AUSTRIA - CIRCA 1864: Family portrait of the royal Habsburgs: Ludwig Victor, Franz Josef, Karl Ludwig and Ferdinand Maximilian - Date of Photo: 1864 ca. (Photo by Ludwig Angerer/Alinari via Getty Images)
Family portrait of the royal Habsburgs c1864: Ludwig Viktor, Franz Josef, Karl Ludwig and Ferdinand Maximilian © Alinari via Getty

Almost six centuries after the Habsburg family seat was established in Vienna by the arthritic Albert the Lame, the last emperor, Karl I, departed the imperial capital for good. His empire had disintegrated at the end of the first world war, and after a couple of attempts to regain his throne he was shipped off into exile on Madeira, together with his wife and seven children, by the British on HMS Cardiff. Out of money, and his health already damaged in the flu pandemic of 1918, he died of pneumonia in 1922 aged 34.

Yet great empires do not perish overnight. The Habsburgs had been a world power, and traces of their presence and wealth can still be glimpsed across the globe — from the Brazilian soccer team (whose strip incorporates the Habsburg yellow) to the Maria Theresa dollars that crop up occasionally in markets from Ethiopia and Oman to Indonesia. Members of the family abound; dozens continue to call themselves archduke.

In today’s world, few mourn the end of the parade: outside hold-outs such as the UK and Gulf states, the institution of royalty has passed its sell-by date. What remains is nostalgia, and a fascination that runs deep in popular culture. There is a market for the off-the-charts dottiness gleefully portrayed in recent best-sellers about Princess Margaret and her batty grandmother Queen Mary. Yet as Netflix’s The Crown brilliantly reminded us, the time when royalty really mattered is not that far behind us and endured into the age of mass politics and communication. Queen Elizabeth II remains a living link to this era, as her recent TV addresses have demonstrated. Historians, having for decades rather sniffed at the subject of monarchy, again acknowledge its importance.

The Habsburgs are a writer’s gift, offering a regal cast of mad, colourful and deeply flawed characters. Of Karl himself it was said that “you hope to meet a 30-year-old man, but you find the appearance of a 20-year-old youth who thinks, speaks and acts like a 10-year-old boy”. There was Crown Prince Rudolf, who shot his teenage mistress at the hunting lodge in the Vienna Woods before turning his gun on himself. Rudolf’s uncles included the cross-dressing Ludwig Viktor (“Luzi Wuzi”) and the relatively competent Maximilian, who set off for Mexico on an ill-fated quest to become the first Habsburg ruler in the New World in modern times. He arrived at Veracruz with 500 pieces of luggage, having spent his time at sea composing a 600-page guide to court etiquette. It was never much used: three years later he was shot by firing squad in a scene famously depicted by the republican Edouard Manet.

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian von Habsburg (1832-1867) Brother of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary. Emperor of Mexico 1862-1867 Execution of Maximilian painting by the French artist Edouard Manet (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
'The Execution of Maximilian' by Edouard Manet © Getty

Such figures crop up throughout The Habsburgs. Martyn Rady, a respected historian of central Europe, has set himself the task of writing a readable account of the rise and fall of this remarkable dynasty, and his sparkling study is certainly a good place to start. He charts the family’s far from glamorous origins in the tough competitive environment of the Swiss Aargau, which had one of the densest concentrations of castles in the medieval world.

Today, Karl’s heart, together with his wife’s, resides in the abbey of Muri that was founded by Habsburgs in the early 11th century. The family’s link with the Holy Roman Empire began in the 13th century, and by the mid-15th century the Emperor Frederick III felt powerful enough to embark on the imperial mythmaking that would successfully turn his dynasty and Austria itself into an idea of universal dominion.

Some said his enigmatic acrostic AEIOU stood for the legend “Austria is ruler of the whole world”; others “the chosen eagle rightly conquers all”. Either way, the Habsburgs were laying claim to power on an epic scale.

Two books on Habsburg empire

The Habsburgs

Historian Martyn Rady charts the Habsburgs’ rise and fall, from the family’s far from glamorous medieval origins to today’s traces of their presence and wealth still visible across the globe

The Fortress

If Rady’s panoramic survey runs over centuries, fellow historian Alexander Watson takes us into the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere of the front line in a crucial few months of the first world war

Together with the unmistakable ambition behind all this, there was fantasy and braggadocio; after all, Frederick III was even kicked out of Vienna by the Hungarians, and the Ottomans outstripped them both in terms of organised might. Once Charles V was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, the Habsburg challenge became far more considerable. At stake was not merely control of the spice trade, but the fate of Europe and beyond: Habsburg reach extended to the silver mines of Peru and round to the Philippines and south-east Asia. Coinciding with the European discovery of the Americas, the war between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires traversed the globe.

A world power in the early modern era, the empire remained a major force in international affairs thereafter. In the 18th century, Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II pioneered an influential rationalist fusion of Enlightenment rule and centralised governance. From the Congress of Vienna in 1815 onwards, Austrian diplomats not only crafted a peace settlement but forged new rules of international behaviour. Habsburg stature waned as imperial Germany emerged as the powerhouse on the continent of Europe; yet for all its military weakness, it remained a key factor in the balance of power right up to the first world war. Indeed, without the decisions taken in Vienna, there would have been no war at all in 1914.

“Charles, by the grace of God, elected Holy Roman Emperor, at all times Enlarger of the Empire etc etc.” The official title of emperor Charles V in 1521 goes on: “King in Germany, of Castile, Aragón, Léon, both Sicilies, Jerusalem, Hungary, Dalmatia, Croatia, Navarre, Granada, Toledo . . . ” This is not even halfway through the list. It sounds impressive. Yet as Robert Musil showed in his novel The Man Without Qualities, there was always something chimerical about the Habsburgs and the empire they had fashioned.

For one thing, there was no empire at all in any formal sense until 1804, when Francis II had himself declared emperor of Austria so as not to be outdone by the upstart Napoleon. He and his predecessors had, to be sure, enjoyed the title of Holy Roman Emperor, but that was purely elective and did not correspond to their territories. Nor, until Friedrich Schiller had written his ballad “The Count of Habsburg” in 1803, had anyone showed much interest in the family name.

What the Habsburgs ruled is best understood as a composite monarchy — a cluster of disparate territories united only by the family’s claim upon them. A centralised bureaucracy arrived late. When it did it was almost immediately torn apart by the forces of nationalism and the empire’s separation into an Austrian and a Hungarian half.

After the establishment of the Dual Monarchy in 1867, the Hungarians gripped their lands fairly tightly from Budapest; but as for the rest — encompassing the imperial capital in Vienna and regions run from Kracow, Prague, Lviv and Czernowitz — there was little uniformity or standardisation. This region could not, for reasons of both political sensitivity and geographical accuracy, even be called Austria: comprising 16 crownlands — including three kingdoms, two archduchies and a grand duchy — it was known simply as Cisleithania after the Leitha river that marked the boundary between the empire’s two halves.

The empire thus rested on a kind of conjuring trick in which fealty to the ruling family was about the only thing keeping their sprawling domains together. Even more than is the case in most monarchies, the history of the dynasty masks the immense variety in the underlying social, economic and cultural experiences of its subjects.

How to tell both the family story and explore the larger history of the empire’s subjects is probably an impossible task. Yet without the latter, the former loses much of its meaning. Conscious of the challenge, Rady gives the reader rich material on the rise of nationalism, the intellectual and cultural atmosphere of the times, and — in some of the most striking passages — the empire’s global reach down into the 19th century. At the same time, there are gaps: there is relatively little on the empire’s economic or infrastructural issues, and while nationality politics is thoughtfully discussed, connections with industrialisation, class consciousness and urbanisation remain opaque.

Portrait of Emperor Maximilian I with His Family, 1516-1520. Found in the collection of the Art History Museum, Vienne. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Portrait of Emperor Maximilian I with family (1516-20). Found in the collection of the Art History Museum, Vienna © Getty Images
Portrait of Charles V of Spain (1500-1558), 1519. Found in the collection of the Szepmuveszeti Muzeum, Budapest. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Portrait of Charles V of Spain (1519) in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

The Habsburgs were in a way lucky to depart the stage when they did: what followed in central and eastern Europe — the move far right, genocide, the Communist takeover — made them look good. Rady avoids apologetics. Yet he lets them off the hook too easily as we enter the modern era. It is easy to forget that in the 1820s the Austrians were loathed for their defence of conservatism. The empire suffered more serious problems than aristocratic eccentricity, an excessive fondness for the neo-Baroque or muddle-headed Schlamperei. To the end it was ruled by a military caste obsessed with honour and titles and willing to use extraordinary violence against civilians to remain in power.

Bosnia, where the war started in the summer of 1914, was one of those places where its brutality was evident. Like some other recent accounts, Rady’s book paints the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the work of a few Serbian “terrorists”, sexually frustrated young men, “groomed” by “hoodlums” in Belgrade. This tendentious language ignores the real issues and gives the Habsburgs an undeserved pass. One has to return to Yugoslav historians in the 1960s to see just how repressive their rule in Bosnia had been.

Another place that shows the up-close nastiness of late Habsburg power, far away from the Hofburg, was the beleaguered fortress-town of Przemyśl, whose siege in 1914-15 is grippingly evoked by Alexander Watson. If Rady’s panoramic survey runs over centuries, The Fortress takes us into the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere of the front-line in a crucial few months of the war. The town’s garrison was cut off not once but twice thanks entirely to the staggering incompetence of the Austrian high command, and the suffering was immense and probably needless.

Although both the Russian and the German armies were far better equipped and better led than the Habsburgs, discipline was maintained in the imperial units, made up of differing nationalities and ages, so varied in background that the men often could not understand their officers’ commands.

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That these soldiers, who endured so much, could obey orders that everyone understood were clearly hopeless is both moving and mysterious. It reminds us that if the empire survived for so long it was not because of any special merit on the part of the ruling dynasty but because of the resilience and loyalty of their subjects.

Where Watson’s well-researched account diverges from Rady’s is in how it sees the relationship between the empire and what came after. In The Fortress, Watson strips away any nostalgia we might feel for the system of power that the Habsburgs incarnated and he argues plausibly that many of the horrors that were to follow could be seen emerging in the first world war.

The regime’s intense xenophobia and racism were already leading to forced deportations of ethnic groups. Villagers were targeted on grounds of being spies. Both the Habsburg and the Russian military imprisoned, hanged or shot “suspicious civilians”: for both, the doctrine of military necessity justified mass murder. In due course, the young Habsburg army officers of 1914 became the Wehrmacht generals of 1941. Watson’s book is an impressive telling of a story almost entirely unknown, and it makes clear how much we have yet to learn about the first world war away from the western front.

The Habsburgs: The Rise and Fall of a World Power, by Martyn Rady, Allen Lane/Basic Books, RRP£30/$32, 398 pages

The Fortress: The Siege of Przemyśl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson, Basic Books/Allen Lane, RRP$19.99/£25, 400 pages

Mark Mazower is director of the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination in Paris

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Letters in response to this article:

The Habsburgs still offer lessons for today’s Europe / From William Salomon, Senior Partner, Hansa Capital Partners, London W1, UK

Monarchs show their worth in troubled times / From Jonathan Lafferty, London E10, UK

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