First, sorry I have no pictures to post today. My camera’s batteries were out of juice — but tomorrow I’ll post some! Our first full day in Wien was great. 12 miles walking, four hours in the Art History Museum, delicious pastries, and the students were blown away by the grandeur and splendor of the central city. Vienna is one of my favorite cities, it has an amazing atmosphere, architecture, and vibrancy. Yet as I walked this city and as we talked to students about its history (mini-lectures in front of monuments and churches, as well as a full seminar about the piano and Mozart from Steve), I couldn’t help but think about how this city was capital of a 650 year empire which collapsed just under 100 years ago.
Austria was a dying empire by the end of the 19th century. They knew it. Yet they also didn’t know how to stop it. One option was to liberalize, but the power structure, including Emperor Franz Josef, who came to power in 1848 and ruled until his death in 1916, worked against that. Franz-Josef was one of a long line of Hapsburg rulers, starting with Rudolf in the 13th century. Liberalizing — moving towards democracy, capitalism, and a focus on individual rights — went against the aristocratic traditions which defined the empire.
Indeed, the Austro-Hungarian empire as it was then known (a sop to Hungarian nationalism) was structured on ideals and traditions that had persisted for centuries but which had become anachronistic. The Catholic Church was a powerful force, but throughout Europe it was on the defensive.
Back before Napoleon the “Holy Roman Empire,” ruled by a Hapsburg emperor covered almost all of Europe between France and Russia. But it wasn’t an empire as we’d now define it (Voltaire famously quipped that ‘the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire’). The Hapsburgs held large swathes of territory, and nominally ruled many others. But in reality it was a decentralized even anarchic set of diverse principalities and communities with no core principles determining governance. In some places the church had control, there were other ‘free cities’ run by local councils, and there were numerous territories governed by a ‘prince,’ or an aristocratic landlord. The rules and procedures for how this operated were rarely written down, and perhaps couldn’t be. It was based on tradition, custom and local practice. The most powerful “princes” were “electors” who would meet to choose the Emperor. But even that choice was usually pre-determined — it would be the Hapsburg monarch.
The benefit to the participants was that the Hapsburgs really didn’t rule most of the Empire. Cities, local aristocrats, the Church and others had their territories and things operated according to custom and tradition. Empress Maria Theresa started to change that in the 18th Century, consolidating Hapsburg power and creating a true central European empire. Napoleon’s wars destroyed what was left of the old Holy Roman Empire, and Austria survived as a large multi-ethnic empire based on anachronistic traditions in a modernizing world.
Yet it begin the 19th century the dominant power, while Napoleon’s defeat seemed to be a defeat of liberalism and enlightenment values. The enlightenment proved resilient, however, and as Austria clung to tradition and looked skeptically at capitalism, industrialism and democracy, the rest of Europe moved forward. The Austrians, trapped by tradition, culture, and history — how could a 650 year old empire truly be endangered? — played for time and hoped for rejuvenation.
On the fringes, populists thought they knew what was wrong. They were convinced the problem was a refusal to embrace pan-Germanism and the influence of Jews. While the populists were easily dismissed as right wing xenophobes, their growing influence in the 19th and early 20th centuries would shape a young would-be artist, a provincial Austrian who,after some time leading the Bohemian artistic lifestyle, turned to the far right: Adolf Hitler.
These nationalist movements were diverse, and existed uncomfortably alongside liberalizing efforts from those wanting a modern,democratic Austria. The right wing movements were held together by anger at the status quo, a clear enemy image (usually the Jew, but also socialists, the monarchy, and ‘liberal internationalists‘), and a stark appeal to the fears and emotions of a people who realized their country was moving away from what it had been in the past, but were afraid of where it might go in the future.
As I wander through modern Vienna, it‘s clear that while that old world did indeed crumble, Austria today is in many ways far better off than it was during its imperial heyday. The people are wealthy, the country stable, and as part of the European Union they have rejected the wars that had European peoples at each others’ throats for centuries. To get here from there they had to digest the end of an era, a fundamental change in their sense of what it meant to be Austrian, and the very nature of how their world was ordered. Fear of that kind of existential change meant it could only happen with systemic collapse, in their case through the trauma of joining the Third Reich, and suffering the physical and moral destruction of WWII and the Holocaust.
Pondering that, my thoughts wander to the US. Are we also going through an existential shifting of values and conditions. Are the “old ways“ no longer functional? Are at least the fringes of the so-called ‘tea parties‘ a kind of gut fear reaction of the far right, just as anti-Semitism and pan-Germanism was in 19th Century Austria? Is the anger at “illegal immigration,” often anti-Mexican sentiment rationalized with claims its just about the illegality, similar to 19th Century Austrian anti-Semitism? No, I’m not saying this will lead to a Holocaust or American Nazis — I don’t think that will happen, our culture is too different. I’m thinking more generally if we’re not undergoing the kind of transformation, albeit from a very different to a very different system, that Austria undertook. And if so, will the transition be as difficult as it was for this once great Empire, now a shadow of what it once was.
I also think about where we spent a day trying, ultimately successfully, to evade the volcanic ash cloud — London. The British Empire went through a similar transition, and despite pain and real hardship, came through successfully. Their liberal pragmatic traditions allowed gradual transformation, while Austria’s did not. We’re much more like the British; does that mean we’ll muddle through change, with the extremists making noise, but never gaining the upper hand?
Of course, these comparisons could be off base. Visiting former empires in a time when it looks like US power and prestige is under siege makes it perhaps too easy to draw uncomfortable comparisons. But when I hear people complaining that they want the “America that used to be” to come back, that reminds me of those Austrians who didn’t want things to change. Change is real. We’ll never be the America we used to be. History doesn’t work that way. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing though.