Brno, Czech Republic

In the last years researchers of Central and Eastern Europe have revised the widespread assumptions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that comprised a large part of this area and ended in 1918. They no longer see it as an economically inefficient multi-national anachronism to the late 19th century nation states of Europe. New studies focus on the vibrant political cultures and the interesting attempts at interpreting local and regional phenomena in this multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire. General studies of Europe and modern history tend to treat the region of Central Europe as an exceptional corner of Europe due to the presence of several ethnic and religious groups in its societies, but also because of its economic development, often – unjustly – characterised as “backward”. Historians of self-styled nation states might have to think more creatively about cultural differences that may lurk just below the surface of assertions of national homogeneity. This is especially necessary at the time when the European Union is again facing new outbreaks of nationalism and even regions in the established nation states of Western Europe show serious tendencies of separation, e.g. Catalonia or Scotland.

Even some books written recently on the topic of World War I continued the tradition of portraying the Habsburg Empire as a state on the verge of collapse even before the outbreak of the war due to nationalist conflicts. Since the collapse of the empire narratives of nationhood have dominated its history. This interpretation ignores the fact that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was very similar to the other European states of the time, but at the same time pioneered new ideas of nationhood and new practices of governance thanks to its multi-ethnic population of 50 million. Some of the character, the developments and the enduring legacies of this Habsburg Empire are still visible in Central Europe. Therefore it is essential for once to abandon traditional presumptions about the primacy of nationhood in the region and to focus on the Austro-Hungarian institutions such as schools, the judicial system or the Austrian census that managed practical issues surrounding linguistic and ethnic diversity. This research undermines the notion that the existence of language differences dominated social relationships and institutional developments in Central Europe. On the contrary, imperial institutions and administrative practices helped shape nationalist efforts. Furthermore the surviving presumptions of economic backwardness or unbridgeable difference that allegedly made Central Europe different from the rest of Europe were revised in recent decades and historians have pointed out the remarkable creativity and innovation of the empire’s institutions in tackling diversity. Looking at the last decades of the Habsburg Empire might offer different views at subjects like nationhood, multilingualism and indifference to nationhood, especially at times of crisis of solidarity in the European Union.

In the Austro-Hungarian Empire imperial institutions, administrative practices and cultural programmes helped to shape local society in every region of the empire, from the late 18th century until 1918. These collective elements gave citizens of the Habsburg Empire in every corner of the monarchy experiences that crossed linguistic, confessional and regional divides. The Prague writer H.G.Adler wrote after World War I and after the end of the Habsburg Empire that when he was asked who he was he responded that he was of Jewish nationality with a German mother tongue, was born in Czechoslovakia, felt as a part of Austrian culture, was a German writer, a British citizen, and hopefully in all that also a little bit of a human being. Even after the Habsburg Empire formally ceased to exist in November 1918, common elements of imperial practice continued to shape many people’s expectations in Central Europe, whether they were about welfare benefits, a functioning bureaucracy or the question how political life should function. Important politicians in the successor states such as Masaryk in Czechoslovakia or De Gasperi in Italy or Korosek in Yugoslavia were heavily influenced by their formative experiences in Habsburg politics. They often adopted similar laws and practices for their new states. At the same time, however, they loudly rejected any legacy of the Habsburg Empire as incompatible with democracy and national self-determination.

From 1867 until the fall of the empire activists of all kinds in Austro-Hungarian society increasingly invoked the authority of what they called culture to assert their visions of the structure of the monarchy, to discredit competing visions and form political and social movements. Advocates of all kinds of political positions designed programmes that made sweeping cultural claims about whole populations. The increasing turn by politicians and activists to cultural references, illustrations, terminologies and arguments was clearest in the rise of new forms of political nationalism in the Habsburg Empire. Nationalists based their increasingly populist definitions of nationhood on their interpretation of the obvious facts of different language uses. In reality the citizens of the empire used many languages to communicate among each other and with the state, which of course meant that the Austro-Hungarian society was made up by several defined cultures or nations. Nationalist activists tried to force the state to rectify supposed historic victimisations of one nation by the other. Yet, on the contrary, the Habsburg state and the dynasty legitimated the existence of Austro-Hungary by stressing the beneficial unity it provided to all those allegedly different peoples, cultures or nations over which it ruled. The imperial state by that facilitated the turn towards culture in the political discussion by increasingly justifying its existence in terms of its ability to promote the cultural development of its nations. As a consequence the self-appointed representatives of the different national communities in turn fought to gain a better place for themselves within the framework of the empire in Central Europe.

While nationalist arguments about differences pervaded public institutions and dominated politics by 1900, their influence, nevertheless, remained limited to these special situations. Yet in many other situations that encouraged nationalist identification, this nationalist activity at the same time supported imperial patriotism and Habsburg loyalties. By the beginning of the 20th century ideologies of nationalism and of empire increasingly depended on each other for coherence. They made use of similar language and similar ideas. Propagandists for the Habsburg Empire increasingly used national concepts in their publications and campaigns. The imperial administrators who founded museums of culture and folklore encouraged archaeological and anthropological projects in ways that strongly resembled earlier nationalist protagonists. Their purpose, however, was not to encourage nationalist sectarianism, but to tie local nationalism to imperial loyalties. Consequently, it is difficult to assess whether nationalist political conflict was in fact weakening the structure of the empire or perhaps strengthening it. It was definitely changing the fabric of the Habsburg Empire. By demanding reforms the nationalists forced the state to come to terms with their demands with respect to imperial political structures.

In their everyday lives the Austro-Hungarian citizens engaged more intimately and intensely than ever before with the empire from the 1880s on. Practices ranging from school attendance to voting in local elections to participation in rituals of military conscription and in annual empire-wide celebrations of the ruler’s birthday made Muslim peasants in rural Bosnia, Czech-speaking businessmen in Bohemia and Hungarian intellectuals in Budapest into increasingly engaged citizens of an empire that more than ever met their needs. No longer merely bystanders and onlookers, the Habsburg citizens claimed an explicit stake in their empire. Structurally the last decade before World War I saw the empire emerge from political crises caused by nationalist conflicts in the years around 1900. These crises produced a willingness among some elites to develop more flexible models of power-sharing within the empire. But much of these negotiations looking for a compromise took place behind closed doors, away from public view.

Around 1880 across Europe communication and transport infrastructures started to expand quickly. As a consequence more goods were transported over longer distances, but also people moved far beyond their accustomed horizons, both physically and mentally. As a result, in only twenty years the populations of the big cities of Central Europe, such as Vienna,, Budapest, Prague, Lemberg /Lviv, Czernowitz, Zagreb, Fiume /Rijeka, Pola /Pula and others increased around 60 per cent and cities like Trieste, Debrecen, Temesvar or the industrial regions in Moravia and Silesia grew 50 per cent. By 1900 close to 40 per cent of all Austro-Hungarians had left their original place of birth and migrated to another part of the empire. Rail travel within the empire became a commonplace experience for millions. A dense and efficient railway network covered the whole empire from east to west and from north to south with the architectural jewels of train stations that were splendid landmarks of Central European Habsburgian architecture. They were deliberately built in a distinctive style from one end of the empire to the other as a point of identification with the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Some of them have survived the destructions of the 20th century and are now restored to past glory. They constitute examples of this very special Central European architecture that characterises the region. In Hungary, nationalisation of the rail system significantly lowered passenger prices in 1889 and raised the number of rail travellers to seven million annually in just a few years. Well before 1900 Galicians could travel by train in just fourteen hours from Lemberg / Lviv to Vienna, a trip that takes many more hours today. From 1876 to 1910 nearly four million citizens migrated overseas, mostly to Canada, the United States and Latin America. Hundreds of thousands of them also returned to Austro-Hungary later, sometimes with new capital and new skills.

But the revolutions in transport and communication also affected the lives of those who stayed behind. By 1900 the inhabitants of most smaller towns and even remote villages had access to local and regional newspapers and sometimes to telephone service. Primary school education was expanded. By 1910 there were 22,386 primary schools in the Austrian half and 16,455 in the Hungarian half of the empire. After primary school short preparatory courses offered trainings in basic secretarial skills, for example, so that an increasing number of rural youth gained a degree of social mobility and could take up jobs in a range of new low-level white-collar jobs. After 1900 low literacy rates in the most rural regions of the empire, such as Galicia, Bukovina, Dalmatia, Croatia, Transylvania and Bosnia-Herzegovina began to catch up with the higher rates in the more urbanised Bohemian, Austrian and metropolitan Hungarian lands. In 1910 the average literacy rate in the Austrian half was 83.5 per cent, similar to France with 85 per cent. In the Hungarian half, the literacy rates of Hungarian and German speakers were around 70 per cent, those for Romanian and Ruthene (today’s Ukrainian) speakers were around 30 per cent.

From schooling to military service to welfare benefits and postal services, the responsibilities of the state increased: there was mandatory primary education, obligatory accident insurance (1887), health insurance (1889), workers’ and company organisations in commerce, industry and trade and above all, massive state-funded expansion of the railway, telegraph and postal systems. In this way the Habsburg state became a more immediate and present actor in people’s lives in Central Europe. Expanding infrastructure s and new public tasks forced the governments of Austria and Hungary to employ more civil servants to fulfil the new functions and ensure efficiency. Parliaments, crown land diets and town halls now engaged in archival record-keeping on a scale yet unknown, while at the same time enforcing a maze of legal standards for an array of issues from workplace safety, public health to transportation. An extensive and efficient bureaucracy brought the Habsburg Empire into the everyday lives of its citizens even to very remote places of the empire. Unlike previous periods of major state growth, now the initiatives that drove much of the late 19th century expansion often came from the margins of the empire. Developed by locally elected officials and with consultation of administrative experts communal projects fuelled an expansion of bureaucratic functions in villages, towns and the crown land governments, from public hygiene programmes, the establishment of hospitals to the creation of parks and public swimming pools and theatres. The theatres built during this period in the Habsburg Empire were another architectural landmark of the cities of Habsburgia. Many of them were built by the firm Fellner & Helmer and these Central European architectural highlights can still be admired in places like Temesvar, Karlsbad /Karlovy Vary, Graz, Debrecen or Zagreb and many other cities of Central Europe. They employed men – and later women as well – from increasingly diverse social backgrounds in a range of positions, from telegraph operators to food inspectors to postal workers, school teachers and railway employees. The development of postal savings banks in Austria and Hungary, for example, offered banking services to rural and small town customers of modest income, who would otherwise not have access to them. Postal workers, railway employees and school teachers came to symbolize the empire for the general public, since they represented it in the most common daily life interactions, even in the most out of the way rural settings.

The same forces that galvanised the expansion of the state, such as rising literacy, freer print media, facilitated movement of people and goods, increased popular pressures for a greater democratisation of imperial society. Amid stunning social and technical transformations, faith in the virtues of a common empire, nevertheless, crucially stabilized and coordinated heterogeneous desires, needs and practices of 50 million citizens. Even at the local level, the empire remained the institution on which many activists projected their different visions of the future, especially those who tried to defuse nationalist political conflicts by imagining new ways of efficiently organising this multicultural empire. As ideas, both the empire and the Habsburg dynasty came to symbolize a reassuring constancy in times of unsettling change. Emperor Franz Joseph enjoyed unprecedented popularity. Forgotten was his crushing of the revolutions of 1848 and the following absolutist reign, the postponement of Jewish emancipation, the lost wars and his resistance to reform. Now a benign grandfatherly emperor watched over the progressive transformations of the society, moderating social and national radicalism when necessary. He appeared as a martyr to the many personal tragedies of his long reign, the suicide of his son crown prince Rudolf and the assassination of his wife Sisi. Popular Habsburg loyalty underpinned the idea of the empire and helped to promote identification with the empire. The symbolic language of the monarchy often cloaked new forms of governance and government obligation in reassuringly familiar Habsburg terms.

Increasingly at all corners of the empire municipal governments seemed to agree that their town should be turned into a “modern” city. The placement of a railway link, a train station, a military garrison could make a town’s economic future. Most experienced modernity as of imperial nature. This meant that already in 1891 a small town like Mährisch Schönberg / Sumperk had an early telephone network and Ungarisch Brod / Uhersky Brod had 31 telephone numbers in 1905. There was a dizzying array of imperial projects realised in small and medium-sized towns in the last two decades before World War I – projects ranging from new school buildings and hospitals to libraries and theatres, electrification, public swimming pools, railway stations to tramway systems. As the central and local administrations expanded the number of their competences they also had to increase the size of personnel drastically, which dramatically increased costs. Between 1890 and 1911 the annual cost of the Austrian administration rose from 4 million crowns to 18 million crowns.

In Hungary the government invested enormous sums in the development of the rail infrastructure, swiftly creating a highly centralised national system in which all lines ran to or through Budapest. Budapest itself was designed to attract visitors by presenting itself as an eastern “Paris on the Danube”. Budapest had to market its modernity by simultaneously developing up-to-date forms of spectacle. With projects ranging from a so-called Ice Palace, opened in 1903, where one could enjoy both a hothouse with palm trees and an ice-skating rink to the Danube Festivals with electric city illuminations and fireworks, Budapest tried to make the city itself into a tourist attraction. But also Hungarian political society was not spared the experience of the kind of nationalist and ideological radicalisation that overtook Austrian political life. Around 1900 the attractions of modernity found expression in new initiatives that went beyond infrastructure. Social activists, workers’ organisations, feminist groups, educational reformers, even vegetarianism developed radically new perspectives on modern life. Women’s changing roles in society became a general measure for the society’s openness to progress. In Austria, women’s sections were highly visible in almost all nationalist organisations. Women’s organisations in white-collar professions agitated for specific improvements from pension payments to working conditions. A few major political parties supported female suffrage after 1900, most notably the Austrian, Hungarian and Czech socialists.

Habsburg bureaucrats and party politicians had long demonstrated a flexible creativity in negotiating structural modifications intended to make the empire function more effectively and to offer a greater long-term political stability. In the Austrian half of the Habsburg Empire the architects of the Moravian Compromise in 1905, the Bukovinian Compromise in 1910, the Galician Compromise in 1914 and the Budweis/Budjeovice Compromise in 1914, as well as the authors of the 1907 suffrage reform for all male citizens and the initiators of bureaucratic reform, all developed bold political solutions to defuse conflicts related to political nationalism. Their work was based on situational concerns and clearly not perfect as every model was shaped according to local conditions and not easily applicable to another crown land. Yet in Austria we can see a willingness to negotiate highly distinctive solutions to structural conflicts in the decade before World War I. In comparison to the Hungarian part, the Austrian half of the empire became in some ways far more decentralised or federalised by region in its last decades despite the growth in imperial civil service and the ways in which the highest courts insisted on maintaining common legal and administrative standards in all of the Austrian part of the empire. Even in Bohemia, the crown land where the nationalist conflict appeared to be the most intransigent, informal negotiations to reach a federalist compromise remained on-going.

At the end of the 1870s, thanks to a rebellion in the neighbouring Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungary became a colonial power by occupying a piece of Ottoman territory. The resulting 30-year occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina provided bureaucrats, ideologists, map makers, technicians of all kinds, teachers and priests an unparalleled opportunity to realize liberal civilizational concepts of the empire on the Balkans. Many people also saw in Bosnia-Herzegovina an opportunity to fulfil either their own ambitions or the ambitions of their respective national movements. In 1878 when Austro-Hungarian forces marched into the neighbouring Ottoman Empire to quell local uprisings in Bosnia and Herzegovina and to forestall a Russian interference, they ended up staying there. The Treaty of Berlin confirmed the empire’s right to occupy the two provinces. The Emperor Franz Joseph promised that all “sons of the land will enjoy equal rights according to the laws”. This colonial project tried to stabilize and to transform the local society by bringing it the benefits of modern innovations while simultaneously strengthening the traditional society enough to keep it stable. From the start the project was supported by liberals, Catholics and Slavic nationalists, all of whom saw the occupation as beneficial to both the region and the empire, but for very different reasons. All the benefits of civilisation, from legal equality to education to technical modernity, would be bestowed on Bosnia-Herzegovina, of course at a sensible pace and moderate costs. At the same time, Austria’s proven ability to treat all linguistic and religious groups even-handedly would demonstrate the superiority of the liberal Habsburg multinational ideal over ethnic nationalism as the best vehicle for progress. The Habsburg idea had traditionally been universal, although aimed mainly at Central Europe. In the 1870s it became an argument for spreading European values to the Balkans.

An army of administrators set about propagating social modernisation and cultural equality to the new subjects. They immediately tried to assess Bosnian society’s needs and devise plans how best to deal with the linguistic and religious diversity they encountered there. In religious terms the population was divided into 40 per cent Orthodox, 35 per cent Muslim and 25 per cent Roman Catholic. In social terms the population was largely agrarian with much of the land in Muslim hands. The Habsburg administrators sought to create a model colony, a showcase of the Habsburg civilising mission. At the same time the administration tried to avoid the dangers of political nationalism that troubled the rest of the Austro-Hungarian society increasingly. The difficulty lay in the spiralling dynamic of “empire” and “nation”. Education produced an increased politicization of particular cultural differences even as it also produced a sense of place within the larger imperial order. The teachers brought into Bosnia were people who could speak the local language, which meant that they were often also Croat or Serb nationalists or they were government bureaucrats who tried to create a non-national Bosnian identification for Bosnian Muslims.

Countless Austrians and Hungarians debated the future directions the empire should take and possible reforms to its structures after 1900. The contemporaries believed that this flourishing multicultural society required new rules, structures and institutions to improve its functioning. Yet the constitutional ability of each part to block reform in the other, the disagreements between Austrian and Hungarian politicians impeded the implementation of ground-breaking reforms. Nevertheless, the excitement and creativity around reform projects demonstrates that Austro-Hungary should not be written off as a doomed anachronism in Europe. Many aspects of its situation ring a bell with current European Union difficulties. The existence of nationalist movements and nationalist conflicts in Austro-Hungarian politics did not weaken the state fatally and they did not cause its downfall in 1918. Just as nationalist and populist politics need not cause the break-up of the European Union now. Schools, military barracks, a free trade zone in the Danube basin, imperial infrastructure, scientific scholarship, cultural institutions and imperial bureaucracy constituted the focus of political activity and created emotional loyalties and identification with the Habsburg Empire. Extensive administrative resources were invested to manage, domesticate and even normalize nationalist politics. The empire’s elites understood very well that the transformation of Austro-Hungarian society from the growth of popular politics to the politicization of the bureaucracy had seriously reduced their power and influence. Many of the elite feared that these transformations also reduced the empire’s power status internationally. This elite mood of existential pessimism in 1914 was one factor that encouraged some members of the General Staff and the Diplomatic Corps to risk taking Austro-Hungary to war because they falsely believed that a war could silence political conflict at home and prevent further damage to the empire’s power status abroad. This misconception, in fact, destroyed the intricate fabric of a multicultural union at the heart of Europe.


Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers, 2012

Pieter M. Judson, The Habsburg Empire. A New History, 2016

Emil Brix & Erhard Busek, Mitteleuropa revisited, 2018