"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Habsburg Empire Reconsidered

This year marks the centenary of the death of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef, who died in Schönbrunn Palace, whose magnificent gardens (pictured right) and "Palm house" (below) I toured one lovely evening while in Vienna earlier this month.

I was struck, when in Vienna, by the number of posters in the subway of one of the last and most famous portraits of Franz Josef, advertising a new exhibit reconsidering the imperial legacy a century after it more or less ended. Though it would get you lynched in any number of academic circles today, still I regard the question as one worth asking: were all forms of imperialism and colonialism the oppressive forces they are so often simplistically and reductively made out to be? My cursory knowledge of the history of the Habsburg Empire, especially in Galicia, and especially as it affects the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, would suggest very much that the answer to my question is of course negative. There was much in the empire to commend it, then and since, and I am looking forward next month, when my teaching ends, to reading a new history: Pieter Judson, The Habsburg Empire: a New History (Belknap Press, 2016), 592pp.

About this book we are told:
In a panoramic and pioneering reappraisal, Pieter Judson shows why the Habsburg Empire mattered so much, for so long, to millions of Central Europeans. Across divides of language, religion, region, and history, ordinary women and men felt a common attachment to “their empire,” while bureaucrats, soldiers, politicians, and academics devised inventive solutions to the challenges of governing Europe’s second largest state. In the decades before and after its dissolution, some observers belittled the Habsburg Empire as a dysfunctional patchwork of hostile ethnic groups and an anachronistic imperial relic. Judson examines their motives and explains just how wrong these rearguard critics were.
Rejecting fragmented histories of nations in the making, this bold revision surveys the shared institutions that bridged difference and distance to bring stability and meaning to the far-flung empire. By supporting new schools, law courts, and railroads, along with scientific and artistic advances, the Habsburg monarchs sought to anchor their authority in the cultures and economies of Central Europe. A rising standard of living throughout the empire deepened the legitimacy of Habsburg rule, as citizens learned to use the empire’s administrative machinery to their local advantage. Nationalists developed distinctive ideas about cultural difference in the context of imperial institutions, yet all of them claimed the Habsburg state as their empire.
The empire’s creative solutions to governing its many lands and peoples―as well as the intractable problems it could not solve―left an enduring imprint on its successor states in Central Europe. Its lessons remain no less important today.

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