What are empires? Why do they begin, where do they end? What tangles of order and chaos have they left behind? Until the end of the nineteenth century they were the normal form of government, each empire with its own balancing act of strategies that, for various motives, hoped to create coexistence between different populations. They seemed so permanent, and still seem so, although we know they all pass, they rise and fall, monuments to aspiration and arrogance. Much of the story and the spirit of the twentieth century is about the end of empires and the complicated legacies left in their wake. All these years later, they continue to shape our world inescapably, profoundly.
Do we have to assume that empires were fundamentally evil constructions? To some extent, for ordinary people, the Austro-Hungarian Empire provided a reasonably contented life, as long as you had no subversion or reform in mind – any hint of idealism was squashed ruthlessly. The vast Austrian Empire was different from other empires in that it did not own colonies overseas. While undeniably its sheer size and age made its mechanisms especially lumbering and its traditions all the more pompous, one can also argue that a defining attitude of the Imperial government was of incorporating rather than dominating its various peoples, forming something like a family of nations. At the same time as petty nationalism rose, its identity was rooted in inclusion. In Thinking the Twentieth Century, Tony Judt describes an article published in a late nineteenth-century Viennese right-wing paper ranting about the horrors of cosmopolitanism – the Jews and the Hungarians and Czechs and Slovaks who were “polluting Vienna and creating crime”. Analysis of the linguistic roots of the text, however, reveal that very little of it is written in ‘pure’ literary German; unknowingly, the author has used words of Yiddish, Hungarian or Slavic origin.
More than anywhere else in Europe at that time, it was in the Habsburg Empire that one was “most likely to encounter overt prejudice on the Freudian principle of the narcissism of small differences”. Yet within the same context, the peoples and languages and cultures across this vast mass of land were through history and fortune thoroughly intertwined, blended to form a fairly coherent identity. When the empire fell apart, so too did the protection within its zones of urban civilisation afforded and maintained by the imperial liberalism at its centre. Tony Judt writes: “Habsburgia was where a Stefan Zweig or a Joseph Roth could feel most completely at home – and it was from there that they were the first to be expelled.”