The surprising legacies of the Habsburg monarchy

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Since the mid-1980s a revisionist trend changed the history of the empire from one in which nations freed themselves from imperial servitude, to one in which the empire had offered peace and prosperity to the ‘small nations’ of the region, while at the same time, ironically, encouraging the development of national culture, and identity, for the component national groups. This ‘revisionist’ historiographical view is now so established that it is difficult really to see it as revisionist any more. One of the best examples of the current, positive view of The Habsburg Empire is the book of the same name by Pieter Judson, who does bring new perspectives, at the level of local and popular history, to the larger theme. Yet when Judson calls his book a ‘new history’, his central idea, that the empire was a remarkably resilient polity, which was doing quite well for its populace right up until 1914, before all its (and their) good work was destroyed by the First World War, is not that new at all. Alan Sked was writing much the same in the late 1970s, but now it is the conventional wisdom. Several decades have passed in which a multinational, quasi-federal polity (the European Union) has shown how effective it can be in providing peace and prosperity. It is no coincidence that historical research confirmed the same about the Habsburg Empire. By now, Judson’s views are the established academic consensus.

In the most recent period, however, there has been a change in the political weather concerning the European Union. With right-wing, authoritarian nationalist governments in Poland and Hungary, Brexit, and a surging nationalist far-right in most states in Europe (even when those parties are still, fortunately, in a minority), nationalism has taken centre stage once more. The supranational institutions of the multinational European Union no longer look as inevitable as they once did. It is not quite the same as before.

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