following the disintegration of the Austria-Hungarian state. The failures and mendacity of the succeeding generation of Central European politicians offers a warning from history.

Pre-Great War Austrian soldiers watching a pageant.
Pre-Great War Austrian soldiers watching a pageant. Credit: INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

Lost Fatherland: Europeans Between Empire and Nation-States, 1867-1939, Iryna Vushko, Yale University Press, £25

On 14 November 1918, Czechoslovakia’s first prime minister addressed his new-found country’s parliament. For too long, Karel Kramář announced, Czechs and Slovaks had ‘felt the barbarism of cultural oppression’ under their previous rulers. For too long they had suffered under the ‘heavy bonds of Austrian and Hungarian violence’. To a rapturous standing ovation, he declared that: ‘All ties that bound us to the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty, are severed.’

Four years earlier, the head of that Habsburg dynasty had declared war on Serbia, setting off a chain reaction that drew Europe into a brutal, grinding war, from which few countries would emerge unscathed – least of all the defeated powers. Dejected and delegitimised, the Habsburgs watched their subjects declare their national independence one by one; the house’s rule over a sprawling Central European realm consigned to the history books.

For many decades, the legacy of Austria-Hungary was defined by people like Kramář, nationalists for whom the ‘black legend’ of Habsburg oppression served as a useful tool to legitimise the nation-states that succeeded it. The Habsburgs were not only deposed, but officially recognised as a malign historical influence, as a centuries-old obstacle to national freedom and self-determination.

Oddly enough, considering their later activities, Kramář and countless other politicians like him had, until the Great War, been loyal Habsburg subjects. Some were even loyal ‘Austrians’ in a supra-national state. Whether they were nationalists, conservatives, socialists, liberals, or Christian democrats, very few politicians envisioned – let alone advocated for – the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian state.

It was this state that ultimately shaped the political experiences and outlooks of the countless millions who came of age in it, particularly the 21 politicians who act as the subjects of Iryna Vushko’s ‘collective portrait’ in her new book Lost Fatherland. Despite the loss of their political homeland, most forged ahead as active participants in the process of shaping the continent’s future in the interwar years.

Vushko does an impressive job of picking apart the various political and intellectual strands that shaped late Austro-Hungarian politics, anchoring her story in real individuals and their political journeys. Many decades of innovative scholarship on the monarchy, which has largely languished far from public view in academic volumes and papers, shines through in a breezy, though not always particularly groundbreaking, narrative. And, it is worth noting, the book only addresses the ‘Austrian’ lands of the dual monarchy.

These included the territories of the Bohemian crown, which would form the core of interwar Czechoslovakia; the Austrian duchies, large swathes of which would end up part of Yugoslavia; Tyrol, which would be divided between Italy and Austria; Galicia, which became part of newly independent Poland; and Dalmatia and the Austrian Littoral, which would be divided between Italy and Yugoslavia.

As a quick glance at the late imperial parliament reveals, nationalists were but one of many options on offer to the inhabitants of this state, whose only official name was ‘The Kingdoms and Lands Represented in the Imperial Council’. The first elections to the lower house conducted with universal suffrage for men in 1907 returned a parliament in which the largest party was the Christian Social Party, a communitarian, conservative, and devoutly Catholic party whose most famous – and notoriously antisemitic – representative was the Mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger.

Second came the social democrats, who pioneered a unique ‘Austro-Marxist’ approach to the nationalities question in which they envisioned nations receiving official recognition as non-territorial corporations. Then came the countless factions of more or less radical, more or less liberal, and more or less antisemitic nationalists from just about every nationality, alongside nationally (or provincially) oriented conservatives, socialists, and agrarians.

The parliament was a cacophonous mess. There were brawls, boycotts, and boos, providing constant entertainment to onlookers in the galleries. In at least one instance, the boos even came from the onlookers themselves, disappointed to find nobody in parliament but a stenographer and a radical Czech deputy reading out the newspaper while occasionally sipping his cognac and taking a bite from a ham sandwich. Such filibusters were common and could last for hours, allowing small groups of radicals to cripple the parliament.

The monarchy’s troubles led many nationalists and their Anglophone supporters to blame its demise on the failure to fulfil national aspirations. But Austrian voters proved just as concerned about the threat of godlessness or capitalist exploitation as they did about nationalism. Perhaps they just weren’t as vocal about it. Indeed, the national demands put forth by most politicians were in any case not believed to conflict with the Habsburg state, but to complement it.

The precedent set within the Habsburg monarchy in 1867, when its Emperor Franz Joseph agreed to a deal with the Hungarians to split his monarchy in two, seemed to be a reasonable solution to the national question. Czechs or Galician Poles could easily envision their national aspirations being fulfilled within the framework of a wider imperial state to which they would remain bound – and defended – both militarily and diplomatically. Such a proposed federalisation of Austria-Hungary was all the rage in the years leading up to the First World War, and for some it shaped their political outlook for decades to come.

That was especially true for Alcide De Gasperi. A devout Catholic born and raised in an Italian-German borderland in Tyrol, he became a prominent Christian social politician. He did not support the breaking up of Austria-Hungary along national lines, but rather advocated peaceful federalism and brotherhood between nations. Through decades of wars, unrest, and fascist rule, De Gasperi remained faithful to his political upbringing. As Italy’s prime minister from 1945 to 1953, he would act as one of the founding fathers of European integration.

Most of Vushko’s subjects did not survive long enough to leave their mark on a Europe reshaped by yet another, even more destructive, world war. Indeed, few even left much of a mark on a Europe still scarred by the first one. That goes for De Gasperi, too, who spent years in the political wilderness under an Italian fascist regime far removed from the kind of nationally cooperative politics he was an advocate of in Austria-Hungary.

Indeed, the gulf that stood between lost Austro-Hungarians and their new co-nationals was often surprisingly large. It was not so much through the chaotic parliament that they were shaped by the monarchy’s unique political culture, but through the institutions that marked the country’s social, cultural, educational, and political life. The universities they attended, the journals and newspapers they read, the coffee houses they frequented – and, ultimately, the German language that served as their lingua franca despite wildly different political views and linguistic backgrounds.

Even someone like the irredentist Italian nationalist Francesco Salata somehow struggled to find his footing in 1920s Italy. A native of the mixed Slavic-Italian Istrian peninsula, he advocated for its annexation to Italy throughout the war, and was rewarded through his appointment as the first head of the Central Office for the New Provinces of Italy. It was meant to aid the integration of former Habsburg territories such as Istria or De Gasperi’s native Trentino into the new Italian state by preserving some level of autonomy, particularly for the Slavic and German minorities. Yet, by the time of Mussolini’s rise to power, the Italian political elites had come to see autonomy as contrary to the interests of the Italian state and dissolved the office.

Perhaps nothing demonstrated the difficulties of Habsburg politics in a post-Habsburg world as much as the fate of the rump Austrian state. Forced to embrace an independent existence due to Entente rejection of its union with Germany, Austro-Marxists and Christian Socialists battled over its very identity. Otto Bauer and Ignaz Seipel played the leading roles in their respective camps, with the tensions between left and right eventually escalating into a short civil war in 1934.

Alongside Bauer – one of the leading figures of the Austro-Marxist movement – Vushko profiles a motley crew of nearly a dozen other left-wing politicians spread across Habsburg successor states from Italy to the Soviet Union. Their impact was minimal. The protagonists of the Second World War would ultimately not be those once enmeshed in the Habsburg monarchy’s political culture, but those that rejected it.

As Vushko recounts, in 1913 a young Stalin found himself in Vienna on Lenin’s orders to study the ‘nationalities question’ as formulated by the Austro-Marxists. This experience led him to take a completely contrary stance, positing a fundamental link between nationality and territory that would inform his later redrawing of the eastern half of Europe, encouraging the establishment of homogeneous nation-states in the place of their multinational predecessors.

His chief adversary in the war that catapulted him to such a position of power was Adolf Hitler, a man who had similarly operated on the margins of Austro-Hungarian society as part of a fringe subculture of Pan-German radical nationalists that rejected just about every facet of the Habsburg monarchy. In this sense, Vushko’s collective portrait is perhaps more interesting by what is absent than what is present and marked more vividly by the failures of the Austro-Hungarian political diaspora than their successes.


Luka Ivan Jukic