The House of Habsburg, Revisited

Nearly a century after its spectacular demise, why Europe's most embarrassing anachronism is making a comeback.


By the time of his death, a century ago this summer, Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been fretfully waiting for some 25 years to take over the Habsburg Empire.

He’d started off as an arrogant, inquisitive, very rich young man, suddenly and shockingly vaulted into his role as heir by the squalid suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf. But as the decades passed and the extraordinarily old Emperor Franz Joseph continued to live on year after year, Franz Ferdinand grew into a bulky, irritable, pious (though still very rich) middle-aged malcontent, pacing back and forth in his various palaces, surrounded by his equally aging advisors and friends, his drastic modernization plans for the empire eternally on hold.

They were never to be. Rather than being associated with anything remotely modern, Franz Ferdinand was to be remembered in the English-speaking world only for the circumstances of his murder: a laughably antique figure in his ostrich-plume hat, elaborate moustache, and too-tight uniform, gunned down by fanatical Serbian teenagers — an appropriate symbol of an empire that suddenly was made to look very old-fashioned and vulnerable.

In the period leading up to World War I, the empire itself, too, had in large part come to be defined by its obsolescence. In a world where power required influence that stretched across the globe, the Habsburgs had almost none. Perhaps their only truly global role had been to send a small naval element to China as part of the international expedition that destroyed the Boxer Rebellion — a role only memorable because one of the sailors was the young Baron von Trapp, later immortalized in The Sound of Music. As the British, French, and Italian colonial empires piled up new holdings, and as Russia and the United States became continentwide powers of a new kind, the Habsburg Empire looked increasingly quaint. It had once been one of the key allies in the defeat of Napoleon; by the early years of the 20th century, it simply filled a chunk of mostly landlocked and low-value space in Europe’s sagging middle. By the end of World War I, the Western allies cared so little about the Habsburgs’ future that they were happy to begin recognizing successor regimes, encouraging the nationalisms that would tear apart the map of Central Europe and plunge the world toward a modernity that had no place for such antiques.

But now, a disastrous century on from these seismic events, some in the former Habsburg lands are having second thoughts about the hasty disposal of the dual monarchy. A certain lingering nostalgia has begun creeping into Central Europe, where the greatest tragedies of a post-empire world unfolded. Among academics, it has become fashionable to argue the virtues of the strange, incoherent Habsburg state — to claim that, rather than being seen as backward and oppressive, Habsburg rule should be interpreted as an early model of how to run a modern, multinational body politic, one that even contains lessons for today’s European Union. Amid arguments about Scottish, Catalan, and Walloon autonomy and so on, others are looking to the Habsburgs — who would have viewed these independence movements as one among many “routine crises” to be dealt with through bribes and arrests — for insight.

Meanwhile, many citizens of the Habsburg successor states recall the monarchy with rose-tinted fondness. The dynasty’s sacred sites, such as Franz Joseph’s palaces in Vienna and Franz Ferdinand’s castle at Konopiste in the Czech Republic, swarm with visitors in pursuit of a more graceful and leisured time, with all of them happily oblivious to how few of them would have been allowed anywhere near these places when they had been up and running, and how genuinely stuffy, pampered, and peculiar the Habsburgs really were.

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If the core task of any policymaking elite is to maintain its own power and position, then Habsburg decision-making was hideously incompetent. Boxed in by economically rampant Germany and Russia, the Habsburg Empire allowed itself to become obsessed with the one quadrant of Europe in which it still believed it had some leverage — its remote, economically marginal southern border. So myopic had Vienna become that its elite, rulers of an empire the size of Texas, began to focus almost exclusively on Serbia, a state with perhaps 5 percent of the empire’s population and that offered no serious military threat at all. Through their fixation on the small river town of Belgrade, the Habsburgs would almost by accident find themselves ultimately at war with Russia, France, the British Empire, Italy, Romania, the United States, and even Brazil, China, and Japan — all allies of Serbia and countries that in most cases the Habsburgs neither had a quarrel with nor had any means of attacking. As it turned out, the monarchy could not even successfully invade Serbia: The latter’s troops, battle-hardened from two recent Balkan wars, grimly defeated the initial Austro-Hungarian offensive. It was just one of many offensives in the autumn of 1914 that would prove horribly unsuccessful.

By any measure, the Habsburg regime absolutely betrayed both itself and its people in 1914. It killed off its best and brightest — the young, multilingual aristocratic officers who most wholeheartedly bought into the idea of the empire. It wrecked — through wartime inflation and scarcity, as well as death in battle — the empire’s robust middle class, which, up until then, had been one of the great pillars of European civilization. Towns that were once bywords for refinement filled with bread queues, refugees, and anti-Semitic violence.

And among the worst of the late-Habsburg decision-makers was the last ruler, Emperor Karl I — who also happens to be the focus of a strange but growing cult of imperial nostalgia. Karl had suddenly found himself direct heir to the extremely ancient Franz Joseph as a result of Franz Ferdinand’s murder. He proved wholly incapable of doing the job. Young, pious, and not very bright, he appears in some painfully awkward pictures from 1916 wearing the Hungarian crown perched uncomfortably above his uncommanding eyes and weedy moustache. As one of his own prime ministers is said to have once quipped, “He is 30 years old, looks 20, and thinks like a 10-year-old.”

Emperor Karl’s only admirable trait was his clear wish for peace — but his attempts to hide his secret contacts with the Allies from the Germans ended in total humiliation. In the last moments of his reign, Emperor Karl refused to abdicate, simply backing away from his responsibilities; after two tragicomic efforts to seize power in Hungary, he was dumped by a British warship on an Atlantic island to keep him out of the way. He died there in 1922.

So his current exalted reputation is very odd. Any visitor to modern Austria will be amazed to see the proliferation of church side chapels devoted to his memory. In 2004, the Catholic Church, focusing on his piety rather than his uselessness, put him on track to sainthood, attributing to him the miracle of curing a bedridden nun in Brazil through his posthumous intercession. (He is now in line, waiting for a second miracle to elevate him to the next level.) The result is that from innumerable church walls, Karl’s feeble features stare down, still looking ill at ease in a military uniform so many years after his death.

It isn’t just Karl. The obsession with Empress Elisabeth, or Sisi — estranged wife of Franz Joseph and morose fashion plate, assassinated accidentally by an anarchist in Geneva — seems to reach fresh hei
ghts of hysteria each year. (A museum devoted to her opened in Vienna’s Imperial Palace in 2004.) As recently as 2011, an extraordinary 13 days of mourning was observed on the death of Otto von Habsburg, the senior member of the family and notional king-emperor, with vast crowds filling central Vienna for the funeral. A century on from the seismic events that led to their downfall, the once-dusty Habsburgs, it seems, are peculiarly alive and kicking.

Of course, this is not something felt across all their former empire — but even those in many Slavic areas, while raised to despise the Habsburgs, are crushed with nostalgia for a patently better time. And in modern Hungary you see the distinctive shape of the old pre-1918 map on everything from walls to bumper stickers, reminding modern Hungarians in potentially dangerous ways of the many regions once under their rule. This nostalgia is particularly poignant now in western Ukraine (the former Habsburg province of Galicia), where old Habsburg towns such as Lviv are frantic to associate themselves with the West: Historically themed cafes play up their Austrian roots and decorate their walls with portraits of Emperor Franz Joseph.

Of course, it is not surprising that the Habsburgs should now have reputations that show a few green shoots. The world they ruled over was an incomparably better one than that which emerged from the 1914-1918 disaster. The poisonous microstates that inherited the empire’s territory were so intimately tangled with ethnic violence, looting, brutal discrimination, and anti-Semitism that the world before 1914 became a lost paradise. Conventional wisdom holds that it wasn’t until the 1930s that terrible ethnic violence came to Central Europe, but that is only because what came later swamps the viciousness of what was there before. For example, in 1927, in what had once been the attractive, rather somnolent Hungarian town of Nagyvarad, now part of Romania and renamed Oradea, the large Jewish population was terrorized by members of the Legion of the Archangel Michael, and half the town’s synagogues were destroyed. Even the shakily democratic Czechoslovakia had to mete out violence against irreconcilable Germans, Poles, and Hungarians, with troops sent into Eger (now Cheb) to quell violent rioting by many Germans who would in due course look to Hitler for salvation from Czech rule.

None of the post-1918 Habsburg successor states shone, but the most sinister disaster was probably Austria itself. This unwanted state was simply the residuum of German speakers once the rest of the empire had fallen away. Logically, in that brave new Wilsonian world of nation-states, the Austrians should have been joined to Germany, but the Allies could hardly reward the defeated Germans in this way with a substantial new block of territory. Instead, these Habsburg Germans were left with a rural, Alpine state attached to a rapidly depopulating former imperial capital (in the years after 1918, Vienna’s population dropped by some 300,000). Austria’s far west (Vorarlberg) even underwent the humiliation of trying to join Switzerland, and being refused.

Even before 1914, Vienna had been home to a virulent and articulate form of anti-Semitism so potent that it produced a nationalist countermove: Zionism, expounded by Theodor Herzl — an assimilated German-speaking Jew from Hungary who was living in Vienna, a quintessential Habsburg figure — in his epochal 1896 book The Jewish State. For an important segment of its population, Austria was never viewed as a legitimate state; these Germans, alongside the Hungarians, had been a “master race” in a multiracial empire, and their collapse in status was seen as nothing short of catastrophic. Hitler himself was, of course, a classic Habsburg German. Born in rural Austria, educated in Linz, and then living in Vienna, he soaked up a confused mass of nationalist ideas that involved both an adulation for Germany and a Habsburgian sense that it was German- (and to a limited extent Hungarian-) speakers who should control the lives of Slavs and Jews. The consequences of this worldview we recall all too well.

In the years that followed Hitler’s rise to power, the festering nationality issues born of the Habsburg decay were solved in the worst way imaginable. By the late 1940s, the former northeastern Habsburg city Lwow (now Lviv in western Ukraine), once a mixed German-Polish-Jewish composite, had — through years of murders and expulsions — been emptied of effectively its entire population. Many thousands of Ukrainians were moved there by the new Soviet authorities to refill district after district of empty houses. Everywhere, brutal population engineering expelled millions of individuals who had somehow survived World War II only to now find that they spoke the wrong language and had to start their lives again, often hundreds of miles from their homes. It was the Soviets who ended up imposing the most coldly logical version of what U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had once imagined would solve Europe’s problems: Massive population transfers — in particular, the expulsion of Germans and Poles — finally created countries that were at last fairly (though never totally) homogenous.

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Today only small pockets of diversity remain in these once-Habsburg lands. Recently, I found myself on a train traveling to Arad, in what is now western Romania, and I could hear people around me speaking Romany, Hungarian, and Romanian. If I had perked up with a few words in English, there would have been four barely even related language groups in just one carriage. Tragically, this ethnolinguistic diversity is now a striking rarity. The complex patchwork of languages and religious beliefs that filled the Habsburg Empire from the Alps in the west to the Carpathians in the east has now for the most part been replaced by a series of monoglot small nations, shaped by many decades of mass murder and expulsions. The disappearance of the empire that had sheltered, however imperfectly, all these groups in a chaotic but workable patchwork is a disaster from which Europe will never really recover, either morally or culturally.

A century after the assassination that marked the Habsburg Empire’s terminal crisis, and indeed the terminal crisis of much of the world, it is easy to see how intervening events have made that notion of a kinder, gentler imperial rule appealing. The result of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s murder was to drop many millions of people into a nightmare that would last across generations, only really ending with the destruction of the Berlin Wall — and even then there were the dreadful aftershocks in the Yugoslav wars. In hindsight, we can see that the Habsburgs protected and sheltered a large part of Europe with policies that, while often unimaginative, brutal, or cynical, ensured a rough rule of law and security and allowed a great civilization to flourish, one that sheltered everyone from Mahler to Freud, Klimt to Kafka.

But it is important to remember, too, that it was the same people who were in charge of this empire who took the trivial, delusive, and self-serving actions that created the disaster of 1914 in the first place. It is Europe’s tragedy that though the Habsburgs may have ruled over a swath of land which in retrospect seems remarkably secure, moderate, refined, and thoughtful, it was their decision-making which opened the box that proved to contain many of the 20th century’s most horrible impulses. Nothing can ever remove the basic disaster of Vienna’s actions in July and August 1914. If World War I was the Habsburgs’ final gift to the world, that probably aces everything that can be said in their favor. But buried beneath the rubble was a world that, in retrospect, is sorely missed by its inhabitants. A century on, it would be odd not to look back with regret.

Simon Winder is the author of Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe.