Published in September 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
A century after its collapse, the Austro-Hungarian Empire is still often portrayed as a backwater of Europe, doomed to be torn apart by fiery nationalists. This view is contested in The Habsburg Empire: A New History by Pieter M Judson, a professor of history at the European University Institute in Florence. The two key words here are “new” and “empire.” Discarding the nation-centric lenses inherited from the inter-war years—think Austro-Hungary as the “prison of nations”—Judson sets out to show “why empire and its institutions mattered so much to so many for so long.”
Starting with Empress Maria Theresa in the 1700s, Judson examines how the Habsburg Empire became a state united by common borders and common laws rather than language or religion. Its towns boasted Viennese-style grand theatres and coffeehouses—cultural remnants still visible in far-flung outposts of the old empire like Czernowitz, now Chernivtsi in south-western Ukraine. Rather than oppression, Judson emphasises participation, as citizens from Budapest to Bohemia increasingly engaged in empire, from voting to military conscription.