The Habsburgs can trace their family history back through the best part of a millennium, so it shouldn’t be too surprising if they see the last eighty years as more a glitch in the overall scheme of things than firm evidence for the end of their empire. Current Emperor Otto is a member of the European Parliament and head of the Pan-European Union; his son Karl fosters dreams of a revived monarchy in Austria – and strikes a note of cautious optimism when asked if he thinks restoration is likely. Otto and Karl’s belief that their family might once again become central to European politics may seem absurd, but as Wheatcroft persuasively argues, their optimism is entirely in line with the way the Habsburgs have ruled through the centuries.
Geographically dissipated, expansionist, lumbering, patrician, capable of an astonishing brutality at odds with its defining taste in art and music, the empire resembled nothing so much as a vast, family-owned, multinational company, albeit a company which could get away with the wholesale slaughter of its enemies. Without making the analogy explicit, Wheatcroft analyses the corporate culture which reigned in the empire, teasing out parallels between the behaviour of emperors separated by hundreds of years but pursuing more or less identical policies, all principally geared towards the retention of power across national borders and, particularly, towards keeping it in the family. The parallels with monolithic business extend to the empire’s downfall – ‘the Habsburgs, over time, constructed an environment in which things meant what (as in Humpty-Dumpty’s universe) you wanted them to mean…’ The family’s sense of its own importance and its perceived role came to supplant its political sense.
Wheatcroft’s passion for his subject is evident in this vivid, occasionally chaotic, always entertaining and incisive work. This may not be a comprehensive account of Habsburg history (it doesn’t try to be) but it is, for now, the definitive analysis of the machinery of their rule and the ethos which informed it.
Reviewed by Jennifer Merk