The esteemed British foreign policy thinker Robert Cooper has just come out with a thought-provoking piece drawing close parallels between the European Union, that well-intentioned yet currently somewhat ailing project, and the Habsburg Monarchy, which has been dead for pushing a century. Parallels there certainly are between the EU and the Habsburgs: both were improvisation acts which brought together diverse (and often mutually hostile) peoples in a politico-economic superstructure in a fashion which overall increased mutual prosperity and decreased conflicts among its peoples, especially of the kinetic sort. These parallels have been oft noted, not least by the recently deceased Otto von Habsburg, who was a big, if not uncritical, booster of the EU, seeing it as a way to protect Europe’s smaller peoples from domination by Russia and/or Germany (and of course the United States), just as his family’s empire did for centuries.
Cooper makes his case along the lines of moderately compelling half-truths:
Like the Habsburg Monarchy, the EU is not a nation state but a complex confection of states, nations, centralised bureaucracy and local autonomy. Both have grown by voluntary accession (in the old days it was called dynastic marriage) rather than by conquest. The EU is partly bound together, as the Habsburg Monarchy was, by transnational elites: in the Habsburg case it was the officer corps and the civil service; for the EU it is business elites and civil servants, both national and European.
Cooper’s assertion that the Habsburgs built themselves up more through marriages than wars is a truism which leaves out a lot of conquest by the sword over the centuries. Yet he accurately notes big differences too, not least that the EU is simply not a state as the Habsburg edifice was, and therefore lacks state-holders, especially sword-bearers. This is a critical difference, one of the Big Three here. The Habsburg Monarchy – it was not exactly an empire in the English meaning of the term, rather a Reich in the ancient, non-Hitlerian sense, the last holdover of the Holy Roman Empire – which existed for more than half a millennium until it was killed off by the Allies, Woodrow Wilson especially, in 1918.
Throughout, that Reich endured, muddling through in its own meandering Mitteleuropean way, thanks to three pillars sunk deep into the foundation: the dynasty, religion, and the army; and the EU, critically, lacks all three.
First, the dynasty. It would be difficult to overstate the power of the Habsburg myth down to the very end of the institution. It was a very much a Hausmacht, a family firm, which endured for so many centuries – the old wag had it that while other royal houses were periods in the history of nations, nations were rather periods in the history of the Habsburgs – that many of its subjects simply could not imagine a Europe without them. There were very popular monarchs – Maria Theresia and Franz Joseph were standouts – and others less popular, including the usual genetic lottery of physical, mental and moral defectives, yet the dynasty always marched on. The Habsburgs had been well entrenched for centuries in their Danubian principalities when the Hohenzollerns and Romanovs were still border-runners, and they had the knack of adaptation. Once mercantilist, they became free-marketeers (hence the Austrian School so popular with American libertarians); once absolutists, they embraced democracy in the last decades of rule with more sincerity than many European dynasties. Above all, the Habsburgs provided a common identity and common sense of belonging which even those subjects who disapproved of them couldn’t easily get away from. To any Habsburg or their followers today’s EU’s improvised and ahistorical “identity” looks like no identity at all.
The dynasty was also openly and enthusiastically Christian, specifically Catholic. While not every monarch lived a life in accordance with the teachings of the Roman Church, none dared openly question the Vatican’s edicts and morals. That said, Catholic fundamentalism was frowned upon – the doomed Archduke Franz Ferdinand was unpopular at court for his too-public faith and negative comments about insufficiently pious co-religionists – and tolerance was prized. In its last incarnation, the Habsburg Monarchy offered a happy home to Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Jews and even Muslims. The loyalty of the monarchy’s Jewish subjects was legendary, and surely none of the dozen nationalities under the Habsburg throne would suffer as the Jews of Central Europe did after the Habsburgs were pushed out in 1918. Even Islam was accommodated and respected, so much so that during the First World War the Muslims of Bosnia proved the Habsburgs’ most tenacious soldiers, suffering a death rate at the front higher than any other ethnic or religious group in the monarchy. The heavily Muslim Zweier Bosniaken, the army’s most decorated regiment, went into battle with the slogan, “On the path of Allah, for our Austrian homeland,” since the Habsburgs protected their faith under law. Of course this “tolerance” bore no resemblance to post-modern value-neutral concepts embraced by the EU, which cloak anti-Christian sentiments under “inclusive” language. Taking crowns off saints and putting out a red-star logo with hammers and sickles would have been non-starters in Vienna under the Habsburgs. By nesting universal values in a Christian context, giving the Catholic Church a dominant role in social policy, yet allowing genuine tolerance for many faiths, religion was a firm foundation for increasing dynastic loyalty.
Last, there was always the army. The Habsburg military was first and foremost a dynastic instrument, its officers swearing an oath not to any state or constitution, but to a monarch. There was the dynasty, there was the church, but there were always bayonets too to guarantee law and order in a fractious multinational monarchy. More plodding than dashing, yet always splendidly attired, the Habsburg Army lost more battles than it won, in aggregate, but it guaranteed the survival of the Habsburgs and their mishmash Reich through thick and thin. Their polyglot regiments held the Turks at bay for centuries, outlasted Napoleon, and in 1848, when the monarchy fell apart amidst the revolutions which rocked most of Europe, the army, the last bastion of loyalty, miraculously put it all back together. Radetzky, the 82 year-old field marshal, ignored weakness emanating from Vienna and defeated the Italians, thereby saving the Habsburgs, and the new, teenaged Emperor Franz Joseph would never forget it. To his last day, Franz Joseph considered himself the first soldier of the Reich, hardly ever dressed in anything but a uniform, and displayed a deep devotion to the army more in line with a long-serving NCO than a monarch. The army repaid that loyalty, holding on to the bitter end in October 1918, two years after Franz Joseph’s death. Despite major defeats, the k.u.k. Armee was a loyal servant of the Habsburgs, outlasting the dynasty itself by a few days. Conscripts of a dozen nationalities mostly stuck it through – only a tiny percentage went over to the Allied cause, despite much propaganda – and suffered the worst loss rate of any major belligerent in the Great War: nearly 90 percent of Habsburg soldiers became a casualty of some sort. The EU lacks any army of its own and is unlikely to get one anytime soon. Moreover, it is impossible to imagine any current-day Eurocrat mustering that sort of old-school devotion to the EU, fighting bayonet in hand down to the last trench, much less inspiring it in others not traveling on the Brussels gravy-train.
The European Union deserves credit for many things, despite its manifest defects. It has helped preserve European peace after a half-century of catastrophes and it has helped bring prosperity to poor regions and peoples. Yet when compared to the much-maligned Habsburg Monarchy its defects become apparent. Near the end of his long life, Otto von Habsburg noted the legal stupidities infecting the European project: “Take for instance our bureaucratic language. This is a unique language that no one understands. No sane person can decipher a letter from an (EU) authority. From the Empress Maria Theresa comes the beautiful sentence: ‘A law is valid only when the last swineherd from Galicia understands it.’ ”
The EU’s deep slackness, its insular bureaucratic silliness, its inability to muster any sort of common European vision which might appeal to those who live in actual Europe, not just Brussels and its better suburbs, above all its unwillingness to believe in itself and in European values enough to defend them from Europe’s enemies, mean that the EU’s future may not be as bright as the Eurocrats assume. Perhaps hope this time will triumph over experience. The financial crisis facing the EU, which as Robert Cooper notes seems just as dangerous as the political conundrum which confronted the Habsburg Monarchy a hundred years ago, mounts by the day. It would try even the most experienced and world-weary Habsburg functionary of ages past. The main difference perhaps will be that this time, unlike in 1918, the United States will not push a venerable European institution into the abyss without pondering the human, economic, and political consequences.