Book Review: The Dissolution of the Hapsburg Monarchy


Jaszi stresses the importance of the monarchy's historical development for the formation of certain basic social norms. These determined the Habsburg ruling classes' worldview, and shaped “imperial guiding principles” in times of profound political crises (33). In the end, the “centripetal” forces which long supported unity - the army, the Roman Catholic Church, the Habsburg dynasty, the bureaucracy and free trade, each treated in its own chapter - often had paradoxical counter-effects, consequently failing to neutralize the formidable “centrifugal” developments (also treated at chapter length), particularly nationalism.

Jaszi rejects the deterministic viewpoint that exclusively external events (such as the First World War) caused the Empire's end. Jaszi focuses on the Empire's internal incoherencies, structural contradictions and the monarchy's inability (or unwillingness) to undertake crucial changes in either domestic or foreign policy (6). He maintains that the disintegration process could have been reversed by wiser, more flexible political statesmen (13). Particularly crucial was the failure to realize and address the importance of the nineteenth-century national awakenings within the Empire. The Habsburgs' absolutist character prevented them from even considering a comprehensive reconstitution of the state structure (namely, federalization). Such re-composition might have satisfied the basic cultural, political and economic desires of various non-German and non-Hungarian national groups (248-258).

Furthermore, the disastrous conceptualization of the education system contributed significantly to the weakening of the Empire. Instead of energetically promoting an overarching state identity and inter-national solidarity, education remained restricted to the glorification of the Habsburg dynasty as the sole source of the state's legitimacy and identity. But “dynastic patriotism” lost the battle of hearts and minds in the face of rising ethnically-based national consciousness. The result was a state in which various nations knew little about each other and rising prejudice, intolerance or, at best, bitter indifference (433-434).

Finally, the Empire's political framework fostered growing dissatisfaction with the Empire by its component national groups. The Dualist Constitution of the Ausgleich of 1867 was the chief obstacle to the successful reconciliation of national tensions. General tolerance by Vienna with regards to national consciousness was matched by the fierce suppression of non-Hungarian national feelings and cultural autonomy by Budapest's “Magyarization” campaigns (344-348). Jaszi suggests a “middle solution” could have preserved the Empire: democratizing and de-centralizing the state structure, rejecting obsolete absolutism and German-Hungarian hegemony, and following the Austrian principle of tolerance and equality by allowing substantial autonomy and sovereignty to the various national groups within the Empire.

However, Jaszi's arguments here contradict themselves. He sharply criticizes the failure of the Habsburg administration to foster any reliable supra-national, state-centered solidarity and identity. But Jaszi later proposes an Imperial civic identity, stressing the necessity of non-national states to grant their ethnic minorities extensive national rights. Making it possible for multiple nationalities to “feel at home” in a multinational empire certainly has its advantages. Nevertheless, one is faced with the serious dilemma of whether “empire” and “national rights” can ever go together. There are numerous examples of national minorities that received satisfactory levels of political, economic and cultural rights and still eventually rejected the idea of remaining loyal to their supra-national homeland.

Jaszi poses the crucial question on which any supra-national political entity rests: is it possible to form non-national (or civic-national) state identities? The answer seems darker today than when Jaszi wrote in the 1920s. Non-national loyalties have to surpass in importance and psychological strength the emotional appeal of ethnically based, particularistic and exclusive nationalisms. It seems logical that developing such a non-ethnic identity inevitably involves the regular suppression of nationalist excesses, as well as a much more aggressive form of state-building (or civic-nation-building) than Jaszi seems ready to accept.

Jaszi's work, then, rightly argues that exclusive political, economic and cultural supremacy by one national group is problematic in multi-ethnic states, and extensively traces the problems this caused within the Habsburg Monarchy. However, what constitutes the challenge to alternatives is determining the most suitable level of independence, free development of intra-national capacities and autonomy such that does not encroach upon the very legitimacy and raison d'etre of the supra-national state itself. Too much freedom, perhaps, further advances the flames of exclusive nationalism and feelings of separatism if no common tie is felt.