The fact that the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions is not surprising. The Dual Monarchy as it was known from 1867 – 1918, stretched from the Tyrol region of what is now northern Italy all the way to the remoter regions of Eastern Europe such as the Bukovina and Galicia. Beneath the umbrella of the monarchy an incredibly diverse array of ethnic groups, each with their own unique languages and customs lived for over half a century. There was a consistent pecking order among these groups with some more equal than others. Rights and responsibilities were weighted heavily in favor of Austrians and Hungarians. Trying to make a cohesive whole out of so many disparate parts was an incredibly complex process. Unlike the European Union, there were no universal principles allowing full equality under the law for all citizens. Many of the people who lived in the empire were mere subjects rather than citizens. Thus, it is quite surprising that the empire held together for as long as it did.
One of the oddest yet most historically enduring attempts to bring the empire’s subjects closer together was through the creation of a massive work of knowledge beginning in the 1880’s. Known as The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture. It was a monumental undertaking that would result in the publication of 24 volumes, an encyclopedic work that covered all regions and ethnic groups in the Empire. The brainchild of Crown Prince Rudolf Von Habsburg – the series was also known as the Kronprinzenwerk – it was meant to educate, illuminate and above all else make the empire’s disparate peoples feel part of a greater whole. This was to be done through the transmission of knowledge and learning. While strangely innovative, this idea did not achieve its intended effect. The bickering and plays for power among the empire’s subject peoples continued to worsen. Nationalism turned out to be a much more divisive force than imperial cohesion. What the landmark volumes did achieve has only become clear in retrospect, a reference work that provides historians with the kind of scholarship that offers insight into almost every aspect of the empire in the late 19th century.
Restless Radicalism – A Mind Boggling Endeavor
Crown Prince Rudolf von Habsburg’s legacy is mixed at best, deeply troubled at worst. He never rose to the position of Emperor, instead dying in a suicide pact with his young mistress Mary Vetsera in mysterious circumstances. This tragic affair tainted the way Rudolf has been viewed by historians. Politically there is little doubt that he was an almost complete failure. Forever at odds with his father, Emperor Franz Josef, a deeply conservative ruler who loathed his son’s yearning to reform the Empire. Rudolf was filled with ideas that were radical by the standards of that age. He was a liberal whose circle of friends was cut from the same cloth. The idea of transformative change was anathema the Emperor and his ministers. These officials ensured the Crown Prince’s ideas received a less than welcoming reception and that his room for political maneuver was extremely limited.
Largely locked out of politics, Rudolf sought other ideas that might improve the empire. This was how he hit upon the idea of a reference work that would cover every conceivable region and subject area in the vast lands of Austria-Hungary. The ambition and scale of the work boggles the mind. It would eventually take 16 years to produce 24 volumes with over 12,000 pages. The work was produced in both German and Hungarian language editions. A few volumes were also translated into Croatian. While impressive, the fact that the work was not translated and published in Czech, Slovak, Polish, Rusyn, Romanian or Italian seemed to be at odds with the project’s idealistic purpose of creating a transnational patriotism. As a matter of fact, some ethnic groups, most notably the Czechs and Romanians opposed publication of the work in any language.
A Monumental Work – The Ethnography Of An Empire
The logistics of creating and publishing the work was an undertaking of truly monumental proportions. In 1884, Rudolf met with his father and asked for his support to begin work. A year earlier, he had formulated the idea of an ethnographic compendium covering Austria-Hungary. The field of ethnography had been growing in popularity throughout both halves of the Monarchy in the decades leading up to the 1880’s. Franz Josef quickly gave his approval. It would be overseen at the highest levels by Rudolf. Two editorial committees were formed to oversee the day to day work. This included not only text, but also drawings and paintings of significant landscapes throughout the Empire. Two literary luminaries, Austrian Josef Ritter von Weilen and Hungary’s most popular novelist of the time, Mor Jokai, led the committees. Despite a mandate for extensive coverage of the entire Monarchy, decisions on content and resolution of any controversies were to be made in Vienna.
One of the most unique aspects of the project was its availability by subscription. This resulted in the publication of 397 consecutive installments on a bi-monthly basis. Eighty percent of these were published after Rudolf’s death. By that time, the project had gained momentum and would continue well beyond the life of its greatest promoter. Not surprisingly the first installments covered Vienna and Lower Austria. One can get a sense of the ethnic hierarchy of the empire by the order in which the 24 volumes were published. Discounting volumes two and three which were summaries of the nature and history of the Empire, six of the first ten volumes concerned Austria and two covered Hungary. Such remote regions as Galicia (#19), Bukovina (#20) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (#22) were among the last volumes published in full. Nevertheless, all areas were given extensive coverage by experts who were more often than not from those regions.
Reentry Vehicles – The Return To History
The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy In Word and Picture was almost totally forgotten after publication of the final volume in 1902 until its reemergence in the last decade of the 20th century. Interest was renewed after the Iron Curtain fell and history returned to Central and Eastern Europe. Many of the regions which had once been part of the Monarchy became independent nations during the 1990’s, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia and Slovenia. The volumes that had been produced on these areas provided historical and cultural context, insights that were of great use in understanding these newly born nations. The same was true for all the other areas covered in the project, lands that had been mostly forgotten until they moved from the periphery of European history back to its forefront. Likewise, Crown Prince Rudolf’s project and the 24 volumes which had resulted from it enjoyed a revival. An occurrence that neither he nor the editors of those vast tomes could have foreseen, let alone imagined.