A myth-busting new history of the Habsburg Empire by Pieter M. Judson gives valuable insights on nationalism and identity in Central Europe
In June 1911, over four and a half million citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire went to the polling stations to elect a new parliament. People from Bukowina to Vorarlberg, from Trieste to Prague were keen to decide their future and, after weeks of hard-fought campaigning and intense coverage by a voracious press, the turnout reached 80.2 percent. By casting their votes, the people of the empire showed that they trusted the elected Imperial Council in Vienna to actually make a difference.
This anecdote is one of many that Pieter M. Judson, a Swarthmore College educated historian who currently teaches at the European University Institute in Florence, relays in The Habsburg Empire: A New History. Judson is an intimate cognoscenti of Central European history, having received two Fulbright awards to Vienna, both as a student and as a scholar.
He injects a much-needed breath of fresh air into the history of a region that has for a long time been tangled up in national narratives and clichés about the time of the empire – be it nostalgia for Empress Sisi and Emperor Franz Joseph, or the oft-used catchphrase of the “prison of the people.”
Of nations & the fatherland
The result is an account that is enjoyable for newcomers, and full of surprises and deep insights for the experts. Crucially, Judson
dispels the myth that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was in a failed state at the beginning of the 20th century, about to be blown apart by the demands, discontent and disaffection of its nationalities – a view that is still quietly shared by most history textbooks, where every conflict in the decades before World War I is seen as foreshadowing an inevitable imperial collapse.
Judson instead contends that a great many citizens of Austria-Hungary felt a deep sense of connection and belonging, both to their respective nations and to the bigger imperial fatherland.
To buttress this narrative, he points not only to the importance that citizens ascribe to the elections of a parliament in far-away Vienna – where deputies were allowed to hold speeches in their mother tongue, reminiscent of another multilingual parliament in our days – but also to the trust and confidence that citizens put into the empire’s capacity to respond to their ideas. This is also why Judson interprets the conflicts that emerge in the late 19th and early 20th century, not as Austria-Hungary’s death knell, but rather as promising signs of a citizenry eager to reform their country, and a pragmatic imperial administration dealing with their demands.
Where is my home?
This all takes place against a backdrop of flourishing regional and national cultures, languages and economies – a blossoming that was, to a great extent, only made possible by the Habsburgs’ active state–building policies after Maria -Theresia took the throne in 1740.
Compulsory schooling in vernacular language allowed Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, Romanian and Slovene, among others, to gain a greater standing and a -literate audience. Administrative integration, the military and public investments opened remote regions a pathway to modernity. This meant the rule of law was respected while political participation was gradually expanded to include ever more citizens.
The Habsburg Empire was not perfect and Judson does not try to hide its cracks and contradictions. However, his book establishes a persuasive narrative of a country that was, despite all hurdles and hiccups, astoundingly successful in improving the life of its citizens, and thus earned a place in their hearts and minds.
Looking back at the travails and tragedies that convulsed the region in the half century following Austria-Hungary’s collapse, one can only wonder what would have been – and be glad that today, a century later, the borders between Vienna, Prague and Budapest, Trieste, Zadar and Lviv are open once again.