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  • Forging a Multinational State: State Making in Imperial Austria from the Enlightenment to the First World War by John Deak
John Deak, Forging a Multinational State: State Making in Imperial Austria from the Enlightenment to the First World War. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2015. 355 pp.

While John Deak's thorough study was not written to coincide with this year's commemoration of Francis Joseph's demise one hundred years ago—the book begins, after all, with the dynamics of Austrian governance under Joseph II in 1780—it is certainly a welcome and valuable contribution to the remembrance of Francis Joseph and his long reign of nearly seven decades. Deak counters the dominant paradigm of Francis Joseph as the last towering figure of an empire that was destined to fail because it was an outdated, medieval, multinational state entrenched against the modern nation-state model Hegel proclaimed as the endpoint in history. What Deak offers instead is "a new [End Page 127] history of the Austrian state-building project" (4), focusing on the intentions of central reformers "who continually sought to refine the Austrian state between 1740 and 1914" (6); he also tells the story of "how the bureaucracy came to be both the glue which held the state together and the lubricant which ameliorated its natural friction" (9). In short, instead of regarding Francis Joseph as synonymous with the decline of the Habsburg Empire, Deak seeks to "convince" (17) his readers that the Habsburg's complex monarchy was "a continually evolving polity" (16), not unlike the current European Union, providing a counterpoint to the all-too-popular bashing of (the imperial) bureaucracy or civil service (9).

In addition to relatively accessible documents, Deak cites a variety of primary sources he uncovered, including "memoirs, handbooks, reports, private letters, statistical handbooks, and manuals on regulations" (7–8), materials that allow him to present in six chronological chapters how the central imperial state was able to set up multiple levels of intertwined administrative layers fueled by an ethos of civil service that persisted after the reign of the reformer Joseph II.

Deak's perhaps too-friendly view of the Habsburg Empire and its educated elite leads, however, to several rather questionable assessments, such as his observation that "while Francis and Ferdinand ruled under the banner of reaction, they were not reactionaries" (61), supposedly because they left untouched the ethos of Josephinism, maintaining their "faith in its role as the motor of progress and development" (62). Similarly, he evaluates in contradictory terms Alexander Bach's administration by suggesting that it "may have been oppressive in the public sphere, but this guardianship of society also came with, and supplemented, both institutional modernization and economic development" (132). Deak's favorable opinion of the ever-evolving multinational and complex empire stems from his positive attitude toward the educated elite, or the Beamten, and their best intentions for a functioning, impartial, and progressive state in which central and local needs are ever coordinated or balanced. The author correspondingly downplays social frictions resulting from the economic modernization process or national conflicts, contextualizing them within continuous attempts to stabilize or make the empire-state work from within its administrative structures. A case in point is the so-called Stremayr Language Ordinance, which "elevated the Czech language to official status alongside German in Bohemia and Moravia" (203). Yet for Deak these nationalist politics "played an insignificant role in comparison to the qualities [End Page 128] necessary to represent the empire" (204). In other words, when taking consistently the view from the center of the empire "without privileging ideas of decline or a particular nation's rise" (271), a narrative emerges by which the paternalistic state flexibly deals "with the complexities of multinational, popular participation in policy making" (269). From this vantage point, Deak then concludes that the Habsburg Empire "was not ultimately defeated on the field of battle," noting that "in 1918 were no areas of the Habsburg Empire under enemy occupation" (264–65). Rather, the "war did not continue the process of state making, but ended it" (274). And while Deak admits "signs of decline in the long sweep of history in Habsburg monarchy" (271), such as the repressive stagnation of the Biedermeier in the years before the 1848 revolution and military defeats in the 1850s and 1860s, he nevertheless argues for an alternative narrative that is radical in that it views the fractured state from within its center. The extent to which Deak will sway readers may depend on their willingness to accept a strong endorsement of a conservative monarchy. Nonetheless, Deak's book is a refreshing alternative to an all-too-self-assuring myth of the inevitable decline of the Habsburg dynasty.

Peter Höyng
Emory University

Additional Information

ISSN
2327-1809
Print ISSN
2165-669X
Pages
127-129
Launched on MUSE
2018-03-23
Open Access
No
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