Part 1: "End of WWI & of Austria-Hungaria: But the Tragedy Continues"
Part 2: "The Troubles of (Dividing) Empire"
Although multi-ethnic society under Habsburg rule gives many positive examples of supranational ideals, in practice there were a lot of historical inequalities that led to its breakup.
Czechs had resented Austrian domination, especially since the Battle of the White Mountain, the first big conflagration in the Thirty Years’ War. In the aftermath, rebelling Bohemian Protestant nobles were punished severely. The main offenders had their severed heads placed atop pikes on the entrance to Prague’s Charles Bridge as an example for all who passed by. Worse still, for the Czech nation, was the confiscation of Protestant Czechs’ property and their replacement with German-speaking Catholic landlords. The Czech language fell into disuse in education and administration.
Some Czechs like to say that the Austrians banned their language for three centuries. The truth is a bit more complicated. Czech language enjoyed a resurgence in the nineteenth century. At one point, imperial officials required that all functionaries in Bohemia and Moravia would have to know Czech as well as German. The German bureaucrats, many of whose families had held cushy posts for generations, were outraged. Czechs, who were much more likely to be bilingual, would be at a distinct advantage. We should also consider the fact that, by 1900, Czech literacy had reached 97 percent, whereas among Germans it was only one point higher. Property requirements for suffrage had been eliminated in Austria; every male 23 or older had the right to vote.
But things were different in the Hungarian part of the dual monarchy, which had been created in 1867 to give the Maygars—really just the aristocrats—more autonomy vis-à-vis Vienna. And these elites resisted the sort of universal male suffrage that had been enacted in the Austrian part of the empire, in spite of Emperor Franz Joseph’s urging.
Here’s another point at which narratives can get oversimplified. Many Slovaks claim that “the Magyars oppressed us for a thousand years, tried to force us all to speak their tongue.” There is scant evidence that in the first few centuries after the Hungarian conquest there was any attempt to Magyarize the Slavic population.
Ludovit Stur, the leading nationalist who codified the Slovak language in the 1840s, wrote a treatise called the “Old and New Age of the Slovaks,” in which the “old” age was the first centuries after the establishment of the Kingdom of Hungary, a polyglot society which used Latin as a lingua franca for high-level official communications. Of course, few people received any education—and those who did got it through Latin—so there is no argument about Slovak-language schools versus Hungarian-language instruction. It was only in the eighteenth century—the beginning of Stur’s “New Age”—that Magyar first became privileged over Slovak (or Croatian or Rumanian). The process of Magyarization—of forced assimilation to the Hungarian language—didn’t get seriously underway until the 1820s or so. And this happened through institutions of the church—including Protestant churches, as Stur well knew from his own experiences—at least as much as through institutions of state. At least until the Hungarian government began shutting down Slovak secondary schools in the 1860s, two decades after Stur’s death.
So while oppression of Slovaks was relatively new, Czechs had had legitimate grievances going back to 1620. But most of the institutional discrimination against the latter had been eliminated by 1900, even if the Czech still had a lot of catching up to do vis-à-vis the Germans.
It’s also worth noting that government discrimination against Jews in Austria-Hungary had been eliminated by Franz Joseph’s decree in 1860. Other forms of progress, such as health insurance for working-class subjects, had been implemented. It was a land that Jewish-Viennese writer Stefan Zweig could call “World of Security,” the title to the opening chapter of The World of Yesterday. The book describes growing up during the reign of Franz Joseph and seeing this homeland ruined. Another Jewish Austrian, Joseph Roth, wrote in a preface to his novel The Radetzky March that he “loved this homeland with all its faults.”
Because much of what followed was far worse than Habsburg “oppression”: Hitler and then forty years of Communist-Party rule.
One other question that might be raised is whether the Danubian monarchy could have reformed itself, could have presided over a looser, more democratic confederation. Both Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Emperor Karl had such aims. Indeed, the creation of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-hyphen-Hungary had led some to believe that a Trial Monarchy, with Slavs as the third pillar of the state, was the next step. Plans for Franz Joseph’s coronation as King of Bohemia around 1870, which would have been a nod in the direction of the Czechs, were scrapped for fear of upsetting the Magyars. Bedrich Smetana had even composed the opera Libuše for the occasion, which never happened.
With or without speculating about might have been, we should seek a more nuanced understanding about what really was.
There have been two positive developments in this direction, both attempts to restore those toppled statues. In Prague, sculptor Petr Vana has worked fifteen years without pay to create a replica of the Marian statue. But the debate rages, with one artist comparing it to restoring a Stalin monument. Others argue that it should stand on the square along with John Huss, the fifteenth century reformer, as a sign that the city welcomes a variety of religious opinions.
In Bratislava, Martina Zimanova has created a scaled-down replica of the Maria Theresa statue based on photos and remaining fragments. It stood in front of the downtown Hotel Carlton near the National Theater for a while. But this past March 15, the city council decided it should move to a less prominent location.
Perhaps one day, if the wounds of the past don’t fester too much, Czechs and Slovaks will reconcile with the imperial past. Maybe they’ll even learn to be proud of it.