Saturday, 22 July 2017

Austria Hungary, an EU before the EU

'It is sometimes said that the Austrian Empire was a "natural unit;" this catch phrase only means that it was large and had existed for a long time. Many economic ties had grown up with the centuries; these were certainly not "natural." There was no geographic unity. ...... As for the Bukovyna, it was cut off from everywhere, a meaningless fragment of territory for which there could be no rational explanation.' (A.J.P. Taylor)
I love those lethargic places cut off from time, space and economics by borders. The Northern Bucovina, separated from its southern hinterland, which was in Austria and is now in Romania. The noble former Ottoman capital Adrianople (Edirne), a couple of miles from the very slow Greek and Bulgarian border crossings. The whole of Eastern Europe was such a place, until 1989. 

Even Transnistria, cut off from Moldova, Ukraine, Russia and its real home the USSR, has a boring charm. 

I haven't made it to Kaliningrad. The Turkish Republic of North Cyprus belonged in this category, while the border with the Greek side was closed, and partly still does. Gibraltarians told me that the years when the Spanish border was closed were the good old days.

I especially love sleepy, beautiful Czernowitz/Chernivtsi/Černivci/Cernăuți, capital of the Bucovina, which once epitomised the multiracial Hapsburg Empire. Until 1918 it had newspapers printed in German, Hungarian, Romanian, Ukrainian and Yiddish.

Now it has been ethnically cleansed and is Ukrainian with a small Romanian minority and almost no more Jews.

I mourn the old Eastern European ethnic mosaic. 

I remember saying at a dinner party in Cambridge in 1983 that you can't understand the history of Northern Ireland without understanding the history of Eastern Europe. But the ethnic mosaic was brutally reordered by the Holocaust and the movements of peoples after the war. Ethnic mosaics work in a society where most people are illiterate agricultural workers and kings are considered legitimate. They are problematic in an age of universal education and nation states.

The Hapsburg empire looked very good in the thirties. It looks even better today. 

It was a European Union that worked, as that arch Eurosceptic the late Helen Szamuely said. Well, almost worked.

The historian Robert Tombs is fond of the Austro-Hungarian analogy when speaking of the EU, but he makes the analogy negatively, not positively. 

The Hapsburg empire worked well because of the monarchy, a common history and a shared German cultural space. A cultural space which Hitler's war largely shattered. The Monarchy could easily have survived till today, balancing Russia and Germany. 

As it is, the EU is the alternative to a Europe dominated by Germany, but inevitably the EU means a Europe dominated by Germany. This is not by Germany's desire. Germans love the EU as a means of not dominating their neighbours. The German philosophy is: tie me down before I kill again. But they cannot free themselves from geography, much as many Germans wish to create an ideal Europe that escapes from geography, history and ethnicity.

By the way, a Serbian taxi driver told a friend of mine that Yugoslavia was 'the EU before the EU'. My friend, who is pro EU, wasn't sure he found the analogy encouraging.


  1. Wasn't the UK the first and best example of a single market with single currency. Pitt's union of peoples with all four constituent parts equal and tolerant of each other. UKs first trade deal should be with Irish Republic to compliment the common travel area. A joint agriculture policy for the two islands makes sense too.

    1. Southern Ireland cannot make trade deals. It's in the EU.

    2. Sorry quite right ROI may have to leave too if we end up with no deal which undoubtedly is better than a bad deal. Return to British Isles single market and common travel area the latter of course being non negotiable as in existence since 1920

  2. Aside from the fact that it is the EU that is perhaps imitating the old empire in a way, and not the other way around (obviously), the principles underlying the two are quite different (in practice even more than in theory). Though Austria-Hungary had a strong bureaucratic element, you cannot have an Empire headed by technocrats. Like you cannot have 'human rights' without the Faith on which they are founded. The unifying factors of Church and Monarchy are very much lacking now. We cannot rally around Mr Juncker like people could around Franz Joseph.

    1. Anonymous, I think you nailed it (or as Romanians say, put the dot on the "i").

  3. Perhaps the main differences are that the Austrian and Hungarian governments were directly elected, even though the electorates of the Empire were small, and that the residual powers of the king-emperor were quite significant. He could and did veto legislation that was too radical for him. The European Commission never faces any elections and there is no one powerful enough to hold it back from craziness.

  4. Paul, that is a very interesting sentence/claim.

    It highlights that often the post-WW1 ethnically-based, "Wilsonian" nation-states may ultimately be seen as a problematic (and historically temporary) phenom.

    In much of the world, ethnic & religious diversity is deeply embedded in the culture. India, Balkans, eastern Europe, Africa, etc. are/were the sites of cultures where diverse peoples existed side-by-side. Attempts to separate them out, & establish nation-states where one nationality predominates, is often accompanied by ethnic-cleansing & the semi-permanent opposition by aggrieved minorities. (e.g. Sudeten Germans)

    (Wilson's view on Czech independence is related to his own overt white supremacy.)

    Transnational formations may solve problems that ethnic states cannot.

    Your comment sheds light on the danger of ethnic populists seeking to de-diversify modern states (i.e. white nationalists in the U.S.) -- blending was a complex process, but DE-blending requires atrocity

    1. You address me by my name without giving yours.

    2. All historical phenomena are temporary. Hebrews:13:14: 'For we have not here a lasting city, but we seek one that is to come.'

    3. Wherever there was great wealth, it was due to trade. Wherever there was trade, there were traders. Wherever there were traders, there was diversity. Large centers of wealth tend to be diverse. When the ability to trade freely is taken away (such as by imposing artificial borders), the incentive to cooperate, get along, and trade is diminished, leading to more sinister interactions.

  5. That great European Dr. Otto von Habsburg very clerly laid the plans for the eventual succession of his House. His sons and grandson are very, very patient. A constitutional monarchy for Austria, why not? As I pointed out to the great statesman myself some 2 decades ago: the Treaty of Pressburg (1806) have left an avenue for redress, first in Hungary, then Austria......