“Austria-Hungary seems rarely to be taken seriously, appearing as ‘genial, backward and ineffectual, in a cake-and-waltzes way’ (p.8), in stark contrast to the Prussian seriousness of Germany under Bismarck and the Kaiser. This sort of exculpation-through-romanticisation appears quite frequently in fiction about the First World War: think of the innumerable novels portraying aristocrats (of a variety of nationalities) in the ‘golden summer’ of 1914. In this case, it pulls off for the Austro-Hungarian Empire the same trick that Gone with the Wind manages for the Confederacy, the feeling that a society with such good manners, polished dancing and frilly dresses might be doomed to defeat by their dour, factory-owning neighbours, but can never really have deserved it. The reality of course was quite different. As Simon Winder explains in this fascinating and engaging book, not only was the Empire in different configurations a serious political power in central Europe for close on five hundred years, it was also the crucible where many of the worst events of the twentieth century were forged.
“In 1914, the Empire consisted of what are now Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, with parts of modern Poland, Romania and Italy. However, the continuity of the Empire was less about its geography than it was about its rulers. The Empire, when it came down to it, was always at base the lands that the Habsburg family happened to control. As a result of this, it can be tempting to reduce the history of this large part of central Europe to the history of this one bunch of inbred aristocrats… To Winder’s credit, however, this sort of grotesquerie is not the point of this book. This is history angled not from the perspective of the ruler, but of the ruled. In particular, this includes those who were disinclined to be ruled by the Habsburgs, which was at one time or another pretty much all their subjects. As he sets out in the introduction:
“‘Europe is filled with groups of all kinds who refuse to do as they are told, and they should be celebrated a bit more … Generations of Viennese officials would bang their heads on their cherry-wood desktops with fury: why won’t these people just do as they’re told?… A Styrian farmer, Transylvanian serf or Adriatic pirate each saw Vienna in a different way, and that view was not necessarily wrong’.”
Understanding different people’s perspectives on Europe, both from within and without (and, yes, including those of the most fervent euroscrptics) is likely to be the major theme of the revived version of this blog. After all, the strapline to this place was ‘in search of a European identity”, and identity is formed as much by other people’s perceptions as one’s own.
The EU is a vast and madly complex beast. It’s not only natural for there to be competing opinions of it, but vital to ensure it gets properly scrutinised. Just because opinions are different, even contradictory, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong.
At the same time, by focusing on high politics – the Brussels Bubble and national squabbles being the equivalent of historians homing in on the ruling classes – one can end up blind to what really matters, which is how the people oc the time (and of generations to come) are likely to be affected by what’s going on.
I’ve never really been interested in micro-history, so will likely continue to take a macro-approach. It’s necessary to move beyond mere politics to understand that politics.