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Historians and the State in the Habsburg Lands - article ; n°1 ; vol.171, pg 203-218


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Publications de l'École française de Rome - Année 1993 - Volume 171 - Numéro 1 - Pages 203-218
The historiography of the State in Habsburg Central Europe is a difficult and elusive subject. Those who have written about it have belonged to diverse and often divergent national traditions, while the composite polity ruled over by the Habsburgs remained very hard to handle conceptually. This paper introduces the three main territorial elements within that historiography, Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia, which correspond to the three main constitutional elements within the Monarchy. At the same time it seeks to identify common themes by examining in turn the three main stages of reflection on the evolution and contemporary structure of the Monarchy : a dynastic era before the 1860s, a liberal age, and the neo-conservative decades after 1918. At all points historians' interpretations of earlier periods of Statebuilding in the area were closely interwoven rather with current political concerns than with philosophical or theoretical issues.
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Robert J. W. Evans
Historians and the State in the Habsburg Lands
In: Visions sur le développement des États européens. Théories et historiographies de l'État moderne. Actes du
colloque de Rome (18-31 mars 1990). Rome : École Française de Rome, 1993. pp. 203-218. (Publications de
l'École française de Rome, 171)
The historiography of the State in Habsburg Central Europe is a difficult and elusive subject. Those who have written about it
have belonged to diverse and often divergent national traditions, while the composite polity ruled over by the Habsburgs
remained very hard to handle conceptually. This paper introduces the three main territorial elements within that historiography,
Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia, which correspond to the three main constitutional elements within the Monarchy. At the same
time it seeks to identify common themes by examining in turn the three main stages of reflection on the evolution and
contemporary structure of the Monarchy : a dynastic era before the 1860s, a liberal age, and the neo-conservative decades after
1918. At all points historians' interpretations of earlier periods of Statebuilding in the area were closely interwoven rather with
current political concerns than with philosophical or theoretical issues.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Evans Robert J. W. Historians and the State in the Habsburg Lands. In: Visions sur le développement des États européens.
Théories et historiographies de l'État moderne. Actes du colloque de Rome (18-31 mars 1990). Rome : École Française de
Rome, 1993. pp. 203-218. (Publications de l'École française de Rome, 171)
http://www.persee.fr/web/ouvrages/home/prescript/article/efr_0000-0000_1993_act_171_1_3040ROBERT J. W. EVANS
Before the notion of a "State" existed, there could be no writing
about the State, historical or otherwise. In Central Europe the term
spread slowly and hesitantly. In Zedler's Universal-Lexikon of 1744
the word "Staat" is given two meanings : the first, equivalent to
Stand or status ("nichts anders als die Regierung oder die
Regierungs-Forme und Verfassung zwischen Obrigkeit und
Unterthanen eines Landes") receives nineteen lines; the second,
equivalent to Etat ("eine besondere Verfassung, es sey eines gantzen
Regiments, oder eines Stücks in demselben") earns twenty-seven;
whereas the previous entry, on "Staar" (cataract on the eye), enjoys
sixty-eight columns space. So far as the Habsburgs were concerned,
their realm was semantically an Empire, and their Staat long merely Hofstaat, or court-list and aulic administration. The well-
known Elzevier publication of 1637, entitled Status Particularis
Regiminis Ferdinandi II, also translated into English as The
Particular State..., bore witness to that.
Whereas in the German territorial principalities Staatsbildung,
the extension of executive power and rank to embrace the polity as a
whole, formed a reasonably clear-cut progression, it was long
impossible for, and undesired by, the Habsburgs themselves. On the
one hand, such a process of definition might imply limits in
Germany and northern Italy to traditional kinds of loose hegemony,
with their powerful symbolism and myriad channels of influence.
On the other hand, the dynasty had to respect the separate standing
of its other dominions, especially the residues of the two east-central
European commonwealths of Hungary and Bohemia, which
possessed certain attributes of statehood and where sovereignty was
historically shared between the Crown and the estates. Maria
Monarchy" or "my Theresa, as in her "Testament", ruled over "my
House", rather than over "my State"; and that terminology survived
until the first substantial continuous account of the evolution of the
Habsburg lands, the History of the House of Austria (1807) by the
English cleric, William Coxe. Public law literature, with its
important historical dimension, was likewise backward in the
Monarchy; it was left to Germans such as Conring and Pufendprf, 204 ROBERT J. W. EVANS
Moser, Moser and Pütter, almost as if Austrians feared to presume
to penetrate the secrets of the Reichsidee.
But from the 1740s new pressures emerged : provocation from
the most advanced rival German polity; the disloyalty of Bohemian
feudals; a continuing struggle with Hungarian particularism.
Austrian enlightened absolutism, especially that of Joseph II, began
cultivating the idea of the State, mediated by the ideals of service
and patriotism. A Haus- und Staatskanzlei was established in 1742
for the conduct of foreign policy, gaining domestic influence too
under the masterful Staatskanzler Kaunitz by the 1760s. It acquired
Maria Theresa's Hausarchiv, later known as the Haus- Hof- und
Staatsarchiv, a key focus for future historiography. Then came the
creation of a Staatsrat from 1760, as the highest advisory body to the
sovereign. A concerted programme developed, harnessing a greatly
expanded bureaucracy to the purpose of centralizing reform in the
economic and social, religious and educational, administrative and
welfare spheres at home, and maintaining thereby a greatly
expanded army for Habsburg ambitions abroad. The programme's
particular targets were the entrenched traditional authority of
estates and Church, and its style and justification were largely
unhistorical, indeed often anti-historical. But its massive
documentation (including the first-fruits in Austria of that most
statist science of statistics) and some of the arguments on both sides
set the terms for later historical debate : a notable example is the
storm over the Court Librarian, A. F. Kollâr's vindication of the
ancient rights of the Hungarian Crown in ecclesiastical affairs.
Following a near-breakdown at the beginning of the 1790s, the
Josephinist legacy, with its achievements and its failures, remained
a crucial point of reference for all subsequent study of the genesis of
statehood in the region.
Only by the start of the nineteenth century, then, when its
foundations, according to the guidelines adopted for the present
project, were already well and truly laid, does the State come to be
perceived in a modern sense in Central Europe. Only then,
moreover, does historiography begin to come into its own.
The relation between those two propositions is an organic one : the
genetic view is essential to the very concept of a "modern state", as
Stephan Skalweit has shown. The first formative period for
investigating the origins of the State thus coincided with the
consolidation of new polities - in terminology especially, but also in
reality - which deeply coloured the assumptions of that
In the Habsburg lands both processes were still delayed. The
1804 decree which established the style of "Emperor of Austria",
explicitly abstained from any innovatory declaration about
statehood. House" and Francis "without I assumed prejudice his new to the title rights "for the of our glory various of the
dominions"; though it probably did something for the claim to a
states" {vereinigter pristine unity of the "united Austrian body of
österreichischer Staaten-Körper) , as did the continuing
administrative consolidation and the role of Metternich as
Staatskanzler à la Kaunitz. Meanwhile scholarship moved only
gingerly beyond a dynastic and aulic framework, characterized by
the writings of Joseph von Hormayr and his activity as editor of the
Archiv für Geographie, Historie, Staats- und Kriegskunst. At length
even the deferential Hormayr lost official favour; the stagnant
universities were neither a threat nor an intellectual prop. The
language of a "Kaiserstaat Oesterreich" or "Kaisertum Oesterreich" ,
alongside traditional appellations, seems to have yielded no
significant theoretical discussion. The tension, familiar to historical
analysis, between the rising State as a vehicle for the power of the
absolute prince, and as locus for a system of rational administration
and law, still tended in the practice of the nineteenth-century
Habsburg dominions to be reduced by the mediation of officialdom
(a body whose legitimacy derived ultimately from the Hofstaat
tradition). Furthermore it was progressively mitigated in German
Austria by the readiness of critics to accept dynastic authority as a
guarantee against total breakdown; progressively distorted in
Hungary and Bohemia by claims for national, rather than just
liberal or constitutional rights.
The challenge from those two kingdoms was as yet no more
complete than the defence of that Vienna-centred torso at which
they tilted. Hungarians certainly refined their conception of the
dualism of Crown and "country" (regnum, or orszag); and the
Hungarian regnum was a sufficiently coherent entity to profit,
before other parts of the region, from the Enlightenment's stimulus
to a more serious and critical study of political history. Most notably
Johann Christian Engel wrote about it (1797-1804, 1813-14) with
patriotic intent and clear contemporary message : the medieval
Hungarian kingdom suffered from the pretensions of aristocracy
and Church; so may its nineteenth-century successor. Yet the
regnum was only gradually coming to be designated a "State". The
Magyar term, "âlladalom", later simplified to "âllam", only took root
in "nemzet" the 1840s. (nation), Kossuth's or "haza'V'hon" language remained (homeland), that occasionally of "orszâg", the or
technical or pejorative word "status"; Széchenyi neglected the
vocabulary of statehood altogether. Little attention was paid in 206 ROBERT J. W. EVANS
"Austrian" constitutional issues; emerging Hungary to broader
liberal historiography (Horvâth, later Marczali) showed itself
conspicuously sympathetic to Maria Theresa. A conservative
aristocrat, Jânos (Johann) Mailath, was the foremost apologist for
the ancien regime with his Geschichte des östreichischen Kaiserstaats
(1834-50). At the same time Hungarians' concepts of statehood were
complicated by their own imperial traditions, both vis-à-vis the
associated realms of Croatia and Transylvania, and in the form of
broader claims to Balkan hegemony, based on medieval precedent
(they are evident in Engel's work) and on eighteenth-century
propaganda for Habsburg rights in Galicia, Dalmatia, etc.
In Bohemia the stirrings of political and intellectual revival
issued in two parallel, sometimes contradictory notions : the
Bohemian kingdom on the one hand; and the Czech nation,
comprising a majority of its inhabitants, on the other. New
academic institutions, particularly the National Museum in Prague,
reflected that uncertainty; so did the editor of the Museum's journal
and historiographer to the Bohemian Crown, FrantiSek Palacky.
Palacky, writing at first in German, then in Czech, uses the
vocabulary of "Staat'V'stât" in his classic account of the evolution of
medieval Bohemia; but the formative force behind it is for him the
Czech nation {narod cesky). We should notice especially, in the
present context, Palacky's stress on the original Slavonic features of
that Bohemian state - its peaceable, defensive, and democratic
The aftermath of the near-demise of the Austrian State in 1848-9
was a much firmer governmental insistence on its current reality
and antecedents. All sides felt revulsion against the Vormärz regime,
not least centralists and Great- Austrians, who now sought to
construct a much more watertight absolutism. The 1850s and 1860s
were unique decades of an Austrian State eo nomine, of a single
official Austrian imperial citizenship {Reichsbürgerschaft). They also
saw important scholarly initiatives : the development of the
Academy of Sciences (founded in 1847); university reform; and a
powerful drive to the collection and publication of statistics. The
same climate generated a historical profession, with the creation of
the Institut für österreichische Geschichtsforschung, associated
with the Minister of Education, Count Leo Thun, and his protégé,
Alexander Helfert, who wrote a programmatic statement entitled
Über Nationalgeschichte und den gegenwärtigen Stand ihrer Pflege in
Österreich (1853). The call to nurture the Austrian "national" past
was answered mainly by serving administrators : Karl von Hock and
H. I. Bidermann compiled a pioneering history of the Staatsrat
(1868-79); went on to research the whole pedigree of the
Gesammtstaatsidee, identified a growing unity in Austrian HISTORIANS AND THE STATE IN THE HABSBURG LANDS 207
institutions, economic policy, society, even representative bodies,
over the centuries (but getting only as far as 1740 [1867-89]); C. von
Wurzbach completed an extraordinary biographical compendium in
the Great-Austrian spirit (1856-91), still the standard source for any
prosopography of the servants of the Habsburg State; while the
bilious I. Beidtel became the first anatomist, albeit a hostile one, of
the Josephinist bureaucracy.
Such semi-official historiography was certainly not lacking in
scruple - after all, the mid-nineteenth century was the time when
the Privilegium Maius, that supposed guarantee of Austria's quasi-
sovereignty within the old Reich, suffered exposure as a forgery -
but its quest for the true sources of the Austrian idea coloured its
approach. German liberals denied the Gesammtstaat; Anton
Springer's witty and perceptive condemnation of the "system", a
historical tour de force published in emigration (1863-5), lacks larger
insight into the nature of the State and excels in describing its
abashment in 1848. Although Springer's native Bohemia produced
the most prominent protagonists of the new Austrian historical
discipline (Thun, Helfert, Höfler, etc.), it also acted as focus for a
clearer alternative to it. Even moderate and loyalist Czechs like
Tomek and Gindely now felt more forcibly the ancestral attraction
of the Bohemian kingdom, whose claims were enunciated by
Palacky with increasing explicitness. For Palacky the national
principle provides a safeguard against excessive uniformity within
the State, and the Slav nationalities are the natural defenders of the
Monarchy; state power is now mediated by nationality, as earlier by
the Church; central and local authorities belong together as body
and soul, and the beneficent course of centralization must now be
complemented by national equality of rights {Gleichberechtigung).
Palacky was the key representative of a federal view of the Austrian
State and its history - albeit his own Bohemian History, stopping
short on the eve of the Habsburg take-over in 1526, failed to confirm
his political attachment to the dynasty.
Hungary too yielded major discussion during these years of
issues relevant to our purposes. The 1850s saw important
dissections of the problems of statehood and nationality, and their
interrelationship, especially by Jozsef Eötvös and Zsigmond
Kemény, two writers with a powerful historical sense (both of them
also authors of influential historical novels). These developed the
concept of the "historical-political individualities" of the various
component parts of the Monarchy - with Hungary's "individuality"
manifestly felt to be more pronounced than any other. Then came
the constitutional debates of the 1860s, with their high level of legal-
historical analysis. Ferenc Deâk's thesis of a mere personal union
between Hungary and the rest of the Empire, reducing the historic 208 ROBERT J. W. EVANS
Habsburg State to a minimum of validity, not only pointed forward
(with some modifications) to the Compromise of 1867; it also
pointed back to a substantial rethinking of pre-nineteenth-century
developments. Deâk won the argument with Lustkandl over the
Corpus Iuris Hungarici, but reinterpreted the sense of earlier
constitutional evolution in the process.
The result of this interaction between a burgeoning professional
discipline and the Austrian constitutional crisis of the years after
1848 was to attach a peculiarly historical dimension to discussion of
the State and its attributes, a tendency anyway encouraged by the
temper of so much nationalist argumentation from precedent (not
just among Czechs and Magyars, though space forbids further,
lesser examples) and by continued reverence for the ancient
mystique of the Habsburgs' dynastic rule. By the same token it is no
accident - though other factors are imponderable here - that purely
theoretical writing about the State remained so slight in Austria, by
contrast with Germany, from biedermeier reaction against
Hegelianism until the turn of the century, at least. Accounts of Das
politische Denken in Österreich (by Charmatz) or "der
österreichische Staatsgedanke" (by Lhotsky) reveal only the poverty
of their subject-matter. The exception to the rule, Lorenz von Stein,
went to work in Vienna, but was not of Vienna : he left Austria out of
his Verwaltungslehre, as being too complicated, Similarly the ideas
of the Cameralists, the most advanced theorists of sovereignty in
eighteenth-century Central Europe, were rediscoverd in Germany,
not in Austria.
* * *
The war of 1866 and the Ausgleich of 1867 left Hungarians
triumphant, Czechs in dudgeon, and Austrians disorientated.
Hungarian historiography received an immediate impetus from the
advent of the Dual Monarchy, with the foundation of a national
Historical Society (Magyar Torténelmi Târsulat) and its journal
Szazadok, and of the National Archives. The arrangements of 1867
were defended in historical perspective by a string of able scholars,
often Jewish (for Jews were great beneficiaries of Dualism). Most
notable among them is Henrik Marczali, who reached a wider
international public through his Ungarische Verfassungsgeschichte
(Tübingen, 1910) and who stressed the year 1790 as the decisive
turning-point in the direction of the modern Hungarian State.
Marczali stood close to Count Gyula Andrâssy the Younger, whose
more contemporary vindication of the Compromise (1896) likewise
helped form opinion at home and abroad about Hungary's political
But by the turn of the century, as Magyar independentist
politicians grew more vociferous, the historical record was
scrutinized in favour of more advanced positions. The Millennium
of 1896 celebrated 1,000 years of what was now perceived as an
essentially national political unit, with very ancient institutions;
parallels with the English Parliament, first evoked in 1790, were
widely canvassed. Particularly significant is the transformation of
the idea of the Holy Crown of St Stephen, which had originally been
conceived as an organic focus for the composite medieval kingdom
of Hungary. Gradually its associations with kingship were balanced
by an emphasis on the constitutional role of the noble estates under
the Crown (as in Werbôczi's famous law-manual, the Tripartitum, of
1514); but through most of the nineteenth century the korona still
meant basically the institutions of Habsburg government. The
subsequent reappraisal of the integrative function of the Holy
Crown in the works of legal historians like Timon (1904) can in
retrospect clearly be seen to have served two topical purposes : the
need for an ideology to justify claims for fuller Hungarian
sovereignty under Dualism; and the demands of Magyar
imperialism, internal and external, in the years before 1914.
Austrian responses to the Compromise in this context took three
forms. The gesammtstaatlich historical orientation lived on to some
extent, not just in surviving representatives of the mid-century
generation, but in constitutional historians such as Fredrich Tezner.
It even enjoyed a temporary revival during the First World War, as
in Charmatz's biography of Bruck, alongside more propagandist
efforts. Meanwhile it had given rise to an important series of
volumes, which began publication in 1907, on the history of state
central institutions {Die österreichische Zentralverwaltung), Austria's
answer to the Acta Borussica which from 1894 charted the course of
Prussia's eighteenth-century bureaucratic management. Yet overall
a shift in terminology and in emphasis took place, as the "State"
came to be seen to comprise merely Cisleithania - the "Austria" of
loose contemporary parlance. It thus was confirmed as squarely
Maria Theresa's creation, and it is no accident that the foremost
Viennese historian of the day, Alfred von Arneth, whose directorship
transformed the Haus- Hof- und Staatsarchiv, earned lasting fame
with a still unsurpassed Life of the great Empress. Joseph II was too
difficult to handle - and remained so; only the Russian, Mitrofanov,
seriously assessed the nature of the Josephinist State in this period.
More nationalist liberal historians, though touched by Josephinist
traditions, tended to an obsession with what had since gone wrong
in the Austro-German relationship, as in Heinrich Friedjung's
outstanding œuvre.
What lay beyond the State was now, from this perspective, the ROBERT J. W. EVANS 210
Empire. If the Habsburgs no longer ruled over a Reich (strictly
speaking the Dual Monarchy could also be described as
"Österreichisch-Ungarisches Reich", but Hungarians strongly
objected to that term), they were now reckoned to have done so in
the past - a Danubian Empire, that is to say, not just the Holy
Roman Empire. The genesis of Austria-Hungary thus came to be
reassessed in a genre known as Reichsgeschichte, which grew up
around the courses, introduced as obligatory within Austrian law
faculties from 1893, on the "Geschichte der Staatsbildung und des
öffentlichen Rechts". Best among the compendia delivered to
answer this need is a rather schematic, but balanced presentation by
A. von Luschin-Ebengreuth (1895), which stresses pre-1750
developments, and has indeed not been entirely superseded in its
treatment of them. Besides the several other authors who tried their
hand at Reichsgeschichte in its earlier years, Austrian historians
since 1918 have maintained the tradition, with Friedrich Walter's
posthumous compilation (1972) as a recent contribution in a now
very old-fashioned mould.
Bohemia, outside the circle of German historians there, was
little impressed with Reichsgeschichte. Instead, it resounded more
and more with the claim for a continuity in Bohemia's ancient state
rights, the political programme associated first with the Old, and
then with the Young, Czechs. The leading light in this school of
constitutional history was Josef Kalousek, a protégé of Palacky (and
his first biographer), who rose from weaver's apprentice, through
journalism, to a chair at the new Czech University of Prague.
Kalousek's Ùeské statuì pravo (1871) makes much play with
"parliamentary" traditions and the unity of the Crown, through both
royal and estates' institutions. His colleagues in the national camp
included Bonus Rieger (a grandson of Palacky), and Jaromir
Celakovsky, who examined, with pioneering zeal and much
professional compentence, the place of provincial and municipal
institutions in the making and unmaking of Bohemian statehood.
Then there were men like Emanuel Tonner, teacher, journalist and
politician, who spent his time while imprisoned under the 1869 state
of emergency in translating Strânsky's Respublica Bohema of 1634,
the crucial text for any understanding of the old Bohemian
kingdom. Now Strânsky's "Republic", which an earlier patriot had
rendered into German as "Staat", took on that more nationalist
connotation in Czech too. Altogether Czechs of the later ninteenth
century did a good deal, in the traces of Palacky, to investigate those
manifestations of separate Bohemian statehood in the early modern
age which the master had neglected, even if the greatest of them,
like Gindely and Goll, did not concentrate on the issue. Their
modifications of the forms underlying the state-rights thesis were HISTORIANS AND THE STATE IN THE HABSBURG LANDS 211
loosely accompanied by an important modification of the content of
the Czech national mission : T. G. Masaryk's Protestant-democratic
teleology, which was hard to reconcile with the contours of a
Catholic-absolutist genealogy for modern Bohemia, and which
exercised much influence despite not being (or because it was not)
very good history.
* * *
What happens to assumptions about statehood when a State
suddenly ceases to exist? The Habsburg Monarchy affords a unique
modern case-study, since here was a State which had already given
rise to extended historiographical discussion of its origins, and
which bequeathed a professional historical discipline to each
successor polity. The most organic transition among those
traditions which we have been considering, was that to an
independent Czechoslovakia. Buoyed by the discovery that the
Bohemian ship of state proved watertight on its own, scholars like
Jan Kapras simply transferred the remaining attributes of Austrian
sovereignty to The events of 1918-19 appeared to
grant retrospective legitimation to both the state-rights and the
Masarykian claims. Although lively debates ensued about each,
especially around the controversial Josef Pekaf , these touched more
the historical purpose of Bohemian statehood than its anatomy.
Hungarian intellectuals were shattered by the discovery that the
Crown of St Stephen could not survive separation from Austria. Yet
they largely carried over, into that bizarre hybrid of an inter-war
Hungarian monarchy without a monarch, their presumptions about
the genesis of the country's statehood, and continued to vindicate a
polity which no longer existed. The old liberal- Jewish camp found
itself outflanked by the biting conservative critique of Gyula Szekfu;
but the latter continued to defend the nation-state as the only
possible form of modern sovereign organization for Hungary, and to
interpret her political evolution accordingly, whether in his
monumental Hungarian-language History or in his distillations for
the foreign market, such as Etat et nation (1945). The same focus
was adopted for the weighty studies of the rise of the nationality
issue produced in the 1920s and 1930s by traditionalist scholars at
home, as for the perceptive, but basically schematic and static
analysis of the nineteenth-century Monarchy by the radical Oszkâr
Jâszi in exile.
As after 1867, Austrians were the most disorientated. The new
rump Republic enjoyed the blessing of a Constitution drafted by
Hans Kelsen : overnight the theory of the Rechtsstaat took over from
the conceptual muddles of the old order. Yet in practice most