Sunday, May 28, 2017
Nationalism, Multiculturalism and Austria-Hungary
True, some reactionary types draw back in horror from the “nationalist” label but I am not one of them. I would need to know more about them first. I have firmly come to disagree with the notion that nationalism was some wicked innovation introduced by the French Revolution. There has always been nationalism because there has always been nations, it is only that in the old days there were things above nationality in the hierarchy of importance such as religion was in the ‘Ages of Faith’ and of course the monarchy which the Church, generally, reinforced. That, of course, is when the Austro-Hungarian card is usually played as though this were an irrefutable contradiction of such a position. Again, not so, at least as I see it. Austria-Hungary is an often abused whipping boy on the subject which both sides like to throttle, some nationalists holding it up as an example that “multiculturalism” does not work and one which the advocates of multiculturalism hold up, not because they admire a Catholic imperial monarchy, but because they think it must disarm any traditionalist opposition. So, let us talk about Austria-Hungary directly.
Even in the Middle Ages, people knew that an Italian was not a German and a German was not a Spaniard and a Spaniard was not a Frenchman and a Frenchman was not an Englishman. If you like, nationalism was often not seen as important but only by those people for whom it was not under threat or for whom there was some greater struggle underway over something that was even more important to them. However, that does not mean it did not exist or just because it was not their top priority did not mean that it didn’t matter to them at all. During the Middle Ages, religion was generally held as more important than anything else, yet because almost the whole of Europe was Catholic, religion was not always the primary issue. When the English invaded France during the Hundred Years War, the French did not think having an English king and English lords was acceptable since they were all Catholics. No, they were determined to drive the English out of their country and have France for the French, which they ultimately did.
The problems that Austria-Hungary had, and this is why so many Austrians long advocated for the conquest of Serbia (which the Hungarians opposed) was when you had part of a nation in one country and the majority of that nation in another country. This is why their relationship with Italy was always problematic and it is why the Serbian problem ultimately brought about a world war and their ruin. Peoples who were entirely within the empire could be managed, then there were peoples like the Poles who had only part of their population within the empire but who did not have an independent nation-state of their own just across the border. The Austrians in particular, worried about this and so pushed for the conquest of Serbia so that the whole Serb population would be within the empire and could be managed. However, since power-sharing had become the trend, the Hungarians opposed this for the obvious reason that adding a third nation to the table would mean less power and influence for themselves. Each side had a reason for either wanting or not wanting the war and each was understandable.
Obviously, he was not a nationalist as far as his non-German subjects were concerned and he was unsuccessful in making the Germans of Austria the master of Germany as a whole as things worked out. However, he was obviously not opposed to nationalism, at least for the Germans and he certainly did not think that nationalism was unimportant or imaginary. None of the remaining Habsburg monarchs did either. Having been pushed out of Germany, they first tried, with the Austrian Empire, to rule over a multitude of nationalities with the German-Austrians at the top, though the Hungarians and to a lesser extent other certain areas had always had a degree of autonomy. That ultimately proved unworkable and so the famous compromise was agreed to that created Austria-Hungary. Again, this was not about saying everyone was the same, it was not about mixing Austrians and Hungarians together, but rather was about two distinct units; the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary, working together as partners under a shared monarch.
Finally, to compare the situation in Europe today with that of Austria-Hungary is completely nonsensical. Compared to today, Austria-Hungary was hardly “multicultural” at all. The peoples who were subject to the Habsburg monarch were almost entirely European with the Jewish population being the only group of non-European ancestry. Those who populated Austria-Hungary were overwhelmingly Christians and for the most part Catholic. Yes, there were pockets of Protestants, the Jewish minority, Orthodox Slavs and, after the annexation of Bosnia, a Muslim minority but they were all easily dwarfed by the number of Catholic Austrians, Poles, Slovaks, Croats, Hungarians, Italians and so on. People with this much in common can, and have, been able to work together but even among them there were obviously difficulties. This is hardly the same as expecting peoples from different continents, different races, different religions, different hemispheres of the earth to melt together with no problems at all. In fact, religious differences is a major part of the reason why Austria-Hungary existed with the polyglot collection of peoples that it had.
This is, again, an example of there being other classifications that, at various times, took priority over the ethnic classification. It is also true that those areas which the Austrian Empire and later Austria-Hungary had the most trouble with were areas which had the least amount of history under the Habsburg Crown. Lombardy-Venetia and the Italian populated areas on the Adriatic coast were the first to be lost and they had only been part of the fold since the French Revolution when Austria and the First French Republic agreed to seize and divide between them the territory of the Republic of Venice. The Serbian population which proved so problematic was largely gained only after the Balkan Wars and the annexation of Bosnia in 1909. It also did not help that there were religious differences with the Serbians and, again, in both cases, the Habsburgs were reigning over a part of a population with the rest in an independent nation-state of their own next door.