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The case for the Austro-Hungarian Empire
Habsburg federalism could have worked if not for an assassin's bullet
This is a post about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a weird subject, I know. But before we get to the Habsburgs, we need to take an even weirder detour into the philosophy of history, which is barely a real subfield of philosophy but is absolutely something that I took a class on in college.
Robert Nozick’s 1974 book “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” is a staple of introduction to political philosophy classes, best known for its defense of a strong version of philosophical libertarianism. Later in life, he semi-abandoned the book’s position, but he maintained a broadly libertarian political viewpoint (just later grounded more in banal ideas like “free markets tend to promote growth”) and an interest in criticizing left-wing intellectuals and the left-wing tilt of academic life. Until his death he taught the seminar I took called “Philosophy of History: The Russian Revolution.”
This was part of an effort to develop a philosophical account of historical contingency that he teases a little in his 2003 book “Invariances” but doesn’t explore at great length there. The basic idea is that some moments in history are causally thin while others are thick.
At a thick moment, you can describe a significant change that still produces the same outcome (John Kerry wins in 2004 but we still get a financial crisis in 2008). But other times are thin. If Alexander the Great decides to settle down earlier rather than push his armies east, hundreds of years of Indo-Greek and Greco-Bactrian culture don’t exist.
Nozick, to own Marxism-influenced professors, wanted to say that the Russian Revolution was, in fact, highly contingent, that Lenin’s takeover depended critically on the details of Tsarist military blunders, the short-sighted opportunism of the Germans, and the fecklessness of the western powers’ refusal to back up the Whites. But then he wants to argue that contingent on Lenin’s victory in the Russian Civil War, the lapse into Stalinist totalitarianism is essentially inevitable.
Make of that what you will, but I’ve come to think Nozick was sort of missing the forest for the trees here: the great thin point of modern history is the outbreak of World War I itself. And the imperial collapse that was truly contingent was not the fall of Tsarist Russia but of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The fake doom of Austria-Hungary
As I wrote in “Seventeen Points on Israel and Palestine,” Theodore Herzl was just one of many people born in the prewar Habsburg realm who thought, “this is dumb and everything ought to be reorganized into ethnically homogenous nation-states.”
Around the time of World War I, this was seen as very forward-thinking, and the multinational Habsburg polity was seen as a feudal relic. But today, multinational Switzerland is considered a highly functional polity. Canada is a nice place. The various Spanish-speaking states of the Western Hemisphere are not ethnolinguistic nations in the sense of 19th-century romantics. And of course, there’s India’s polyglot democracy. Central Europe actually stands out as having unusually homogenous nation-states, the results of a ton of horrific violence, genocide, and ethnic cleansing.
In fact, the European Union exists today because the upshot of all that death and destruction was the realization that it’s actually a good idea to have some supranational framework through which all these little ethnic groups can cooperate.
In today’s light, the idea of the Habsburg realms evolving into a multi-lingual democratic entity doesn’t seem particularly absurd. The empire wasn’t doomed by its diversity of linguistic groups — it started and then lost a major war. And to agree with Nozick, I think the idea that World War I was the inevitable result of the forces of imperialism is a weird Marxist cope.
I strongly recommend Christopher Clark’s book “The Sleepwalkers” on the origins of the war. But I think anyone who lived through 9/11 can appreciate that a small group of terrorists really can change the course of history. Change it, of course, in ways that are deeply influenced by larger trends, but very genuinely change it.
Serbian nationalists actually had a specific purpose in mind when they assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand. They believed Serbia ought to take over the lands that are today Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia and create a unified South Slav state such as existed Yugoslavia from 1919 until 1990 or so. But Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the throne, supported “trialism” in which the dual monarchy would be transformed into a triple monarchy, with a Croat/Slovene pillar added to the Austrian and German ones. Serbian nationalists feared this might actually work, with Croats, in particular, choosing Catholic solidarity with the rest of the Empire over linguistic solidarity with the Serbs. They killed Ferdinand to stop this from coming to fruition.
And this, I think, is the thin point: had the continent not plunged into war following Ferdinand’s assassination, I think the empire could have survived.
The political evolution of the Habsburg realm
On the eve of World War I, the Habsburg Empire was divided into two parts. There was the largely autonomous Kingdom of Hungary, which was much larger than present-day Hungary and only about 50 percent Hungarian by ethnicity. Then there was “everything else” aka Cisleithenia, a grab-bag of provinces.
The people of Cisleithania were represented in the Imperial Diet in Vienna, which held its first-ever elections under conditions of universal manhood suffrage in 1907 and a second round of democratic elections in 1911. Democracy was a newish idea and the Cisleithanian electorate was highly fragmented across parties and linguistic groups. So in March of 1914, faced with a bunch of filibustering in parliament, the conservative prime minister dismissed the legislature and ruled by decree. The July Crisis broke out a few months later, so what started as “I can’t govern properly” swiftly became a wartime emergency.
Hungary’s Diet, meanwhile, had a much more restricted franchise.
It also had weird politics. The largest ethnic group in the Kingdom of Hungary was Hungarians, who were officially committed to the view that it was good that the Kingdom of Hungary was so big. But it was actually so big that Hungarian nationalists were constantly being outvoted in the Diet, where the majority coalition almost always consisted of some small party of Hungarian liberals in alliance with tons of non-Hungarians.
My optimistic view is twofold:
Absent the pretext of war, the Viennese authorities would recognize the need to return to parliamentary government, even if that meant dealing with socialists as a counterweight to the grab-bag of nationalists.
Franz Ferdinand wanted to cut Hungary down to size (literally) and the Hungarian nationalists might have realized that this was actually in their interests and would have let them be masters of their own domain.
The most natural evolution of the polity would have been in the direction of federalism. One leading idea in the prewar years was this proposal by Aurel Popovici to divide the empire into small ethnic states. But you can see on his own map that this is a pretty messy proposal:
The colors on the map were at odds with the reality on the ground, which was lots of ethnically mixed territories.
I think a more workable version of federalism would have been to leverage the Empire’s small administrative divisions and create a state where a lot of power was devolved to local government with the national government handling national defense and foreign policy, plus the kinds of things that are run out of Brussels and Frankfurt in contemporary Europe.
The expectation would be that schooling would be available in one or two local languages of instruction in every locality, that every non-German student would be taught German as a foreign language, and that every German student would choose from one of the other languages of the empire.
The liberal empire
I think that absent the outbreak of war, this would have proved to be a sustainable model. As Tomas Cvrcek shows, on the eve of World War I the western parts of the Empire were dramatically richer than the eastern ones, with industrialization gaining steam in Prague and Vienna but leaving a large hinterland basically untouched. At the time, lots of people were emigrating to the United States, but American policy was poised to take a sharp anti-immigrant turn.
Once those doors are shut, the practical value of being inside the empire rather than outside becomes large. As part of the empire, speakers of Romanian and Serbo-Croatian have the ability to move to the industrializing west. Ruled from Bucharest or Belgrade, they would lose that.
The whole empire, in fact, has a strong economic logic. Sentimentally, the Italian-speaking people of Trieste might enjoy the idea of national union with their fellow Italophones. But Trieste connected by rail to Ljubljana, Graz, Vienna, Bratislava, and beyond is a major port and commercial center. As a peripheral portion of Italy, it would be a backwater. The city’s bourgeois classes know that they’re better off inside the empire than out.
Without the destruction and devastating disruption of trade due to the war, Europe is considerably richer. And by midcentury, the script has sort of flipped on the Habsburg domains. Far from a feudal relic, the empire starts to seem progressive and modern. With Jews as a national constituency for a polyglot empire, the authorities in Vienna become increasingly philosemitic with strong Jewish political representation, particularly in the form of Social Democratic leader Fritz Adler. And while the empire is not friendly to Polish or Ukrainian nationalism, it’s also not in the business of suppressing minority culture groups the way the German and Russian empires are. Intellectuals tend to flee the Czar’s domains, and Krakow and Lviv naturally become the capitals of Polish and Ukrainian cultural life with Jagiellonian University and Lviv University enjoying the patronage of the state.
While this is proceeding, the British and French empires are increasingly dealing with national independence movements in India, North Africa, and Indochina. As a multi-national federation and the only European power without a colonial empire, the Habsburg realms are seen by much of the global south as a welcome alternative to racial imperialism, with the Imperial Foreign Service often seen as honest brokers and mediators in colonial disputes.
The Habsburg renaissance
Stanisław Ulam, the inventor of the Monte Carlo method of computation and co-discoverer of the Teller-Ulam design for thermonuclear weapons, was born in the city we call Lviv today but would have been called Lemberg by the Austrian authorities and Ulam’s Yiddish-speaking relatives.
In the real world, he emigrated to the United States in the 1930s like many other Jewish scientists, including his collaborator Edward Teller. But absent the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, that wouldn’t have happened. A lot of people know that to a substantial degree the Manhattan Project was powered by a remarkable group of Hungarian emigré super-geniuses born in Budapest between 1880 and 1920. But a large number of the key people involved who weren’t from Budapest were from elsewhere in the Habsburg domains. In our alternate timeline, these people tend to stay put in Austria-Hungary and are joined by Polish geniuses like Stanislaw Leśniewski and Alfred Tarski along with German-speaking Austrians like Erwin Shrödinger, Kurt Gödel, Victor Hess, and Wolfgang Pauli. With no Russian Revolution, no Holocaust, and no Israel, the Habsburg domains also become the natural landing point for Russian-born Jewish scientists like Ilya Frank and Lev Landau.
In this timeline, decolonization is a much slower process because the imperial powers aren’t weakened by war. It’s actually Germany who is the first to let go of its colonies, recognizing that there is little economic benefit to their small African empire and some potential upside to creating mischief for the larger British and French ones. The absence of WWII mobilization and Cold War competition slows the progress of civil rights by making it easier for northern white moderates to ignore the whole thing.
As global scientific leaders, the Habsburg domains become increasingly economically dynamic. Their bumper crop of nuclear physicists do not (at first, at least) focus on building enormous bombs because there’s no military crisis. Instead, they develop civilian nuclear power which, without the precedent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is not irrationally stigmatized as dangerous. Skoda and Tatra make Bohemia one of the major centers of world automobile manufacturing. And during the 1970s, András Gróf and Vadász László turn Budapest into the center of the world’s emerging computer chip industry.
The bad 20th century
I don’t have a snappy end to these musings except to return to the main idea that the 1914-19 period was a locally decisive moment for world history.
The war itself was not only much longer, harder, and bloodier than anyone anticipated; its unintended effects spiraled far and wide. The timing of Russia being defeated by Germany, only for Germany to be defeated by the western Allies soon after, was both really odd and completely integral to the formerly marginal Bolshevik movement being able to take over a major country. Bolshevik rule in Russia was then integral to the rise of the Chinese Communist Party with far-reaching consequences for Asia. The botched World War I settlement and the specter of communism fueled the rise of Hitler, which set the stage for the Holocaust, Russian domination of eastern and central Europe, and the Western embrace of Zionism.
The Serbian nationalists who wanted to bring the Habsburg Empire down got what they wanted — the Kingdom of Yugoslavia — for a little while. But it gave way to Communist Yugoslavia and then eventually to the nationalist logic that dismembered Yugoslavia, leaving Serbia smaller than it was before the war.
At the same time, virtually all of the former Habsburg lands are members of the European Union today. And the exceptions — Bosnia and the Lviv area that’s now part of Ukraine — are “exceptions that prove the rule” in the sense that they want to get into the EU and haven’t joined yet because the other members deem them not up to snuff. In other words, everyone has agreed that lots of atomized little countries scaled-down to the size of a Central European language community is not actually conducive to human flourishing. Monetary policy is run out of Frankfurt, most economic regulation is run out of Brussels, and there’s complete freedom of movement throughout the Union. Education and culture are locally controlled and everyone gets to speak their own language and have their national symbols and national pride. But in a practical sense, a Czech person or a Romanian who wants to do anything of note in international business, politics, or finance needs to learn English.
This is just to say that we have roughly the kinds of outcomes that would have been generated by a federal Habsburg Empire, except that absent World War I, it’s likely German rather than English would be the dominant international language on the continent. A lot of people died and a lot of trouble was made just to ultimately prove that while nationalists had legitimate grievances, the basic project of national autonomy was unrealistic, and the political project of aligning everyone’s borders with their languages required horrifying levels of bloodshed. A huge swathe of 20th-century history was a huge, unnecessary detour.