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 political programs into culture wars” or “fram[ing] ideological struggles as struggles between cultures.” In other words, contests for power and influence within the structures of empire were construed as claims on behalf of supposed national communities defined above all, in polyglot Central Europe, by native language. To demonstrate his own studied indifference in such matters, Judson even resorts to the cumbrous but challenging expedient of rendering place names of the region, every single time they appear, in all their principal linguistic variants (“Lemberg/Lwów/L’viv”).

We need to grasp the etiology of Judson’s original and suggestive argument. He begins with Austria’s reforming monarchs of the later eighteenth century, Maria Theresa, Joseph II, and Leopold II, each of whom instituted ambitious centralizing policies to consolidate their disparate territories. He insists, however, that it was local initiatives on the part of their subjects that in fact did most to create this dynastic empire. In Europe’s revolutionary turmoil from the 1790s, Austria’s state institutions were so vastly extended that they frustrated further social, economic, and cultural advance: at best they prescribed “one-size-fits-all” administrative solutions; at worst they froze all progress, as with the notorious, repressive decrees issued by Chancellor Metternich from Carlsbad in 1819, which gave the spa a bad name in freethinking circles.

It was the peasantry, according to Judson, who first began to look to a larger imperial entity, as recourse in their struggles with rapacious landlords. Other social groups came to do the same: merchants, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, religious minorities, particularly Jews, as well as many of the bureaucrats themselves. Judson uses the movement for “liberation” of Central Europe from Napoleonic hegemony as evidence of popular enthusiasm for the empire. And already—importantly—he draws for many of his examples of such enthusiasm on the empire’s margins and borderlands: he finds support for the empire in a broad sweep of more distant provinces, from Dalmatia in the south, through Trieste, Carniola, and Tyrol to Silesia, Galicia, and Bukovina in the northeast.


The process intensified sharply at midcentury. Judson has been hitherto a historian par excellence of Austrian liberalism.1 When he discusses it here, he turns to a rich narrative mode, examining the roots of the movement in the upheavals of 1848, its flags, dress, clubs, and journals. He discusses the liberal ethos of representation, elections, and expanded suffrage, and its locus in the new imperial parliament (Reichstag, later renamed Reichsrat). Indeed, a liberal perspective underlies Judson’s interpretation throughout. He stresses how liberals sought to fortify the empire with their program of bourgeois rights, their promotion of public education, their universal and secular values. He identifies with their campaigns both against the old establishment dominated by aristocracy and church, and against two younger rivals.

The first of these was socialism. Yet socialism, on this reading, did not seriously jeopardize the imperial enterprise in Habsburg Central Europe. Karl Marx, after all, repeatedly took the cure at Carlsbad (where—Large tells us—he checked in quaintly as “Charles Marx, Squire of London”). The second, more insidious foe was nationalism, spawned, it seems, quite suddenly by the temporary prostration of the ancien régime in 1848. Even nationalism’s ostensibly divisive agendas, however, could be embraced or even subsumed: “‘Nationhood’ and ‘empire’ both depended on each other for their explanatory coherence.”

As late as the last years of the century, we’re told, a sense of nationality was not necessarily strong or fixed in the mass of the population. To illustrate this, Judson provocatively uses the infamous breakdown of the government in 1896–1897, when Germans and Czechs literally fought one another over language rights, both within and outside the legislative chambers, and brought down the Austrian administration of Count Casimir Badeni, who insisted that all officials in the Bohemian lands be required to know Czech as well as German. Even the extreme behavior incited by Badeni’s orders, Judson suggests, was not just a product of national fervor, and it yielded benefits for the political system in agreements subsequently negotiated in several provinces.

The years around 1900 witnessed a climax of “liberal empire,” which “more than ever met [people’s] needs.” It was secured by many compromises of local power-brokers. To illustrate its “unity in diversity” Judson focuses on several episodes: the World’s Fair in Vienna in 1873; the foundation of a multicultural university at Czernowitz/Cernăuţi/Cernivci2 in distant Bukovina; the renowned Kronprinzenwerk, a twenty-four-volume, richly illustrated encyclopedia of regions and peoples of the monarchy published under dynastic auspices. He reviews the management of the newly occupied Balkan territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina as testimony to the Habsburgs’ expansive mission, identifying there a “politicization of particular cultural differences”—apparently an opposite process to the one of “translating political programs into cultural wars” that, as we’ve seen, he describes elsewhere.

Most tangibly Judson finds a common imperial purpose embodied in the standardized civic architecture and municipal improvements of the period. Here he could have cited examples, like the remote provincial town of Temesvár/Timişoara (later in Romania), which installed the earliest electric street lamps on the continent of Europe. Among the monarchy’s inhabitants, “most experienced modernity as imperial in nature.” Their “everyday engagement with empire” brought intensive involvement in grassroots politics, facilitated by successive measures of suffrage reform in Austria, but not restricted to those with the vote. Whereas he notes disturbing signs, especially a rising burden of public debt, he discounts the pessimists, who feared for the monarchy’s future. They voiced mainly resentments from within the elite, he says, and quotes only a few aristocrats to make his point. Yet it was these men who would unleash a last, fatal war upon the Habsburg lands in 1914.

David Clay Large has an easier and more orthodox task depicting the golden age of the grand spas. As privileged communities within their empires, enjoying material support from the state, and as favored resorts for sovereigns and statesmen, they played out their political significance in traditional style. They furnished the setting for major decisions in the last phase of monarchical governance in Central Europe. A famous example (which Large recounts with relish) was the Emser Depesche, or Ems Telegram, whereby Bismarck doctored reports of a diplomatic encounter at Bad Ems to provoke the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 and foreshadow the subsequent Dual Alliance that would momentously bind together the German and Austro-Hungarian empires, not least through regular, festive reunions of their rulers at one or another of the spas.

Judson devotes little space to such things (more on that shortly), but he too can be strangely old-fashioned in tone. His story contains villains, in the shape of (almost always unnamed) “nationalists,” provokers of disharmony and discontent, who frustrate the workings of empire. They construe their individual oppositional claims in group terms. They outflank moderates, only to be themselves outflanked by “even more obstinate fellow nationalists.” Thus—to take one instance crucial for Judson’s analysis—Czech nationalist agitation in Bohemia forced previously neutral Austrian liberals there to reinvent themselves as German (national) liberals. This makes the Czechs sound like spoilers indeed. Yet their leader was actually the distinguished liberal politician František Rieger; and their éminence grise no less than František Palacký, then one of the most important intellectual figures in the whole of Europe—and a man earlier lauded in Judson’s pages for the “compelling logic” of his plans for reform of the state in 1848.


Large excludes much that would belong in a more complete (“new”) history of the Kur (“taking the waters”) in the German lands. It was a highly serious medicinal business, though more so at the hundreds of smaller resorts, with fewer worldly distractions, where new cures were devised, above all the hydrotherapeutic methods (still used) of a homespun Bavarian priest, Sebastian Kneipp. These were the sorts of places frequented by more local celebrities—“nationalists” perhaps, like the fervent Czech patriot Leoš Janáček, whose trysts with his youthful musical muses took place at Luhačovice, an unpretentious spa not far from his Moravian home.

Judson’s “new history” leaves out even more. Conceived as an antidote to nation-centered accounts of the monarchy, his work in fact focuses more heavily on ethnic issues than it does on the classic centripetal themes of Habsburg history. There is next to nothing about the army, apart from some penetrating thoughts on conscription as a vehicle for imperial allegiance and multilingual engagement. The Catholic Church features only as a target for liberal anticlericalism. Little is said about the actual machinery of central government, or about the way of life and methods of production of the loyal peasants, traders, and industrialists.

Even the dynasty itself—although the last of the emperors appears on his cover as an object of popular admiration—has only a subsidiary part in Judson’s interpretation. That’s refreshing, given the unctuousness with which apologists for Habsburg authority have often presented their case. But it’s also disquieting, since it is accompanied by a neglect of the geopolitical situation in which the rulers of the monarchy placed themselves, from their mid-nineteenth-century overextension in the Italian peninsula to the Dual Alliance with Germany that would decisively constrain the Habsburgs’ options later.

For a book about empire, it’s strange that Judson’s usage of the term seems to lack coherence. For me that impairs in two fundamental ways the persuasiveness of his claims about the sustainability of the Habsburg polity. Judson’s account starts in the 1750s. Wasn’t there a Habsburg Empire earlier? It depends on what you mean. It’s true that the Habsburgs’ historic imperial title related exclusively to the entire Holy Roman Empire, of which Austria was merely a part. In that respect, however, nothing changed until after 1800.

Judson then draws attention to Francis’s3 “declaration of an Austrian Empire” in 1804. Yet what Francis actually did in that year, under threat of a Napoleonic takeover of the Holy Roman Empire, was to call himself “Emperor of Austria,” a titular change, not a constitutional one.4 When, two years later, further harried by the French, he finally laid down his office as sovereign of the Holy Roman Empire, the role of the Habsburgs in the rest of the lands of “the German nation” (as the old empire had long also been described) was curtailed but not extinguished. After 1815 Austria held the presidency in a new German Confederation, which survived for half a century, until it was disbanded to make way for the Bismarckian (Second) Empire, from which the Habsburg territories were excluded by force of arms.

Habsburg governments sustained claims to overlordship in the German realms as long as they could. Thereafter they still conceived of a common destiny. So, crucially, did many of their German-speaking citizens. Judson rightly observes that few of them were outrightly disloyal to Austria after the lost war with Prussia of 1866. But their highly charged commitment to alliance with the new German Reich accompanied a political and cultural vision for Austria that was irreducibly Germanic. It may well be that such sentiments often long remained semiconscious, or only potentially national; it’s been convincingly argued that it took rivalry from Czech and other Slav movements to galvanize them.5 Yet as events would show, German chauvinism was one of the two mortal perils faced by the monarchy in its last phase. That’s why the Badeni crisis really did have a devastating impact on Austrian public life. It showed that the country, however multinational, could never be governed against the perceived wishes of its German minority.

E. Anton’s Son/Imagno/Getty Images

A hot spring in the spa town of Carlsbad, western Bohemia, circa 1880

The other mortal peril came from Hungary, and affords further evidence of how difficult it is to assess what exactly the idea of “empire” meant to the ordinary folk on whom Judson lays so much emphasis. He acknowledges that Hungary was different from the rest of the Habsburg patrimony. He recognizes a patriotic opposition there back in the Metternichian years, although he hardly examines the constitutional and political demands that rendered its program already a national one. The seeds of ethnic conflict were being sown in Hungary; and the country’s civil war in 1848–1849 involved mass mobilization and bitter internecine combat in campaigns that, however stoked by social grievance and religious animosity, rested on recognizably modern forms of national solidarity.

In the 1860s Hungary was able to go its own way within the monarchy. Judson doesn’t devote much space to the protracted negotiation, or even the precise terms, of the bargain, the so-called Compromise, that was legislated between Hungary and the other Habsburg lands in 1867. However, the chief beneficiaries of the new constitutional arrangements that henceforth formalized the “dual” state of Austria-Hungary did much to damage its long-term security.

On one hand, the common affairs of foreign and military policy remained under control of the ruler and a small clique of close advisers from the old elites. By 1914 they had set the monarchy irreversibly on a course of Germanic expansionism. On the other hand, the Hungarian political establishment, a significant part of which found even the 1867 concessions inadequate, could exercise a disproportionate influence over matters of state as a whole. In particular, the obstructiveness of oppositional forces there left the Austrian army seriously underfunded on the eve of war.

So Hungary necessarily had its own version of “liberal empire.” Judson offers a generous reading of the country’s liberal political credentials under dualism. Here he is helped by the connotations of his own linguistic usage. He explicitly rejects the time-honored distinction between “Hungarians,” for the country’s inhabitants, and “Magyars,” for the dominant ethnic group. True, the distinction can’t be drawn in that group’s own Hungarian/Magyar language, which has only the single word magyar. But his concession to what could hence be genuine ambiguity in the minds of native speakers of that tongue is made at the expense of the people—Judson has clumsily to identify them as “ethnic non-Hungarians”—who suffered from Hungary’s illiberal nationalist agenda.6

As for empire, when Hungarians—Magyars at least—thought about it, they increasingly understood it as theirs alone. The Hungarian body politic had anyway never officially acknowledged that the declaration of 1804 absorbed it into any overarching imperial entity. By the later nineteenth century it was a distinct Hungarian Empire, a magyar birodalom, to which nationalists aspired. By the same token, their spas (gyógyfürdők), notably the celebrated Turkish baths of Budapest, which revealingly do not fall within Large’s purview, prided themselves on possessing a culture of water cures that was all their own.

World War I was unleashed in Central Europe at Emperor Francis Joseph’s summer residence, Bad Ischl, one of the grand spas Large describes, where the Habsburg sovereign ordered his troops into battle against Serbia. Four years later it came to an end at another spa, Baden bei Wien, where the Austrian high military command recognized the disintegration of that army—just as Germany’s wartime leadership was falling apart at its own headquarters, Spa in conquered Belgium, the watering place that had given its name to all the rest.

Judson’s roseate view of prospects for the Habsburg Empire in 1914 hardly prepares us for the outcome of the war. Indeed, the army held together, after a fashion. And some constructive reform initiatives issued from Austrian administrative cadres and political parties: war, Judson says, offered “opportunities to reshape empire.” But its diplomatic isolation and military inadequacy were the fruit of the monarchy’s geopolitical failure—that global dimension that surely needed consideration by Judson—and of the malign actions of its chief domestic gravediggers, the activists for German hegemony and Hungarian separatism. Austria-Hungary had to endure a brutal, divisive, embattled wartime regime, pitiless above all toward the Slav peoples and the many refugees. The popular response was a wave of denunciation and riots, which Judson uncovers in graphic detail, though he is still inclined to regard even this as “state-building from below.”

Judson concentrates to the end on internal factors and he stresses continuity. There is hardly a mention of Allied decisions, implemented at Versailles and other postwar settlements, or even of the émigrés from Central Europe who had helped to undermine the international credibility of the monarchy. We might wonder how, say, the “liberator” Tomáš Masaryk earned adulation from the masses when he returned to Bohemia, now the nascent Czechoslovakia, in the immediate aftermath of Austria’s collapse. The absence of revolution in 1918–1919, which Judson stresses, might rather be thought to confirm how far the old system was already emasculated—and not least by Masaryk, a radical and prominent critic of the government before the war.

Thus some of the mentalities and practices of empire survived in the new “successor” states, as Judson suggests. Large’s resorts lived on too: he charts their accommodation to strained economic circumstances, to the era of Nazism, then in some cases to that of communism too. Yet they lacked the glamour, the cachet of old. They became sites of nostalgia, lieux de mémoire, as famously in Alain Resnais’s enigmatic movie of the 1960s, Last Year at Marienbad.

The Habsburg monarchy still stirs a similar nostalgia in some quarters. Judson is the first professional historical clinician to give it quite such a clean bill of health. His powerful but circumscribed diagnosis concludes that “nationalist conflicts…did not weaken the state fatally and they certainly did not cause its downfall in 1918.” Yet he never quite engages with the liability that the “nationality question,” however little it may have occupied the mass of inhabitants on a day-to-day basis, was bound to prove ever more intractable in a polity without any majority ethnic population. The absence of that majority was Austria-Hungary’s special characteristic. And that’s why things worked better at its peripheries, as Judson shows. Despite his historiographical resuscitation, I find it hard to see what kind of Kur might have saved the empire. For while its heart still pumped out to healthy extremities, it was already stricken in its vital internal functions.