Please see also: Part 2: The Troubles of (Dividing) Empire
Part 3: Austria-Hungary's Nations: From Resentment to Reconciliation?
I founded this website in anticipation of my 2014 trip to Sarajevo for the centenary of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, and to other European destinations marking the outbreak of World War I. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be in Paris today to mark the end of the war. For millions, the end of suffering, dying and killing. But only for 20 years.
France's President Macron used the occasion to warn of growing nationalism today. Indeed, it was nationalism that started the war. And regardless of your opinion—positive or negative—of Austria-Hungary, it was a nationalist’s bullet that plunged the empire into war, and nationalism that tore it apart in the end. Arguably, the state had been a bulwark against nationalism.
In my last blog post, I cautiously celebrated the centenary of Czechoslovakia’s founding. ‘Cautiously,’ noting that the country had real freedom for barely a quarter-century total, from 1918-1938, in the aftermath of WWII from 1945-48, and again from 1989-92. And I lamented that, even though it was probably the most democratic state to emerge in Central Europe after WWI, it was fraught with problems.
It’s those problems I’d like to focus on today (and in the coming days in the continuations of this post) in reflecting on the passing of Austria-Hungary.
I say ‘today,’ but there is no precise date for the last day of that empire. Czechoslovak statehood had been declared on October 28, 1918, in anticipation of the armistice. When that came on November 11, the last emperor, Karl, signed a carefully worded statement granting the German-Austrian people the right to form a new state. He also relinquished the reins of government, but he avoided the word ‘abdication.’ Although some saw it as just that, he continued to believe he was a rightful sovereign. He also released a similar declaration to the people of Hungary two days later.
Mary and Maria Theresa: Two Statues Fall
Some Czechs might want to consider November 3 as the end of the empire, for that’s the day on which they symbolically toppled it on Prague’s Old Town Square. The object in question was a Marian column, erected in 1652 to celebrate the end of the Thirty Years’ War. For Czech Protestants, at least, it was a vestige of Catholic Habsburg domination. Crowds gathered with ropes to pull it down and both the statue of the Virgin and the column broke into several pieces which are today found in the Lapidarium of the National Museum.
While the column may have represented the victory of Catholic forces in a very religious war, it also expressed gratitude to Mary for saving Bohemia from the marauding of Swedish troops. Whether Czech Protestants really welcomed these fellow believers from Scandinavia is a matter that doesn’t seem to get much debate. At any rate, the mob which pulled it down destroyed a priceless piece of baroque sculpture. The instigator, so I’ve read, later regretted it.
Similarly, a group of Czechoslovak legion soldiers in Bratislava tied ropes to a statue of Maria Theresa in October 1921 and pulled it down with a truck. This empress had been crowned Apostolic Queen of Hungary—one of her numerous titles—in 1841 in Bratislava. At the time the city was called Pressburg in German, Presporok in Slovak, and Pozsony in Hungarian. It had served as the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary since Turks invaded Budapest in the mid-sixteenth century.
Curiously, there is little reason to consider her coronation, the subject of the statue, as a symbol of oppression. After all, she issued an edict, De Ratio Educationis, calling for education in pupils’ native tongues, something Slovak rights activists had to keep struggling for. The fact that the coronation ceremony took place in St. Martin’s Church in the center of town ought to be a proud part of Bratislava history.
But the rub is that Pressburg/Presporok/Pozsony was a trilingual capital, and that had to change in the new nation-state. It was re-christened Bratislava, and eventually became overwhelmingly Slovakized. Homogenization was the new trend. The old empire had at least represented pluralism – even if its record was inconsistent.
I’ll take up some thornier issues in my next post. Look for it Thursday!