July 2017 Spotlight On: Revolutions

“In Our Own Interests”: The Destructive History of Nationalism in the Habsburg Monarchy and What It Means for White Nationalists

The triumphalism in [nationalist] narrative[s] ignores the destructive nature of nationalism while also legitimizing it as a real and natural occurrence, despite the bulk of nationalist theory showing that it is far from that. By relying on this narrative, we may fail to see the danger present in new nationalist movements such as the recently emergent White Nationalism.

For more on the revolutionary impact of World War I, see Abby Holekamp’s Time for a Revolution.

by Thomas M. Messersmith

At the end of the First World War, the former Habsburg Empire was in shambles. The once proud monarchy had been dethroned, and the lands had been parceled off to fit the Wilsonian idea of national self-determination. These new pseudo-nation states, the story went, would fulfill the promise of the noble nationalists who had fought for centuries to free themselves from the yoke of the Austrian German oppressors. This narrative is probably the most familiar to American audiences, and it has a long reign in the historiography as well.[1] However, the idea that different ethnically-based nations had been struggling for centuries against the Habsburgs belies a misunderstanding of what nationalism is and its history in East and Central Europe. Furthermore, the triumphalism in this narrative ignores the destructive nature of nationalism while also legitimizing it as a real and natural occurrence, despite the bulk of nationalist theory showing that it is far from that.[2] By relying on this narrative, we may fail to see the danger present in new nationalist movements such as the recently emergent White Nationalism.

Image 1
Supporters gather at Wenceslas Square in Prague to celebrate the Czechoslovak Declaration of Independence on October 28, 1918. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Perhaps the largest historiographical problem with the narrative of the Habsburgs’ glorious collapse into nation-states is that it ignores the fact that nationalism was a minority view in the last days of the Monarchy. In fact, until the very end of the war, most within the Monarchy still defined themselves primarily as Habsburg subjects and were, at best, nationally apathetic.[3] In reality, the destruction of the Habsburg Monarchy was not due to nationalist tensions, but because of the desires of the allied forces to destroy it. Nevertheless, although nationalism on its own did not have the strength necessary to topple the Monarchy, it still represented a dangerous and destabilizing force, with rabid nationalists often committing violence and sowing mistrust in their government. Though their histories are still very different, both the United States and the late Habsburg Monarchy parallel each other in their pluralistic structure, with many different groups coexisting together. And from the last days of the Habsburg Monarchy, we can learn how destructive nationalism can be to a pluralistic society such as the United States. Though the monarchy’s collapse was not inevitable, it is still true that, if left to its own devices, nationalism—including its newest iteration, White Nationalism—is a centrifugal force that can lead to unnecessary death and destruction.

In order to understand the Habsburg Monarchy’s nationalism problem, and nationalist movements more generally, one must first understand what nationalism is and what it is not. To start, nationalism is not patriotism. It is not a love for one’s country or a belief in the social contract. Nationalism, in its most simple definition, is a belief that the “nation” should have control over its own political “state.” It is important to realize, then, that despite often being used interchangeably in the US, the “nation” and the “state” are not the same thing. The “state” is merely a political entity, organized under one government with one set of laws. It is possible for a “state” to be composed of many “nations.” For example, the United Kingdom is one state made up of several constituent nations such as the Scots, the Irish, the Welsh, and the English.

“If left to its own devices, nationalism—including its newest iteration, White Nationalism—is a centrifugal force that can lead to unnecessary death and destruction.”

What constitutes a “nation,” however, is a bit more difficult to explain. Benedict Anderson, perhaps the most well-known scholar of nationalism today, conceived of the nation as an “imagined community” in which people form bonds with others they have never met (and will most likely never meet) based on some perceived connection. In the case of European Nationalism, this often presents itself as a linguistic connection, though it can take many other forms as it suits the nationalist.[4]

So then, if the nation is “imagined,” in the words of Anderson, is nationalism itself real? Well, yes and no. Nationalism and the “nation” are ideas. So, they are real in the same way that any idea is real or, in some case, made to be real (reified). But there is not really any sort of intrinsic, scientific, historical, or cultural qualities that define a nation beyond that by which those who use nationalism decide to define it. Some (and I believe White Nationalists would agree) might argue that ethnicity is the separation between nations. However, this too is confusing, as ethnic and racial groups are somewhat ambiguously defined as well, mainly reflecting the social structures in which they exist rather than an intrinsic value. It is precisely this ambiguity that allows nationalism to be used for a variety of causes when it suits those who wish to use it.

Image 2
Czech nationalists and the Habsburg Army clash at a barricade in Prague during the June Revolution of 1848. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

We can see a number of parallels between the nationalisms of the Habsburg Monarchy and the emergent White Nationalism of today. However, for the sake of brevity, we will focus on one particular nationalism in the Habsburg Monarchy—the case of Czech and German nationalism in the Bohemian lands. This is one of the most famous clashes of nationalism, the resolution of which was often cited in its time as the triumph of national self-determination. One reason for this is the fact that nationalists such as Tomáš Masaryk and Edvard Beneš would later use national self-determination as the basis for founding an independent Czechoslovak Republic after World War I.[5] Then, as a prelude to World War II, Adolf Hitler would famously claim the rights of Sudeten Germans as the impetus for invading the so-called Sudetenland, making the past triumph that much more acute in the face of impending tragedy.

“Nationalism is not patriotism. It is not a love for one’s country or a belief in the social contract.”

Nationalism in the Bohemian lands was at its height at the end of the nineteenth century, with fights erupting over everything from representations in official celebrations to contested physical space. Nationalists met every perceived slight with derision and, in some cases, violence. The pervasiveness of these conflicts necessitated the need for many who otherwise may not have considered themselves nationalists to claim a national identity.[6] Nationalists at this time were still in the vast minority, with most people being apathetic to nationalism and seeing themselves as loyal Habsburg subjects, but the tensions created by nationalists often forced people to choose sides in a destructive cycle of political polarization that sounds familiar today. This minority group claimed to be the majority based on ethnic and nationalist definitions, despite not truly having the support they claimed. It was an imagined community, in which the only bond was the Czech language and the supposed ethnicity that came along with it.

Image 3
German nationalism riot in December, 1897, in protest of the Badeni Language Ordinances, which allowed for the use of the Czech language in internal governmental affairs in Bohemia. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Today, a similar phenomenon has sprung up around the so-called “White Nationalist” movement. This movement, led by people such as Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute and self-proclaimed inventor of the “alt-right,” identifies the American nation as being synonymous with white culture and espouses a belief that whites are intellectually superior to non-whites, utilizing racial pseudo-science and similar ethnic and nationalist arguments to those in the Habsburg Monarchy and Nazi Germany.[7] White Nationalism, on a historical level, is actually a fairly good name for the movement, precisely because it relies on the constructed ideas of nationalism. Though White Nationalism is formed upon socially-constructed racial backgrounds specific to the history of the United States rather than ethno-linguistic differences, it nonetheless fits the various definitions of nationalism. First, it wants the “nation,” in this case a white American race, to rule the United States. Second, it is an “imagined community” in Benedict Anderson’s formulation. Because of nationalism’s ambiguity and shifting definitions, White Nationalists can deploy the rhetoric of nationalism to fit their own white supremacist ideology while attempting to couch itself in the legitimacy of history as well as science. This does not, of course, mean that the White Nationalist ideology is valid. In fact, the imagined nature of the nation, both in the White Nationalist formulation and beyond, makes it invalid. In the pseudo-scientific and pseudo-historical ways in which those such as Richard Spencer want to use it, White Nationalism proves as constructed and hollow as any nationalism before it—merely an attempt to justify an abhorrent moral position.

Like the case of the Czech Nationalists in the Habsburg Monarchy, White Nationalists have been somewhat successful in creating a division within the culture, forcing people to choose between two polarized groups, thus increasing the polarization. (They are not, of course, the only ones to do this, but they nonetheless play a role in this process). However, in this case, instead of a choice between Czechs and Germans, it’s a choice between whites and non-whites, fascist and anti-fascist, or even, by proclaiming themselves as the defenders of America, between Americans and everyone else. These are false choices created only by the White Nationalists themselves. However, like the Czech nationalists, it has nonetheless been effective at sowing distrust in governmental systems, promoted violence, and helped to destabilize the government all by employing the rhetoric of an empty ideology.

By learning what nationalism is, and understanding how it is used, we can delegitimize it. By studying the history of nationalism in the Habsburg Monarchy and beyond, we can understand it. And by actively working to use this knowledge about White Nationalism, we can fight it and help to stop the destruction that it causes through violence and political polarization.

Messersmith BioThomas M. Messersmith a PhD student at the University of Maryland, College Park, studying Modern European History. His work focuses on the intersection Catholic political and religious belief in the late Habsburg Monarchy.


[1] Perhaps the most influential of these early works on the decline of the Habsburg Monarchy are: Oscar Jászi, The Dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929); A.J.P. Taylor, The Habsburg Monarchy 1809-1918: A History of the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).

[2] Some of this will be touched on below, but it is worth noting that there are two camps of nationalist theory, the constructivist and primordialist camps. While primordialists were more common in the past, most recent works have instead fallen into the constructivist camp, in which nationalism and the “nation” is a constructed ideal. For more on this, see: Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 2006); Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983); Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations (New York: B. Blackwell, 1986).

[3] This newer idea of “national apathy” can be seen most prominently in: Jeremy King, Budweisers into Czechs and Germans: A Local History of Bohemian Politics, 1848-1948 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002); Pieter Judson, Guardians of the Nation: Activists on the Language Frontiers of Imperial Austria (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006); Tara Zahra, Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the Bohemian Lands, 1900-1948 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008).

[4] This view is particularly prominent in Anderson’s work, as he pinpoints the rise of modern nationalism to the rise of mass media (in particular newspapers) and its ability to forge connections with all of those who could read a particular language.

[5] A good work explaining the use of nationalistic propaganda can be found in: Andrea Orzoff, Battle for the Castle: The Myth of Czechoslovakia in Europe, 1914-1948 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[6] For the utilization of public space for nationalistic purposes and the violence that accompanied this process, see: Nancy M. Wingfield, Flag Wars and Stone Saints: How the Bohemian Lands Became Czech (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[7] For the process of nationalistic political polarization even within political parties, see: Gary Cohen, The Politics of Ethnic Survival: Germans in Prague (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2006).

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