The Habsburg Empire: a New History

Written by Olivia Arigho-Stiles on . Posted in Current publications, Publications

Cover, The Hapsburg EmpireThe Habsburg Empire: a New History, Pieter M. Judson (Cambridge : The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016)


Empire, synonymous with oppression and even despotism, has become a deeply pursued topic of comparative study in the past twenty years. The Habsburg Empire, which at different points from the 16th to 19th centuries covered territory sprawling across modern day Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, and large regions of today’s Poland, Romania, and Ukraine, has also received its share of attention. Adding a nuanced interpretation to the dynamics of this empire—and the nationalism that followed in its wake—is Pieter Judson’s new book, The Habsburg Empire: a New History. Judson is Professor and Head of the History and Civilization Department at the EUI.

Speaking to EUI Times, he explains, “It’s a new history, [offering] a point of view that is never taken account of in Europe today. Histories of Europe are national histories for the most part. Political histories tend to be histories of existing states. So how do you write a history of a state that no longer exists? Today that history is usually written as if empire was a precursor to nation state. In my opinion that’s an ahistorical way to write history. My history also wants to Europeanise central and Eastern Europe. It wants to see them in terms of broad European developments, not as exceptional or outside of the European norm.”

It is often assumed that the Habsburg Empire collapsed because it broke down under the weight of nationalism surging from below in its constitutive parts. However Judson is keen to debunk this interpretation, instead arguing that in the first place, “It was the empire itself which created possibilities for political nationalism. Nationalism developed because the empire created specific opportunities for people to frame their desires in national terms.” Judson argues that nationalists in the nineteenth century created national communities, rather than the other way around, arguing that there were really no ethnic nations as we understand them today in the 19th century. Moreover, empire opened up spaces for many classes, particularly the peasantry, to appeal to alternative power structures. “Empire is an alternative form of authority to the local forms of authority.”

Judson is adamant that the book isn’t a justification of this empire, per se, but a recognition that the transition from imperial to post-imperial governance is rarely clear-cut, and that claims that nation states constituted a fundamentally different or new kind of political entity is not tenable. “Our distinction between empire and nation state is completely unworkable. There’s no such thing as nation states, there is only states which call themselves that.”

In fact, the history of both is marked by deep continuities. Rather than being fundamentally incompatible with modernity—another typical characterization of the Habsburg Empire—it in fact created the conditions for much of what we call modernity in the region. After 1918, Judson argues, the Habsburg Empire found itself reinvented in many ways in the modern age. “One of the arguments I make is that the states that replaced the Austro-Hungarian empire behaved in fact like mini-empires.”

Ultimately, The Habsburg Empire: a New History, complicates the narrative of the Habsburg Empire. At times resisted, but often resolutely supported, the ways in which ordinary people interacted with the empire form the centrepiece of this refreshing new history.

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