A Liberal Empire? Ruled from the Spas?

A still from Alain Resnais’s film Last Year at Marienbad, 1961

There is a symbol for the late Habsburg Empire in its elegant spa of Carlsbad: a genteel center of society and culture in the heart of old Europe; a place where crowned heads of the continent and their chief advisers could meet informally, in the years before the World War that would be fought in their names. Carlsbad bespoke a confident, urbane, cosmopolitan, seemingly unshakable world of order and privilege. But it also—as Austrian politicians sometimes observed—evoked the multinational monarchy’s problems. For the placid promenade in the middle of town held down potentially devastating pressure from hot springs beneath. As if to show how destructive forces could just about be held in check by civilization and its engineers, the famous jet that Czechs called Vřídlo and Germans Sprudel propelled scalding water high into the air.

Proclaiming that “water-cure culture reached its zenith in nineteenth-century Central Europe,” David Clay Large introduces a slightly arbitrary assemblage of its “grandest” luxury spas: Carlsbad and its sister Marienbad, with seven others, headed by Baden-Baden, across Austria and Germany. His account is spirited and entertaining, and more insightful than its sometimes irritatingly jocular presentation suggests. Taking the waters was an imperial activity, whether from its Roman origins or from more recent Turkish associations; and it bore a tincture of decadence and excess.

Not just emperors, but aristocrats and business tycoons set their stamp on the lifestyle at the top spas. They came as patients or as valetudinarians, or for gaming and dalliance. They were joined by an artistic and intellectual elite, including a stream of homegrown composers starting with Beethoven, through Liszt and Wagner, to Brahms and Mahler, and many writers from further afield. Large dilates especially on the colorful Russian literati: a wild pair of gamblers in the young Gogol and Dostoevsky, and the more sedate and highly Westernized Turgenev, who actually settled in Baden-Baden.

In his “new history,” The Habsburg Empire, Pieter Judson makes little of subterranean—or other—threats to the Habsburg realms; and he is not much interested in the privileged few either. His innovative and perspicuous book presents the acceptable face of what he calls “everyday empire.” Building on a body of lively analytical work (some of it his own) published in recent decades, he seeks to undermine the interpretation, dominant since the monarchy’s collapse in 1918, that attributed the empire’s demise above all to the rise of political nationalism and resultant internecine conflicts. Rather the new approach privileges a notion of “indifference,” the attitude of the many people who, it’s contended, still at that late date felt no strong or consistent allegiance to any ethnic group.

According to this view, nationalism in the Habsburg lands remained until the end a concern of elites, leaving most of society largely unaffected. Much of it was also “symbolic”: “translating…

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