Writing Armageddon

Writing Armageddon
Furious writing or writing furiously?

Friday, January 27, 2017

Book Reaction "The Habsburg Empire: A New History"

Finished Pieter M.Judson’s “The Habsburg Empire: A New History”

This is a great and meaty book, which I devoured, all 543 pages, including 100 pages of notes. It is more similar to Christopher Clack’s “Iron Kingdom” (another great book), rather than a chronological annal of the history of the Habsburg Empire. It’s central theme was the relationship between the imperial authorities and its peoples, and the ways those peoples tried to articulate stakes on the empire and from the empire. It is a story of the rise of nationalism, but of its rise as a top-down political ideology who struggled to co-opt the imperial state to impose a specific nationalist-statist ideology on peoples who primary identity was localist. It is a great book of politics, showing the empire trying to react to the changes brought by the industrial revolution and the mass politics that continue. It is finally a book that dispenses with the myth propagated by nationalist-statists about the inevitability of their favored systems of nationalism-statism, the unitary nation state. The Empire was not doomed to die. Its death was the result of conscious political choices by both imperialists and nationalist-statists, and by a war of choice.

 A couple of points
      A)     The books lays forth the deep authoritarianism and mendacity of nationalist-statists. Among the first things they use imperial authority for is to force parents to send their children to schools that the nationalist-statists believe appropriate for their children. So much for the “champions of human freedom”. Nationalism-statism is a vile ideology that takes advantage of the very human an real attachment to locality (entopiotita in greek) to impose a specific utopian and exclusionary view of locality, in the process exterminating thousands of localities, many millennia old, and thousands to millions of people. And this is somehow presented to us as “natural” while the mutli-indentiterian localist empires that preceded them as unnatural.

      B)      But even given the rise of extra-localist identity via nationalism, there is no inevitable road to national-statist statehood. The nationalists themselves in their majority up to 1914 saw the framework of the empire as the appropriate one for realizing their political goals. The decision to create independent nation-states was made by the Entente powers, and followed the betrayal of the Rechstaat by the imperial authorities themselves in the Austrian part of the Empire in the 1914-1916 period of Military Dictatorship.

      C)      Reading this book one completely understand why workers rejected the classical liberal political order. It is disgusting to see all those liberals who came to power in 1860-1880 then refuse to countenance worker representation. It is even more disgusting to see them act in very iliberla ways. No wonder the workers and peasants were mobilized to mass socialist parties (Whether Social Catholic, or Social Democrat).

      D)     Indeed arrogance as downfall is a recurring theme in the book. The arrogance of imperial authorities, and German liberals, who believed that German, as the language of science and culture, would be welcomed as imperial tongue by those who also spoke other. The arrogance of Hungarian liberal leaders after 1860 who even as late as 1916 refused to countence reforms to give all people in the Hungarian crown representation. The arrogance of nationalist-statists who ignored local traditions and conditions in the march of their own “imperial” project. The arrogance of officers like Conrad von Hotzendorf  who hated representation and sought to use a catastrophic war as a way to impose their authoritarian centralism on the peoples of the empire.

      E)      Speaking of Conrand von Hotzendorf, he deserves to be considered as much an evil personality as Dragutin  Dimirtidevits (Apis of the Black Hand). These two and the cliques around them took Europe to war in 1914. Millions died because of them. Apis paid the price when Pasich had him shot. Von Hotzedorf escaped. A pity, a damn pity.

      F)      The Empire died because of World War 1. Its elites chose to go to war. Its elites chose to kill it. Nationalists-statists activists and ideologues, like my undergraduate Professor Panayotis Ifestos, claim that the inability of Austria-Hungary to survive war is proof of the obsolescence of its social model. But did the tiny authoritarian (more or less) nation-states that followed it do any better? No. Austria was devoured by Germany, Czechoslovakia was devoured by Germany, Slovakia was a Germany protectorate, and Hungary was devoured by the USSR. Their border where changed at will by Adolf Hitler and then Joseph Stalin. They survived because the Great Powers decided they would survive. If the Great Powers had wanted it the Austro-Hungarian Empire would also had survived. Strange criteria on which to base the myth of the “superiority” of the unitary nation-state. None of the nation states that claimed to be superior to the KuK did any better than the KuK when tested by war.

      G)     And what did those nation states procure for their peoples? Death and Exile. For centuries they had all lived a common existence in the empire. It was one of strife, and fighting (I am not  a romantic, or some foolish myth-maker to present some idyllic imperial past), but also cooperation and co-existence. Yes there was violence (the 1848-1849 fighting, especially the clash with the Nationalist-Statist Hungarian Republic), and sometimes brutal (the massacre of the Nationalist-Statist Polish nobility but the Ruthene speaking people of Galicia in 1848 is an example), but when you compare it to the experience of the peoples forced to live in the unitary nation-states created in 1919, it pales. Millions lost their homes, hundreds of thousands died in the 1919-1946 period as the nationalist-statists, now in the guise of national-socialism of either German or Russian extraction, expelled, massacred, and killed thousands.

It is sobering story this book tells. A story of highs and lows. Of great endeavors and base cruelty, of politics and utopianism clashing, of lost chances, of creativity. Of an Empire that was and was not an empire. Of a lost alternative to the unitary nationalist-statism that in my opinion bedevils the world.  And a cautionary story of what the cost of cosmopolitan arrogance (my sin) and nationalist particularism (the sin of my enemies) can be.  

Gott Erhalte Franz den Kaiser. 

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