As the Habsburg Empire entered the final year of the Great War, the future seemed wide open. A turbulent century followed.
On a pleasant summer’s day in July of 1977, several dozen people gathered in the Cemetery of St. George, in Geneva, for the unveiling of a bronze statue, whose tidy locks were just visible over the heads of the crowd. From his gown, an academic or possibly a judge, in his hand a book, the likeness was of Aurel Constantin Popovici, a name that is largely forgotten today.
Pulling away the drapes was someone much better known: Otto von Habsburg, son of the last Emperor of Austria-Hungary. Strictly speaking, he was no longer “von” as he had relinquished any claim to the throne in 1961, in exchange for the right to return to Austria. And since 1973, he had been president of the International Pan-European Union, the oldest European integration movement, founded in 1922 by his life-long friend and ally Richard Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, whom he had succeeded.
But familiar or not, Aurel Popovici was a legend to those attending. A lawyer and politician, he was the author in 1906 of a proposed United States of Greater Austria, a plan for a confederation of 15 semi-autonomous states defined by language and cultural traditions, united under the mantle of the Habsburgs. The proposal had brought him into the circle of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was looking for a solution to the rising ethnic tensions among the Empire’s Czechs, Poles, Romanians and South Slavs resentful of the special status granted to the Hungarians under the dual monarchy. It wasn’t the only proposal of its kind, but it was one of the best, and the Arch-duke became its champion, and according to witnesses, enraged his imperial uncle the unbending Franz Joseph.
Looking back, Foreign Minister Leopold Berchtold believed that, had Franz Ferdinand succeeded to the throne, he would have opposed declaring war on Serbia and tried to replace the dual monarchy by a supranational federation. Perhaps if the old Emperor hadn’d lived quite so long… Perhaps if the Archduke had changed his mind and decided not to go to Sarajevo after all…
But history is written as much by circumstance as any of our best-laid plans. After the Great War, the Empire was was taken apart and the Republic was born. Over the century that followed, Austria went through very dark times, of Austro-Fascism, of National Socialism, but also experienced an unlikely, even spectacular, rebirth following World War II. A bridge during the Cold War and a safe haven for free-thinkers and dissidents, the Austrian Republic has maintained its role at the heart of what has become the European project.
In this chapter of our Empire to Republic series, we explore Austria’s past and present, with historical analysis and some of the voices, facts and well-kept secrets that continue to shape the Alpine nation today.