Austria-Hungary: A Fairy-tale Kingdom

From Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 607-636:

By 1914 Austria-Hungary resembled a fairy-tale kingdom, with its aging, crisply uniformed monarch, regal castles, dashing aristocrats, large estates, illiterate peasants, rolling hills, dark forests, wolves, gypsies, and legends of Count Dracula. Yet it was being swallowed up in an alien urban landscape of cities, factories, railroads, electric lights, battleships, early automobiles, and the second metro line in all of Europe. It was becoming a place where bustling middle-class crowds no longer looked to the monarch and his fellow aristocrats for sustenance, guidance, or protection. The ruling aristocracy had come to seem majestically and powerfully irrelevant.

Still, Vienna had an impeccable pedigree. Unlike the modern, yet provincial, nation-states sprouting up all around it, Austria-Hungary emerged from the Middle Ages as the standard-bearer of Europe’s older, more cosmopolitan, political tradition—Christian monarchial rule over disparate lands and peoples. By 1914 it occupied present-day Austria, Hungary, Czech and Slovak Republics, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, northern Italy, southern Poland, and western sections of Ukraine and Romania. Its 52 million people were squeezed into an area the size of Texas, yet it entered the war as a great power, second largest in land and third most populated in Europe.

Once the embodiment, if now the corpse, of the Holy Roman Empire, Austria-Hungary harked back to the fabled realm of Charlemagne. Each of these regimes shared a yearning to resuscitate ancient Rome’s original empire of law, peace, and order, “the fairest part of the earth,” said Edward Gibbon, “and the most civilized portion of mankind.”

The only common bond among Austria-Hungary’s dozen or so nationalities was the Habsburg dynasty, which collected lands and peoples the way less powerful families might collect works of art. Croats, Czechs (Bohemians and Moravians), Germans, Italians, Poles, Romanians, Slovenes, and Ukrainians (Ruthenians) ended up inside the Austrian half of Austria-Hungary, while Croats, Germans, Hungarians (Magyars), Romanians, Serbs, Slovaks, Slovenes, and Ukrainians (Ruthenians) lived in the Kingdom of Hungary. “In all the Habsburg lands,” noted one history, “Vienna was unique in one important respect. Here was at least partially achieved that supranational, cosmopolitan consciousness which was the dynasty’s only hope for survival.” However, Europe’s other peoples were merging into more homogeneous nations, while Vienna ruled a polyglot rabble. Viennese culture was exquisite, but the Habsburg empire was ungovernable.

AUSTRIA-HUNGARY, MASARYK HAD quipped on May 26, 1913, in the course of his last speech to the Reichsrat in Vienna, was like a good man who had somehow swallowed an umbrella—and spent the rest of his life fearing that it might open. While Masaryk’s metaphor is memorable, the realm is little remembered today in part because it did not fit the modern definitions of statehood. It represented neither a nation nor a people but a dynastic empire. And like most great empires—from the Roman to the Soviet—it slowly decayed from within until an unanticipated crisis caused the elaborate, aging edifice, hollowed out at its core, to collapse.

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Filed under Austria, Hungary, language, nationalism

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