Lessons of the near past

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Out In Jersey magazine's Editor Emeritus Toby Grace
Out In Jersey magazine's Editor Emeritus Toby Grace

Casting Aspersions

Editor’s note: Nine years ago, the late Editor Emeritus Toby Grace wrote this article for Out In Jersey magazine. We reprint it here as a prescient warning of what is happening now worldwide — and here in our own country in 2022.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire, domain of the imperial Habsburgs for more than 800 years, has vanished from the world stage like a mist. Few today give it a thought, and yet not long ago, it was one of the world’s major powers. It may seem like a distant fairy tale of emperors and palaces, Strauss waltzes and guardsmen in gorgeous uniforms, but it is in fact not that distant in time.

“…Our contenders are ideologies, very much geographically oriented and just as intractable — just as utterly unwilling to compromise though the heavens may fall and the nation crumble — ….”

There are still people alive today who were children when the “Old Gentleman,” Franz Joseph, sat upon the imperial throne — not many, but some. What could the decline of a great empire tell us about the United States’ future as a cohesive whole?

Also forgotten are the lessons we might learn from the collapse of a modern state, one that ruled lands stretching from the Balkans to Germany. Those not students of early 20th century history might assume that Austria- Hungary dissolved because it was on the losing side of World War I, and indeed, the terrible strain of that war proved the catalyst for the empire’s demise.

Germany lost that war, too, but it still exists. France was decimated and bankrupted, yet it still exists. Russia was overcome by revolution and civil war, and yet it still exists. Austria, however, is today but a tiny fragment of a country surrounding the former imperial capital, the great city of Vienna.

In the final analysis, it was the politics of a culture war that tore the empire to shreds and made it impossible for the monarchy to continue in the face of defeat in 1918. Austria, like the United States, was an artificial construct — not a unified nation with tribal roots. Like the United States, it existed because a small number of powerful people had decided to create it, and in doing so, brought a highly diverse population together under one governmental umbrella.

The empire did its best to create a sense of shared citizenship. It controlled the educational system. Its many thousands of teachers and professors taught imperial loyalty and the benefits of a union of many minorities into a great, strong entity. It built magnificent public works throughout its territories. Its libraries, universities, city halls, railroad stations, and hospitals still enrich those former domains. In the end, none of that could trump the selfishness of special interests.

Three nationalities dominated the empire: Magyars, Poles and Austro-Germans. Below them were a score of lesser nationalities. Every one of these nationalities worked actively for its own interests, to protect its special advantages and to prevent any other group from getting ahead. With a fanatic conservatism, every one of these groups demanded that its own national culture, language and religion should have preference.

Imperial politics was a perpetual balancing act by the central government. Those political gymnastics were all conducted while surrounded by wolves trying to tear out each others’ throats or, at a minimum, to climb upward over the bodies.

True compromise was impossible. The best the government could do were occasional deals that made no one happy but kept the peace for a few more years. Other than the Habsburgs themselves, no one was working for the best interests of the empire as a whole.

“Unless the politics of civility and compromise can be restored to our society, an unexpected catastrophe may be our undoing…”

Indeed, as the strain of war and economic collapse intensified, the leaders of the various nationalities became ever more strident and passionate about their special interests even though pursuit of those interests was threatening the very foundations of the state. In the end, all of those competing interests destroyed it.

The monarchy collapsed and the Habsburgs departed. It was not a national monarchy like England’s, where one dynasty could be replaced by another or even by a different form of government. The Habsburgs were not replaceable and without them, there was no empire. All those petty, striving nationalities got their wishes. Suddenly they were sovereign states — ones that were too insignificant to survive on their own and made a ready meal, first for the Nazis and then for the Soviets.

“…politics was a perpetual balancing act… Those political gymnastics were all conducted while surrounded by wolves trying to tear out each others’ throats or, at a minimum, to climb upward over the bodies….”

Today in the United States, our petty, striving contenders are not so much nationalities (though racism is certainly an important factor). Our contenders are ideologies, very much geographically oriented and just as intractable — just as utterly unwilling to compromise though the heavens may fall and the nation crumble — as were the special interests of the old empire.

We have repeatedly seen the disgraceful spectacle of our government brought close to a complete shutdown, of legislation vital to our survival stonewalled by today’s special interests, of politicians literally in the pay of those interests caring nothing for the welfare of the country (so long as their clients can produce a good “bottom line” this quarter). We have seen the nation totter under the strain of financial disaster. We can look to history to see what similar situations have produced. It is not a reassuring picture. Unless the politics of civility and compromise can be restored to our society, an unexpected catastrophe may be our undoing just as World War I was the undoing of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It is a natural human tendency to assume all things will remain as we now know them, and that which we are used to is eternal. In 1914, very few would have thought the Habsburg monarchy wouldn’t carry on for another 800 years. Four short years later, it had vanished.

The judgment of history on fanatic self-interest is rarely a pleasant one. It is a lesson that should be learned more widely in our own country today.