The Habsburg Empire: A New History
by Pieter M. Judson.
Belknap Press, 2016.
Hardcover, 592 pages, $35.

The Habsburg Monarchy has long been seen as an outdated empire doomed to fail. To the Central European societies it sheltered before 1914, it may have had a cosy charm, but as a dynastic empire among nation-states, critics and historians deemed Austria an anachronism. Nineteenth-century liberals judged the Habsburgs for ruling a prison of peoples and siding with fellow despots. William Gladstone, the British prime minister who epitomized liberal moralism, called Austria “the unflinching foe of freedom in every country of Europe.” Never and nowhere, he insisted, could it be said that “here Austria did good.” Those charges defined a widely held narrative even before the Habsburg Empire collapsed amidst the catastrophe of World War I.

Historical perspective and a wealth of detailed scholarship, along with intervening events over a brutal twentieth century, force a reassessment. The Habsburg Monarchy was more effective and popular than critics allowed. If doomed by internal contradictions, what made it last so long? How could a backward, repressive order have fostered the flourishing and diverse culture of Mitteleuropa? Why did it inspire such loyalty until the very end? Empire provided a unifying force as eighteenth-century Habsburgs sought to consolidate their disparate territories into a coherent state. Those top-down efforts created loyalties and institutions—including a conception of citizenship and state power limited by law—that made space for bottom-up responses within an emergent civil society. The world those interactions created requires a new approach to be understood on its own terms.

Pieter Judson rejects what he aptly calls “a tradition of pathologizing the Habsburg Empire as teetering on the verge of collapse thanks to national conflict.” He also steers away from the temptation to romanticize it by overlooking divisions and failures. Drawing upon a range of local studies, Judson instead stresses the common experiences of empire. Localities engaged the Habsburg project of building an imperial state, often making it their own. Judson’s focus on the empire as a whole instead of on the nations formed out of it casts a revealing light on Central Europe that makes sense of transnational trends and legacies.

Rather than an exhaustive history of the Habsburg Monarchy that updates work by Robert Kann and A. J. P. Taylor, Judson presents “an argument about the character, development, and enduing legacies of empire.” His book aims at synthesizing an impressive, if not vast, academic literature to provide a conceptual framework within which to situate specialized work on particular topics. Ponderous at times for the general reader, his narrative provides a helpful perspective free of stereotype and cliché.

The Habsburg Empire grew as the dynasty’s accumulation of territories long before forming anything like a state. Count Rudolf IV’s election as Holy Roman Emperor in 1273 began a story punctuated by Charles V’s division of the Habsburg inheritance between his son Philip II of Spain and his brother Ferdinand, who continued the Austrian line. The Pragmatic Sanction prevented the monarchy’s partition in the absence of a male heir by allowing Charles VI’s daughter to succeed him in 1740, and these agreements first recognized the territories under Habsburg rule as a single political unit. Composite monarchies linking separate territories or realms were common during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Britain and Prussia stand out as examples. Maria Theresa and her successors faced the challenge of forging their realm into an effective state. Without the means to mobilize resources and manpower, their empire otherwise would fall prey to foreign rivals.

Administrative reforms created an effective centralized state that carried the empire through the War of Austrian Succession (1740–8) and Seven Years’ War (1754–63). Besides curtailing the political autonomy of regional elites outside Hungary, rulers promoted social reform and economic development. Nobles lost tax exemptions and social privileges while labor and crops peasants owed their lords became mostly cash payments. The process drew producers into a market economy where guild rules that limited manufacturing and exchange between regions were repealed. Maria Theresa introduced a requirement for universal schooling in 1774 that gradually spread literacy in local languages, thereby fostering their development. Hungary remained a distinct part of the empire where administrative reforms excepting the military tended to reinforce separateness. Still, cameralism had formed the territories Maria Theresa had inherited into a dynastic state by 1800.

Judson describes a Habsburg empire defined by common borders and subjection to the same laws, government, and dynasty rather than by language or ethnicity. The resulting state-based idea of nationhood differed as much from later conceptions of nationalism as from older understandings of allegiance to a prince. A dynastic commitment to public well-being built popular loyalty. Law that applied impartially to everyone and restrained government along with the governed fostered a sense of citizenship. At least in legal terms, Judson argues, Habsburg subjects became citizens of the state “well before the French Revolution had established a model of national citizenship in Europe.”

War unleashed by the French Revolution brought a conservative turn by Francis I, who was unwilling to mobilize popular sentiment behind the war effort lest it be hard to contain. His brother, however, framed the struggle against Napoleon as the fight for Austria’s freedom. Artists and writers picked up the theme. Regional imperatives became linked to imperial cause with the Habsburg dynasty upholding liberty under law against the militarism that had swept across Europe. Victory celebrations in 1814 saw cultural diversity within the empire reinforcing a common framework of unity. Different languages conveyed loyalty in similar ways. Not the bankrupt state or high nobility, but bourgeois classes organized celebrations striking common themes across the empire.

Over the decades after Napoleon’s defeat, Judson describes independent elements in local society across the empire taking up as their own the imperial vision of centralizers like Joseph II, albeit from the bottom up. Local initiatives established museums, newspapers, and other public spaces for civic involvement. For all the complaints of despotism, Austria remained a Rechtsstaat, and one extremely scrupulous in upholding the law. Government, supposedly absolutist, was limited by law. Police supervision ironically gave public opinion an outlet with the same effect as representative government by reporting on conditions and opinion, even often criticizing policies for their failings. The Metternich era was more an age of contradictions than repression. It saw the empire promoting development that fostered economic growth and creating space for civil society even while keeping political control in its own hands.

A wider elite comprising the educated, business, and noble classes had focused largely on the flourishing local civic initiatives. Their success in towns across the empire provided a focus for opposition by the mid-1840s. Nationalists and liberals seized the moment in 1848 when the regime’s weakness made it vulnerable. Concessions brought further demands, sparking revolution when the Habsburg state failed to assert its own authority until Francis Joseph replaced Ferdinand as emperor. But nationalism had a narrower constituency than it claimed. While its rhetoric could inspire passion, claims to represent existing popular nations often fell flat or stirred a backlash among peasants and minorities. Revolution swept away what remained of the manorial system and left many liberals disenchanted with the unrest it had brought. Once the authorities regained their balance, the revolution lacked the coherence or support to resist its suppression.

The return of bureaucratic absolutism in 1851 brought a modernizing decade that accomplished many liberal aims by confirming a capitalist relationship in the countryside that brought peasants into the market economy, developed railroads and other infrastructure, and improving education. Financial pressures led Francis Joseph to grant a constitution with a limited franchise that brought liberals into government. Defeat by Prussia in 1866 led to concessions to Hungary that made Austria a dual monarchy that shared only a common ruler, military, and foreign policy.

Politics and institutions shaped nationalism’s development, Judson argues, rather than the reverse. The legal and administrative structures the Habsburg Empire had developed to manage linguistic and religious difference made it unique. Civil engagement came through institutions that demanded parity. Education had promoted local languages as schools taught children in their own tongue, but that made it a flashpoint for controversy as groups fought to control institutions. Activists sought to build constituencies as competition within regions mobilized people to protect their interests. Empire held the balance, providing constancy amidst rapid late-nineteenth-century change. Rule by decree at time saved nationalist politicians from their inability to compromise without losing their own followers. The traditional reciprocity of dynastic obligation, Judson notes, fit the symbolism—and substance—of Francis Joseph moderating the radicalism of politicians.

The scholar Joseph Hammer-Purgstall in 1853 contrasted British and Russian empires built upon conquest with Austria forged by treaties and dynastic marriages. The Habsburg Empire recognized the linguistic diversity of its people while treating them equally as citizens. Austrian exceptionalism may have been more aspiration than reality, to František Palacký’s eventual disappointment, but the argument that the empire protected nationalities from both destructive conflicts among themselves and subordination by Germany or Russia still resonated. Fin-de-siècle growth brought urbanization and cultural flourishing beyond more developed regions of Austria and the Czech lands. Here again Judson points out how often local expressions of civil pride asserting distinctiveness took on common forms across the empire.

World War I, Judson argues, allowed reactionaries in 1914 “to turn back the clock on the political democratization of recent years.” The harsh extra-legal dictatorship imposed for the first two years of war broke with Habsburg precedent and went further than comparable regimes in other belligerent states. Attempting to revive absolutism by placing the bureaucracy under military control discredited civilian government. Failure in war and the state’s inability to keep its people fed sparked a crisis of legitimacy. Concerns over the loyalty of nationalities became a self-fulfilling prophesy. The fact that the Habsburg Empire struggled along to the bitter end of war, however, reflects underlying strengths. Efforts at reform by Charles, who succeeded Francis Joseph in 1916, came too late and promised too little. His unwillingness to use force against subjects to preserve a rump Austrian state sealed the fate of his realm.

Ironically, the national states created out of the Habsburg Empire faced many of the same problems involving language and ethnic conflict. Judson points out that they also carried on structures and practices from the old regime, though under more difficult circumstances and with far less success. Central and Eastern Europe did not divide easily into national states. Nationalities that had once been minorities with the empire struggled with minorities of their own. Having rejected the idea of a multinational state with independence, the postwar world lacked a framework to manage diversity. The pressures of total war—along with the miscalculations of feckless generals—shattered the structure that had provided a cohesion that could not now be recovered. Not surprisingly the Habsburg Empire came to look much better by contrast with what followed. Reconsidering its history from a fresh perspective does much to explain why.  

William Anthony Hay is an associate professor of history and director of the Institute for the Humanities at Mississippi State University.