Empire Strikes Out: Habsburg a Warning for E.U., U.S.

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One hundred years ago, in October 1918, the House of Habsburg slammed its gates forever. It was more poignant than the closing of Woolworth’s, Lehman Brothers, or even Sears. The Habsburg Empire, which had ruled middle Europe for 500 years and tried to unite many nationalities under one flag, could not hold on. Do we celebrate or mourn? Tens of millions of Americans descend from immigrants who left the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The monarchy also gave us Mozart, Freud, the Danube Waltz, weinerschnitzel, and World War I. If the Habsburgs could not straddle a diverse population, can the European Union or the United States of America?

The Habsburgs’ domain stretched from Amsterdam to Gibraltar to Bohemia, and it boasted the title Holy Roman Emperor. Though the family emerged from a Swiss castle to rule Austria in 1279, orchestrated marriages lured into the family Isabel and Ferdinand’s daughter from Spain, along with sons and daughters of nearly every other ruling family. If they had not succeeded as monarchs, the Habsburgs would have been the world’s greatest gossips and matchmakers.

But did anyone besides blood relatives and in-laws consider themselves Habsburgs? That was the problem. Though Emperor Franz Joseph I (who reigned for sixty-eight years starting in 1848) saw himself as a universal force (like the Roman Catholic Church) and even adopted the motto Virus unitis (with united forces), he never figured out how to instill the uni. To most of his subjects, he was just another Teuton, albeit one with thousands of cannons. Franz Joseph was personally popular. With his mutton chops and red sash, he was a strong brand.

My high school English teacher told me that his father, who left Hungary in the early 1900s, would “speak frequently, nostalgically of Franz Joseph, as if he were the president of the United States.” In the brilliant novel The Radetsky March – as penetrating a view of Austria as The Great Gatsby is of America -- author Joseph Roth, describes a fatherly portrait of the blue-eyed emperor, which was proudly hung in in churches, synagogues, biergartens, and brothels alike.

Franz Joseph presided over an economic boom. The Austrians called the period Grunderzeit (“founder epoch”), which funded Vienna's new opera house and attracted migrants and merchants, who moved into new tract housing. A few weeks ago, I dropped by the Café Landtmann, which opened in 1873 and has served Apfelstrudel to the brooding likes of Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler. Between 1870 and the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, cafes opened and per capita incomes rose much faster than in England and France.

But prosperity and personal popularity are not enough. Franz Joseph’s crown was not popular to those who considered themselves Polish, Slovak, Hungarian, Czech, etc. The Habsburg monarchy was composed mostly of torsos of nations, but not the hearts of the people.

How do you cheer an omnipotent yet remote monarchy? For many, the Habsburgs were an abstraction that did not share their faith, history, language, or family ties. How do you rally around a strange abstraction? It reminds me of comedian Robert Klein’s observation that his school in New York did not have a name; it simply had a number, like PS 406. He’d joke about the school fight song: “Dear 406, we love you!” And “80, your name will rise above . . . 79!” Hardly rah-rah crowd pleasers.

The Habsburgs struggled with even less success than PS 406. They tried to grant some autonomy to ethnic groups, and Austria’s constitution required schools to preserve many languages. But without institutions that would celebrate a truly national consciousness, it was just a matter of time before the Habsburgs got swept into history’s dustbin.

When World War I broke out in 1914, the Habsburgs called upon their troops, who mostly showed up for battle. But they appeared to be fighting for their own homelands, not for the imagined uni nation based in Vienna. Battalions of Czech soldiers left Prague for the battlefield singing “I’ve got to fight the Russians, but I don’t know why.” In southern Hungary, Croatia, and along the Bosnian border, protestors and soldiers rebelled. They were shot, of course.

The Habsburgs lost the war and their crown. What’s left of a powerful empire that could not figure out how to create a shared language, shared traditions, and shared values? Just some fading photos of Emperor Franz Joseph displaying a fluffy mustache and his mutton chops. Otto von Habsburg, the last surviving child of the last emperor, was born in the family palace in 1912. He died not long ago at age ninety-nine, but not before seeing his son Karl host a television quiz show called "Who Is Who?" Indeed.

Unless the U.S. and the European Union learn some unifying lessons soon, they will break apart and their names will serve only to provide an answer in a trivia game that our great-grandchildren will play.

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