I cannot say whether my own fondness for the late 19th century/early 20th century results from the fact that I was, in large part, raised by my grandparents who were born and grew up in that last generation before World War I, but whether from personal prejudice or not, I think it is fair to say that the late 19th Century in Europe was the apogee, the Zenith, of Western Civilization, and it’s been straight downhill since 1914 for everything that one might value in the traditions of the West. This decline actually began a half century earlier in the United States with its own fratricidal “rehearsal” for the 20th century in 1861-65. But it was Europe’s “Great War” that brought the most beautiful things to an end, and one of the most beautiful things to be destroyed in that War was the Hapsburg Empire of Austria.
Previous moments of glory for Hapsburg Austria had included (1) the reign of Maria Theresa, mother of Marie Antoinette, and the not entirely unrelated life and career of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in the late 18th Century, (2) the final defeat of the Ottoman Turks on September 11, 1683 (yes, September 11 has always been a critical day in Christian-Muslim relations, apparently, or at least for over 330 years now), (3) the battle of Lepanto in the Gulf of Patras in the Ionian Sea off the western Greek Peloponnesian Peninsula (Peloponnesos) on October 7, 1571, and last but not least, (4) the first siege of Vienna by Suleiman the Magnificent which ended on October 11-12, 1529 with the retreat of the Ottoman forces, literally, from the Walls of Vienna.
Hapsburg Austria was instrumental in saving Christendom, and so Austria’s final destruction as a world power in 1918 may be symbolic of the final demise and destruction of Western Europe as a truly Christian continent in the world.
Although everyone knows the title of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, I am willing to bet that few have read it closely enough to recognize why Der Fuhrer would hate the title of this essay and have no sympathy with its content. In brief, Mein Kampf starts off with an indictment of Hitler’s native country, its role in history, and its very existence. It’s pretty clear to me from his introductory diatribe against the “Eastern Empire” and its 700 year ruling dynasty, the Hapsburgs, that Hitler had only the shallowest comprehension of European history. This failure to understand history was most notable in Hitler’s ill-fated invasion of Russia, the single “event” which turned his nearly victorious conquest of Europe into an abject failure, but that’s a separate topic for another essay.
On June 28-29, 2014, the Hundredth Year since Gavrilo Princip’s (pardon my saying so) idiotic act of assassinating the Austrian heir apparent, I cry for the loss of Austria as a world power, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and for the Hapsburg Dynasty as among the most valuable and stabilizing elements of European history EVER.
Though p’raps I may incur your blame, the things are few I would not do to convince you that the demise of Austria as a power in Central Europe is truly much more at the root of the troubles of the rest of the 20th Century (and even today) than is normally given credence or credit.
(1) Hapsburg Austria was the most stable power on the Continent, with a longer-continuity of rulership (since their Rheinisch Swiss origins in the early 11th Century, taking charge of Austria in 1276, and remaining there until 1918) than any monarchy in all of Europe save that of England, and rendering Austria the most stable institutional configuration in Europe after the Vatican first and England Second.
(2) Austria—etymologically “Österreich, the Eastern Empire” (or more metaphorically, the Empire of [Christian] Easter)—defined the eastern boundary of Western, Christian Europe for most the same six and a half centuries of Hapsburg domination. Both before after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, the Armies and Navies of Austria kept the Saracens and other Muslims at bay, doing on the East Side of Europe for nearly three gifts of a millennium what Charlemagne did in 800 by defending the Pyrenees Mountains on the South from the Islamic Caliphate of Cordoba in Spain.
(3) Austria was a greater center of music and arts than any other region of the German speaking world during most of that time, but especially after A.D. 1600. Nuremberg in Bavaria was Vienna’s nearest competitor. Berlin never amounted to much of anything until the later 19th Century. Frankfurt, Mainz, and Cologne, and Württemberg all pale compared with Vienna, equal at most to Salzburg. The monastery of Melk knows few if any peers anywhere in the world. Mozart simply knows no peers anywhere. Vienna during the 19th Century was a much more stable center of intellectual and scientific development than Paris, albeit quieter.
(4) The Nineteenth Century, which effectively died on 28 June 1914 at Gavriolo Princip’s hand, was defined by the greatness of Vienna, Paris, and London in nearly equal terms. But, remarkably, Austria, second oldest of the monarchies, and center in 1815 of the reactionary Congress of Vienna, where Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich orchestrated not only the end of the Napoleonic Era set the stage for a very conservative post-revolutionary generation-and-a-half Europe brought to an end by the uprisings of 1848 which followed the publication of Marx’ & Engels’ Communist Manifesto in February of that year.
Ironically, in light of what followed in Europe, by 1914 Vienna, Austria was clearly the most liberal and most enlightened, free-thinking spot in Europe, even including England. Just how liberal was Austria? For the heinous crime of assassinating the Heir Apparent Archduke and his Duchess-Consort, Austria knew in 1914 no more severe penalty than life imprisonment. How liberal indeed? At least as amazing as the abolition of Capital Punishment in Austria, it is remarkable that Hitler’s homeland was not only not anti-Semitic, but Vienna had a higher status Jewish middle and professional class than anywhere else in Europe: Sigmund (and his daughter Anna) Freud, Alfred Adler, and Melanie Reises Klein in psychology and psychiatry, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schönberg in music, among many others. Some have speculated that “familiarity bred contempt” in the young Hitler who went to private school in Linz side-by-side with the much wealthier future Jewish-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (born, coincidentally, to Austria’s second wealthiest Jewish family, second only to the Austria Rothschild’s only 6 days after Hitler, on April 26, 1889, and thus also celebrating his 125th birthday this year). The anti-Semitic scandal known as Dreyfus affair was French and Benjamin Disraeli, although the U.K.’s First (and only originally) Jewish Prime Minister, converted to Christianity and died a practicing Anglican. Alfred Adler and Ludwig Wittgenstein also converted, but until 1938, Vienna was perhaps the most comfortable place in Europe to belong to the continent’s most traditionally detested minority.
(5) So in short, Austria was far ahead of its time in so many ways: multi-cultural and embracing more “minor” nationalities than any other place, liberal in every social and cultural regard, and yet supremely civilized in the best traditions of Western European Christendom, led by a Kaiser of ancient lineage. Multi-culturalism as defined in Austria-Hungary somehow did seem “degenerate” as it does today and certainly, not cause the degeneration of European civilization in Vienna, but offered a strong and positive “road not traveled by” (multiculturalism under German Christian leadership) since the collapse of that empire in 1918.
Austria’s natural and architectural beauty survived the brutality of allied bombing during World War II better than the rest of the German Third Reich, and Austria endures until today, little larger than Switzerland where the original castle Hapsburg was located not so far from the Rhein and the Carolingian relic principality of Liechtenstein (where some of my ancestors come from), but it is strange that Prague and Budapest were once respectively the Second and Third Cities of the Austrian Empire, Prague being Mozart’s preferred venue for premiers, and that Trieste was Austria’s harbor from which the great Austrian Navy was launched for roughly 400 years. But by the truncation of Austria to its very German nub, Europe after Versailles lost the great balancing power of Central Europe, and the greatest historical “defender of the Faith” against Islamic and other Eastern Invasions….
Of course, once again, in the 1950s through 70s, Vienna was once again at the gate of the terror that was the East (this time defined by Communism)….but it had lost all realistic power and position of leadership to do anything about it—leaving a power vacuum which ultimately was filled, ironically, by the American Empire, about as far to the West as one can imagine…. Had Austria survived, or could we reconstitute the Christian Led nature of Austrian multi-cultural liberalism, the world today would be a much better place.