Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bring back the Habsburg empire -my article in The Times

The Times April 25 2011

The royal wedding makes an old radical swell with pride

Bereft of real monarchs, eastern Europe is ruled by politician-kings

In my younger, radical days, I was a red-hot republican. Kings and queens were an absurd anachronism — their claim to rule because of some accident of birth an insult to reason and democracy; their insatiable appetite for yachts, palaces and personal toothpaste squeezers an expensive outrage.
I still think the Royal Family costs too much, but it’s not only the onset of middle age that makes me flush with patriotic pride when I think about the royal wedding. My reason goes deeper, too, than the knowledge that nobody does pomp and circumstance better than us. Rather, after twenty years of reporting on central and eastern Europe, I appreciate the profound importance of the monarchy in ensuring social stability, providing a symbol of healthy national identity, even safeguarding the rule of law.
The fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War destroyed Europe’s historical continuity, setting in motion a chain of disasters from which it has yet to recover. Out went Karl I, the Habsburg Emperor, in 1918 and with him went nascent democracy, political and economic stability, property rights, protection for minorities and a flourishing middle class, the best guarantee of prosperity. Bolshevik revolutions, right-wing putsches, fascism, Nazism and decades of Soviet dictatorship followed. In Russia the Romanov royal family was killed in a messy execution, the bourgeoisie was physically eradicated, property was “socialised” and 70 years of terror ensued. Russia and the world are still paying the price.
Even now, hazy memories of peace and stability under the Habsburgs endure — and not just among conservatives. The royal name still resonates across its former domains. Gyula Horn, a socialist Prime Minister of Hungary and once an ardent communist, made Gyorgy Habsburg, the grandson of Karl I, his ambassador for European integration in the 1990s.
Constitutional monarchies — politically constrained, this is the 21st century, after all — stabilise young democracies. When right-wing soldiers attempted a military coup in Spain in 1981, storming parliament and holding MPs hostage, King Juan Carlos, probably the only figure around whom the nation could unite, took control and helped to restore democracy.
Bereft of actual monarchs, much of central and eastern Europe is now ruled by politician-kings whose formative years were spent under communism, when the divine right of royalty was replaced by the divinity of dialectic. From the Baltic to the Balkans, these politicians picked up bad habits of minds. First, the authoritarian impulse is ingrained in them because the end always justified the means on the path to a just and classless society. And second, because that classless society turned out to be a cruel joke, they still have the “screw the system” mentality of those who lived under communism. There is barely any sense of public service, and these self-interested politicians ensure that they and a few lucky courtiers are enriched by crony capitalism while poverty and corruption soar.
Nor have the squabbles of empire faded. Old enmities have been reawakened: none could have been more destructive than the wars that ripped Yugoslavia apart; today Hungary and Slovakia constantly squabble. National identities are formed against imagined enemies, internal or external. Uncertain of their place in the world, new states obsess about banner and flags, languages and emblems. Hungary’s controversial new constitution, approved last week, makes much of the millennia-old Holy Crown, the centrepiece of its coronations. That has sparked accusations that the ruling party is wallowing in a nostalgia at odds with a 21st-century European democracy.
Ironically, Gyorgy Habsburg is far more modern and open-minded than most of Mitteleuropa’s leaders. Prince William and Kate Middleton have shown how a young, attractive couple can be a focal point for a national identity rooted not in ancient grievances but in simple pride in a country’s history and enjoyment of its pageantry. Perhaps it’s time for a Habsburg to be crowned again. Step forward, King George?


  1. "...hazy memories of peace and stability under the Habsburgs still endur..." apart from on the days dedicated to the revolutions against the Habsburgs.... Don't forget the Habsburgs were massive anti-Semites, and although they did offer a degree of protection to Jewish people, they also placed a statutory limit on the number of Jewish people allowed in their domains.

    1. To say that thr Habsburgs were massive anti-Semites a fabrication:

      In contrast to the pre-1918 period, Jews were now experiencing increasing pressure to identify with the dominant national groups in the new nation-states, while simultaneously being denied a legitimate place by anti-Semites.

  2. Such a pity that I only found this entry now. Still, the proposal's quite interesting, but I'd like to add something to it: sure, the lack of monarchs in Eastern Europe MIGHT account for the rise of the narcissistic wannabe dictators (absolute monarchs), but I don't think that the persistence of Eastern monarchs alone would've prevented most of the geopolitical developments in the region. This is especially true for Russia in particular: there's this (idiotic) notion that sprung up in the early 19th century that's called pan-Slavism. It asserted that all the Slavic nations should unite in big (or at least bigger) nation-states which would be better, stronger, more stable etc. And guess who was the most prominent supporter of this movement? Yes, the Russians. The Russian tsar in particular. And of course it didn't do this because of the "ever-lasting love" of "fellow Slavic brethren" (as some seems to insist up to this day), but to crush the majority of Austria-Hungary under their sandals. Sure, this might sound like a conspiracy theory if it wouldn't have manifested itself about a century later. In Hungary this pan-Slavism was particularly worrisome, because ever since the beginning it was accompanied by strong anti-Hungarian sentiments (e.g. even the Croatians, who had a de facto autonomy within Hungary up until the dissolution of A-H started looking down on Hungarians and their emissaries have refused to speak Hungarian, despite the fact that they spoke it quite well), which also accounts for Hungary's reluctance for granting minority rights in the late 19th century. And as if to prove that their concerns were justified, everything they feared of manifested in 1920 (despite the fact that in 1914 the Austro-Hungarian ambassador of Britain departed wholeheartedly and both the British and his have hoped that they'd see each other pretty soon and nobody has thought that the sanctions would be so severe by the end of the war): Austria-Hungary and Hungary in particular was split between newly founded states that never existed before with a very significant portion of Hungarian population finding themselves in these new states. And (surprise, surprise) many of these states were founded along the lines of pan-Slavism: Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, Czechoslovakia. And obviously all these successor states (in addition to the ones mentioned above also Romania) were sufficiently weak (weakened) that after 1945 not only could the Russians (or "Soviets" if you will) turn them into their own colonies, but also crush any attempts at gaining independence. But sooner of later the same scenario would've occurred in Eastern Europe with the tsar's rule as well. The only way Western Europe could've avoided Russia's advance toward the West would've been if they would've left Austria-Hungary (somewhat) intact and with minimal losses (e.g. only by taking Bosnia, the Italian cities and Galicia). In this case the Russians wouldn't have gotten any ideas. And what could illustrate (and prove) my point more than the fact that only Poland exists out of all the states created in 1920 (and even Poland has existed before in the past, so it doesn't really count :P): Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1993, Yugoslavia was swept in a brutal (essentially civil) war in the beginning of the 1990s (please note that out of all the minorities within the former Yugoslavia only the Hungarians were left essentially intact) and Romania gave up Bessarabia (present-day Moldavia, who also speak Romanian) after WWII.
    I hope my points are clear enough.

  3. Both Franz Ferdinand or Archduke Charles would have been very liberal monarchs. If they kept the KUK it would have become a federalized state and life would have generally been better for all the groups there.

    Russia is more debatable. Nicholas earned the epithet "Bloody Nicholas" for good reason. Communism was assuredly worse, so the better situation would have been better if the whites (and the democrats who initiated the revolution) would have won the civil war.

  4. It was Monarchy, coupled with faith and form, which have traditionally ordered and supported all levels of our European society. We had faith, order with form, governance with justice ( based on divine and natural law).

    When western society wakes up and finally realises what a relative mess it is in, and what it has lost, it will yearn for the nobility and decency of the 19th century.

    Then and only then will Europe be able to pick itself out of its financial, social and governance mess, and recreate stable flourish cultures and states for its subjects.