Rebuilding a monarchy and a nation

Austrian lessons for the reign of Charles III

This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The revered Sovereign’s death was announced in the evening. The daily anxieties of the people and the press’s usual reporting on quotidian political strife temporarily evaporated on contact with the momentous royal bereavement. Though long anticipated, the loss was profound, raw. 

To many it felt like a moment of overdue reckoning. As if the frail body of the elderly monarch had somehow been holding the great, ancient, long-weakening and precariously multinational state together. The world of the previous century had finally, almost imperceptibly, slipped away. Franz Joseph was dead.

The strange — sometimes absurd, sometimes lovely — world of his sprawling Austro-Hungarian state is perhaps best evoked by the writings of Joseph Roth. Indeed, the  22-year-old Roth was one of the grey-uniformed soldiers of the Imperial and Royal army lining the streets of Vienna at the end of November 1916, when the funeral procession snaked its way from the Schönbrunn Palace to the Kapuzinergruft for the emperor’s final obsequies. Writing in retrospect, twelve years later, Roth conceived of the scene as the burial of Austria-Hungary itself.

Austria-Hungary and Roth are each hard to pin down. The former was the great Dual Monarchy, a compromise (Ausgleich) reorganisation of the ancient possessions of the Austrian emperors. In 1867, Franz Joseph’s state was restructured to put the Kingdom of Hungary on a level footing with the Hapsburgs’ German-dominated Austrian heartland. 

Yet even calling the non-Hungarian half of the state “Austrian” is something of a misnomer. Its official name was “The Kingdoms and Lands Represented in the Imperial Council” (Die im Reichsrat vertretenen Königreiche und Länder). It’s easy to see why many preferred the informal “Cisleithania”. 

Austria-Hungary in retrospect seems like the quintessential pre-modern state. It now looks — at least at a cursory glance — the inevitable victim of the liberal nationalist dogmas of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It came into being not as some great idealised Enlightenment project, like the United States or the French Republic, but piecemeal. It was a patchwork of kingdoms and feudal estates thrown together by the vicissitudes of European history, or by an inscrutable Providence. Famously, many of the Habsburg family’s possessions were acquired by opportune dynastic marriages and shrewd diplomacy: bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube. The Ausgleich itself was not so much a rationalisation, as a muddling through modernity.

The author largely known as Joseph Roth was born Moses Joseph Roth, a Galician Jew in Brody; Galicia was one of the Cisleithanian crownlands. He appears to have dropped “Moses” when he began his studies at Lemberg, now Lviv in modern Ukraine. With close friends and family he was “Muniu”, supposedly a diminutive of Solomon. Awarding himself an epithet, he went by “Muniu faktisch” (“in fact” or “really!”). 

Dennis Marks suggests the youthful “faktisch” was almost “challenging his hearers to contradict him just as he did at his mother’s dinner table”. As a young journalist after the war, he wrote as der rote Joseph (“Red Joseph”), though Weimar, the USSR and the dawn of the Third Reich eventually instilled in him a dewy-eyed nostalgia for the Dual Monarchy.

One does not need to strain the imagination to see how modern Britain, and modern Britons, show some resemblance to the crises of that old empire, and of that politically nomadic novelist. It is perhaps inevitable, given their names, that the political imaginaries of both the old Dual Monarchy and the present United Kingdom should have been shaped by their long-lived sovereigns. 

Roth’s Kaiser is a constant Leitmotif, regardless of whether he is in revolutionary or reactionary moods. Indeed, he frequently blends the two. In a 1928 essay he explains, “There was once an Emperor. A great part of my childhood and youth happened under the often merciless lustre of His Majesty, which I am entitled to write about today because I was so vehemently opposed to it then.”

Roth’s two masterpieces are his sumptuous novel The Radetzky March (1932) and his impressionistic, staccato novella The Emperor’s Tomb (1938). The protagonists of both  are several generations of the von Trotta family, Slovenes from the empire’s borderlands who are ennobled after their infantry lieutenant progenitor saves the life of a young Franz Joseph at the battle of Solferino. Even this origin exhibits the heady blend of Roth’s later worldview. 

The Austrian Kaiser and the Slovene soldier bring together imperial centre and Slavic periphery. An act of chivalrous piety — Trotta takes a bullet for his emperor — is engendered by the Kaiser’s own hapless naivety, all in the context of Austria’s great defeat by the armies of liberal nationalist France and Italy. Franz Joseph’s majesty is human, and presiding over imperial decline. Is this tragicomedy? Farce? Romance?

Franz Joseph, in his long reign, certainly had his fair share of tragedy. Every schoolboy knows that his heir Franz Ferdinand died at the hand of an assassin in Sarajevo. His wife too, was murdered by an Italian anarchist in Geneva in 1898. His original heir and only son, the Crown Prince Rudolf, had earlier committed suicide with a mistress at the Mayerling hunting lodge in 1889. 

In Britain, Her Late Majesty came to the throne against the scandalous backdrop of the Abdication, her father’s early death; later she endured the assassination of a family member, divorces, the tragic death of a daughter-in-law, and so on. Wielding more power in the Austrian state, the Kaiser surely bore some responsibility for the unforgivable decision to go to war in 1914.

Roth is alive to the cruelties of state power

Roth is alive to the cruelties of state power, even when exercised in the name of Christian sovereigns, especially in wartime. When the war breaks out, at the end of The Radetzky March, the panicked Imperial and Royal army commits atrocities against its own population as the Russian enemy approaches: “The Austrian army’s war had begun with court-martials. For days on end genuine and supposed traitors hung from the trees on church squares to terrify the living.”

Roth, a Catholic in his later years, has a keen sense of the blasphemous. One of the hastily executed victims is a priest, hanged outside his churchyard. The author is not a nihilist, though. The young, doomed protagonist of the novel’s close cuts him down for burial, and attempts clumsily to pray.

There has been no shortage of commentators willing to remind us of the uglinesses sometimes committed in our late Queen’s name in many of her faraway former dominions. Yet in his short story The Bust of the Emperor, Roth muses that the greater threat to the monarchy’s survival was contempt, that “light-hearted jokes might be more fatal than criminals’ assassination attempts and the solemn speeches of ambitious, rebellious idealists”.

Roth’s postwar Habsburg nostalgia does not shy away from some of the absurdities of the old Austria. Young army officers and unfortunate
middle-class professionals are trapped in the bizarre moral world of a militarised honour culture. A protagonist’s only real friend dies in a pointless duel. The Kaiser himself appears several times in The Radetzky March. He is elderly, feeble, forgetful. He is generous, and almost unhelpfully kind. He somehow holds his peoples together: Roth shows him dutifully receiving petitions, and showing an austere royal favour to Greek Catholics and Jews. 

Though Roth hardly anticipated quite how brutally these inhabitants of the borderlands would be treated by the régimes of Berlin and Moscow, he certainly saw the way the wind was blowing. The Emperor’s Tomb ends with a Nazi heralding the Anschluss in a Viennese café.

Roth’s monarchism is rose-tinted and sometimes equivocal, but it is also serious, considered, and the fruit of the bitter experience of post-monarchic and post-Christian brutality and decadence. The old monarch’s long life had kept both much darker forces and much hollower worldviews at bay.

Britain was, happily, not seriously threatened by the strong gods of fascism or Leninism in the late Queen’s reign. Instead, we have seen a kind of listless declinism, the hollowing out of the state and its responsibilities, and the psychological insecurities bred by being a country that, to paraphrase Dean Acheson, had lost an empire and failed to find a role.

This flirtation with ridicule and that yawning psychological gulf is better captured by another Austrian child of empire, Robert Musil, who grew up in Franz Joseph’s kingdom of Bohemia. Musil’s The Man Without Qualities is an incomplete and dizzying modernist novel, best known for satirising Austria-Hungary as “Kakania”. This name is a double play on words: a reference to the “kaiserlich und königlich” Dual Monarchy, as well as an echo of a childish term for excrement.

One of the narrative conceits and pitiless ironies of The Man Without Qualities is that the Austro-Hungarian state should prepare a great celebration of the Habsburg dynasty and European peace to rival celebrations in Germany of Wilhelm II’s anticipated thirty-year jubilee celebrations in 1918. 

The Austrians are shown to suffer from a confusing inferiority complex towards their mightier ally. Once the junior German power, Prussia’s victory over the Austrians at Sadowa in 1866 had reversed the two empires’ hierarchical relations. Defeat was one thing; eclipse was harder to bear. It is tempting to compare Sadowa to Suez: a moment of illusion-shattering imperial humiliation, followed by inescapable dependence upon the victor. It is hard to see it as a coincidence that psychoanalysis first flourished in Vienna, not least the home of Alfred Adler, who first diagnosed the inferiority complex.

Musil skewers the self-comforting delusions of antique Habsburg superiority; there is a hint of Macmillan’s desperate Anglo-Hellenism. Austria-Hungary and contemporary Britain share the disconcerting experience of being ruthlessly and deliberately overtaken by a vastly more powerful ally, without even being able (or allowed) to retreat into the quiet existence of a minor power. 

Tom Nairn redeployed Musil’s barb in christening late twentieth-century Britain “Ukania”, mocking its air of unreality. Post-imperial Britain has still not come to terms with its present status: no longer a superpower, yet too large to abdicate responsibility; in denial of its actual standing as a European power. With the burial of our late Queen, we are provided with an opportunity finally to consider who and what we actually are.

Austria-Hungary is today best known for the centrifugal forces of nationalism which tore it apart in the dying weeks of the First World War. Her Late Majesty, who in 1977 famously warned that “I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, saw the unprecedented rise of secessionist movements in parts of her country. 

In The Bust of the Emperor, the urbane and decidedly un-national Italo-Polish Count Morstin acidly laments that, “it was discovered in the nineteenth century that each individual had to belong to a particular nation or race if he wanted to be a proper bourgeois individual”.

Towards the end of The Radetzky March, the Polish Count Chojnicki — Roth lovingly deals in recycled stock characters — holds a ball for army officers in the Galician borderlands; as rumour of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand seeps into the company, the party breaks down into a chaos of mutually incomprehensible nationalist recriminations.

The United Kingdom is in many ways a pre-modern state

The United Kingdom is in many ways a pre-modern state. David Edgerton is surely right to see the twentieth century as having forged a British nation on the back of war, economic policy, and nationalised industries, but the roots and essence of the Union are as old as Austria. British unionists might well fear Austria’s fate. Count Morstin laments, “My old homeland, the Dual Monarchy, was unique: it was a great house with many doors and many rooms, for many types of people. They divided the house up, split it, pulled it down. There is no place there for me any longer. I am used to living in a house, not in cabins.” Morstin voices Roth’s melancholic, untimely regret at Austria’s dissolution.

Roth’s melancholy is not really a species of conservatism. There was precious little left to conserve. Instead, it is a kind of nostalgia. In the literal sense of the word, it is a longing for home and homeland. Yet the cruel twists of Mitteleuropean history made any journey home impossible. Roth is at once Odysseus and the Wandering Jew. Ithaca is in the hands of rapacious suitors, yet it is as if Penelope is already dead. He has no Telemachus to help. No old Argos loyally waits. Roth is at once widowed and orphaned. The kaiserlich und königlich world of his youth has bled out into the soil, never to return. 

Like a child who has lost his mother and feels an inarticulate, sickening awareness not merely of loss but of being lost, Roth is forlorn in the new Europe. The irony is that Roth’s homelessness is not so much about his Jewishness in an age of ethnostates, as the German and Austrian anti-Semites of the time might loudly have alleged, but the destruction of a Heimat built around its Habsburg paterfamilias. “The chilly sun of the Habsburgs was being extinguished, but it had at least been a sun.”

Britain has lost her Queen, her living body politic. The stakes are not yet as high as they were in the grey, orphaned Vienna of November 1916. There was life yet in Austria even in the early twentieth century: ambitious plans to reconcile national groups, and reinvigorate the state. Ultimately it was failed by an inadequate political élite, at first complacent and then fatally panicked. Britain’s élites in the reign of Charles III must quickly overcome complacency — in the economic, political, cultural and national spheres — before such a moment of panic.

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