Life under the Habsburgs

Simon Winder rambles through the landscape of an empire that was home to more than two million Jews prior to 1914.

The funeral of Otto von Habsburg-Lothringen, the eldest son of the last Austrian emperor, Vienna, July 16, 2011 (photo credit: LEONHARD FOEGER / REUTERS)
The funeral of Otto von Habsburg-Lothringen, the eldest son of the last Austrian emperor, Vienna, July 16, 2011
Empires seen in retrospect rarely inspire affection. World War I effectively brought down four, and three of them, the Russian, German and the Ottoman, have few members in their fan clubs outside their heartlands, and not that many inside them either.
The Habsburg Empire, which sprawled untidily and illogically across much of central and southeastern Europe, and which more than two million Jews called home prior to 1914, is an exception. While nobody outside die-hard royalists wants the dynasty back, there is an understanding that with its collapse, something culturally and socially wide, spacious and tolerant went with it, and Europe has been poorer ever since.
As writer and publisher Simon Winder points out in his engaging and witty account, based on extensive travels in the region as well as wide reading, this was not how Austria-Hungary, the last incarnation of the empire, was perceived in 1914. Ejected from its traditional German base by rising Prussia as part of a series of military reverses in the middle of the 19th century, it was left scrambling to hold on to territories populated by Hungarians, Poles, Romanians, Czechs, and Slovaks, to mention but a few.
All resented rule from Vienna, all had violent quarrels with each other. Think of an elderly man carrying a threadbare sack, which barely contains furiously fighting cats, and you have the image of the Habsburg Empire among its contemporaries.
This, as Winder observes, was a big comedown.
“A political entity which had been a plurality of family lands brought together by accident, which had gone on to become a military machine and a Catholic bastion, became in its final decades, somewhat by default, an island of, if not tolerance, then certainly of relative restraint – much to the growing anger of many of its inhabitants.”
Restraint was not a leitmotif of Habsburg rule. A tendency to go for the throats of its traditional enemies, the Turks and the Russians, at the slightest opportunity (and the vicissitudes of European animosities gave them lots of opportunities) was much more to their liking. Other targets included Protestants during the 17th century Thirty Years War and the French under Napoleon.
As for minorities, well, tolerance did not enter into the Habsburg worldview very much when it came to dealing with subject peoples with ideas of their own.
Winder rightly notes that the Habsburgs might have liked fighting, but were not good at it: The inglorious crushing defeat after a deceptive minor victory was an imperial tradition. Yet their willingness to reach for the sword was essential for survival, and while they repeatedly lost battles to Napoleon’s armies, they inflicted sufficient casualties to severely drain French manpower reserves even before the disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia.
What we now understand as the empire’s finest hour, therefore, was more the product of anxiety-wracked conservatism at bay than principled liberalism. The liberals of the day were agitating among the nationalities for freedom and independence, and against the stifling hand of Vienna, careless of the vast web of intercommunal hatreds that Habsburg rule held at bay.
And the great cultural figures of that time, of whom many, such as Mahler, Freud, and the author Stefan Zweig, were Jewish, went unnoticed by the outside world. They were not even well-known inside the empire.
Winder notes that Mahler was better known to many during his lifetime as a conductor, not a composer.
The Jews, scattered throughout sprawling Austria-Hungary, were entirely dependent on the dynasty to hold the ring against its clashing peoples. As Winder puts it, “There was no nationalist politician, pointing with trembling fingers at a medieval map, wearing his people’s flag in his lapel, robustly singing some nineteenth century anthem, who did not see the Jews as an obstacle.”
One person who saw this, and understood all that it meant, was Theodor Herzl. As his diaries make clear, it was the increasingly fragile hold of Vienna, which partly convinced him that the Jews were living on borrowed time, but what frightened him no less was the rise of a German nationalism in response to Habsburg weakness, a nationalism marked by ferocious anti- Semitism. The 1897 election of the notorious anti-Semite Karl Lueger as mayor of Vienna was for him a “new Bartholomew’s night” (a reference to the 1572 massacre of French Protestants by their Catholic fellow countrymen).
While he did not forecast that the Habsburg Empire would collapse in war, he was convinced that collapse was coming, and that while the small nations would gain their homeland, the Jews would lose theirs. It was a pessimistic and, as it turned out, accurate belief in the inability of liberalism to survive in an age of rampant nationalism, which led him to turn to Zionism as a solution.
Winder demurs that Jews who dismissed his ideas did so for honorable reasons and that other factors had to come into play for the full tragedy of the Holocaust to come about. True, but Herzl’s point was that the failure of liberalism meant that Jews had to create their own society rather than rely on the creation of a protecting society by others. He did not envisage Auschwitz, but he accurately foresaw that the destruction of the Habsburgs would reverse all the gains that Jews had made.
Yet Danubia is not just a history book. Part travelogue, part cultural exploration, it is also an attempt to convey the feel of what it was like to live in Habsburg lands throughout the times when the dynasty held sway. Whether finding a bear-moat with real bears in them at Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic, or enjoying the pleasures (or lack of them) of the museums of western Romania, Winder rambles happily yet purposefully through the landscape. He engages in a sort of archaeological anthropology, pointing out layers of occupation in neighborhoods and even entire towns where various peoples were forcibly uprooted, expelled or murdered in the turbulent post-1918 years.
For the author, getting a feel for the region involves casting a wide cultural net – no mentions of sitting in touristy cafés slurping coffee with cream (actually quite pleasant, but to each his own), nor frothy prose about Habsburg artistic taste (just as well, as they did not have much). What the authorities did have, especially in the later years, was a remarkable interest in statues of naked ladies, erected on the pretense that they represented something or other, like Spring, Plenty, and Justice. “Wandering the streets of Lviv today perhaps the chief hazard is being hit by a falling piece of allegorical woman,” he notes.
There are worse fates, I suppose, but he writes with exceptional vigor, knowledge and affection about the music which flourished at various stages under the empire, reserving special praise for the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. He is occasionally a little too fond of telling you what music he is playing at any given time, but he is careful about drawing over-confident conclusions about politics and society from the art that flourished at any given time.
Jews only form a small part of the Danubia story, but it is fascinating to learn more of the strange, seemingly impossible world, in which some of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers flourished, and which Winder does so well in bringing back to life.