Habsburg Nostalgia: Europe’s Most Embarrassing Anachronism?

In a recently published piece entitled “The House of Habsburg, Revisited,” the author, Simon Winder, engages in a thoughtful yet hyperbolic polemic ridiculing the recent resurgence of interest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Central Europe. His argument in a nutshell is that, while the Austrian Empire was backward and oppressive, it nevertheless provided a sense of security and rule of law for the eleven different nationalities inhabiting this vast state in Central Europe.

Winder says that, in comparison to what was to happen to Europe in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1990s (the Balkan Wars), the empire did in retrospect offer a more benign supra-national political environment, which “allowed a great civilization to flourish, one that sheltered everyone from Mahler to Freud, Klimt to Kafka.”

What Winder misses

Unfortunately, Winder’s argument is largely reductionist and sometimes inaccurate. Even a cursory study of Christoph Clark’s brilliant book The Sleepwalkers or of Manfred Rauchensteiner’s Der Erste Weltkrieg und das Ende der Habsburger Monarchie — two of the most recent additions to World War One secondary literature — allows one to quickly discover the complex, kaleidoscopic political reality of pre-WWI Europe, particularly the complex relationship between Serbia and Austro-Hungary, which was not as one-sided as Winder makes it appear.

For example, experts agree that Austro-Hungary did not in fact think that her move against Serbia would trigger a world war. While it is true that Austro-Hungary’s foreign policy was partially distorted by false notions about how Russia and Great Britain would react towards Habsburg policies on the Balkans, it is also true that every great European power — with the exception of Great Britain — used the July Crisis of 1914 as a pretext for settling their own scores with their neighbors and for fulfilling their latent personal expansionist policies. Also, according to the historian Niall Ferguson in his book The Pity of War: Explaining World War One, it was Britain’s decision to enter the conflict that finally turned a European clash of arms into a world war.

Yet the much larger point that Winder misses in his polemic is that the resurging interest in the Habsburg Empire is not so much a result of the horrors of the 20th century and a longing for a return to a golden past, but rather the expression of a still intact yet latent cultural and historical bond of former imperial lands with Vienna. That bond was never completely severed, but it was “truncated” during the Second World War and “frozen” during the Cold War years. With the consolidation of the European Union, the collapse of communism, and the end of the Cold War, the horrors of the Second World War are starting to feel more distant than Stefan Zweig’s World of Yesterday.

Austria is in the forefront

Traveling to Vienna, Prague, Zagreb, Budapest, or Trieste, Austrians, Croatians, and Hungarians intuitively feel a closer familiarity with their surroundings than when, for example, visiting Berlin or Paris. Architecturally, with their Gründerzeit buildings, the former great cities of the empire look alike; culturally, the persistence of the imperial-era coffee-house culture makes visitors from Prague instinctively relate to customs and unspoken etiquette in Vienna or Trieste and vice versa; and even legally, the Habsburgs reverberate from the past: the Allgemeines bürgerliches Gesetzbuch, the civil code of Austria from 1811, is still in force in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and in other former parts of the empire.

All of this facilitates economic exchange beyond language barriers, as the statistics show: Austrian companies are among the biggest investors in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Raiffeisenbank (an international Austrian banking group) and BauMax (the Austrian equivalent of Home Depot), as well as the supermarket chains of Billa and Spar, can be found throughout the region. Vienna is once more a central hub for doing business in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Austria is also in the forefront of pushing for rapid integration of Albania, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Serbia into the European Union.

Nachbar in Not

In addition, the Habsburg legacy is also evident during times of crisis and catastrophes. During the recent catastrophic flooding in parts of Bosnia, Austria immediately launched disaster relief operations. Austrian volunteer fire fighters are continuing to help with the disaster cleanup, and the Austrian Army, which constitutes the largest contingent of the EU-Mission to Bosnia (EUFOR/ALTHEA) evacuated more than 900 people from towns and villages, delivered ten tons of relief shipments, and is in the process of setting up a water treatment plant providing fresh water for more than 50.000 people.

Civil society is also heavily involved: Austrians of Bosnian origin have collected more than 250 tons of aid and organized a convoy of trucks to take the goods down South. Other convoys will follow. State governments in Austria (e.g. Tyrol) are donating money to disaster relief funds, and the Austrian Public Broadcasting Corporation (ORF) has reestablished Nachbar in Not (Neighbor in Need), a charity initiative started during the Balkan Wars, which is widely supported by the Austrian public.

Many Austrian families (including my own) can trace back their roots to the Balkans or other parts of Eastern Europe, which has created a new bond and empathy (e.g., Austrians, Czechs, Bosnians, Slovenians, and Hungarians often share common last names). New because the legacy of the Second World War is slowly evaporating in the collective conscious of Central and Eastern Europeans. Novel also because “Srebrenica” and the horrors of the Balkan Wars, have lead to soul-searching among Central Europeans,— especially Austrians.

Habsburg nostalgia

Through the reestablishment of old economic ties and a rekindling of interest in their common historical legacy and culture, the nations of Eastern Europe are vicariously forging a transnational identity that is partially inspired by a rose-colored interpretation of Austria-Hungary. Of course, this integration process has its critics, and as the recent European Parliament elections have shown, one of the byproducts may be a resurgence in nationalism and xenophobia. Nonetheless, the common Habsburg legacy in Central Europe can serve as a model: an amplifier of a European identity that goes beyond narrow national boundaries.

While the autocratic Habsburg Empire was in no way a forerunner of the European Union, reviving its historical and cultural legacies — unlike the expansion of extreme right wing and xenophobic parties in Austria, Hungary, and other parts of Central Europe — is politically benign and potentially beneficial. Consequently, rather than referring to the Habsburg nostalgia as “Europe’s most embarrassing anachronism,” the author should direct his attention to the worrisome resurgence of nationalism in many European countries — which may soon be beyond mere embarrassment and, in fact, parlous.