A Lesson of Pluralism from Empires Against Putin’s Nationalism

Pieter Judson, whose conversation with Giancarlo Bosetti we reproduce here, will be one of the speakers at the conference organized in Dublin from May 24 to May 27 by Reset Dialogues on Civilizations on the theme “Nationalism, Nation-Building, Decline of Empires,” in collaboration with the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris and Boston College Ireland. Judson is the author of The Habsburg Empire. A New History, translated into twelve languages (In English for Harvard University Press, pp. 567.)


The Habsburg Empire begins with a bloody page in the small town of Drohobych in Galicia, now Ukraine, where in 1911 local authorities fired on a socially and linguistically diverse crowd whose wish was to participate in the Empire’s elections for the Vienna Parliament. Many lost their lives in this and other villages in Austria-Hungary simply because they trusted the imperial institutions to come to their defense against local nobility and potentates. Confidence in the Empire is an idea that reverses the traditional image of the “prison of the peoples,” (a concept that lay at the foundation of the Italian Risorgimento). Now we have an ongoing war between the Russian Federation that harkens to the Soviet and Tsarist imperial legacies. Ukraine was the Ruthenia or Galicia of the Habsburg Empire. What was happening in these areas – good administration, rule of law, schools and universities where Latin was spoken in addition to Polish and Ukrainian – was one of the tests of the empire’s ethnic and cultural pluralism. And it reinforces the argument that empires are generally pluralistic, multicultural, while the nation-states that follow generally desire uniformity, and are often more intolerant and tend to suppress or even dismiss differences. But the temptation to crush minorities and differences, as we know runs through democracies as well.


We ask Pieter Judson how valid this kind of rule is: multicultural empires and homogeneous national states and democracies with a tendency towards intolerance.


It strikes me that you contrast empire with democracy and not empire with the nation-state. Because here the problem lies in making the nation the organizing principle of the state. And we know that many nation-states are not democracies, just as most empires, of course, are not democracies either. So, I would be cautious on that point. I would not say that democracy necessarily produces this kind of anti-minority politics.


Yes, we know that the nation-state, especially when in the hands of authoritarian leaders, can be oppressive towards minorities, but we also know that democracies also develop the same temptation towards minorities. Tocqueville noticed this already in 1830s America. We still see it, in India for example, with a Hindu majority which is even going so far as to rewrite history against the Muslim minority, but also in the last decades of populism in Europe. The feeling of being a majority is providing fuel for politicians and fear-mongers against those who are different, immigrants, and multiculturalism. We love democracy but it has this bad habit of veering towards control.


I understand, but we need to distinguish as well between the word “nation” and the word “state.” The invasion of Ukraine by what we can call the Russian Empire is the invasion of a sovereign state by another state. Russian leaders strive to represent things in terms of the nation and say that there is no Ukrainian nation or that the Ukrainian nation is a part of the Russian nation, so they use a nationalist justification to make an imperialist policy. Here we see the mixture of the actions of an empire and those of a nation-state. If we think about the Habsburg experience on Ukrainian territory, we find that the first legal Ukrainian political parties had arisen under the Habsburgs. There was a beginning of political formation there. That Empire had made possible the coexistence of Catholic and Greek Catholic Christian churches through the development of Uniate schools as early as the 18th century. A good attempt, of course it was very difficult to manage the differences between Polish and Ukrainian nationalism. But there was room at the university in Lviv for Ukrainian studies, and in 1914 there was a compromise to create a Ukrainian university in that city. So, it is true that the political experience of Ukrainian history is rooted in the Habsburg Empire and that the idea of Ukraine as a separate and legitimate nation emerges in that era. I think that in wartime, if one state invades another state, the use of nationalism to defend the attacked state is perfectly legitimate. But the use of nationalism by the aggressor is not so.


Russia acts like an empire, but in this war it is employing a nationalist ideology, mixing nationalism and imperialism. Here we have to ask whether there is a rule that empires are multicultural and whether Russia is an exception to this rule.


The answer is problematic for both questions, because many nation-states still behave like empires and many empires have sometimes tried to behave like nation-states. Take the example of Italy at the end of World War I. This is a nation-state, calling itself a nation, but also wanting to conquer territories inhabited by other peoples, not Italian-speaking, or where there are Italian minorities, such as in Istria or Dalmatia or, again, South Tyrol. Which means that in different situations the state uses different ways and arguments to achieve an imperial goal, but often using a nationalist argument. In fact, I would say that almost all societies, almost all states are multicultural. It’s hard to find one that you can say is really homogeneous and of one ethnic group. So, there will always be the danger of minority oppression.


But Mussolini’s Empire was pure colonialism and the imperial inspiration to return to the glories of ancient Rome was a propaganda cover. Aren’t there important differences between the two concepts? It is true that there are intellectuals like Timothy Snyder who argue that the Russian war against Ukraine is colonial in nature.


There is no simple answer. Let’s go back to Mussolini just for a moment. Do we look at the treatment of African colonies differently than we would look at the treatment of Albania or parts of what is now Croatia or Slovenia? It is an open question. I think it’s important to see these things in one context. So, in a sense, it would be possible to see the Ukrainian war as a colonial war.


How could we categorize Holodomur, Stalin’s treatment of Ukrainians?


It has been called a genocide, and I believe that it is a form of nationalism taken to the extreme; an extreme that you almost cannot conceive of in our societies, and trying to impose an identity on people by technical means that could only be used in the 20th century.


Here the comparison with the Habsburg empire is indeed unequal and almost offensive in the face of Stalin’s crimes. However, we have learned that for Italian patriots it was “the peoples’ prison” and that the revolutions of 1848 in Milan as in Budapest were evidence of a liberal nationalism, which would eventually prevail.


I have a very different view of the revolutions of 1848 and their significance and also of the men and women involved. It was, yes, liberal nationalism, but it was not necessarily opposed to the existence of the empire. The groups fighting for nationalist causes did not all want to see the end of the empire and did not necessarily want to establish their own states, but they wanted a system that would allow them to develop within the imperial structure. For example, the Italian nationalists in Trieste did not necessarily want to be part of an independent Italian state because they saw the economic advantages of being the main port of a large empire. Or think of the great Czech nationalist Frantisek Palacky, considered a father of the nation, who wrote that if Austria had not existed, we would have had to invent it. In fact, many nationalist patriots believed that the empire was necessary to protect the development of smaller nations and for the protection of their culture, and that should be the purpose of the Habsburg empire. Palacky and many with him did not believe that there should be an independent Czech state.


There were also many who did not believe it.


Certainly, for example, many Hungarian nationalists and many in Italy (Lombardo-Venetia) as well. And this is absolutely true. The nationalists did not all agree with each other. But not all of them thought that the Empire should be destroyed.


The example of Trieste, as well as that of Trent, represent important border realities that experienced a special condition. I met many years ago in my life old seamen who served under arms in both the Austrian and Italian navies. Irredentists like Cesare Battisti, from Trentino, who was a deputy in Vienna, fought for the recognition of Italian culture and bilingualism at the University of Innsbruck, but then joined the Italian army in World War I, was taken prisoner by the Austrians and executed as a traitor. However, this was not the situation in Venice or Lombardy.


We don’t know much about it, I’m sorry to say. You asked, for example, why my book does not talk more about Lombardy and Venice in the earlier period. That is a very good criticism and I regret it. But the difficulty arises from the fact that there have not been many studies on Austrian rule. There is Marco Meriggi, for example, who is a great Italian historian who has dealt with this, and you would be surprised by his opinion on Austrian rule. But it’s not something that Italian historians have really investigated, and I’m sorry, because I think it would be important.


Your work is helping to better understand lesser-known aspects in Italy of the culture and politics of the Habsburg Empire, which was in many ways liberal and secular and fought, for example, against the ultramontanism of Pius IX with his dogmas of papal infallibility and the Index of Forbidden Books. Italian liberals and the Empire thus had at least one common enemy. And this is something that should be better known. But it is also understandable that the history of the Risorgimento as well as that of Hungarian independence have obscured some of those merits.


Let us certainly not forget, that the “oppressor” was eventually forced to create the Austria-Hungary state, which was actually two states, and Hungary became independent in 1867. These are complicated situations and histories, for which we cannot use such broad generalizations as we have used in the past. And I would be the first to admit that the Habsburg Empire abused its power in many situations and behaved, let’s say, oppressively as a state. But I would like everyone to understand that this is what all states did in the 19th century, that we should not single out the Habsburg Empire as particularly bad or strange or bizarre. But we should see it in the context of all European states. All were grappling with these problems, some more than others. Look at Great Britain. My favorite example is the answer to this quiz: where in Europe was there a civil uprising during World War I based on nationalism? Not in Austria-Hungary, but in Ireland, part of the British Empire, with the Easter Risings (1916). In my book, therefore, one of the reasons I tried to give a different picture is to think about European states in a richer and more precise way. I did not want to give just a liberal picture of the Habsburgs, but a more realistic one.


This certainly must be given credit. But now we come to the question of the denial by empires of the rights of certain peoples to have their national identity recognized and to exist as independent states. When Klemens von Metternich at the Congress of Vienna, 1815, said that Italy is “only a geographical expression,” did he not show an attitude that has some similarities with Putin? Who denies the legitimacy of a Ukrainian national identity, “because Ukraine is an artificial creation and is historically part of Russia.” Do they not have that denial in common? The more accurate version of Metternich’s phrase about Italy is probably less derogatory and more articulate: “A geographical expression and qualification that refers to language, but does not have the political value that revolutionary ideologues attribute to it.” But in essence it is a rejection of independence.


I understand, but let’s not forget that Ukraine is already, was already a sovereign state at the time of the invasion. So today, when Putin says it is an invention or a creation, he has no legitimacy. He is making an argument about a state that exists as sovereign in the international group of states. What Metternich said, I wouldn’t defend it, but it is the statement of a politician, he wanted the European policy to follow the direction he wanted it to go and to go as it then went until after ’48, when Radetzky put down the revolts. On the other hand, I would like to ask you how many people do you think in the Habsburg monarchy, not politicians, but ordinary people wanted to be part of another nation-state? I don’t think many people wanted that. I think it was a political issue for political elites.


The issue is controversial and occurs in different ways in different areas of the Empire. Let us turn it over to other historians as well. As for Putin, he denies identity and fights a sovereign state, which had not been Russian or Soviet territory for more than thirty years.


Putin’s statement is utterly illegitimate, terrifying and not comparable to Metternich’s, which was made, after all, in the first half of the 19th century, before the idea of the nation-state was even the norm. It has in common with Metternich the denial of the historical justification for the political and state existence of a nation. The Austrian was saying that there was no historical Italy politically, and that was a fact at the time. Putin is saying the same thing, which is, however, completely false. But even if Putin were right, and he is not, the fact is that Ukraine is a sovereign state and exists as such. And to simply invade a neighboring state in this way is a complete violation of international law, of a neighboring state’s right to exist. If Mr. Metternich had said this in 1861 and then decided to invade Italy – which would have been a terrible mistake – then the two situations would have been a little more similar. But this is not the case.


Agreed, the analogy ends quite quickly. Too many differences.


It ends at the historical denial of a nation. But my research goes beyond that, because I argue that in Austria, the Empire offered a better state that did not deny or reject the legitimate demands of its peoples, that satisfied them to a great extent, recognizing the existence of nations. After all, there are eleven official languages in Habsburg territory. And if you look, for example, at Trieste, who were the prevailing political parties before 1914? They were the Italian nationalists, represented in the Vienna Parliament. So, I do not see an equivalence with Russia, and I think it is very dangerous to make it.


Perhaps the most important aspect of your work concerns the creation in the Habsburg Empire of an articulated structure of the state, which guaranteed the Rechtstaat, the rule of law throughout the imperial territory, and an efficient bureaucratic machine with officials who appeared useful to the population in asserting their case against the aristocracy and feudal-type local powers.


A large part of the population and different social classes saw that the Empire was in their favor and offered opportunities they would not otherwise have had. When we talk about 1848, we should remember that the largest and most important revolutionary group was the peasants and that their demand was not about nationhood but about freedom, freedom from serfdom and freedom to have their own land. So, of course, in this case the Habsburg rulers tended to favor the peasants by developing a landowner class because they wanted to diminish the political power of the local nobility and to make the power of Vienna weigh heavily by overriding the peripheral resistance of the aristocracy. This was particularly true of the judiciary; here the Habsburgs created an independent judiciary to replace the noble courts. This caused much loyalty to the dynasty to be established among the peasantry. It was not because they were foolish or naive or just because they thought the emperor was their father. It was because they saw it as in their interest. The other group for whom I think the imperial state was important is the educated middle class, because they filled the ranks of the administration and the bureaucracy in this new system. And, interestingly, because of the 11 languages, the empire can be said to have encouraged the development of nations: schools were to be in local languages, not just one language. So, when the Empire gets a school system, very early by European standards, the Supreme Court in Vienna rules that if there are two languages, there must always be a school for children who speak the second language. Rules are created about this, and a court is also created to which complaints can be made against the administration. I am not trying to sell a utopia, because, of course, functioning at the local level is not always what is desired. But in terms of effective rules and structures, the result was, I think, quite impressive.


The Habsburg Empire ended with World War I, and the military events, which are now being addressed by your upcoming research, clearly had a bearing in determining its decline and end. One has to wonder how much the costs of the wars Vienna incurred to maintain the Empire’s territories affected this, and in particular I wonder how much it cost to maintain the Italian regions of Lombardo-Veneto, where the first Piedmontese and then Italian armies recorded so many victories.


This is not a question that can be answered simply. But it is true. The empire suffered defeats partly because Franz Joseph who was in command in 1850 was a man with very little experience. He loved the army, saw himself as a soldier and wanted to win military glory. The young emperor was very different from the old one, he made many mistakes and was very unpopular. The wars in Italy were a great mistake and very poorly planned. Considering himself a good military leader, he personally took command of the troops and was responsible for the terrible defeats. And as for costs in the 1850s, Austria spent money to build the railway system and infrastructure, but did not keep the army’s capacity up to the standard that would have been needed. Vienna was not spending enough on weapons. They did not understand that new technologies were important. And after 1866, with the defeat by Prussia (from which Italy benefited despite the defeats at Custoza and Lissa – Third War of Independence, Ed.), when the inadequacy of the Habsburg army was once again demonstrated, they had to change their approach. The truth is that even I cannot explain why they decided to fight these wars in Italy, because, according to my analysis, they were terribly wrong. The wars were certainly led very badly. The new work I am doing is not on what in Italy you call wars of independence, but on World War I. Again, the military budget was always cut by the two parliaments in Vienna and Budapest, perhaps because this was one of the few things that the parliament could exercise some control over. They cut budgets all the time. And if you compare European countries, Austria-Hungary spent minimal amounts on the military compared to the others. Italy was also pretty far down the list, but it spent perhaps a little more than the Empire.


Nor do you see any logic in the stubbornness with which Vienna wanted to keep Italy under occupation. In short, why empires spend until they ruin themselves. I must then nevitably ask you if you see a rational calculation in what Putin spends even in human lives to conquer or maintain Ukrainian territory.


For Vienna, there were other factors as well. In the 1850s, after 1848, the regime tried to implement some liberal economic policies, but accompanied by very absolutist political policies. And these turn out to be a failure because in the 1850s and 1860s you cannot conduct wars of this magnitude without popular and political support. And there was not much of that political support. The liberal Germans were very anti-Italian, but they were equally anti-Francis Joseph. Their attacks were directed against him. Politically the Empire was not in a good situation to fight these wars. As for the comparison with Putin, it should not make us uncomfortable: many military and political leaders believe that to be a great power, to be an empire, you have to grow. You simply cannot stand still. And this was a problem for Austria and the Habsburgs. That’s why they entered the war in 1914 in a very foolish way. Also, the military leadership was afraid that Austria would become a second or third-rate power and could never regain its greatness. And so, they had to fight this war. In fact, I would say that World War I destroyed almost all the positive advantages of the empire, that had been built up to that point.


The reasons for the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire are like a difficult exam question, such as “the causes of World War I”. Complicated answers with many salient points. You clearly explain what the cause was not: “nations disintegrating the Empire.” The opposite of the current thesis. So, it was the WWI?


The cause was that the Empire lost its legitimacy and the support of various social groups largely because of the way it was governed during World War I. Because there was a military dictatorship. Certainly, in all European states, there was some kind of government, maybe not dictatorial, but authoritarian, to fight the war. In Austria, the situation was much worse because the military who had taken control of the state did not believe in the idea of a multicultural empire. They were suspicious of many nationalities and openly treated them very badly. Thus, the contract between the people and the emperor was broken in many ways during the war years. The last emperor who came to power, Charles I, in 1916, tried to reverse this situation, but it was too late. These were social problems and the inability of the state to help its citizens during a terrible time. Because of the war, the empire was suffering terribly from hunger and was unable to do anything. It lost its legitimacy. It broke and splintered into several regional pieces. Nationalist politicians were there and were ready to take over. But I would not say that ordinary people in 1918 rebelled for nationalist reasons. They rebelled for social reasons.


A very clear and determined thesis.


And I think it is important to present it strongly because the myth of the successor states is that nationalism is what destroyed the empire and that it is what made the new states strong. This is precisely a myth. It is a myth that is still necessary today in many of those states, but it is a myth.


Is there any lesson to be learned from the history of the end of the Habsburg Empire that is useful to apply to the situation in Russia?


The lesson we should remember from this history is that it is possible to have a modern state in which there are nine, ten, eleven, twelve nationalities and many languages. It is possible to have such a state. It does not have to be a national state and it can be governed in legality and with respect for all peoples. In today’s Russia, I see that this is impossible. I see no respect for the law. In my opinion, the main reason why the Habsburg Empire fell is that the military regime did not respect the law while people, in order to live, must be able to rely on the law. In Russia there is a terrible breakdown of legality, no respect for rights and an arbitrary regime. And this cannot succeed in the long run. I find it very difficult to compare these two empires, because I think they are fundamentally very different. And in the end, I have to say that I’m not sure that the terminology we use today, Empire, nation-state is still useful to us.


Cover Photo: Schoenbrunn palace, the main summer residence of the Habsburg rulers, is seen on a cloudy late evening in Vienna, Austria on June 09, 2020 (Photo by Joe Klamar/AFP.)


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