European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917–1957 by Dina Gusejnova
World War I brought the demise of three European empires: the Russian, the Austro-Hungarian, and the German. In European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917–1957, Dina Gusejnova explores the afterlives of these empires through the networks maintained by transnational elites. No longer part of imperial systems, these elites instead formulated new ideas about Europe that belong to the “cultural prehistory of European integration” as it unfolded after 1957 (xlv). Drawing on an impressively wide array of primary and secondary materials, Gusejnova focuses on a group of German-speaking intellectuals dispersed across all three former empires, whose ideas of international order have largely been obscured after 1945: the Germans, Count Harry Kessler, Count Hermann Keyserling, and Baron Hans-Hasso von Veltheim; the Austrians, Prince Karl Anton Rohan and Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi; and the Russian, Baron Mikhail von Taube.
Gusejnova is interested in how these figures “spoke, thought, and felt” about the end of empire, setting out to explain why revolution was not more widespread in Central Europe after 1917 (a theme less discernible throughout the book) and the role of these elites in imagining a future Europe (xxii, 235). These mostly liberal [End Page 180] German-speaking elites transformed their old imperial prestige into new “soft power” deriving from their transnational connections and their cultural influence. As such, they sought to retain a level of authority in shaping intellectual and political discourse.
In the book’s first part, Gusejnova situates the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand within what she calls an “affective genealogy of dynastic decline,” that, for the Habsburgs, extended back to the assassination of Maximilian I, emperor of Mexico, in 1867 (1). The fin-de-siècle period saw a number of violent deaths suffered by royal and imperial dynasties. Because imperial families in many ways “gave Europeans their first idea of themselves,” Gusejnova argues that contemporaries could “conceptualize imperial decline through the notion of death” (9–10). As “figures of public identification,” imperial elites (in this case, members of dynastic families) held a symbolic importance that, Gusejnova argues, continued to give them a degree of public relevance even after the end of World War I (5). The transnational bonds of imperial elites (a category which in subsequent chapters shifts from dynastic families to a broader strata of aristocratic intellectuals) persisted into World War I. Shared familial, interpersonal, and cultural ties, even as they served in opposing armies, gave these figures a cosmopolitan perspective on the conflict. These connections could be renewed after the end of the war.
With separate yet interwoven chapters on Habsburg intellectuals, German princes, and Baltic barons, the second part forms the heart of the book. In fact, Gusejnova’s study is at its strongest here, where she links individual biographies to various proposals for Europe’s future. Coudenhove-Kalergi, for example, was influenced by his family’s cosmopolitanism and his father’s Enlightenment and reformist ideas, and his Paneuropa project contained many of the elements of today’s European Union, such as a call to abolish internal borders and to create a unified currency and defense force. This future Europe was also built on intellectual and cultural legacies, as evidenced by the portraits of Kant, Nietzsche, Mazzini, Napoleon, and Dante, among others, decorating the hall of the Paneuropa congresses. Similarly, Keyserling’s School of Wisdom (supported by the Grand Duke of Hesse) gathered together cultural critics, philosophers, and Orientalists, among others, for cultural and philosophical study. At the school’s conferences, Keyserling hoped to apply this learning to the contemporary European political situation and emphasized the importance of aristocratic and intellectual leadership for the continent’s future. According to Keyserling, Germany (in particular) and Austria would play a leading role in a future Europe, because “the ‘representatives of German culture’ have displayed the least attachment to the ‘idea of a nation-state’” (127). Keyserling and his fellow members of the elite maintained a unique role in responding to contemporary European issues “by virtue of their detachment from nations” (xliii).
In the last part of the book, Gusejnova moves beyond her core group of elites to explore their broader impact in two very different cases, Nazi ideology and the [End Page 181] Bloomsbury Group. In both cases, Gusejnova presents German-speaking intellectual elites as either sounding boards for or conduits of ideas of empire and Europe. Alfred Rosenberg’s affinity for a chivalric past—which Gusejnova links to his attraction, as a Baltic German, to the Teutonic Knights, and to his encounters with intellectual and political circles in 1920s Munich—translated into an emphasis on pedigree in Nazi ideology and in an imagined future empire. With a different political result, a “post-imperial melancholy” brought together German and Austrian elites (in particular Kessler) and the Bloomsbury Group, though the translation of these connections into ideas of Europe is less clear (225).
Through her copious examples and wide-ranging research, Gusejnova gives the reader a sense of the world of these aristocratic elites as well as the world they had lost. Gusejnova follows three chronologies (historical events, “situations in which the past is remembered,” and “intellectual production”) in order to map a genealogy (literal and intellectual) as well as a transnational network (245). This volume of detail as well as the expansive range of topics included, however, at times obscures the central thread of the chapters.
In European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917–1957, Gusejnova brings to light a dense transnational network of German-speaking intellectual elites. While links between these individuals, their ideas, and later European integration are less clear, Gusejnova demonstrates that these German-speaking aristocratic elites established new internationalist roles and influence for themselves in nationalist, postimperial Central and Eastern Europe.