Martin Rady’s “The Habsburgs” Recounts The Family’s Rise and Fall

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.”

(C) Wikimedia Commons/Richard Hauffe

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.

(C) Wikicommons

Martin Rady
The Habsburgs: The Rise and Fall of a World Power 
Allen Lane 2020
pp 416
€28.09

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