The Emperor’s Clothes

“Austria” wrote the poet Friedrich Hebbel, “is a little world in which the big one holds its try-outs.” During the nineteenth century, every European country was disrupted by social and ideological conflict. For most states nationalism was a unifying creed which acted as an antidote to these cleavages; for Europe as a whole, however, nationalism meant conflict, dissolution. In this respect, multi-national Austria resembled Europe, not the other states: Austria experienced nationalism as yet another divisive force, pushing her toward disintegration as Europe moved toward war and revolution.

Edward Crankshaw, an English historian and journalist, is convinced of the relevance of the Austrian experience for contemporary Europe. One would expect him then to explore the social and national tensions of Austrain society. Instead he devotes most of his attention to the monarch and his ministers: “There has been overflowing sympathy for the various people of the Empire but little, if any, for the rulers who tried to hold them together in a dangerous world.” Crankshaw sets out to redress the alleged imbalance by concentrating on the long reign of Emperor Franz Joseph which began when Metternich resigned power and ended only a year before Lenin acquired it. And indeed a biographical approach could have provided him with an opportunity to review the major phases in the evolution of the modern Austrian Empire. But he has written instead a kind of pseudo-epic narrative in which the human side of his protagonist, Franz Joseph, emerges clearly enough, but his historical role virtually disappears. Society provides a scene for episodes, for heroic encounters; it has little life of its own.

The somewhat rigid young man who came to the throne as the tool of determined and intelligent counter-revolutionaries in 1848 must have seemed wellsuited to the tasks of an efficient, modern, bureaucratic absolutism. Mr. Crankshaw shows how Franz Joseph’s overwhelming, almost self-obliterating, sense of duty as ruler sustained him through many trials, both political and personal. Drawing heavily upon Count Egon Corti’s careful and colorful biographies of the members of the imperial family, the author is at his best when he describes the warm yet frustrating relationship between Franz Joseph and the beautiful, mercurial Empress Elisabeth. Personal tragedy repeatedly added its weight to the Emperor’s burden of political defeat: the suicide of his heir, Crown Prince Rudolf; the stabbing of his estranged but still beloved Empress; his desertion by his mistress, Katherina Schratt; and finally the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo.

One could wish that Crankshaw’s sympathy for his protagonist were matched by his political and historical judgment. His work is seriously undermined by its narrow focus on Franz Joseph and his advisers. Crankshaw places too great a burden on his hero when he attributes to him “a talent for ruling…as few have possessed it before or since…It is on this talent,” he urges us, “that we should keep our eyes.” (p. 78) What the eyes behold—even in Crankshaw’s own account—is a sorry, almost unrelieved, record of failures and defeats…

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