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What Europe can learn from the Habsburgs

EU PARALLELS: A painted allegory on the reign of Habsburg Emperor Leopold I, who reigned from 1658 to 1705, by Gerard Hoet - Credit: Heritage Images/Getty Images

They may have not been history’s most dynamic dynasty, but their knack for ‘muddling along’ might just be the safest policy for the European Union.

In his play Bruderzwist (1872), Austrian playwright Franz Grillparzer depicts the notoriously indecisive and passive Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II being challenged by his energetic, activist brother Matthias. Rudolf is a gentle man. He wants to be a ‘Mensch’, liked by everybody. But he is totally unable to cope with the many internal and external threats to the empire – Bruderzwist is set in the 17th century, just before the Thirty Years’ War. Matthias cannot stand Rudolf’s procrastination and, with the help of some family members, launches a kind of coup against him.

In this play, Grillparzer delivers one of the best descriptions of the Habsburg empire ever, depicting the “half-trodden path, the half-finished act, delaying with halfway means” as the curse of the House of Habsburg. This explains, to a large extent, why the empire survived for some six hundred years.

As a Europe watcher, having lived and worked in Brussels and in Vienna in recent years, I am struck by the parallels between the Habsburg empire and the European Union. The most important similarity between the two is precisely this curse of always doing things half, of being ‘half-baked’ – a curse that in some ways is a blessing, too.

The Habsburg empire was a state, with an army and a foreign policy. The EU is not a state, but it has competences and procedures that make it look like a federation. Both are multi-ethnic entities, functioning in a similar way – by procrastinating and muddling through, because they always unfailingly go for compromise. The result is per definition imperfect, always.

When you try to please everyone, you will never get it completely right. All those criticising the EU for always being late and kicking the can down the road have a point – but they should realise: this is the nature of the beast. And it is probably all we’re going to get.

A multinational state or supranational structure with a weak army (the empire) or no army at all (the EU) wishing to keep several nations safe and peaceful under one roof have something else in common: they must constantly prove their added value.

If these nations become dissatisfied, they will rebel and leave eventually – as the British did with the EU. The Habsburg empire was by no means a modern democracy. But compared to the surrounding regimes at the time its rule was remarkably benign.

Most emperors genuinely did their best to ensure peace, prosperity and justice based on equality. As a result, they focussed entirely on domestic issues. Habsburgs were navel-gazers, just like we modern Europeans are: obsessed with ourselves, and with keeping the peace within. “Better a mediocre peace than a successful war,” Empress Maria Theresia used to say. This could be the motto of the European Council.

Maria Theresa (1717-1780) went to great lengths to achieve this. She established the first real bureaucracy in Europe, introducing independent courts, health care, and primary education for all.

She realised that taking good care of people with such different backgrounds, traditions and needs was a must if she wanted to keep them loyal. She also married off some of her daughters and nieces to avoid wars, famines and chaos – Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France before the Revolution, was her daughter. Maria Theresa constantly bought off neighbours and rivals, trying to appease them so conflicts would not escalate. Her correspondence is peppered with expressions such as “delaying”, “buying time” and “stalling”. For her, kicking the can down the road was a survival strategy.

Habsburg soldiers were loyal, but the army was not big or strong enough to protect all corners of the empire. As the 17th century general Raimondo Montecuccoli always advised the Emperor: “Never put your entire army at risk.”

And there was another problem: If the French army was crushed, France would lose territory and perhaps its king – but the country itself would continue to exist. France’s existence was something permanent. The Habsburgs did not have that. They ruled over many peoples who, without the empire, would probably not stay together. That made the empire vulnerable. The superstructure needed to be permanently reinforced.

This deep vulnerability, which the EU shares, made governing an incredible balancing act for all Habsburg Emperors. Like in today’s Europe, different nations and language groups rarely agreed on anything. All had their own histories, sensitivities, taboos and traditions. Each had different interests to defend.

For the rulers in Vienna, it was impossible to please everyone at the same time. They were forever modifying and adapting internal political arrangements to keep the show on the road, just like the EU does nowadays by often revising and changing European treaties.

It was a constant, time-consuming process, often complicated by challenges and threats from outside the empire. For this reason, solutions were almost always, as Grillparzer wrote, half-baked and half-finished.

Habsburg decrees and regulations rarely deserved praise for perfection. People often bitterly complained about this – this is partly what makes Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig or Robert Musil novels so recognizable, a century later. But many people at the time also realised: this ‘half-bakedness’ was probably the best that could be achieved.

In this constellation Hungary’s position was particularly interesting. The headstrong Hungarians constantly resisted “Viennese rule”, which they considered a “foreign occupation” – but most did not wish to leave the empire and become prey to Russia or the Ottoman empire.

They preferred a better deal inside. In fact, the arrangement they got after 1867 was so much better than anyone else’s in the empire that they were the last to leave when it imploded in 1918. That today Hungary behaves no less capriciously in the EU today perhaps tells us something about the country. But it tells us even more about the similarity between Vienna then and Brussels now: the zeitgeist is different, but the nature of the political games is not.

In his 2017 book Visions of Empire, British sociologist Krishan Kumar describes five European powers that have left a mark on the world: the Ottoman empire, the Habsburg empire, the Russian and Soviet empires, the British empire and the French empire.

Of those five, he finds the Habsburg empire by far “the most tortuous, treacherous, and protean”. There were even disputes about its name: was it ‘Austro-Hungarian empire’, ‘Habsburg empire’, or ‘Dual Monarchy’? The other four empires had a stronger profile and were easier to describe. And yet, Kumar writes, of all the five empires, the Habsburg empire is “also – if such a thing is permitted of empires – the most lovable”.

If there is one thing Europeans can learn from the Habsburg empire, it is probably that they should accept the EU more as it is. Too often, European debate is hijacked by federalists and nationalists.

Federalists are constantly disappointed that the EU is not powerful enough. Nationalists, by contrast, portray it as a superstate that is too powerful. Both camps are permanently disappointed and impossible to please. Instead of dreaming of an EU they will never get, Europeans should learn to accept that fortwursteln (‘muddling through’) is in the European DNA. It has helped them to become peaceful and prosperous.

The fact that the EU is a half-way house is probably part of the reason it is still there – not threatening powerful European states but complementing them, protecting the small states against the big ones, not just taking sovereignty but also giving it back to them. All the nations under the big roof give their input, never getting all they want, but enough to stay inside.

The British were the one exception. I, for one, hope that it will stay that way.

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. She was based in Vienna between 2013 and 2017. Her book It won’t get any better; travels through the Habsburg Empire and the European Union was published in March.

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One factor behind the longevity of the Habsburgs was the family’s practice of maintaining power by rarely marrying outside the dynasty.

This is thought to be responsible for another characteristic of the Habsburgs – their prominent jaw, the result of a facial deformity caused by centuries of inbreeding.

The condition was very apparent by the end of the 17th century and can be seen in portraits from the time. A high rate of infant mortality and a host of other health problems were also associated with it.

Indeed, it is now considered to be one of the reasons behind the demise of the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs in the 18th century. Another branch of the family continued to rule in Austria.

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