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  • Workers and Nationalism: Czech and German Social Democracy in Habsburg Austria, 1890–1918 by Jakub S. Beneš
  • Kristina E. Poznan
Workers and Nationalism: Czech and German Social Democracy in Habsburg Austria, 1890–1918
Jakub S. Beneš
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017
x + 272 pp., $90.00 (cloth)

Jakub S. Beneš’s Workers and Nationalism seeks to explain “how the workers that made up one of Europe’s largest Social Democratic movements came to embrace nationalism” (2)—an answer to the enduring question of the paradoxical relationship between socialism and nationalism. The center of Beneš’s story is found not in parliamentary speeches or theoretical treatises or even on the factory floor, as in most works, but in the literary columns of Social Democratic newspapers and in orations on the streets. Indeed, Workers and Nationalism is “a much more cultural answer to the question of how workers in . . . [Habsburg Austria’s] Social Democratic movement became ethnic nationalists” (8). Beneš highlights the significance of print and oral culture, portraying workers as readers and as the authors of a tremendous body of poetry and prose. Their short stories spoke to class-based injustices, and their poems, songs, and orations marked May Day celebrations and other occasions; these provide the book’s main source base. The strong literary bent in Austrian Social Democracy allowed workers to meet in genuinely cultural associations, maintaining institutions and relationships even in the decades of the late nineteenth century when Social Democracy was politically repressed. Rather than fight workers’ growing national allegiances or many of their Catholic beliefs, Beneš explains, Austrian Social Democracy simply adopted them. Practices like these had the added benefit of shielding Social Democrats from some charges of national indifference or more subversive radicalism.

The period from 1905 to 1907 saw “the active seizure of universal voting rights by the social working classes” in Austria (100), putting the critical years for the development of Austrian Social Democracy a full decade earlier than in several other countries. From a marginalized subculture in the 1890s facing explicit governmental suppression, the Austrian Social Democratic Party rather suddenly became the most popular voice for Austria’s democratization. In 1897, workers had gained limited voting rights in a small new curia (a division of the Austrian electorate) and sent over a dozen delegates to the Austrian parliament. They built on that political momentum, Beneš explains, to argue for more sweeping electoral reform. In the late fall of 1905, more and more Austrians flocked to the Social Democratic suffrage movement, not only previously apolitical workers but also state employees and some professionals. On November 28, 1905, Social Democrats held a coordinated peaceful general strike and mass demonstrations on Vienna’s main ring road, in Prague’s Old Town Square, and in several other industrial towns. Because of this widespread popular pressure, legislation for nearly universal male suffrage [End Page 107] passed just over a year later, and Social Democrats won 23 percent of the popular vote and a sixth of the parliamentary seats in the subsequent election. “By 1905, workers saw parliamentary democracy as a panacea to cure all varieties of social exclusion,” Beneš concludes, and with their euphoric victories at the polls in 1907, “many appear to have thought that the revolution need go no further” (142).

Despite these successes, national chauvinism, the logistical difficulties of coordinating across languages, and strong preferences for a decentralized party all worked against a unified Social Democratic movement going forward. Both Czech and German Social Democrats increasingly argued that “their movement constituted the only site of genuine national loyalty” (144), prompting an ethnonational split. But even as Czech- and German-speaking Social Democrats embraced nationalism, different class interests and middle-class snobbery still prevented workers’ political alliance with bourgeois nationalist parties. “Workers,” Beneš finds, “seemed to feel no heightened affinity with their co-nationals among the middle classes and even continued to regard workers of the other nationalities as natural allies, even if they proceeded separately,” or, as they styled it, “autonomously” (3). They embraced national heroes like Jan Hus and Richard Wagner, respectively, as socialist icons, and appropriated national high culture. “Nationally hued Social Democratic events” challenged bourgeois claims to nationalism as...


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