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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 at home and abroad. Only on the rarest occasions, if we are to believe Crankshaw, did Franz Joseph select suitable ministers. In the period from 1848 to 1867, when, in Crankshaw’s view, “the history of Austria had been his [Franz Joseph’s] personal history,” the Emperor’s “talent for ruling” showed itself in following the advice of “that disastrous man Grünne,” who, though “an able man in his own right,” brought the army to that point of “backwardness and inefficiency” which made Austria’s defeat inevitable at the hands of the French and Italians in 1859 (p. 87). Despite all the alleged talent of the Emperor, Austria became embroiled in war with Prussia in 1866 because “Austria lacked a Bismarck to oppose a Bismarck: it was as simple as that” (p. 211). Yet this is the decade of the 1860s in which, we are told, Franz Joseph developed from a “born autocrat” into a “consummate politician.” If this change has “not been taken properly into account by historians,” it need surprise no one: even as displayed by Crankshaw, the Emperor’s record shows no real political rationale, no clear assessment of the hard realities, only a yielding to whatever pressure he felt most strongly.

The case of Franz Joseph’s talent is but one illustration of the flaw which bedevils this history: the gap between the author’s bold assertions and his feeble evidence. Crankshaw frequently begins his treatment of a new historical character or episode with a statement suggesting that he plans to correct previous misinterpretations; but he usually ends by demonstrating what he has set out to deny. Thus, having insisted that the Emperor’s mother was not “the arch-type of the insufferable, managing woman,” he adduces mountains of evidence that make this conclusion inescapable. Or again, with a grand revisionist flourish, the author introduces Foreign Minister Aerenthal, who embroiled Austria-Hungary with Russia through the Bosnian annexation of 1908: “No twentieth-century statesman has been more persistently underrated and treated with more unmerited contempt…” (p. 328). Instead of rehabilitating Aerenthal’s reputation, Crankshaw portrays “this queer mixed-up man” as obsessed by a death-wish, governed by “compulsive vanity,” given to romantic dreams of expansion, confusing what was not even cleverness with statesmanship, alert to many perils, but “totally blind to the one that really mattered” (pp. 328-331). Again and again Crankshaw lunges forward to correct the record or produce a new understanding, only to fall back, almost without noticing his own retreat, on the received view.

There is a tantalizing quality about The Fall of the House of Habsburg of which the author’s pseudo-revisionism is only a symptom. The reason for the book’s failure is not that Crankshaw lacks historical integrity: he is no Emil Ludwig, but an honest, popular historian who remains faithful to the scholarly works he uses. His history is full of accurate detail, but it lacks direction and intellectual coherence. Open the book to any page, and you will find your interest aroused by a suggestive combination of detailed description and general reflection; yet read to the end of the chapter, and you will find the thread of thought dissolved, with nothing remaining but a handful of colorful beads: vivid elements of history, isolated, disconnected. Of what interest, for example, is the striking vignette of the Hungarian Foreign Minister Andrassy—“always larger than life size, this brilliant, charming, hectoring, moody, stubbornly cunning gypsy figure”—if the analysis of Andrassy as political actor is so vague and shadowy as to deprive these or any other traits of historical significance? Again and again, we encounter vividly drawn historical actors suspended in mid-air like Cheshire cats, as though in search of an action which their author had failed to provide.

Had Crankshaw concerned himself specifically with the gap between political actors and historical action, he might have come to grips with an important aspect of Austrian politics.

As the nineteenth century came to a close, the society of the Empire had so little cohesion that it could not be contained by modern constitutional forms. Parliament ceased to serve as an instrument of authority; it survived only as a theater, in which Austria’s social and national groups found strident voice but little power. Under these circumstances the best chance of political integration lay in separating political forms from social content, creating an abstract center of loyalty above all the social fragments. This transcendent, unifying symbol of concord—the opposite of the parliamentary theater of discord—was provided by the ancient office of Emperor and the person of Franz Joseph.

It was not a “talent for ruling” that marked Franz Joseph, but a talent for reigning. Crankshaw has made the wrong case for his hero, one which exaggerates Franz Joseph’s actual contact with and comprehension of political reality. Ironically, his success as Emperor derived from other sources. The more awful the personal and political tragedies of the aging Emperor, the more awesome his person became to his people. The less the Austrians could agree on anything else, the more reverent was their allegiance to their suffering Emperor-father. Stoical, self-sacrificing, scrupulously traditional, Franz Joseph succeeded best when he ruled least, as a tired but always dutiful old man performing ritual functions. His empire, a microcosm of Europe itself, could be held together by traditional and symbolic means, but only so long as Europe kept its precarious balance. It was singularly fitting that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand—an heir who wished to rule, not reign—should have begun old Europe’s first orgy of self-destruction.

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