In August 1966, while visiting Vienna as an ABD graduate student from Yale, I chanced upon the office of Aktion-Europa, a group that would soon change its name to the Paneuropabewegung. As I learned from going to its offices on the Prinz Eugen Strasse, Aktion-Europa was an organization that defended the Habsburg dynasty. As the nephew or in one case distant cousin of three junior officers who had served in the Austro-Hungarian army in the Great War, and as the grandson of a Proviantversorger (a supplier of army provisions), a position that had once been filled at a higher level by the grandfather of my favorite Austrian man of letters, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal (1874-1929), I sympathized with AE’s evident but unannounced purpose, which was to refurbish the reputation of the deposed Austrian dynasty. After the First World War, the last Habsburg Emperor and King of Hungary, Charles I, had lost his throne, and he died in exile in April 1922, on the island of Madeira. This exile was the doing of Austria’s Socialist-Marxist leaders, who first deposed the Habsburgs and then managed to keep its claimants to the throne out of their country for the next sixty years.
Charles was in no way to blame for the war, one that he had inherited from his aged predecessor, Franz Josef, who had passed on in 1916. The young emperor did his best to end the bloody struggle, and he lost no time after ascending the throne requesting the intervention of Pope Benedict XV. Charles also appealed in 1917 to his wife’s brother, Sixtus, Duke of Parma, as an intermediary, although the two were then on opposing sides. From his letters it is clear that Charles favored not only the removal of his own country from the war but also the arrangement of a just peace among all the belligerents. For his pious and honorable life, this emperor received the title of “blessed” from the Church in 2004, and he will soon likely be canonized.
Since the end of the monarchy in a country whose lands had once belonged to the Habsburgs, Charles’s would-be successors, Otto and Otto’s son, Karl, have distinguished themselves as scholars and spokesmen for European unity. For many years Otto (1912- ) has given lectures and written books in multiple languages on legal, historical and diplomatic subjects. After the Second World War, in which he fought on the English side, he participated in the founding of the Mt. Pelerin Society, an international organization of distinguished economists who were interested in the spread of (in the European sense) liberal market principles. For Otto, this interest was related to a more personal and more regional concern, which was his stated hope to reconstruct the tariff-free zone that the Habsburg Empire had provided for its subjects. It is often forgotten that Franz Josef had combined his medieval sense of monarchical responsibility with liberal economic ideas and a remarkable sense of religious tolerance. The Austrian School of Economics had flourished under the old order, and one of its chief economists, Eugen Böhm-Bawerk, had been a tutor to the imperial children. The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, who was descended from a Rabbinic family from Galicia, had begun his rise to prominence under the Habsburgs; the dynasty had then bestowed upon Mises his title of nobility.
Since the Habsburg dynasty had been deposed in a war in which some of their own nationalities had taken up arms against them, its descendants have devoted themselves to the “European idea” rather than to any particular national cause. The role that Karl (1961- ) has assigned to Austria, especially while an EU Parliament Deputy between 1996 and 1999, is to be in the “vanguard (Vorhut) of Central and Eastern Europe in a European Union.” As the victim of German and other nationalisms and as a target of Nazi hate propaganda in the 1930s, the Habsburgs and their devotees continue to keep their distance from nationalists of any kind. Their past and present allies have included the Catholic hierarchy, Jewish bankers, and religious and ethnic minorities that have attached themselves to this pre-national dynasty. A leftist critic, A.J. P. Taylor, has described the family that had once ruled over much of Central Europe (and for a while the Spanish empire) as follows: “While other dynasties are episodes in the histories of nations, for the Habsburgs nations are episodes in a family history.”
But this was not the whole of the story. The Habsburg Empire offered a highly adaptable form of government. Before it stumbled into a disastrous war, it was moving toward greater power-sharing within its realm, one that would have extended internal autonomy from the German and Hungarians to the Slavic minorities. The Hungarians, who had benefited from this arrangement with the establishment of the Dual Monarchy in 1867, had adamantly refused to extend the rights they enjoyed to other ethnic minorities. But the dynasty worked to break down this opposition, and it quite understandably viewed federalism as the only solution to its own problem as a multinational monarchy. Most importantly, the empire furnished its subjects with cultural vitality as well as economic unity. This could be seen particularly in the rich literary, artistic, musical and academic accomplishments that poured out of Vienna and Budapest, and out of multiple smaller provincial cities—which were united by imperial rule, shared architecture, Viennese cuisine, and the use of Austrian-German.
That the Habsburgs in past decades actively supported the European Union, an organization that has promoted multicultural, anti-Christian transformation, seems in retrospect regrettable. But again it may be understandable that a dynasty that believes in Europe, without its nationalist enthusiasms, should seek alliances that however defective come closest to their aspirations. In any case the Habsburgs and their supporters have now drifted away from the present EU, and they may be hoping to find other, more useful embodiments of their purposes as presented in the Paneuropa program: “Commitment to a Europe united by its Christian-Western values,” “the insertion of these value-conceptions into the daily lives of Europeans,” and “the bringing to public attention of the goals of the movement.”
In the interwar period, a Habsburg-led Europe found multiple advocates, from partisans of the “imperial idea” among German and Austrian journalists to such literary celebrities as Franz Werfel, Josef Roth, and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal (all writers of Jewish descent). The father of psychology Sigmund Freud may have been a scoffer of religion who was preoccupied with sex, but he was also an ardent fan of the Habsburg Empire before its dissolution and regretted its passing afterwards. It is also hard to mention other literary and intellectual lights such as Rainer Marie Rilke, Robert Musil, Karl Kraus, Heimato von Doderer, and Ludwig Wittgenstein without thinking of the imperial rule under which they had lived. All of these figures (with the possible exception of the essayist Kraus) felt a profound loyalty to Habsburg Austria.
Since the director of this website, who is named for the great emperor and king, has asked me to compare the “Habsburger Reichsidee” (the imperial idea) to the neoconservative concept of a global democratic America, I shall begin by underlining the fact that these ideas operate in non-intersecting universes. Such a comparison may be likened to the task of looking for common characteristics in a Shakespearean drama and a Harlequin novel. If overlaps are ascertainable (and they may be from a structural perspective), they are far less significant than the differences to be noted. One chief difference between the concepts in question is that unlike neoconservatism, the “imperial idea” is a Western and European invention that comes out of the aristocratic and bourgeois past. It is rooted in the European civilization that extended from the late Middle Ages down to the early twentieth century; and while imperial rule shows the marks of a certain commendable political development, toward religious tolerance and a market economy, its history is baroque and imperial. It is in the truest sense Burkean, uniting monarchy and aristocracy to a modern liberal order, without damage being done to any of the parts of this civilizational synthesis.
It might be possible to suggest the difference between the imperial and neocon visions by looking at the postwar political concerns of Hugo von Hofmannsthal. After the First World War, this literary giant devoted the remainder of his short life to reviving a popular interest in medieval Austrian culture. His most famous contribution to this effort is the German version of Everyman (Jedermann), which he brought to the stage at Salzburg and which became an annual production there. Despite his outspokenness as an Austrian patriot, Hoffmannsthal called for a “new European ego” in an address in Berne in 1916. The problem of cultural and social dissolution that the War had unleashed seemed to the distinguished author to have affected the entire continent; and in the interwar period, Hoffmannsthal contributed to Karl Anton von Rohan’s “Europäischer Revue,” a leading advocacy publication for European unity, a process that the editor Rohan, an Austrian nobleman, hoped to see take place according to traditionalist and presumably pro-Habsburg principles. In a speech in Munich in January 1927, Hofmannsthal famously called for a “conservative revolution” aimed at bringing back a true European identity. This speech was specifically critical of the Germans for “their productive anarchy as a people.” Hoffmannsthal contrasted the sentimental outpouring to which his German cousins were prone to a “binding principle of form,” which he thought necessary for the restoration of a Europe of nations. Unlike T.S. Eliot, Hofmannsthal wrote as a close friend of royalty as well as someone who was an aesthetic and cultural reactionary. He was also a scholar of romance languages; and he imitated the linguistic peculiarities of the Latin regions that had once been ruled by the Habsburgs in his literary work.
While Hofmannsthal pined for the lost Austro-Hungarian Empire, the neocons have rejoiced at the toppling of the imperial governments of Central Europe. Francis Fukuyama, in the Wall Street Journal (December 31, 1999) expressed profound relief that the Central Powers had been stopped in World War One. If the German Empire and its Austrian ally had won that struggle, Fukuyama explained, the result would have been to stunt our moral consciousness: “A German century may have been peaceful and prosperous but in the social sphere it would also have been stratified, corporatist, ultimately based on racial and ethnic hierarchy—a world made safe for [presumably pre-black -majoritarian] South Africa.” A more savage attack on the Germanophone powers in the First World War, albeit one that does not mention the Habsburg Empire explicitly, was published by Fred Siegel in The Weekly Standard (January 30, 2002), an opinion piece that combines a tirade against H.L. Mencken for his “Nietzschean elitism and fondness for German authoritarians” with extended attacks on the “autocratic” Central Powers. Siegel bashes Mencken for having expressed wartime sympathy for his ancestral land, since this neocon journalist assumes (undemonstrated) parallels between the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s Germany.
Better documented arguments about America’s path toward war after 1914 and the events that were unfolding in Europe can be found in Walter Karp, Thomas J. Fleming, Arthur Ekirch, Ralph Raico, Hunt Tooley, and other historians who demonstrate how the government of Woodrow Wilson maneuvered the US into the European conflagration. This involved dishonestly manipulating the alleged US peace initiatives in Christmas 1916 in such a way that the English side would not accept the terms offered. Such dishonesty is clearly shown in Arthur Link’s generally complimentary five-volume biography of Woodrow Wilson, a work that treats among a multitude of subjects Wilson’s instruction to American-controlled food relief agencies after the war not to feed those ethnic minorities that had fought for the Central Powers. In Wilson’s view, no less than in that of the Weekly Standard’s, the War had been fought between absolute democratic goodness and authoritarian monarchist evil. From this warped point of view, Kaiser Karl had fought on the evil side, as the authoritarian prison-keeper of nations that without exception should have been yearning to join the Allies.
Richard M. Gamble, in The War for Righteousness, makes evident the connection between pro-Allied war fever among America’s WASP population and the democratic millenarian thinking that had begun to affect mainline American Protestantism in the early twentieth century. For almost 300 pages Gamble offers up examples of Protestant ministers and theologians, praising America’s entry into the Great War as “the supreme act of public service.” One most famous minister of that era, Reverend William P. Merrill, prophesied that the outcome of a US crusade against the Central Powers would be “the future expansion of world-democracy and world-federation.” Gamble stresses that Wilson came out of the same milieu as the global democratic Protestant crusaders who pushed him toward war. Among the most shocking illustrations of Wilson’s imperialist arrogance can be found in his Flag Day 1914 speech at Arlington National Cemetery in which the president claimed that it was America’s “duty” and “privilege” to “stand shoulder to shoulder to lift the burdens of mankind in the future and show the paths of freedom to all the world.” In the oft-quoted peroration to this speech, Wilson expressed the grandiose hope that his country would make other nations realize that “Old Glory was the flag not only of America but of humanity.” Gamble has pointed out in conversation with me that he became interested in his lifetime research project, studying the religious roots of democratic millenarianism, because of the unsettling fit between neocon global revolutionary rhetoric and Protestant Republican patriotism. Gamble believes that the roots of this unhappy connection may go all the way back to the American founding, a situation that makes it all that much harder to disconnect WASP America from neocon pied-pipers.
Among its idiosyncrasies, the neocon imperial idea, which according to Gamble is especially tempting for Protestant Americans, assumes the inherent depravity of the Habsburg Empire, a regime that that paradigmatic neocon hero Woodrow Wilson had hated as authoritarian, and Teutonic. This hatred came to the fore in Wilson’s letter sent to the Empire’s “subject nationalities” on June 24, 1918, in which the American president looked forward to the “dismemberment” and “partition” of a structure that did not deserve to exist: “The Austro-Hungarian monarchy was organized on the principle of conquest and not on the principle of self-determination.” Moreover, by fighting with the German Empire, it added insult to injury by becoming “vassals of the Hohenzollerns.” Needless to say, the “peace treaty” that Wilson signed on to denied “self-determination” to all the historical nationalities that had bet on the wrong horse in the War. It also typically placed those minorities, including my Central European relatives, under far more oppressive regimes than those nationalities who had lived under the Empire.
It is impossible to consider the neoconservative idea of an American empire (or, as the neocons would have it, American non-imperial hegemony) without calling to mind its abstract and super-modernist quality. The neocon idea requires the imposition of an anti-traditionalist vision of America, one especially beloved to neocon urbanites, on the rest of humanity. It justifies itself as a heroic enterprise intended to spread “American values.” While the imperial idea is formed around a cultural legacy growing out of the past and its former dynastic center, the neoconservative idea features military force and the subversion of foreign nations. What the two visions do share is an antipathy toward modern nationalism. Note that Hofmannsthal differentiated his own attachment to Austria from the glorification of a modern nation state. Although Habsburg supporters have almost always spoken German, they tend not to be German nationalists (or German anti-nationalists in today’s leftist society).
Neocons display an even deeper reservation than the bearers of the Reichsidee about the showcasing of national pride, unless it can be made to serve non-national ends. Thus neocons can be for the United States only to the extent that it is linked to a globalist project, and they typically favor porous borders for the country that they claim to represent. Their view of this country as a “proposition nation” is clearly aimed at divesting America’s core population of any ethnic identity; at the same time they urge the country whose heights of power they have scaled, as Allan Bloom reminds us in The Closing of the American Mind, to wage war against philosophically different societies as an “educational experience.”
Leon Trotsky, who not surprisingly has remained a neoconservative hero, spent several years before the First World War in imperial Vienna; there the Habsburg government left him alone, as a harmless foreign noise-maker. From all accounts, the future revolutionary found Viennese life much to his liking, and he was often seen playing chess and gorging himself on strudel in coffee houses. It is possible to see Trotsky’s sojourn in fin-de-siècle Vienna as the overlap between two imperial ideas: the Habsburg and the neoconservative ones. For a brief while, the advocate of global revolutionary violence lived under the aegis of a gracious sovereign, but the sovereign and his empire vanished, and all sorts of noxious revolutionaries took their place. We are still living with the consequences of both catastrophes.
Paul Gottfried is author of, among many other works, The Strange Death of Marxism.