- Embers of Empire: Continuity and Rupture in the Habsburg Successor States after 1918 by Paul Miller and Claire Morelon
The traditional narrative on the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is that this was something deeply desired by the oppressed minority populations of the Habsburg-dominated lands and that the interwar period was a time of nation-building when groups such as the Czechs and Poles consciously built autonomous nation-states, only to have their thriving new countries imperiled by the rise of Nazism and then the expansion of Soviet influence through East Central Europe during the Cold War. To an extent, there is some truth in this, but it is an incomplete way of looking at the end of empire. More recent scholarship has focused on the continuities between life in Austria-Hungary and the experience of people living in these newly formed successor states. The text, Embers of Empire: Continuity and Rupture in the Habsburg Successor States after 1918, is part of this new scholarly approach to the early years of the new countries created in the wake of the First World War. The editors have amassed a collection of essays, all focused on the ways in which the people of nations such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Croatia built new paths forward without completely breaking with their pasts.
This text is divided into four sections. Number one addresses the experiences of local governments that may or may not have adapted to new circumstances. The next section focuses on the military, many members of which were faced with making difficult choices between loyalty to the country that had trained them and for which they had fought and a new country that represented their particular ethnic heritage. Section three appraises the situation of the church and aristocracy, both of which were deeply connected to the political structures of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and struggled at times to find their ways in post-imperial society. Finally, the fourth section examines the ways in which the memory of empire has been depicted. Each of these sections contains essays that focus on individual successor states to the Austro-Hungarian Empire or on the experiences of individuals who lived through this transition. The editors, having striven to show this experience across the many ethnicities of the former empire, have mostly achieved this. Of course, some groups are more easily examined than others simply because they created more accessible historical records. For example, we have a reasonably [End Page 124] good understanding of the experiences of Czechs in this period, especially urban Czechs who were educated and occupied positions of power in their new nation-state. This becomes more difficult when we look at the lives of Ukrainians, who were not as empowered in the interwar period and consequently their stories were not documented in the same detail. This helps to explain why some groups are better represented in this text and should also serve as a call to historians to work to find new ways to understand the lives of underrepresented nations.
An example of one of the best essays in this collection is also the first, Gábor Egry's chapter "Negotiating Post-Imperial Transitions: Local Societies and Nationalizing States in East Central Europe." Egry notes that most scholarship on the end of the empire focuses on the national level and that this leaves out the important role that local authorities played in either creating change in this period or maintaining the status quo. Understanding local government is particularly important as, during the transition from Austria-Hungary to new nation-states, local leadership was all that existed; in the power vacuum it ended up playing a significant role (16). His conclusion is that the governments of new states such as Czechoslovakia and the greatly expanded Romania would have liked to exert more control and tamp down minority expression but did not have the ability to do that effectively in the early years of independence (32). This fascinating perspective should spark further investigation into...