The Habsburg Empire: A New History by Pieter M Judson (Harvard University Press, £25)
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.
Judson’s reflections on nations, states and institutions are of broader interest, not least in the current debate on the future of the European Union after Brexit. Refreshingly, his book also challenges lasting presumptions about differences between Europe east and west, backward and developed, ethnic and civic. His narrative may be one of many possible readings of Habsburg history, as he himself says—yet it is one that is both nuanced and compelling.