HISTORICAL SCHOLARSHIP
AND POLITICS

The Case of Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918

In December 2021, two volumes entitled Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, Band X: Das kulturelle Leben. Akteure–Tendenzen–Ausprägungen were published by the Austrian Academy of Sciences Press. This publication marks the end of a project on the history of Central Europe from the middle of the nineteenth century to the end of the First World War. Its beginnings can be traced back to the early 1950s, the years following the Second World War. Two differing ideas and intentions stood at the beginning of this venture: one international–political and another domestic–scholarly.

The international–political track is connected with the American Rockefeller Foundation, which soon after the end of the Second World War began to fund historical research projects which would promote the establishment of a European peace zone by overcoming nationalistic tendencies. Among others, it was the Habsburg Monarchy during the last seventy years of its existence which was regarded as a paradigmatic example for the problems arising in connection with the unification of Europe as a supranational political body. In 1952, the Rockefeller Foundation approached the Austrian authorities, suggesting the establishment of a multinational scientific organization which—as was later stated—should ‘work on achievements and failures of the Habsburg multiethnic empire and make this valuable treasure instrumental for plans and activities at present and in the future’.11 Adam Wandruszka, ‘Planung und Verwirklichung’, in Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, Bd. I:
Die wirtschaftliche Entwicklung (Wien, 1973), XII.
The appreciation of a political, economic, and cultural system that would perhaps be able to mediate between Western democracies and Eastern autocracies gained weight. Although never officially stated, it is obvious that during the years of the Cold War, American decision-makers were thinking about how to overcome ideological divides, to make the frontiers between the two power blocks at least a little more permeable.

On the Austrian side, these ideas met with great interest among politicians as well as academics. Both groups, who generally belonged to the ideologically conservative camp, were striving—just a few years after the end of the Third Reich and the pan-German idea related to it—to reinforce a specific Austrian identity, including the Habsburg heritage (an idea that was utterly opposed by the left).22 The discussion on an ‘Austrian nation’ sped up only after 1955, with the conclusion of the Austrian
State Treaty and the concept of ‘perpetual neutrality’ associated with it. Ernst Bruckmüller, Nation
Österreich. Kulturelles Bewusstsein und gesellschaftlich-politische Prozesse (Wien, 1996).
For the academics, an additional point of view was of decisive importance. Immediately after the end of the Habsburg Monarchy, the notion had solidified in many influential circles that the defunct state had been nothing but a Völkerkerker (prison of peoples) oppressing its population in many ways. After the Second World War, the topos of Völkerkerker— originally nourished by nationalistic ideas—was still used by some influential historians (and political journalists) outside of Austria. Another historiographical trend saw the history of the Habsburg Monarchy during the nineteenth century as one of ‘decline and fall’.33 Alan P. Taylor, The Habsburg Monarchy 1809–1918. A History of the Austrian Empire and Austria–
Hungary (London 1948); Alan Sked, The Decline and Fall of the Habsburg Empire (London, 1989).

In order to counteract these notions, some Austrian historians came up with the idea that a group of internationally linked researchers, basing their work on a rich source stock, should concentrate their efforts on the elaboration of the complex realities of a multinational state. Therefore the Austrian historians saw in the American initiative a suitable starting point for their endeavour. In the years to come, they established various contacts with their fellow historians abroad (at that moment primarily in the United States and Western Europe) and started preliminary work.

For reasons which are still unclear, the Rockefeller Foundation withdrew from the project in 1959, but on the Austrian side it was decided to continue the undertaking, explicitly retaining its international component. The wish to integrate research workers from the former ‘successor states’ still under communist dominance at first met with some resistance inside and outside of Austria (although in Austria some other attempts to initiate cultural cooperation with the former ‘successor states’ had already been made). But in the years to come, some historians in Eastern Europe saw their work on the history of the Habsburg Monarchy and Central Europe (a term willingly used by dissidents behind the Iron Curtain) as a means to overcome their intellectual isolation in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe (although finally the idea of ‘Central Europe’ turned out to be an intellectual ‘Glass Bead Game’44 Helmut Rumpler, ‘The Habsburg Monarchy as a Portent for the New Europe of the Future’, in
Helmut Rumpler and Ulrike Harmat (Hgg.), Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, XII: Bewältigte
Vergangenheit? Die nationale und internationale Historiographie zum Untergang der Habsburgermonarchie
als ideelle Grundlage für die Neuordnung Europas (Wien, 2018), 14.
), and they accepted invitations to join the common project.

Based on their experience to that point, the Austrian researchers—in the meantime organized as a committee at the Austrian Academy of Sciences—elaborated in the 1960s a work programme, finally modified in 1969, which has in its essentials (the publication should be structured according to thematic subjects, e.g. nationalities, political institutions, economy, foreign policy etc.) remained in place until today. However, there has been a great deal of progress in terms of establishing research priorities and in details of content. At the beginning, the main emphasis was put on the ‘nationality question’ understood in its broadest sense (as the nationality question became politically virulent for the first time in 1848, the whole project starts with this year). But over the years, new scientific paradigms and historiographical questions arose and were duly taken into account, whereas other items were regarded as obsolete and were therefore eliminated.

In 1973, the first volume of the series was published, a series comprised of 12 volumes, each dealing with a specific theme (some appeared as two-part works), so that the whole series, the publication of which has now come to an end, consists of 18 voluminous books plus three special publications (the first of which contains a map showing the territorial distribution of the population according to the predominant spoken language (in Cisleithania55 ‘Cisleithania’ was, after 1867, the unofficial yet commonly used term for the ‘western’ (non-Hungarian) part of the Habsburg Monarchy which was officially designated ‘Austria’ on ‘language of daily use’, in Hungary ‘mother tongue’) according to the census of 1910—in common parlance used as an indicator of the strength of nationalities as defined by language. Unlike other maps on this topic, this one shows the proportion of languages in every single district, thus shedding light on the mixture of nationalities which in certain areas was more complex than the simplified presentation of solid blocs of nations suggests; the second offers maps and charts on the social structure of the Habsburg Monarchy in 1910; the third contains statistics concerning the First World War).66 Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, hrg. von Adam Wandruszka und Peter Urbanitsch (Bde.
1–6), Helmut Rumpler und Peter Urbanitsch (Bde. 7–9), Helmut Rumpler, Peter Urbanitsch und
Martin Seger (Bd. 9/2), Andreas Gottsmann (Bd. 10), Helmut Rumpler und Anatol Schmied-Kowarzik (Bd. 11), Helmut Rumpler und Ulrike Harmat (Bd. 12); Bd. 1: Die wirtschaftliche
Entwicklung (Wien, 1973, 2005); Bd. 2: Verwaltung und Rechtswesen (Wien, 1975, 2003); Bd. 3:
Die Völker des Reiches (2 Teilbände, Wien, 1980, 2003); Bd. 4: Die Konfessionen (Wien, 1985, 1995);
Bd. 5: Die bewaffnete Macht (Wien, 1987); Bd. 6: Internationale Beziehungen (2 Teilbände, Wien,
1989, 1993); Bd. 7: Verfassung und Parlamentarismus (2 Teilbände, Wien, 2000); Bd. 8: Politische
Öffentlichkeit (2 Teilbände, Wien, 2006); Bd. 9: Soziale Strukturen (2 Teilbände, Wien, 2010); Bd.
10: Das kulturelle Leben (2 Teilbände, Wien, 2021); Bd. 11: Die Habsburgermonarchie und der Erste
Weltkrieg (2 Teilbände, Wien, 2016); Bd.12: Bewältigte Vergangenheit (Wien, 2018).
Across roughly 19,000 pages, almost 300 authors (a little fewer than half of them non-Austrians from, all total, 20 other countries, from North America across Europe to the Near East, but with the numerically greatest cohort being Hungarians) have tried to describe and analyse the political, social, economic, and cultural problems the Habsburg Monarchy was confronted with. They pointed out the ways in which decision-makers succeeded in finding reasonably viable solutions to problems, or why some efforts failed or were not even launched.

Even if the volumes can be regarded as handbooks covering a broad thematic spectrum, some lacunae could not be prevented, partly because in some cases there is still a lack of detailed research, and partly because some authors invited to cover certain specific areas withdrew from the project and could not be properly replaced. It goes without saying, in an undertaking of this scope there can be no consistent line of argument and uniform assessment of facts and interpretations. The national research traditions, as well as individual research approaches and interests, are simply too divergent. It was the explicit aim of the editors not to smooth out these differences.

The attempt to describe in detail the contents of the various volumes would far exceed the space allotted to this article. Instead, only a few highlights (in the eyes of the present author) will be mentioned. Volume 3 is dedicated to the 11 officially recognized nationalities (Volksstämme) plus Jews (not recognized as a Volksstamm), and various ethnic and religious splinter groups, ‘until today unsurpassed in the richness of information and its sophistication’, according to a reviewer.77 Matthias Stickler, ‘“Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918” – Ein Jahrhundertwerk auf der
Zielgeraden’, in Historische Zeitschrift 295 (2012), 712.
Special mention should be made of a lengthy article on the equality of nations as a legal principle and its practical application. Volume 7 stands out for by far the best treatment of Hungarian constitutional matters in any western language. The Cisleithanian general election of 1897 was the first to combine (almost) universal suffrage for men with elements of the traditional curial suffrage. Several maps and charts elucidate this complex arrangement. The second part of this volume deals with representative bodies in all the crown lands and self-governing corporations, laying out in detail their legal constitution and day-to-day responsibilities. This is the first time that all these bodies have been studied together, thus enabling the reader to set aside any notion of the western part of the Habsburg Monarchy (but also to a lesser degree of the eastern part) as a unitary state, and instead to view the Monarchy as the ‘composite state’ it actually was.88 Jana Osterkamp (Hg.), ‘Kooperatives Imperium. Politische Zusammenarbeit in der späten
Habsburgermonarchie’, Bad Wiesseer Tagungen des Collegium Carolinum 39 (Göttingen, 2018).
The next volume broadens the view to the establishment of a civil society, dealing with a multitude of associations of all kinds and with a plethora of newspapers and journals which were essential for the politicization of the population, offering a wide variety of new insights into the actual working of democratic political processes within a society that was rapidly transforming in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century. This process of transformation is thoroughly dealt with in Volume 9. A separate volume of maps and statistics explains the social situation of the population according to the census of 1910. And the volume on cultural life—dealing not only with examples of high culture (literature, music, visual arts, etc.) but also with elements of everyday culture (like fashion, eating habits, housing, leisure activities, and so on)—again bears witness to the great variety of possibilities the people could take advantage of under the umbrella of the Habsburg Monarchy.

As stated earlier, after the Second World War the idea of the unification of Europe and its functioning as a supranational political body stood at the very heart of the renewed preoccupation with the history of the Habsburg Monarchy. Ever since the European Union came into existence, historians and political commentators alike have tried to find out in which way the ‘achievements and failures’ of the defunct Habsburg multiethnic empire with all its diversity—aptly described as a ‘conflict community’99 The term is borrowed from Jan Křen, ‘Die Konfliktgemeinschaft. Tschechen und Deutsche 1780–
1918’, Veröffentlichungen des Collegium Carolinum 71 (München, 2000), but can be used for the
situation in the Habsburg Monarchy as a whole.
—could serve as an example for the present European Union.1010 One of the latest products of this métier is a book by a Dutch journalist recently published in
German: Caroline de Gruyter, Das Habsburgerreich – Inspiration für Europa? Eine Spurensuche (Wien,
2022).
This is a question not easy to be answered. Some of the founding fathers of the process of European unification (Jean Monnet, Robert Schumann, Paul Henri Spaak) hoped for a true European Community by letting nationalism fade into the background. These hopes were never truly realized, while the—more realistic—ideas of others (de Gaulle’s Europe des patries) more or less prevailed. It is understandable that in a big unit composed of various smaller parts there will always exist divergent and sometimes conflicting interests—be they more or less justified or merely imagined by a certain group of people. This was also the case in the Habsburg Monarchy, which on the administrative level found some ingenious methods to solve these problems. Disregarding nationalistic rhetoric, it can be said that—at least in the western part of the Monarchy—the principle of devolving power from the centre to lower levels, to regional and local institutions, had some success when it came to everyday affairs. Concomitant to the sharing of power in internal matters, there was, however, a concentration of foreign policy and military affairs in the hands of the central government (to be precise, in the hands of the monarch and his advisers)—a state of affairs which still seems a long way off in the present European Union. Yet the kind of federalism operating in the Habsburg Monarchy (allowing individual solutions to be found on different levels) was not sufficient to satisfy the excessive demands of nationalists, who lacked one decisive element of statecraft: the will to compromise. Shortly before the demise of the Habsburg Monarchy, political commentators and farsighted politicians regarded the ‘absence of a political culture of compromise’ as the main reason for the problems the state was confronted with,1111 Rumpler, ‘The Habsburg Monarchy as a Portent for the New Europe 2’, quoting a statement by
Friedrich Wilhelm Foerster.
along with an inability to tone down ‘the struggle of the nations for the state’.1212 Rudolf Springer [Karl Renner], Der Kampf der österreichischen Nationen um den Staat (Wien, 1902).

This assessment might also apply to the European Union, given the—smaller or greater—rise of nationalism in many of the member states. Yet in a multiethnic and multicultural political entity (the kind of entity the Habsburg Monarchy was in the past and the European Union is at present) a federal system can only function if there is a basic willingness to compromise between ‘regional autonomy’ (in the case of the European Union implying the partial renunciation of sovereignty on the part of the member states) and the agendas of the central political unit. It is easier for a culture of consensus and solidarity to prevail if all the members of the greater unit feel committed to a common aim, a ‘goal’ beyond mere material wellbeing. Forming a common legal, economic, and cultural region is obviously not enough (as has clearly been demonstrated by the fate of the Habsburg Monarchy), it needs an overriding idea of state, a ‘soul’, a spiritual foundation. If the severe crisis we are bound to experience at the moment should lead to a growing awareness of such a need, this crisis may have at least some positive effect, but it is far from certain that those in charge of the people’s fate will pay heed to the lessons of history.

  • 1
    1 Adam Wandruszka, ‘Planung und Verwirklichung’, in Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, Bd. I:
    Die wirtschaftliche Entwicklung (Wien, 1973), XII.
  • 2
    2 The discussion on an ‘Austrian nation’ sped up only after 1955, with the conclusion of the Austrian
    State Treaty and the concept of ‘perpetual neutrality’ associated with it. Ernst Bruckmüller, Nation
    Österreich. Kulturelles Bewusstsein und gesellschaftlich-politische Prozesse (Wien, 1996).
  • 3
    3 Alan P. Taylor, The Habsburg Monarchy 1809–1918. A History of the Austrian Empire and Austria–
    Hungary (London 1948); Alan Sked, The Decline and Fall of the Habsburg Empire (London, 1989).
  • 4
    4 Helmut Rumpler, ‘The Habsburg Monarchy as a Portent for the New Europe of the Future’, in
    Helmut Rumpler and Ulrike Harmat (Hgg.), Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, XII: Bewältigte
    Vergangenheit? Die nationale und internationale Historiographie zum Untergang der Habsburgermonarchie
    als ideelle Grundlage für die Neuordnung Europas (Wien, 2018), 14.
  • 5
    5 ‘Cisleithania’ was, after 1867, the unofficial yet commonly used term for the ‘western’ (non-Hungarian) part of the Habsburg Monarchy which was officially designated ‘Austria’ on
  • 6
    6 Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, hrg. von Adam Wandruszka und Peter Urbanitsch (Bde.
    1–6), Helmut Rumpler und Peter Urbanitsch (Bde. 7–9), Helmut Rumpler, Peter Urbanitsch und
    Martin Seger (Bd. 9/2), Andreas Gottsmann (Bd. 10), Helmut Rumpler und Anatol Schmied-Kowarzik (Bd. 11), Helmut Rumpler und Ulrike Harmat (Bd. 12); Bd. 1: Die wirtschaftliche
    Entwicklung (Wien, 1973, 2005); Bd. 2: Verwaltung und Rechtswesen (Wien, 1975, 2003); Bd. 3:
    Die Völker des Reiches (2 Teilbände, Wien, 1980, 2003); Bd. 4: Die Konfessionen (Wien, 1985, 1995);
    Bd. 5: Die bewaffnete Macht (Wien, 1987); Bd. 6: Internationale Beziehungen (2 Teilbände, Wien,
    1989, 1993); Bd. 7: Verfassung und Parlamentarismus (2 Teilbände, Wien, 2000); Bd. 8: Politische
    Öffentlichkeit (2 Teilbände, Wien, 2006); Bd. 9: Soziale Strukturen (2 Teilbände, Wien, 2010); Bd.
    10: Das kulturelle Leben (2 Teilbände, Wien, 2021); Bd. 11: Die Habsburgermonarchie und der Erste
    Weltkrieg (2 Teilbände, Wien, 2016); Bd.12: Bewältigte Vergangenheit (Wien, 2018).
  • 7
    7 Matthias Stickler, ‘“Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918” – Ein Jahrhundertwerk auf der
    Zielgeraden’, in Historische Zeitschrift 295 (2012), 712.
  • 8
    8 Jana Osterkamp (Hg.), ‘Kooperatives Imperium. Politische Zusammenarbeit in der späten
    Habsburgermonarchie’, Bad Wiesseer Tagungen des Collegium Carolinum 39 (Göttingen, 2018).
  • 9
    9 The term is borrowed from Jan Křen, ‘Die Konfliktgemeinschaft. Tschechen und Deutsche 1780–
    1918’, Veröffentlichungen des Collegium Carolinum 71 (München, 2000), but can be used for the
    situation in the Habsburg Monarchy as a whole.
  • 10
    10 One of the latest products of this métier is a book by a Dutch journalist recently published in
    German: Caroline de Gruyter, Das Habsburgerreich – Inspiration für Europa? Eine Spurensuche (Wien,
    2022).
  • 11
    11 Rumpler, ‘The Habsburg Monarchy as a Portent for the New Europe 2’, quoting a statement by
    Friedrich Wilhelm Foerster.
  • 12
    12 Rudolf Springer [Karl Renner], Der Kampf der österreichischen Nationen um den Staat (Wien, 1902).

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