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  • The Habsburg Empire: A New History by Pieter M. Judson
  • Peter Thaler
The Habsburg Empire: A New History. By Pieter M. Judson. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. xiii + 567. Cloth $35.00. ISBN 978-0674047761.

If a historian of Pieter Judson’s stature publishes a history of the Habsburg Monarchy, expectations run high. The American scholar, who has recently joined the faculty at the European History Institute in Florence, has established himself as the foremost representative of a new school of cultural historians who have transformed international Habsburg scholarship. In his latest study, Judson synthesizes his long-term research on the nature of Habsburg society and its diverse identities into a coherent whole.

The work differs fundamentally from most existing surveys of the Habsburg Monarchy. It does not strive to provide a comprehensive history of this polity. The investigation begins in earnest in the eighteenth century, with the accession of Maria Theresa to the throne. Her attempts to strengthen the monarchy through administrative and legal reforms marked the point at which an integrated polity took shape. [End Page 156] The study also has a clear thematic focus. Readers will not primarily consult it for the lesser details of Habsburg history, but for its new perspectives on this empire’s purpose and relevance. The book reads like an extensive essay on the monarchy, which also makes it more elegant than some of its more detail-oriented predecessors.

The Habsburg Empire investigates how countless local societies across Central Europe engaged with the dynasty’s efforts to build a unified state from the eighteenth century to World War I. The author concedes that this Habsburg state-building was promoted by political elites, but insists on the substantive contribution of numerous common citizens. The study consciously places the empire and its institutions at the center of analysis, rather than the ethnolinguistic entities whose titular nation-states ultimately succeeded it. At times, the author’s determination to refer to language groups rather than nationalities or ethnicities reaches its analytical limits, as it forces him to distinguish between Galician Jews and Polish speakers, as though these two categories were mutually exclusive, and to refer to a widespread suspicion against Serb speakers during World War I, although its vernacular alone would hardly make this population distinguishable from Croats and Bosniaks.

The concept of empire figures centrally in Judson’s analysis. He defines his book as an argument about the character, development, and enduring legacies of empire in Central and Eastern Europe. As a consequence, he also derives political nationalism in the Habsburg lands from imperial structures and regional traditions rather than from transhistorical ethnic groups. In fact, he regularly emphasizes that the national movements of nineteenth-century Europe were middle-class phenomena that did not appreciably touch the rural masses they purported to represent. This argument, which Judson has already formulated in such landmark studies as Guardians of the Nation (2006), makes an important contribution to the understanding of nineteenth-century politics. It needs to be complemented by the observation that the political activism of the era was generally built on a narrow social stratum and only gradually integrated peasants and workers.

To further reinforce his case, Judson points to the cultural diversity of other European countries and emphasizes that the ethnolinguistic challenges faced by the Habsburg Monarchy were far from unique. Instead, he ascribes the gradual erosion of imperial coherence to the very administrative structures that had been designed to manage this cultural diversity. Exciting as it is, this argument does not fully address the quantitative difference. The presence of relatively marginal minority populations in Germany or Britain cannot be equated with the Habsburg framework of a polity consisting only of minorities. The genuinely multiethnic Habsburg empire was forced to address its cultural challenges in a different manner than powerful European nation-states with minority populations.

Pieter Judson’s magnum opus provides fascinating new angles and interpretations and incorporates the most up-to-date literature on the subject. His focus on the bigger [End Page 157] picture and on weightier themes makes it easy to look past occasional inaccuracies in detail. Judson places himself in firm opposition to the...


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