Kakania or Russia as “Versuchsstation des Weltuntergangs”

From The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, by Niall Ferguson (Penguin Press, 2006), pp. 13-15:

Czechs in particular chafed at their second-class status in Bohemia, and were able to give more forthright political expression to their grievances after the introduction of universal male suffrage in 1907. But schemes for some kind of Habsburg federalism never got off the ground. The alternative of Germanization was not an option for the fragile linguistic patchwork that was Austria; the most that could be achieved was to maintain German as the language of command for the army, though with results lampooned hilariously by the Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek in The Good Soldier Švejk. By contrast, the sustained Hungarian campaign to ‘Magyarize’ their kingdom’s non-Hungarians, who accounted for nearly half the population, merely inflamed nationalist sentiment. If the trend of the age had been towards multi-culturalism, then Vienna would have been the envy of the world; from psychoanalysis to the Secession, its cultural scene at the turn of the century was a wonderful advertisement for the benefits of ethnic cross-fertilization. But if the trend of the age was towards the homogeneous nation state, the future prospects of the Dual Monarchy were bleak indeed. When the satirist Karl Kraus called Austria-Hungary a ‘laboratory of world destruction’ (Versuchsstation des Weltuntergangs), he had in mind precisely the mounting tension between a multi-tiered polity – summed up by Kraus as an ‘aristodemoplutobarokratischen Mischmasch’ – and a multi-ethnic society. This I was what Musil was getting at when he described Austria-Hungary as ‘nothing but a particularly clear-cut case of the modern world’: for ‘in that country … every human being’s dislike of every other human being’s attempts to get on … [had] crystallized earlier’. Reverence for the aged Emperor Francis Joseph was not enough to hold this delicate edifice together. It might even end up blowing it apart.

If Austria-Hungary was stable but weak, Russia was strong but unstable. ‘There’s an invisible thread, like a spider’s web, and it comes right out of his Imperial Majesty Alexander the Third’s heart. And there’s another which goes through all the ministers, through His Exellency the Governor and down through the ranks until it reaches me and even the lowest soldier,’ the policeman Nikiforych explained to the young Maxim Gorky. ‘Everything is linked and bound together by this thread … with its invisible power.’ As centralized as Austria-Hungary was decentralized, Russia seemed equal to the task of maintaining military parity with the West European powers. Moreover, Russia exercised the option of ‘Russification’, aggressively imposing the Russian language on the other ethnic minorities in its vast imperium. This was an ambitious strategy given the numerical predominance of non-Russians, who accounted for around 56 per cent of the total population of the empire. It was Russia’s economy that nevertheless seemed to pose the biggest challenge to the Tsar and his ministers. Despite the abolition of serfdom in the 1860s, the country’s agricultural system remained communal in its organization – closer, it might be said, to India than to Prussia. But the bid to build up a new class of thrifty peasant proprietors – sometimes known as kulaks, after their supposedly tight fists – achieved only limited success. From a narrowly economic perspective, the strategy of financing industrialization by boosting agricultural production and exports was a success. Between 1870 and 1913 the Russian economy grew at an average annual rate of around 2.4 per cent, faster than the British, French and Italian and only a little behind the German (2.8 per cent). Between 1898 and 1913, pig iron production more than doubled, raw cotton consumption rose by 80 per cent and the railway network grew by more than 50 per cent. Militarily, too, state-led industrialization seemed to be working; Russia was more than matching the expenditures of the other European empires on their armies and navies. Small wonder the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg worried that ‘Russia’s growing claims and enormous power to advance in a few years, will simply be impossible to fend off’. Nevertheless, the prioritization of grain exports (to service Russia’s rapidly growing external debt) and rapid population growth limited the material benefits felt by ordinary Russians, four-fifths of whom lived in the countryside. The hope that they would gain land as well as freedom aroused among peasants by the abolition of serfdom had been disappointed. Though living standards were almost certainly rising (if the revenues from excise duties are any guide), this was no cure for a pervasive sense of grievance, as any student of the French ancien regime could have explained. A disgruntled peasantry, a sclerotic aristocracy, a radicalized but impotent intelligentsia and a capital city with a large and volatile populace: these were precisely the combustible ingredients the historian Alexis de Tocqueville had identified in 1780s France. A Russian revolution of rising expectations was in the making – a revolution Nikiforych vainly warned Gorky to keep out of.

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Filed under Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, nationalism, Russia, war

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