Facing Crisis: How to Make Sense of an EU-Habsburg Comparison?

Julian Pänke

A comparison between the Habsburg monarchy and the European Union is regularly employed by journalists and policy advisors. Most academics avoid a closer look at Austria-Hungary to better understand certain dynamics within the EU, perhaps because the dissimilarities seem too obvious. Habsburg was a state, had an army and a foreign policy. Its normative power rested on dynasty. Vienna's civil servants worked throughout the whole territory and where not confined to a comparatively small region. Still, the parallels are striking: both 'large polities' are multi-national and engaged in eliminating borders and (re)distributing money within their territories to create political cohesion. Both are based on distinct arrangements between the centre and each nation. Both rest on an effective and advanced - albeit openly despised - bureaucracy. Both seem to offer protection and equality to small nations. Even more interesting, both share a prolonged period of stagnation accompanied by a sense of doom - in Habsburg in the two decades leading up to 1914 and in the EU since 2008. In Joseph Roth's Radetzky March, the cynical Count Chojnicki asks: "How much longer, how much longer? This era no longer wants us!" His quote resonates with many present voices lamenting the immanent disintegration of the EU. Facing crisis, the elites in both cases responded with pervasive pessimism which collided with a changing popular mood demanding action. Both elites meanwhile operated in precarious normative environments (dynastic or liberal), contested by this 'populist challenge'. Thus, this paper wants to explore and compare elite responses (politics, media, arts) in Habsburg and the EU to crisis and argues that the biggest challenge for the Union is a psychological one.

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