Tag Archives: Habsburg Empire

Rise and Fall of the Habsburg Monarchy

The Rise and Fall of the Habsburg MonarchyThe Rise and Fall of the Habsburg Monarchy by Victor-Lucien Tapié

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like to read epics. When I was younger, these were multivolume fantasy novels a la Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. More recently, when I find myself wanting a grand, sweeping narrative I tend to turn to history. There are plenty of epics here, rises and flourishing and falls, and at the end of whatever I’ve chosen I’ve learned a bit more about the shape of the larger epic we’re all still moving within.

In a historical epic, you want a good balance between detail and scope, something you don’t tackle for in-depth analysis but rather for a broad outline and a good, accurate story. In this genre I’d classify successful pieces like Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Norwich’s (abridged) History of Byzantium as well as Keegan’s The First World War. Part of the appeal of reading works like these is that there’s no exam at the end; you can read a story that doesn’t have any direct bearing on your research of academic discipline. This gives just a bit more freedom to let the narrative wash over you, to get caught up in it like a good novel and enjoy it for the way the historians tell their tale.

My latest historical epic was an English translation of a French historian’s Rise and Fall of the Habsburg Monarchy, and it didn’t quite hit that perfect balance. We had recently spent some time in Gorizia and Trieste, so we had touched a small corner of this history. The Habsburgs, ruling house of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for centuries, offer a sort of bridge between the regalia and imperial splendor of the late Middle Ages and the rise of nationalism and modernity into the 1900s. They were a shaping force in central Europe for hundreds of years, with an empire that united Austria and Hungary along with lands now including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, parts of Poland, and into the Balkans and Italy. It also united dozens of linguistic groups and cultures and provided a buffer between the Ottoman Empire and the rest of Europe. It was in its height and glory that its capital, Vienna, became the cultural jewel from which things like the Vienna Circle and the work of Wittgenstein sprang. And yet its growing instability with the rise of nationalism helped trigger the First World War, during which the entire edifice crumbled abruptly.

Certainly a lot to cover in a single-volume treatment, and plenty of epic scope.

What we have in this volume though is a bit more crunchy, a lot more political history than one might want. We get loads of data about populations in Hungary, Austria, and Transylvania over the centuries, the development of agricultural production, economic details, and an in-depth examination of the political structure of these three kingdoms. Tapié spends a good deal of time highlighting the mechanics of how the three primary sections of the empire were united and stayed that way. He also focuses on art, architecture, and music of the empire over its development. For Tapié, as likely for the citizens of the empire, the monarchy was equivalent to the political union of these kingdoms, and vice versa.

The characters of the various Habsburg monarchs don’t make much impression on the pages as individuals. They come and go and are remembered for their policies, with only a few like Maria Theresa or Francis Joseph making a mark as human characters in the narrative. They seem there primarily to fill specific roles, sometimes roles that only seem given in retrospect, such as the assassinated heir presumptive the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, whose death at the hands of Serbian radicals set off the dominoes of the World War.

For an attempt at understanding wide swaths of the history of Europe, as well as the patchwork of languages and ethnicities that were bound up for a time together and now have become the various states of central Europe, this is a hefty journey. It doesn’t simply give you the exciting portions, and Tapié’s discussion of wars in particular become confusing morasses of names and places. Rather, it’s a study in the politics of empire– not people but institutions– and how unity was maintained among diversity for hundreds of years.

Wittgenstein’s Vienna

Wittgenstein's ViennaWittgenstein’s Vienna by Allan Janik

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wittgenstein is a name that looms large on the landscape of twentieth-century philosophy, and one day I’ll get around to actually reading his work. For now though, I’m still dancing around the edges. I’ve written about Logicomix before as a creative introduction to the mathematical and philosophical scene in which Wittgenstein appeared, and about a year ago that led me to an excellent biography on Wittgenstein. This latest book on the philosopher, which had come up several times before in references to Wittgenstein, I found at a university library used book sale. I grabbed it immediately, possibly uttering a small shriek of excitement.

Wittgenstein’s Vienna is a cultural and social contextualization of Wittgenstein’s work. The authors are self-consciously unapologetic that their study is interdisciplinary and not well-suited to the lens of professional philosophy that would view Wittgenstein’s work in terms of the development of analytical philosophy alone. Rather, they say it’s important—essential—in understanding Wittgenstein’s major work to first understand the context in which Wittgenstein wrote, the final days of the Habsburg Empire and its capital Vienna just before the Great War.

By examining the culture of the period—the aesthetic revolts against insincerity and ostentation in music, literature, and architecture centered on the writings of the social critic Karl Kraus—they claim Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as a similar cultural artifact, a philosophical response to this environment. Instead of being intended (as it was perceived by the Logical Positivists) as a groundwork for analytical philosophy, Wittgenstein meant the Tractatus to rigorously define the boundary between facts and values. Critically though this was not to exclude values from the realm of importance (as the Logical Positivists took his famous closing phrase, “of what we cannot speak we must pass over in silence”) but rather to protect ethics and all that was truly important (and unspeakable) in the human experience from the encroachment of logic.

For the authors, Wittgenstein’s work is primarily a cultural, philosophical, and even artistic response to his social environment similar to that of Adolf Loos in architecture and will be (and has been) misunderstood without this broader context. As an example of an interdisciplinary study—and in itself a strong critique of philosophy divorced from context—Wittgenstein’s Vienna is wonderful. It takes a real problem—the interpretation of a famously eccentric man and his undeniably influential work—and it offers an answer grounded in full-bodied exploration of that man’s time and context.

My complaint is that though the arguments are compelling and even a pleasure to read, and though the authors make Habsburg Vienna come to life and illuminate things from the origins of modernism to the perils of political stagnation and the linguistic relations between subject peoples at the dawn of Eastern European nationalism, they tend to let a general zeitgeist form the mode of connection between all this and Wittgenstein. That is, a stronger argument would have connected the dots more firmly, including perhaps more of Wittgenstein’s correspondence and biographical links between Wittgenstein and the key cultural players, Kraus in particular. The authors argue that Kraus was central to creating and fostering the cultural critique in which they’re placing the Tractates—going so far as to call the Tractates a Krausian work—but I still was left with questions about the contacts and connections between the two men.

The work is multifaceted and branched off into lots of interesting side-trails along the way of contextualizing Wittgenstein and his work. There were, for instance, arguments related to the birth of modernism, particularly modern architecture. The authors claim, for instance, that the architecture of Loos was a revolt against ostentation and ornament for it’s own sake, that Loos thought use should dictate design. But they say once this mode was established, its minimalism became itself a new orthodoxy: modernism for its own sake, which gave rise to the Cartesian office buildings and apartments of today in which function is completely masked by uniformity, exactly the opposite of what early modernists like Loos had intended.

This work is compelling because it mixes together so many disciplines. Whether or not you’ve heard of Wittgenstein, if you’re interested in the history of philosophy and in particular the philosophy of language, Habsburg Europe, cultural history, art history, or even social criticism, there’s something in here that you can latch onto. Good books have lots of doors that open outward; this one is full of them.