The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 2/Austria and Europe (I)

Austria and Europe.

By Henry Wickham Steed.

I.

In all essentials the Hapsburg Monarchy is a dynastic estate. Its history is largely that of the Imperial House, a history not to be explained solely by chronology or by ethnology or in the light of the “Constitutional Rights” which figure so largely in the political demands of the Hapsburg peoples. If Austria-Hungary be regarded as a Sultanate and the Emperor as a Sultan much that seems obscure becomes intelligible. The singular, albeit baffling, charm and interest of Austrian affairs for a Western European, is that they constantly raise what he imagines to be fundamental issues of political and moral phisolophy. Time and again a foreign observer in Austria is obliged to ask himself: Are my beliefs well based or are they merely prejudices and preconceptions? Are liberty, truth, justice, sincerity, and progress mere words or do they correspond to essential realities? Is everything relative, does all depend on circumstances, or are there, after all, absolute principles in politics, morals and religion? At every turn, a man is driven back upon himself and forced to probe the reasons for whatever faith may be in him, if he would escape skepticism or save himself from being submerged by the light and lusty, thoughtless and sensuous current of life that swirls around him in Austria.

Kürnberger, the ablest Austrian essayist of the 19th century, dealt with one aspect of the moral puzzle that Austria presents, when he wrote in 1871:

“What is incomprehensible to every non-Austrian, nay, the eternally unintelligible about Austria, is what is Asiatic in Austria. . . . Austria is not really unintelligible; it must be understood as a sort of Asia. ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’ are very precise ideas. Europe means law; Asia means arbitrary rule and caprice. Europe means respect for facts; Asia means the purely personal. Europe is the man; Asia is at once the old man and the child. With this key you may solve all Austrian riddles. Above all Austria knows no ‘must’ and no ‘shall’. In their place the Austrian will give you ‘Asiatic’ reasons for what he has done or left undone: ‘It pleased me’ or ‘it bored me’. . . .

“The way our people, lively, easy-going, variable, dance up to all things with verve and grace, is like a rosy children’s ball. But note well that, in all this South German liveliness and Slavonic changeability, in all this rapid whirl of persons, the thing itself remains Asiatically stiff, inert, conservative, sphinx-dead and spectrally hoary, not having budged an inch for ages. That is why the most daring novelties come easier to us than to other States—because they are only new names. Freedom of the press and confiscations, Ministerial responsibility and violations of the constitution, the Concordat with the Pope and an anti-clerical middle-class government—we can stand them all!. . . Were we at once to establish atheism as the State religion, the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna would celebrate an atheistic High Mass in the cathedral!”

The history of Austria, within the last 150 years at least, fully bears out Kürnberger’s statement that the most sweeping changes come easier to Austria than to other countries, because they are only “new names”, which leave the substance of things untouched. The reforms of Maria Theresa and her radical son, Joseph II, were, indeed, serious changes; but they had this much in common with almost all the internal changes made in Austria—they were wrought with the object of strengthening the hands of the dynasty. Two principles may be distinguished as guiding the Hapsburgs up to and including the year 1870; first, that their “home lands” were always regarded and treated by them as a military and economic base for their operations abroad; and second, that the changes and reforms introduced in their home lands were never made or sanctioned with a single eye to the welfare of the people, but almost always under the influence of disaster and with an eye to the interests of the dynasty. When I say “dynasty”, I mean not only the Emperor, but the Hapsburg family. It consists of some scores of archdukes and archduchesses, governed by the special laws of the Hapsburg House, and possessing, apart from their private fortunes, which may be large or small, a joint family fortune or family fund, of which the reigning Emperor is the warden. Its members enjoy many special privileges and exemptions, but are kept in order by a discipline of the most rigid, patriarchal type that entitles the reigning Emperor to banish, arrest, imprison, or even to inflict corporal punishment upon them.

This Hapsburg family, therefore, constitutes a close corporation that strives to “run” the State in the family interest. Around the Imperial family are grouped what are known as “the families”—two or three hundred families of courtiers, bureaucrats or adventurers, drawn from every race and nation, who have, within the last 300 yeas, been the agents and satellites of the reigning house. To quote one of the shrewdest contemporary Austrian writers:

Rudolf II. was the first to see whence he could fetch those adaptable beings, devoid of will, out of whom the Hapsburg spirit could create its own men. He sought them among peoples for whom there was no room in the traditional orders and castes; people who were nothing in and by themselves; who could become something only under the Emperor’s hand; people without a real life of their own and whom Imperial favour must first turn into men. They were people of the kind that have sometimes founded colonies and who, in Austria, formed a colony—the colony of the Imperial House. They formed a new race, the race of men whom the Emperor Francis was afterwards to call ‘patriots for me’. Thus arose the ‘nation of Court counsellors’, a nation artificially begotten by order, at Court, in the Imperial service and in the chanceries—artificial in thought and feeling, nay, even in language, since the Austrian spoken even today in our Government offices and by Jews who desire not to be Jews, is an invention. These men, fashioned from above, have now been for 200 years the pillars of our State and Society. I have called them ‘the nation of Court counsellors’. They are also called ‘the Families’. They are not a nobility. There are nobles among them and burghers among them; one can gain admittance to them from all quarters—on one condition: those who would enter, must break with their class, deny their race, denationalize themselves. They must be unloosed from every tie, torn up by the roots and thus prepared for the mysterious Austrian transfiguration, which consists in taking on the form of the ruling spirit”;

With a State thus organized it is easy to understand that apparently drastic changes may be in reality little more than changes of political fashion. After Maria Theresa, in the middle of the 18th century, had curbed the feudal rights of the nobles and had begun to centralize dynastic control over the church, the police, the administration of justice, taxation, and military service; after Joseph II. had continued the work of centralization, not, indeed, in a “liberal” spirit, but in a spirit of Germanizing unification based on “enlightened despotism”; after the reaction that set in against the excesses of the French Revolutoin under his successors, Leopold I., Francis II., and the half-witted Ferdinand; and after the temporary interruption caused by the Revolution of 1848 in Austria and in Hungary, the youthful Francis Joseph, who came to the throne at the age of 18 on December 2, 1848, found the same materials and methods of government lying ready to his hand as those of which his predecessors had disposed. The oppressive “System” of Metternich—who had been Francis Joseph’s chief tutor—was revived and perfected by an ex-revolutionary plebeian, Alexander Bach, who brought the science of compressing the people with the help of the police, the church, the army, and the bureaucracy to a greater pitch of perfection than had ever before been attained, until the war of 1859 against France and Sardinia, and the defeats of Magenta and Solferino, reminded Francis Joseph, for a moment, that gallows and bayonets, crucifixes, and red tape, are poor materials with which to build a solid throne.

His education was long and painful, and was never really complete. Though not illiberally inclined when he came to the throne, the influence of the revolts in Vienna and Prague, and of the revolution in Hungary, rendered him more accessible to reactionary counsels than he might otherwise have been, and committed him to courses and to acts that weighed as a damnosa hereditas upon the rest of his life. Let us take the struggle with Hungary. His predecessor, Ferdinand, had conceded to the Hungarians practical independence, and had sanctioned laws to that effect voted by the Hungarian Diet. These concession were then withdrawn, and the Hungarian leaders felt that the dynasty had broken faith with them. They rose in revolt, and war ensued—a bitter, pitiless war, in which little quarter was given on either side. Against the Hungarians, that is to say, the Magyars, were ranged, not only the Austrian army, but most of the non-Magyar peoples whom the Magyars had long oppressed. Kossuth and his associates dealt with these non-Magyar peoples as cruelly as the Austrians dealt with the Magyars themselves. The struggle lasted well in 1849, and was ended by the action of the Tsar of Russia, who sent an army into Hungary to succour the Emperor of Austria. The action of Russia was taken in a chivalrous spirit, but in homage to the idea of the solidarity between dynasties against revolutions. It was the last flicker of the spirit of the “Holy Alliance” against what Metternich always termed “the Revolution”—(with a capital R) by which he meant the attempts of peoples to free themselves from despotism and to determine, in President Wilson’s phrase, “their own way of life and obedience.” However reprehensible and reactionary the Russian action in assisting Francis Joseph to crush his revolted Magyar subjects may seem to us, we must remember that, from the point of view of the Hapsburg dynasty, it must have seemed, and should have seemed, a knightly act worthy of gratitude and requital. General Gürgei and the bulk of the Magyar forces surrendered to the Russians, who stipulated that the Magyar generals should be treated as prisoners of war. The Austrians broke that stipulation, and hanged thirteen of them at Arad. Thus they and their Emperor earned for a generation the fierce hatred of the Magyars. What gratitude did Francis Joseph show to Russia for her help? Prince Schwarzenberg, the Austrian statesman, declared in advance that Austrian ingratitude would astonish the world. He might have added, in the bitter but veracious words of another Austrian, that “the history of the House of Hapsburg is the history of ingratitude.”

Why, indeed, should the Hapsburgs be grateful? Are their subjects not their personal property? Are they not divinely-appointed to hold sway over the earth? Whoever serves and helps them does but his plain duty and should rejoice in the consciousness of rightful service well done.

When, five years later, Russia became involved in the Crimean War, not only did Austria lend her no help but, after a period of vacillation, actually joined England, France, and Sardinia against Russia. Similarly, when in 1867 Francis Joseph finally came to terms with the Magyars after the defeat of Sadowa, he handed over to the tender mercies of the Magyars, the Roumanes, Slovaks and Croats who had stood by him in his hour of trouble. Thus the Magyars were able to fling at the non-Magyars and the Croats the taunt, “You have received for loyalty the same recompense as we received for revolt!”

But I am anticipating. When Magyar resistance had been broken in Hungary, order restored in Austria, and the Constitution granted in 1848 had been revoked, the forces of reaction carried every thing before them. Under their influence the Emperor concluded an agreement or concordat with Rome, which was promulgated as a “constitutional” law on August 18, 1855, the Emperor’s 25th birthday. It was hailed by the official press as “the true constitution of Austria, and much better than any other constitution.” In fact, it was an abject capitulation of the State to the Church. In commenting upon it The Times wrote that “a crown worn under such conditions is not worth the metal of which it is made.” Not noly did it place education in all its forms under priestly control, but it abolished the placetum Regium, or the right of the Sovereign to give or withhold his assent to the appointment of bishops—a right which even the fanatical Ferdinand had maintained and which his successors had frequently exercised. The practice of the Hapsburgs had always been to kick, cuff and trample upon the Church when it suited their purposes, and to fawn upon her when they needed help, but without sacrificing essential Hapsburg rights. In the eyes of the Emperor Francis Joseph the real object of the concordat was to turn the clergy into the spiritual constabulary of the state, a constabulary more effective and less discredited than the “religious police” of Joseph II., because it would work with apparent freedom in the interest of religion and of the Church. Yet though the Concordat was declared to be “perpetual”, to be founded upon the “imprescriptible rights proceeding from the divine origin of the Church”; and though it was promulgated as a constitutional law, Francis Joseph discarded it, as he had discarded the various civil constitutions of 1848–49, as soon as he believed that dynastic interests required a change. Not even the “sacred and imprescriptible rights” of the Church, however solemnly and perpetually recognized, were proof against Hapsburg bad faith and ingratitude, or, if you prefer against the exalted opportunism of the “All-Highest Arch-House”.

Thus in 1867, when it became necessary to grant another civil Constitution to Austria and to appoint a Liberal Ministry, Francis Joseph curtly sent a deputation of protesting bishops about their business, and in the next four years sanctioned a series of anti-Clerical laws that culminated in the abrogation of the Concordat itself on the specious pretext that—after the proclamation of the dogma of Papal infallibility by the Vatican Council in 1870—an infallible Pope could no longer be bound by a contract, and must therefore be released from it! Thus in 1897, when the successors of these German Liberals, with the help of North-German Protestants and Pangermans, started the Los von Rom (Away from Rome) movement, which was, in its essence, antiHapsburg, Francis Joseph smiled again on the Church, and allowed his nephew and presumptive successor to become president of Clerical associations, of which the professed object was to work for the restoration of the temporal power of the Pope. Thus in 1903, on the death of Pope Leo XIII., Francis Joseph vetoed the election of Cardinal Rampolla to the Papacy, though the election of a Pope by the College of Cardinals in conclave is believed to be guided by Divine inspiration, and though the veto was exercised, not on spiritual grounds, but for the very mundane reason that Cardinal Rampolla had been hostile to the Triple Alliance, and was therefore obnoxious to Austria and Germany. The most singular feature of the veto was that the Austrian Cardinal Puzyna, who pronounced it in the name of the Emperor, was quite unconscious that he was sinning against the Holy Ghost.

In fact, the Austrian clergy is one of the least religious bodies of ecclesiastics in the world, just as the Austrian people, while outwardly very observant of religious form, is very void of religious feeling. Immorality is proverbial both among the homebred clergy and the people. There are strongly Catholic provinces in Austria where the illegitimate birth-rate is 40 per cent of the total birth-rate; and the true history—as known to the Vatican—of some of the great monasteries in recent years would cause the salacious novels of the Middle Ages to appear bowdlerized. Yet no greater ecclesiastical festival has been held in recent years than the International Eucharistic Congress of Vienna in September 1912! It is characteristic that the occasion was made an apotheosis for the Emperor and the Imperial Family rather than for the Eucharist, and that the cost of organizing the Congress was largely born by Galician Jews in search of titles and Parliamentary honors.

But to return to the political developments that determined the character of Francis Joseph’s reign and led up to the situation out of which the present war arose. The ten years of black reaction of which the Concordat of 1855 was the characteristic feature, ended in disaster on the Lombard Plain, when French and Sardinian troops overthrew the Austrian armies, liberated Lombardy from the Austrian grip, and laid the foundations, of Italian unity. Just as the ancient history of Austria cannot be dissevered from the history of the Holy Roman Empire, so the modern history of Austria is inseparable from the modern history of Europe. Had the House of Austria been able to read the signs of the times, had it possessed the faintest inkling that moral factors—the sense of justice, respect for truth and sincere care for the well-being of peoples—play a large part in politics, it might today stand higher than any dynasty in Europe, and be surrounded by the respect of a peace-loving world. Its unmorality, its greed, its lust of power and its shortsightedness are among the indirect causes of this terrible war. “Nowhere in the world has Austria ever done good,” declared Gladstone, who, with all his faults, was a great seer. Were he alive today in the presence of this world-wide catastrophe he might cry with truth, “Everywhere in the world has Austria wrought evil!”


A lecture delivered at the University of London, King’s College, to the London County Council teachers, on December 8, 1917. Reprinted from The New Europe, January 3, 1918.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.


The author died in 1956, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.