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Book Review: The Habsburg Empire: A New History

By (April 25, 2016) 2 Comments

The Habsburg Empire: A New Historythe habsburg empire

by Pieter Judson

The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016

Pieter Judson, a history professor at the European University Institute in Florence, has written a long and fascinating new history of the Habsburg Empire, one that tries to pole away from the more or less standard “nation-based narratives” and turn the focus back onto the wider canvas. The Habsburg Empire: A New History must naturally deal with the many and increasingly fractious national identities bubbling to the surface in the 19th century, but Judson spends a refreshing amount of energy studying the empire itself, its identity as a super-nation from 1770 to 1918.

His approach echoes the retrospection of many former intellectuals of the empire when they reflected on the strange and sprawling collective entity of which they’d been a part. Joseph Roth, looking back at the vanished empire, struck a representative note:

“Only much later did I realize … that even landscapes, fields, nations, races, huts and coffee houses of the most widely differing sorts are bound to submit to the perfectly natural dominion of a powerful force with the ability to bring near what is remote, to domesticate what is strange and to unite what seems to be flying apart. I speak of the misunderstood power of the old monarchy which worked in such a way that I was just as much at home in Zlotograd as I was in Sipolje or Vienna.”

The Habsburg Empire loosely encompassed millions of people of different languages, religions, and cultural heritages, and in lively, energetic prose only infrequently given to sludge (“the tropes of alterity” and such like), Judson studies what it meant for all those different kinds of people to be part of both their own nations and regions and the larger empire that embraced them all.

The two aspects both fed and distracted each other. “To a great extent,” Judson writes, “it was the empire’s centralizing impulse that had produced concepts of nationhood that rested on ideas about common language use.” The Habsburg Empire: A New History mines that structural tension and draws considerable energy from it. This is a detailed picture of a complex but working quilt-work empire such as it’s never quite received before in English. The story’s climax in the fires of the First World War and its aftermath takes on fascinating new dimensions thanks to the bracing revisionism of Judson’s account.