The Historical Musings of One who Journeyed through Eastern Europe

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Gabriel Yu, IB G11 (2017-18)

 

Upon the journey from Prague to Vienna, twisting through the winding roads of the foothills of the Austrian alps, the sun illuminated the ancient valley. As I sat in my seat, gazing at the grass as it flickered past me, I wondered of the long and illustrious history of the lands of Bohemia and Moravia, and that of Austria and her former Empire. It was upon such landscapes that the Hapsburg monarchy built her stake, wove her family and expanded her dynasty. We were journeying into the ancient heartlands of the Austrian Empire, the seat of her power.

 

In Prague, the city retained her splendour from her time under Imperial Austrian rule, yet her atmosphere was distinctly local. Her facades, towers and castles from that time still stand, but today they house bazars and confectionary shops. Her grand citadel houses today not the Imperial family, but the President and Prime Minister. Walking around the Church and the compound, I saw the days reminiscent of imperial rule – as if the walls were tainted in its colour, and the guards were in their uniforms. Incidentally, I wondered whether Czechs today muse about their former overlords as if they were their occupiers or liberators – did they miss the empire that gave birth to their nation and their city? What did they make of communists, who vehemently despised the imperial time and sought to erase it from the collective memory of the Czech people? And what of the situation today, where the old imperial symbols are once again brazenly displayed on the street? What did Austrian imperialism stand for?

 

One’s mentioning of imperialism often leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth. For one, the Hapsburg rule was hardly the most ruthless of empires that the world had seen. Primarily, I shall draw examples from the Roman and British Empires, though much larger in scale, not much different in principle, to the Hapsburg Empire. The Roman and British empires were founded from slavery, “civilized conquest” and grew to become among the largest empires in the world, spanning centuries and spreading “civilized culture” the world over. The Hapsburgs got their empire through diplomacy and marriage, controlling the Kingdoms of Europe through the strings of their relatives and relations.

 

The Roman and British Empires spread “European culture” throughout their worlds. The Greco-Roman civilization spread their cultural values throughout their vast empire around the Mediterranean Sea, permeating into every province, every city, every citizen. Their monuments, artworks, architecture, law and language remain the basis of every civilized nation that adheres to “western” principles – that is, the principle of governance, the rule of law, the basic rights to every citizen. The British Empire, an offspring of the Roman Empire, spread this culture around the world, taking their language, their values and their technology with them on their imperial conquests, enslaving and assimilating their people along the way. This is one’s normal perception of imperialist rule.

 

Yet the Hapsburgs were quite different – they did not seek the glory of imperial conquest and subjugation of peoples as the Romans did, nor did they soil themselves with such ideas as spreading European culture to the ignorant masses. They were content with their religion and their monarchy, and thought more about how to contain their neighbours than to conquer and subjugate them. The expansion into the Balkans, for example, was to hold of the imperial ambitions of their hostile southern neighbour, the Ottoman Empire. Their marriages into the Spanish royal family, the French royal family and the German princes were to contain them. Their wars, bloody though they were, were never about subjugation or the spreading of their values.

 

As I contemplated the peculiar case of Austrian Imperialism, I turned to her age old ally, or enemy, Hungary. Without Hungary, Austria would be no Imperial power – Austria had relied on her partner to give her the land, the economy and the route to her other territories to be called Empire. After the dismemberment of the Austrian monarchy, Austria itself could hardly remain an empire without her former territories. But, if Otto von Hapsburg had put on a crown and sat on a throne, would it make it an Empire nonetheless?

 

What makes Imperialism? Does it take more than just a crown, a name? Does it fulfil a specific set of requirements or criteria? Is it size? Economy? Or is it a set of values, such as lust for power, conquest and subjugation? Or is it achievement that grants one the title of Empire?

 

As we penetrated deep into the Austrian landscape, I mused deeply. At last, we had come to Vienna – the former Imperial capital of the empire that did no conquest, spread no culture nor religion, nor left any trace to its mystery. Perhaps one day, I shall find the answer that eludes me.