Habsburg federalism could have worked if not for an assassin's bullet
When did Slow Boring just become such a click bait factory?
I would also like to say in addition to my other comment that I very much enjoyed this and hope you do more weird content like it
35 year career in integrated circuits. One of my proudest possessions is my first boss's copy of "Physics and Technology of Semiconductor Devices," which I inherited after he passed. Years later in a chance dinner discussion at a dinner party, I was describing my fondness for this possession to some friends. They listened nodding their heads. At end they said "We know Andy Grove. Want us to get that signed for you?" They happened to be related to Les Vadasz and had dinner with Andy Grove all the time when they visited. Now it has become my proudest possession squared.
Neat you used them as examples because you could apply this thick/thin bit to semiconductor history and these two guys. Maybe not as thin as WWI. But decisions Les Vadasz made, leap-frogged technology by about 10 years. Then he came up with a really clever reuse of an already developed product to explode into microprocessor market. So again maybe not WWI. But 10 years is like an infinity in high tech.
I definitely agree that the outbreak of WWI was both incredibly impactful and highly contingent, but I wonder in that case where the dissipation of nationalist energies elsewhere in Europe comes from. In reality it happened because of the World Wars – I'm sympathetic to those who consider them one big war – when the sheer destructiveness of it became undeniable and Europeans looked for a better way.
If WWI doesn't happen, or is just a small retributive war against the Serbs, maybe the frequently-violent national competition between European nations seems sustainable. It's also worth noting that some nations at this time, notably the Poles, still consider themselves occupied by multiple powers – Kraków can be the centre of culture in the Hapsburg lands, but there will be a pull of Polish culture to Warsaw as well, and nationalist impulses with it.
So while I agree that the Hapsburg Empire would be very viable within Europe's shift to multiculturalism, one wonders if that would have happened – maybe 1950s Austria-Hungary would have just been a larger-scale 1990s Yugoslavia, with its brutal wars. There was a lot of violent energy in Europe in the first half of the century, and in the absence of WWI it would have to be released somehow.
I don't know enough history to comment on this without embarrassing myself, but whatever.
If you wanted to disagree with Matt you might frame it like this. Before 1914 there were three multinational states in Europe: Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman. After 1918 there were one and a half (Russia and Yugoslavia). The Austro-Hungarians and Ottomans got broken up because they lost the war; Russia survived as a multinational state and Yugoslavia was created because Russia was a major victorious power and the Serbs were a minor one.
So I can't help thinking it's a little suspicious that the USSR and Yugoslavia eventually did disintegrate along ethnic lines, even though ethnonationalism was much less respectable in the 1990s than in 1918. That makes the whole phenomenon look overdetermined, with the outcome of WWI affecting the timing but not the final outcome.
Matt's argument, if I understand it right, is that Austria-Hungary wasn't like the Ottoman "sick man of Europe", which everyone was expecting to break apart. Because it was stable and prosperous, its continued success (if the war hadn't happened) could have discredited ethnonationalism as an organizing principle. You'd eventually have had something like the "EU mentality" emerge by a different path.
The problem I don't see addressed here is how Austria-Hungary democratizes internally. The demand for self-government has been gradually increasing everywhere in the world at least since the Enlightenment, and electoral democracy in multi-ethnic societies always--always--produces strong ethnic tensions which are very difficult to manage.
If anything those tensions are still intensifying in some parts of the world, like India, which are less developed and somewhat behind the curve. (V.S. Naipaul was very good about this: he thought the rise of Hindu nationalism was an inevitable consequence of Hindu Indians becoming more self-aware and politically minded. He got a lot of flack for not being willing to condemn the phenomenon out of hand, but the analysis seems right to me.)
Europe may be past that point by now, which is why the EU (mostly) works and even commands a lot of emotional allegiance from better-educated Europeans. But I don't see how you get to post-nationalism without first going through two world wars and seeing what nationalism can do. Matt's alternate history just seems too optimistic in that regard.
I laughed out loud at the part where it was suggested that prominent Jewish representation in the high offices of the Empire would have resulted in a philosemitic culture. Yes, that's how it's always worked!
Otherwise, though, great article!
I’m skeptical that conflict between Germany and France/Russia could’ve been permanently avoided. If I’m right about that, then I don’t think there’s a way to keep Austria-Hungary out of it.
Great piece. I very much enjoy this kind of post as a subscriber, and would like to continue seeing it alongside your usual political commentary – maybe this is what Slow Boring readers consider off-beat.
Two additional thoughts:
First, I think the strongest case against Austro-Hungarian federalism is that the imperial structure induced divide-and-rule politics, and I’m not sure how this would play out in a more federal system or the transition to one. For instance, you mention that the state would not be warm towards Ukrainian nationalism – this would be a demotion for Ukrainian nationalists, who enjoyed patronage from the Hapsburgs as a counterweight to Polish influence in Galicia.
The very act of trying to create new sources of legitimacy separate from allegiance to the monarch is itself destabilising – reform is risky and the route to a “good ending” seems to me rather narrow, especially after the disastrous creation of an oversized Hungarian quasi-state with its own military in 1867.
Second, I’m not sure that a local government approach to ethnic federalism would work. This was the cornerstone of Soviet (Stalin’s!) nationality policy in the 1920s, and the resulting pyramid of ethnic units (with autonomous republics, oblasts, raions etc all with titular ethnicites) fuelled rather than dampened national sentiment. It’s the kind of thing that smart people can reason themselves into thinking is a viable framework, but the on-the-ground creation of those structures creates new and alarming incentives for individuals and communities.
If you are interested in looking at these questions through the lens of pre-War Soviet nationality policy and local government reform, I would highly recommend Terry Martin’s the Affirmative Action Empire. It’s also extremely useful for understanding Ukrainian-Russian relations in the formation of the Soviet state, and helps explain why Putin is saying a bunch of mad stuff about that period to justify the next phase of his war in Ukraine. https://www.amazon.com/Affirmative-Action-Empire-Nationalism-1923-1939-ebook/dp/B01N291P0U
This alternate history doesn’t ever really see the fall of Tsarist Russia, which seems strange.
I see Matt is excited for the upcoming release of Victoria 3.
Another interesting counterfactual along these lines is what if the Ottoman Empire had sat out the Great War. There's no particular reason to think the empire was about to collapse of its own accord, absent the shock of the war, and if they hadn't then they'd have retained control of like 2/3s of the oil on Earth. It's pretty easy to imagine a world in which Istanbul is the glittering capitol of an unfathomably wealthy multi-ethnic petro-empire.
I suspect that the Habsburgs were always doomed to take it on the chin.
Fascinating alternative history, thank you MattY!
I have to say, though, as a Polish-born American citizen, my first reaction to "wouldn't it be great if the Austro-Hungarian Empire had survived?" as a visceral "No!"
My great-grandma was born in a village near Lviv before WWI. My ancestors didn't want to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, not even a nice, friendly, federal, wealthy one with brilliant Jewish-Hungarian physicists and stuff. They wanted their own free independent homeland, and a reunion of the three parts - Russian, Prussian, and Austro-Hungarian - that had been taken from Poland at the end of the 18th century.
On purely utilitarian grounds, would a continuation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire be a net benefit? Probably. Certainly WWI was horrific, and then, 20 years after Poland got our independence, we were invaded by the Nazis from the west and the Soviets from the east, and f***d over for the next 4+ decades. It's nice to think of how all that could have been avoided.
Maybe the best-case scenario is this: there's no WWI, the Austro-Hungarian Empire continues for a while, but the Poles and other ethnic groups continue to agitate for independence, and eventually whoever's in charge decides it's too much trouble to keep the whole thing together, and we have a peaceful dissolution a la the Czech Republic and Slovakia? (The Russian government would have never let the Russian-occupied part of Poland go. So we'd have a smaller Poland, possibly with the capital in Krakow. In this fantasy version of history, does Russia still have a tsar - presumably one who's a figurehead, like other modern European monarchs?)
I feel a lot of cognitive dissonance when writing this. I'm an American citizen now, by choice, and the American vs. Polish versions of what a nation-state should be - based on shared ideals vs. shared ethnicity/ancestry - are clashing in my mind. From the American perspective, sure, let's have a kinder, gentler Austro-Hungarian Empire. From the Polish perspective, hell no! To the barricades!
It’s worth considering how much of the apparent liberalism of the Austria-Hungarian Empire c. 1914 was dependent on its emperor.
Franz-Joseph reigned for 68 years, including the entire period of the Dual Monarchy. In the constitutions of Austria and Hungary, the emperor was granted substantial powers, including the sole authority over the army, and the right to veto any bills. Nevertheless, the empire developed an ostensibly liberal-ish political culture.
But any system that depends on one man as a bedrock is inherently unstable, and all the more so if it’s a hereditary monarchy. The Russian Empire had a parliament; the German Empire had a parliament; but they were both governed by erratic would-be despots, and the parliaments were sidelined.
If a future Austro-Hungarian Emperor had decided to crack down on his representative government, would Austro-Hungarian political culture be able to push back?
After World War I every former A.H. state (except, I believe, Czechoslovakia) quickly devolved into autocracy, not to say racialism and fascism. Of course, the interwar period was hard for everyone but it doesn’t say much for the people’s commitment to pluralistic liberal democracy.
A few alternative "thick" ideas:
The nation-state was among other things an innovation in organizing society to make war, coupled with industrialization and inter-locking alliances costly large scale wars would have occurred regardless of the particular details of WWI.
Industrial scale warfare is easier to achieve than the politics that selects leaders who realize in an industrial world there is no longer an economic logic to war because you cannot capture human capital or profit from a factory supply chain destroyed by war in the way that you could extract wealth from a land based economy. With the means to make war outstripping the judgement not to, a traditional war could not end all wars and further industrialization would lead to more deadly wars regardless of the particulars of the start of WWI.
The major constraint on war in the post WW-II period is nuclear weapons which make the extreme cost of war very clear to both leaders and nationalists alike. Nuclear weapons would have been developed anyways and they are the real reason for the post WW-II peace in Europe.
Austria-Hungary could have survived and wasn’t doomed like the European colonial empires because it was fundamentally a good deal for the people within it.
For India, there was really no benefit to being a part of the British Empire. The British didn’t provide an extra level of protection, and British economic policy tried to extract as much as they could from India. Railroads for example were built to make it easier to get raw materials to port so they could be shipped back to Britain.
For an empire like Austria-Hungary, the main benefit was protection. As we saw, the alternative to being a part of Austria-Hungary was dominated by either Germany, Russia or, to a lesser extent, Italy.
You've got a great job.