From Empire to Oblivion: Situating the Transformation of the Habsburg Empire in a Eurasian Context from the Eighteenth Century to the First World War

Jonathan Richard Parker
The University of Texas at Austin
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 11 Issue 2  (2022):422-444 DOI 10.38145/2022.2.422

In this essay, I situate the Habsburg Monarchy in the Eurasian imperial context by bringing together a variety of recent secondary literature dealing with the Habsburgs and examples of empires in world history. In doing so, I show how the Habsburgs paralleled and diverged from other polities that have been more consistently identified as empires. I also offer a schema for thinking about polities in terms of both how uniformly they are organized internally (i.e., how unitary they are) and the extent to which they can enforce the will of the center (how much like a state they are). This schema draws inspiration from a number of works, chiefly Karen Barkey’s Empire of Difference and Valerie Kivelson’s and Ronald Suny’s Russia’s Empires.

By applying this schema, I argue that the Habsburg Monarchy certainly embodied some characteristics of empire, even as its agents sought to transform it into something more similar to but still distinct from emerging nation states elsewhere. I argue that the Habsburg Empire underwent dramatic state consolidation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and that many of the transformations and challenges it experienced in this period were broadly similar to those which other empires underwent or faced. I begin by defining “empire” and showing how the Habsburgs fit into that definition in the eighteenth century. I then discuss attempts to reform the Habsburg Empire into a more unitary, less structurally imperial polity, though I also keep in mind the ways in which it retained imperial characteristics. Specifically, I examine the role of nationalism in supporting and challenging imperial rule. Finally, I examine the destabilizing challenges the Habsburg Empire faced, in particular elite consensus and international legitimacy (or lack thereof).

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