Austria, Hungary, and the Habsburgs. Essays on Central Europe, c.1683-1867

TitleAustria, Hungary, and the Habsburgs. Essays on Central Europe, c.1683-1867
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialEvans, R. J. W.

book, ISBN 978-0-19-928144-2

Publisher Oxford University Press, Oxford
Review year


Full Text

The collection Austria, Hungary, and the Habsburgs. Essays on Central Europe, c.1683-1867covers the complex terrain of Central European history in the 18th and 19th centuries from a rather unique vantage point: its author, R.J.W. Evans, Regius Professor of History at the University of Oxford, aims to steer a middle course between centralist and regional currents, stressing instead the interrelations between peripheral perspectives and also estimating their impact upon the center (p.viii). This middle course enables him to discuss a multiplicity of local perceptions as well as misperceptions and raise a number of essential questions that have too often been marginalized by the dominance of national(ist) preoccupations (for some rather characteristic remarks on the impact of contemporary perceptions on national historiographies, see p.191). In Evans’ case this precious vantage point is also combined with an excellent knowledge of important sources in many languages, including all the major ones of Central Europe, and frequent references to some highly influential scholarly works (also several written longer ago, which appears rather uncommon among practitioners of the historical profession nowadays).
The essays collected in Austria, Hungary, and the Habsburgs provide ventures into political history, above all else – social historical indicators such as the reference to the 4,300 appointed royal officials and the 6,000 county employees in the Hungary of 1840 are indeed noticeable because of their rarity (p.177, p.182) – and are also distinguished by a prose style of exceptional verve that displays immense erudition. Evans’ narrative explorations also feature many thoughtful observations and pursue some arguments that are clearly revisionist in intent. Perhaps the best illustration of how the ‘middle course’ he strikes can be combined with ambitioning stark reassessments (of the 1850s in particular but also of the Monarchy’s potential to modify its course and develop further) can be found in “From Confederation to Compromise: The Austrian Experiment, 1849-1867.”
While Evans recurrently stresses the importance of the Holy Roman Empire and later on of German developments for the Habsburg Monarchy, arguably the most significant thread running through the volume is his focus on the underexplored connections and asymmetrical relations between the Austrian center, “a singular and indeterminate form of state” (p.194) with its traditionally “weak hegemony” (p.266), and the two most crucial and compact entities within the Austrian realm, Hungary and Bohemia. (It is indicative of the complexity of the historical terrain as well as the diversity of Evans’ thematic that he devotes an essay to the highly significant linkages between Hungary and ‘non-Austrian Germany’ as well, discussing an important angle of another triangular pattern.) The collection includes a highly interesting study of Bohemia and Hungary, which is eminently comparative and notes significant differences between these two rather well-defined kingdoms incorporated (in different ways and to differing degrees) into Austria, while also discussing the notorious failure of cooperation between them (“Empire and Kingdoms: Hungary and Bohemia in the Monarchy, 1741-1871”, see the conclusions on p.208 in particular). This essay might be considered the central one in the volume under review, as it opens up a rich field of exploration where collaborative efforts have only rarely, if ever, proceeded very far among scholars, but one that could significantly reshape our understanding of Central European history as a whole.
The history of Hungary’s controversial and rather ambiguous place in the Monarchy (significantly its only part in 1740 which had always stood outside the Holy Roman Empire) is among the most important issues addressed and receives much attention throughout. At the beginning of his book, Evans surveys the programs of Hungary’s incorporation, the key issue around the time of the unprecedented extension of Habsburg power in Central Europe at the late 17th and early 18th centuries when the main confrontation took place here (pp.5-7). A certain level of later symbiosis notwithstanding, the work of Habsburg Monarchs such as Maria Theresa and Joseph always remained incomplete in respect to her. As Hungary was underpaying as well as underrepresented and the pursuit of changes encountered special obstacles, Evans observes a broadening gap between her and the rest of the Monarchy in the 18th century, in spite of several significant attempts to achieve the contrary (see the essay “Maria Theresa and Hungary”). In his assessment, even the Compromise and the ensuing “dually centralist” system led to greater divergence rather than increased congruity (p.263). It is characteristic of Evans’ scholarly concern with regional as opposed to national developments and the intertwined history of groups that the only article entirely devoted to Hungary (“Religion and Nation in Hungary, 1790-1849”) offers a survey of all significant national groups and the role of their denomination(s), aiming to enlighten the ambivalent “turning point between traditional kinds of group behavior and modern ideology” (p.169). In 1848-49, belonging to certain large denominational groups did not prove decisive, but there were two significant exceptions, namely the Serb and the Romanian Orthodox populations – thus, the civil war raging at this time could perhaps be labeled the First Balkan War, Evans muses (p.166, p.169).
As already indicated, next to the narration of major developments in Hungary and their complex relations to the Habsburg Monarchy, the other most crucial territory of the dynastic realm, Bohemia also features prominently on the pages of Austria, Hungary, and the Habsburgs. The intricacies of Bohemian history under Habsburg rule receive an overview in “The Habsburg Monarchy and Bohemia, 1526-1848,” in which Evans shows that while Bohemia’s spiritual distinctiveness declined and Czech language and literature notoriously suffered during several of these centuries, Bohemian culture would continue to flourish even beyond 1620, with its particularities barely diminished and strongly reasserted in the age of Romanticism (p.88, p.97). What is more, Bohemia’s ‘provincialization’ within Austria had important counterparts: its economic might remained central to the functioning of the entire system, Bohemians were remarkably well integrated in Vienna and evolved an oligarchic form of cohesion with Austria, creating a symbiosis of loyalty with enlightened patriotism, for instance (p.93, p.97). As Evans writes, during the last stage of the Austrian old regime “if Bohemia had come to form a mere province of Austria, Austria was now governed to a remarkable degree by that same oligarchy from Bohemia” (p.94).
Evans explores a number of additional individual themes in the course of his sixteen explorations. These include his learned discussions on the very mild nature of the Austrian Enlightenment as seen from a pan-monarchical perspective, which was accompanied by a shift in attitudes towards humanism and history – and the latter quickly led to the first stirrings of a regionally or nationally based patriotism in non-German lands (p.49, p.55); on how cultural transitions were drawn into an ever closer alliance with forces of the state, an alliance that soon started to founder “on the problematic character of Austrian statehood” (p.73); on the history of one of the veritable German diasporas, the Saxons of Transylvania who are compared with other German migrant groups; on the history of the Central European idea as well as several of its conceptual alternatives; as well as on the difference between historic and artificial frontiers and the connections between mapping and nationalism. With the inclusion of these more independent essays, the collection not only manages to open up several exciting and partly new avenues to approach some of the central questions in the history of Central Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, but also offers a stimulating and varied read.