January 4, 2021

At Christmas Hungarians pause, briefly, from consuming venison and bean soup to enjoy a visual feast on TV instead: the sumptuous technicolour Sissi trilogy. This set of 1950s Austrian films about 19th-century monarch, Elizabeth (“Sissi”) of Bavaria, consort of the magnificently whiskered Emperor-King Franz Joseph, is a seasonal staple to rival even Carols from Kings.

Romy Schneider bewitches in the title role and there is enough gold braid and white plumage on display to dazzle and tickle even die-hard republicans into momentary monarchism. Tears prick the viewers’ eyes as great flocks of pigeons swirl around black and gold banners in St Mark’s Square, Venice — Austrian sovereign territory until 1866. They do so in perfect sync with the rhythm of Die Kaiserhymne — the Empire’s official anthem, whose tune was somewhat vulgarly pinched by Germany in 1922.

Oddly, paying virtual homage to a deceased Austro-German Royal couple helps citizens of a small central European republic feel comfortable in their own skins today.

Elizabeth (Erzsébet in Hungarian) was one of the most striking personalities of 19th century Europe: famed for her ankle length hair, 18-and-a-half-inch waist and ability to converse with searing intellectual precision in seven languages.

She was happiest mingling unchaperoned in the company of gypsies and circus entertainers — whose acrobatics she could cheerfully rival — but her flexibility was mental and diplomatic as much as physical. She championed the “Dualist” compromise of 1867, granting Hungary, though “inseparable and indivisible” from Austria, complete internal self-government and parity in common imperial affairs.

The enduring “Cult of Sissi” is distinctively Erzsébet’s own, yet also reveals something deeper, a glimpse of the so-called “Habsburg shadow”: the lasting effect of the Austrian, and latterly Austro-Hungarian, Empire on the now splintered territories it once comprised.

Last year was the 100th anniversary of the Empire’s final dissolution via the Treaty of Trianon, which fixed the lasting borders of the successor states. The coincidence spurred a minor flurry of books on the dynasty’s dénouement, of which Martin Rady’s huge — but gripping — The Habsburgs: The Rise and Fall of a World Power (Penguin) stands out.

As the title suggests, the volume is equally about the early as late phases of the Habsburg story. Yet, probing the Dual Monarchy’s pre-history alerts us to enduring traits which enabled the later Habsburgs to hold together their “rag bag” of heterogenous territories, in defiance of powerful romantic and liberal nationalist movements.

In 1848, in the face of a radical uprising in Vienna, and a nationalist one in Hungary, it looked to many observers as if the Habsburg Empire was finished. Yet, after restoring order with Russian help, in cultural and intellectual terms it thrived for another seven decades.

For Rady the unquestionable key to the dynasty’s might was its mystique. It was imbued with an aura of sacral legitimacy which not only held the loyalty of subjects but imbued the family’s members with a driving sense of vocation: “they conceived of their power as both something they had been predestined for and part of the divine order in which the world was arranged.” The self-concept was manifested through intense Eucharistic and Marian piety — well beyond that of other royal households.

Domestic super-piety put something numinous at the heart of the “Holy Roman Empire”, over which the family presided almost continuously between 1438 and its dissolution in 1806. It also meant that, whatever the personal moral failings of its leaders, the “odour of sanctity” clung persistently to the Austrian polity, and even more to the imperial personage.

Franz Joseph’s long reign (he ruled from 1848 to 1916) and the literature through which perception of its later decades is refracted, including the retrospective novels of Joseph Roth and Jaroslav Hašek, tend to anchor it in our minds as something tragic — an age of elegant uniforms and doomed politics.

For contemporaries, their own lived experience was different. Presentations of the royal house in popular literature had a sense of “sacred drama” about them. The personal sorrows of Franz Joseph, who lost both wife and son before their time, together with the burdens of ruling “were likened to Christ’s Crown of Thorns, confirming the emperor as not only the ruler of peoples but also their redeemer.”

Ethnic fragmentation was contained because the emperor “became the almost exclusive focus of loyalty and symbol of an idea that transcended nation.” Unlike in today’s culture war and Brexit battles, national-separatist ambitions were more pronounced among the intelligentsia than urban-worker and rural-labourer population bases.

In 1908, honouring the 60th anniversary of the Emperor’s accession, “hundreds of thousands of Galician Poles and Ruthenes bought cheap transparencies of the emperor, putting them in their windows so that at night the streets … shone with identical portraits of Franz Joseph.” Translucence and transcendence momentarily coalesced.

As Rady points out, Franz Joseph’s recovery of the older Habsburg genius for “revolution from above” also served to forestall political radicalism, with timely social reform staving off dislocating socialist revolution after 1848.

The later Habsburgs, though devoutly Catholic, were, for the period, surprisingly unsectarian. As John Van der Kiste notes in The End of the Habsburgs: The Decline and Fall of the Austrian Monarchy (Fonthill) when the emperor travelled within his dominions, “he not only visited Protestant and Orthodox churches but attended services in them”. His interfaith encounters extended to synagogues and, after the occupation (later annexation) of Bosnia, mosques as well.

Franz Joseph occasionally made off-colour remarks about Jews in private but was a zealous defender of their civil rights — a reminder that the policing of language is not an invariable guarantee of social progress. Full emancipation of Jews in both halves of the empire came as an integral part of the emperor’s constitutional reform programme of 1867. Later he blocked the entry into office of vicious anti-Semite Karl Luger as elected Mayor of Vienna for two whole years from 1895.

Maybe Franz Joseph was influenced by the late medieval chroniclers who constructed elaborate lineages linking the Habsburgs back to the Kings of the Old Testament and even to Noah. Certainly, the very real affection the Empire’s Jews felt towards him is attested to in surviving silver Torah scroll holders, capped with the Habsburg double-eagle, produced in significant numbers during his reign.

The self-confidence which derived from the givenness of public Catholicism, tempered by enlightened toleration, gave the monarchy an expansive, even benignly protective attitude to religious minorities — albeit that many Austro-German clerics harboured unpleasant anti-Semitic views.

Paradoxically, Habsburg governance managed to be formally confessional but practically pluralist. Public offices and Catholic churches in the Empire might alike be painted deep yellow on royal orders, but there was no expectation that the occupants of the former should be attendees of the latter. In 1914 Hungary was led to war by its staunchly Calvinist Prime Minister Count István Tisza.

This construct was fragile and known to be so. Continuity depended on the public’s personal identification with a beloved, long-reigning monarch, and freedom from external, especially military, shock. It also required other states esteeming Austria-Hungary’s role in ensuring the “balance of power” in Europe.

During the 1890s and 1900s foreign policy pressures and strains on the state’s internal constitutional geometry came together in concerning ways. Nationalist movements demanded concessions from the centres of power; neighbouring countries (especially Romania and Serbia) encouraged dissident irredentist sentiment amongst their kin communities. Threats to internal stability and territorial integrity thus intersected and reinforced each other. The pressure was considerable and the fabric decidedly frayed.

The problems were made worse because Budapest consistently blocked Vienna’s contemplated concessions to non-Magyars. Meeting Czech aspirations for internal self-government might have released tension and so strengthened the empire as a whole — but at the cost of weakening the Magyar’s special place as the privileged partner of the Austro-Germans within the constitutional order. The situation was precarious.

Yet the dissolution of Austro-Hungary at the end of the Great War was a far more contingent process than often realised. It was not inevitable, even after Franz Joseph’s death in 1916 and his succession by great-nephew Karl. As late as 1917, the Western Allies talked of Austria-Hungary’s political restructuring and of limited border revision, not of outright destruction. Even Woodrow Wilson, later a champion of “national self-determination”, at first regarded a reformed and reconstituted Habsburg state as an attractive idea. Both Wilson and Lloyd George feared that a “Balkanised” cluster of smaller states would be vulnerable to being picked off individually by an expansionist Berlin — as in fact happened.

Austria-Hungary’s failure to survive in any recognisable form, in contrast to its co-belligerents Germany and Turkey, is intellectual territory over which historians are yet to sign a comprehensive peace treaty. Explanations are nearly as various as the persons offering them.

Claims that tension between imperial structure and national self-conciousness made Austria-Hungary’s continuance axiomatically impossible, not just unlikely, need to be handled with care. The persistent cohesive stability of the Monarchy’s multi-national battlegroups at the end of the war is, as Rady points out, an overlooked index suggesting ethnic differences may not have been as insurmountable as historians have often supposed.

“When in early November 1918 the Italian army took the surrender of around four hundred thousand Habsburg troops, it discovered that they included more than eighty thousand Czechs and Slovaks, sixty thousand South Slavs (mostly Croats), twenty-five thousand Transylvanian Romanians, and even seven thousand Italians from Istria and the Tyrol. It was the final irony that as the Habsburg Empire dissolved into national states, its army retained its multinational character.”

And so a demoralised Emperor Karl “relinquished his involvement in public affairs” on 11 November 1918 — although he never formally abdicated. Shortly afterwards, Austrian socialist leader Karl Renner visited him in the Schönbrunn Palace to bid him farewell, famously closing their conversation with the words “Herr Habsburg, the taxi is waiting.”

The Habsburg Empire’s afterlife is more than a matter of cinema and sentiment. The “Habsburg shadow” is oft invoked by historical geographers to explain the greater economic and educational development of those regions in Romania, Ukraine and Serbia which once formed part of Austria-Hungary relative to those which did not. It’s a stubbornly enduring, though utterly benign, imperial legacy still evident after a century of turbulence and totalitarianism.

The shadow has other forms. Karl, beatified by Pope John-Paul II in 2004, was unsuccessful in attempts to regain either the Austrian or Hungarian thrones prior to his untimely death from lung failure in Madeira in 1922. Yet during the Second World War, Churchill seems seriously to have considered installing his son Crown Prince Otto (1912-2011) as constitutional monarch of a truncated post-war Germany — or so Van der Kiste asserts.

Churchill even despatched Admiral Mountbatten to Canada in 1943 to sound out Otto’s mother — the formidable dowager Empress Zita — at her home in Ontario. Presumably Churchill held that historic sacral monarchy was a serviceable bulwark against demagoguery, and constitutional monarchy is effective, not because of the (negligible) explicit power the monarch wields but because of the great metaphysical legitimacy his/her presence implicitly withholds from others.

Otto himself was sentenced to death in absentia by the Nazis in 1938 for opposing the Anschluss. He spent most of the war in America encouraging pro-Habsburg partisans from afar — but not till after he had helped 15,000 anti-Nazi compatriots, many Jewish, flee to safety in allied and neutral countries.

Helping refugees became a signature trait. On 19 August 1989 he organised a cross border “pan-European picnic” on the Austro-Hungarian frontier. Ostensibly an exercise in cultural diplomacy it was actually a crafty ruse to allow 600 East German refugees (trapped in Hungary for months) to stampede through the border gate specially opened for the event.

Dumbstruck officials looked on helpless. So began the mass movement of people between the two Germanys by multiple routes which precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall that November.

During Hungary’s own democratic transition of 1989-90 it was, strangely, the Left-Liberal Alliance of Free Democrats — SZDSZ — who advocated Otto becoming Hungary’s new head of state by parliamentary vote. “We could do a lot worse,” eminent Hungarian political historian Domokos Kosáry observed at the time.

Ironically, the future MDF (Conservative) PM József Antall worked to dissuade Otto from accepting the invitation — something Otto later regretted. It is tempting to speculate that, in line with Churchill’s thinking, Otto’s presence might have forestalled the populist currents which dominate Hungary today.

The EU accession of the “Visegrad” states in 2004 had more than a passing whiff of separated children returning to the Holy Roman Empire. That was not least because Otto, President of the Pan-European Movement and a long serving Christian Democrat MEP representing Bavaria, was quietly influential in the process. His impressive personal contacts in the German government and Brussels bureaucracy smoothed the way. Yet, as Rady notes, for all his enthusiasm for the European Project, “Otto never satisfactorily explained how to build a single political community out of different national communities.”

It is very hard to hold a geographically extensive, trans-national polity together even when it is blessed with time-honoured “legitimating structures of meaning” — faith, monarchy, civic ritual — as Austria-Hungary’s demise indicates.

Without such things on hand to provide unifying symbolic nuclei the task looks impossible. Just ask residents of the former Yugoslavia. Perhaps, if they are serious about the project, European leaders could do worse than give some attention to Rady and Van der Kiste. Failing that, they should at least watch the Sissi trilogy.