On November 11, 1918, the Great War came to an end. By then, the “Red Count” Mihály Károlyi had already seized power in Hungary through a coup, while the Czechoslovaks and Southern Slavs had pro claimed their own republics. Rather than abdicate, in an act of careful negotiation, the Austro-Hungarian emperor, Karl I, formally relinquished his involvement in public affairs. As Martyn Rady recounts in his comprehensive, yet orthodox, chronicle The Habsburgs: The Rise and Fall of a World Power, German Austria’s future Chancellor Karl Renner “visited Emperor Karl in the Schönbrunn Palace, bidding him speed with the words, ‘Herr Habsburg, the taxi is waiting.’” The next day, the Parliament in Vienna declared itself a republic. Seven centuries of Habsburg rule were over.
Nearly a millennium of European history is bound up with the story Rady – a professor of Central European history at University College London and a specialist in medieval and early modern Hungarian history – has taken on. It is one he has told before in the slender volume The Habsburg Empire: A Very Short Introduction. Now, Rady has produced a history whose shape is very much dictated by the family lineage, moving from emperor to emperor in mostly chronological fashion, nonetheless finding room for a cornucopia of related interests from alchemy to vampires.
To write about the Habsburgs is to write about power – its accumulation and exercise. As late as the 13th century, the Habsburgs were but one of a number of noble families in northern Switzerland’s Aargau, deriving the bulk of their income from imposing tolls on the bridges crossing their territory. Three centuries later, they held dominion over much of central Europe, including the Holy Roman Empire, the Low Countries, Spain, southern Italy and a number of imperial possessions in the New World from Mexico to the Philippines.
The Habsburgs’ rise was achieved, Rady argues, in part through marriage. They understood the value inherent in marrying into other powerful families and, in Rady’s words, sweeping up after everyone else had perished, enlarging their domain as other lines faltered, claiming their rights on vacant European estates. “Behind the early growth of Habsburg power lay their genealogical endurance,” Rady writes. There was always a daughter to marry off and a male heir to be found: “If sons were missing, then cousins and nephews were always at hand.”
All in the Family
Of course, such family politics may have been part of the dynasty’s undoing. The Habsburg jaw – so misshapen, in the case of Charles V, “that its upper and lower parts did not mash” – is a cheap historical joke with serious implications. What Rady calls the Habsburgs’ “royal incest” made them a house deformed. What is true of many royal lines was exaggerated in the Habsburgs’ case: Philip II was obliged to imprison his mad son, Carlos; Rudolf II’s bastard son, Julio, murdered his girlfriend, mutilated her dead body, and nailed up the corpse in a chest before taking his own life. Habsburg rule over Spain came to an end in 1700 when Charles II died heirless. His post mortem revealed a very small heart, corroded lungs and “a single testicle, black as coal.”
The Habsburgs also expanded their reach through strategic alliances. Not that they were averse to war, but within the Holy Roman Empire, day-to-day power was exercised not by the emperor directly but great lords and princes. Charles V preferred to govern “in collaboration with the existing power holders and elites” in Europe, “deferring to their privileges and seeking to achieve consensus” in a bid to stave off rebellion and insurrection. The direct imposition of Habsburg sovereignty after Charles V would only be achieved piecemeal, such was the sway afforded to nobilities and diets in the early centuries of their reign in Central Europe.
To justify their power and status, they invented a history for themselves as the inheritors of Rome and protectors of the Catholic faith, conceiving of their own power as “something that they had been predestined for and part of the divine order in which the world was arranged.” Though the nature of the Habsburg Empire changed over the centuries, in particular its ever-increasing centralization and bureaucratization, if one thing remained consistent, Rady argues, it was the Habsburgs’ “service to the Catholic faith and lead [in] the struggle against heresy and the Turks.”
Where the Sun Never Sets
With the accumulation of power came the accumulation of knowledge. The Habsburgs were great and systematic collectors of myriad things: animals, coins, medals, flora and fauna. Maria Theresia’s husband, Franz I Stephan, established the first collections of Vienna’s Natural History Museum in the mid 18th century; Franz Josef I would found the Museum of Art History in 1891. “Their legacy survives not only in architecture and great collections of art and natural history,” Rady writes, “but also as a vision that combined power, destiny, and knowledge, and blended earthly and heavenly realms in a universal enterprise that touched every aspect of humanity’s temporal and spiritual experience.”
The Congress of Vienna, which met from November 1814 to July 1815 and redrew the map of Europe, “was by every measure an apogee of Habsburg power,” Rady writes. It was, as such, the beginning of the end.The Habsburg Empire would be undone by nationalism, incubated by Franz Josef I’s absolutism and a regime that came to be defined by centralization and uniformity in the territories it governed. Nationalism rendered a multiethnic, multinational empire ungovernable; at the time same, as nationalism became the magnets of citizen allegiance, “dynasties” like the Habsburgs “lost their power to cultivate the popular imagination, and the days of triumphal arches and soaring catafalques were past.”
The final nail in the coffin was the Great War, during which the Habsburgs tied their fate to that of the German Empire. Of course, as Rady notes,the nation and the very idea of Germany survived that defeat, whereas the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not. As it turned out, aside from the monarchy itself, there was nothing keeping the “peoples of the Habsburg Empire together in some sort of political union or collective enterprise.”
Here, Rady goes against the grain of recent research on the Habsburgs’ decline. In his 2016 book on the imperial royal family, Pieter M. Judson argues that at the same time nationalism was being cultivated, an Austro-Hungarian polity and citizenry endured. And in the enormously influential 2014 history of the causes of the Great War, The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark makes a compelling case for the empire as economically prosperous and, if not entirely harmonious politically, then set in a state of “well-tempered dissatisfaction.” For Clark, it was external rather than internal instability that ended the Habsburg dynasty.
For Rady, the Habsburgs, who through a combination of luck and cunning, diplomacy and force had willed an empire into being and maintained it across centuries, were ultimately an insufficient force to prevent its collapse. He is a fine chronicler and synthesizer, but in the end, The Habsburgs seems out of step with more recent scholarship, retreating into historical conservatism and rehearsing a narrative of the impossibility of multinational systems to which the European Union, for all its faults, has rather put paid.
The Habsburgs: The Rise and Fall of a World Power
Allen Lane 2020