Ferdinand of Austria
Ferdinand of Austria; drawing by David Levine

What makes history tick? Historians have backed religion, nationalism, class consciousness, and all the sociological rigmaroles from aggressiveness to curiosity. The strongest motive force in history is the one most often over-looked. It is family attachment and ambition. Men who would not strive for themselves do so for their families—meaning not merely their wives and children, which might be sensible, but generations yet unborn. Men not normally trusting rely on their brothers and cousins, as Napoleon based his empire on the Bonapartes and Northcliffe his on the Harmsworths. It seems that keeping the family going is what most of history is about, from the humblest peasant handing on his farm, to the greatest ruler handing on his Empire. Affection has little to do with it. Few fathers love their children, let alone their grandchildren. It must, I suppose, be a form of prolonging one’s existence after death. People imagine that there is a tiny spark of themselves in their offspring and find consolation, as Banquo did, in a line of descent stretching out to the crack of doom. A strange fancy, but, as they say in Lancashire, there’s nowt so queer as folk.

At any rate families push history along and provide inexhaustible material for historians. In England it is Dukes and such. No one would bother about the Dukes of Portland if there had been only one. A long row of them counts as a substantial contribution to history. Then there are the Dukes of Bedford, justified only because they produced Bloomsbury and Bertrand Russell. But they get an independent place in history simply by going on and on. The United States do not run to Dukes, and historians there make do with dynasties of financiers or steel magnates, even numbering them in dynastic fashion. But the moral is the same. Family creates an interest in persons who are uninteresting in themselves.

Literature reinforces the moral. Many a dreary work of fiction has been sustained by its claim to be the history of a family. Even the New Testament starts with a genealogical tree. The Buddenbrooks would not have established Thomas Mann’s literary merits, great though these were, if there had been only one of them. The story of the Forsytes has no literary merit except for those who cannot read English. But once presented as the saga of a family, and its financial, to say nothing of its broadcasting, merits were secure. The Forsyte Saga is a bestseller even in Soviet Russia.

Pre-eminent in political history have been the Dynasties who give their names to long stretches of the past. In English schools history still means the Tudors and Stuarts. The Plantagenets lasted something over three centuries. The Bourbons clocked up two centuries somewhat interrupted by the guillotine. One Dynasty outstripped all others. The Habsburgs had a record beyond challenge. For over four centuries they were the top Dynasty in Europe. Their sway ranged over the world: most of Europe, South America, and the Indies. At one time or another they ruled over most of Germany and Italy. They were Kings of Spain and even produced a King of England, though Philip II is usually omitted from our list. In their latter days the Habsburgs settled in Vienna, which was by no means their home of origin, and their sovereignty extended over most of central Europe.

The Habsburgs never found a permanent name for their vast dominions. For some centuries they established an almost hereditary claim to the Holy Roman Empire, and the rest of their estates was tagged on beneath this shadowy title. In 1806 Napoleon decreed the end of this Empire. Francis II, last Holy Roman Emperor, turned himself into Francis I, Emperor of Austria. “Austria” was not a geographical description. It simply meant the various lands over which the August House of Austria ruled. This new Empire of Austria lasted strictly only until 1867. Then it became Austria-Hungary, and no one was clear whether the Empire of Austria still meant all the Habsburg lands or only those not included in the Kingdom of Hungary. In 1917 the Hungarians secured the concession that the Empire did not apply to them. Otherwise the non-Hungarian lands had no name other than the states and kingdoms represented in the Reichsrat or parliament at Vienna.

Mr. Macartney confesses that Habsburg Empire is an incorrect title, which he uses only because previous writers have stolen the more neutral Habsburg Monarchy. I was one of these predecessors. I wrote a brief history of the Habsburg Monarchy some twenty years ago. Mr. Macartney describes my book as “individual,” and I doubt whether this is meant as a word of praise. Mr. Macartney has indeed haunted me for many years past. I have long been aware that he knew much more about the subject than I did, and many critics have hinted that his views on the Monarchy were not only different from mine but wiser. Now his substantial volume reveals that we do not differ much after all. His book is much longer than mine and not so funny. There is a great deal more about systems of land tenure, a complicated subject which I do not profess to understand in detail. Mr. Macartney is softer on the Hungarians than I was and manages to find some admirable qualities in the Emperors with whom he deals. But the main theme is much the same. The Habsburgs were a family concern. They never associated themselves with a single nationality or even with a single state. They were ruined when national feeling became the principal bond holding political communities together. In most countries nationalism made the state stronger. The Habsburg Monarchy was harassed and sapped by it.


The story of the Habsburg Monarchy is the story of its rulers, and this not only because they were absolute until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Without them the Habsburg Monarchy did not exist. When Francis I was told that someone was an Austrian patriot, he replied: “But is he a patriot for me?” This is often dismissed as a narrow and stupid remark, but it made sense. Patriotism could only mean loyalty to Francis I or to Franz Joseph. They were the only personalities who counted, and between them they spanned practically all the history of the Austrian Empire. Francis ruled from 1792 to 1835, Franz Joseph from 1848 to 1916. Ferdinand who came between was weak-witted. Charles who came at the end could do little more than conduct the burial rites of the Empire. Two men determined the destinies of many million people for well over a century.

They were both very dull. Indeed until reading Mr. Macartney’s book, I had forgotten how dull they were. Most kings and emperors have some individual touch which makes them absurd if not interesting. Francis and Franz Joseph had nothing. They were merely family machines, going through the motions of bureaucratic duty. There is not a single anecdote about them worth remembering. They did not collect pictures or patronize music. Some of the Archdukes were plain barmy, riding round Vienna naked or taking pot-shots at the passers-by Francis and Franz Joseph were irremediably sane and dull. They had no vices. Franz Joseph had a mistress, found for him by his wife, but he did no more, it seems, than call on her for a friendly chat every morning after his walk across the park. Francis said “No” to everything. Franz Joseph learned from adversity to make concessions. But there was no meaning in them. He yielded only so that everything should go on as dully as before.

This was true to the family spirit. The Habsburgs had always been great resisters. Like Victor Hugo, though in a very different sense, each one of them could have said: “Je suis contre” (I am against). They started by being against the Turks. They were against the Reformation. Then they were against France and still more against the French Revolution. In the nineteenth century they were against democracy and against nationalism. At the end they made out that they were against Russian domination of Constantinople and the Balkans. But what were they for? Absolutely nothing except that the Habsburg family should keep going.

It is said that one of them had a constructive purpose. Joseph II, who ruled from 1780 to 1790, is supposed to have had the idea of making his Empire a great progressive unit. Hence Mr. Macartney begins his narrative in 1790 when the reforming impulse of Joseph II was defeated. But even Joseph II had little ambition beyond making his family Empire stronger. His successors did not try to do even that, for fear that the effort would make it weaker. There was a further difficulty. If the Habsburg Monarchy was to be made more united and efficient, it needed a wider base than family feeling, and outside Hungary that base could only be German. The Germans were not a majority in the Habsburg lands, but they were the only ones with a continuous tradition. Ideally they would have liked to give all the lands a German character. They never succeeded. At first the Emperors disliked the nationalism of the Germans. Later the other peoples resisted it.

There is one point often overlooked, which first struck me when reading Mr. Macartney’s book. The Germans claimed to belong to a great cultural community, which others should be proud to join. This is why even Marx and Engels, revolutionary as they were, thought that the Czechs, Slovenes, and others would be swallowed up by German nationalism. The Magyars made the same claim in Hungary. The Croats and Romanians should be pleased to become Magyars. For the detached observer from western Europe, the Magyar claim has little substance. We do not rank Magyar culture alongside French, English, or Italian. But even the German claim was exaggerated. German culture was a late starter. A history of English or French literature, to say nothing of Italian, could stop in the year 1800 and still be a wonderful record. A history of German literature which stopped then would have little beyond primitives to offer. German culture was in fact still growing up when the other national cultures began to awaken also. When Czechs and Serbs wanted a great foreign culture to enrich their own, they turned more to French than to German. Who wouldn’t?


The conflict of nationalities stood in the way of the Habsburg Monarchy becoming a political unity. This is not quite the same as saying, which many writers do, that nationalism destroyed the Habsburg Monarchy. Few of the peoples actually wanted to leave the Monarchy. The Italians perhaps did so, though they did not try very hard after 1866. The Romanians and Serbs looked at independent national states of their own across the frontier, but they showed little eagerness to join them, and the truly seditious Germans were even fewer. The effect of the national conflicts was negative. It did not disrupt the Monarchy. It merely prevented it from becoming stronger and from keeping up with the other Great Powers.

The heart of the Monarchy was the army, and every writer, including Mr. Macartney and myself, goes wrong in not studying its history more closely. At the opening of the nineteenth century the Austrian army was as good as any other. It went downhill during the nineteenth century. Shortage of money was one factor in this decline, but it was not the only one. There was an increasing failure of initiative and invention. The Habsburg Monarchy was conservative by nature, and in no sphere was this truer than in military matters. By the twentieth century, there was a terrible contradiction between the proud talk of the Austrian generals, particularly Conrad, and the actual strength of the armed forces. Unlike other states, Austria-Hungary could not risk defeat in war. It had nothing except the army to fall back on. Russia could survive defeat. Austria-Hungary could not. There is no need to seek profound political causes for the collapse of Austria-Hungary. Its army lost a great war and, when the army was defeated, nothing was left. It was an ironical twist that Austrian statesmen did more than any others to provoke the war which brought their ruin. Austria-Hungary deserved its fate.

The Habsburgs went down with their army. What is more, they pulled down also the nationality which they had half-favored as “the people of state” and half-resisted. The Germans were defeated in their ambition to establish a cultural domination of central Europe. Hitler, himself an Austrian by origin and in outlook, renewed the attempt, though the culture he offered was of a strange kind. He was the last degenerate expression of the Habsburg Monarchy, and it was futile to try to resurrect the Monarchy as a barrier against German aggression. The true barrier was national independence. Despite setbacks in the present, this barrier will show its strength in the long run—against Germany and against others.

This Issue

November 20, 1969