Was Austria-Hungary an Empire (and why does it matter)?

Pieter Judson '78

Pieter Judson '78 asks whether Austria-Hungary was truly an empire. He argues that how we answer this question shapes the way we view contemporary East-Central Europe.

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This lecture asks us to question our normative view of the nation-state, and to imagine a world where ethnicity was neither a real nor an important form of community identity. Pieter Judson '78 asks whether Austria-Hungary was truly an empire. He argues that how we answer this question shapes the way we view contemporary East-Central Europe. If, as most people do, we see the world through a nationalist lens, then we will categorize Austria-Hungary as a classic empire, one that ruled over several "captive nations." After the break up of Austria-Hungary in 1918, nationalist activists propagated just such a myth of Austria-Hungary as an imperial "prison of nations" in order to legitimize their new states of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Yugoslavia. Twentieth-century social scientists too were invested in seeing Austria-Hungary as an imperial entity, one that had held together the complex ethnic mosaic they thought of as Eastern Europe. Finally, nostalgists pining for the lost world of fin-de-sicle Budapest, Prague, or Vienna also promoted memories of Austro-Hungarian culture as particularly imperial in nature. All these views, Judson argues, are wrong-headed, originating in our need, like that of the nationalists, to see Eastern Europe in terms of well-defined nations and cultures. Austria was in fact a genuinely constitutional state with no ruling nation and no oppressed minority nations, but also one with no national identity.