Forging a Multinational State
State Making in Imperial Austria from the Enlightenment to the First World War
John Deak



In 1910, Emperor Francis Joseph, as an example to all his peoples, filled out that year’s Austrian census form. Under the rubric for occupation, the eighty-year-old emperor could have put down any number of titles: Emperor of Austria; Apostolic King of Hungary; King of Bohemia; Archduke of Austria; Duke of Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola. If he felt ironic—which he rarely did—he could have put down King of Jerusalem, a title he inherited from his crusading ancestors from Lorraine. Instead of trotting out these ancient titles, however, Francis Joseph thought for a moment and wrote “self-employed chief official.”1 Historians often recount Francis Joseph’s many titles as they open their accounts of the late imperial monarchy. The titles make the monarchy seem old and obsolete—a product of medieval times; and they make Francis Joseph’s sovereignty seem broken and antiquated. Francis Joseph, when considering how he fit into the colorful mosaic of his multinational, diverse empire, was at heart a bureaucrat. In this book, I will also argue that Francis Joseph was also a state builder who followed the lead of the tens of thousands of civil servants whose mantle he wore.

Francis Joseph was a state builder insofar as he sat as the head of a state that had shared in the larger process of modernization and state building with the other states of Europe. So, when historians recount his titles, his kingdoms and lands, they hide or obscure the modern state that Francis Joseph ruled. That modern state was the result of a process which began with his great-great grandmother, Maria Theresia, in the eighteenth century, and culminated in Francis Joseph’s Imperial Commission for Administrative Reform on the eve of the First World War. This book is the story of this state-building process and the state that came from it.

What is state building? State building is a historically grounded concept, describing long-term structural changes in temporal power. State building, or “state making,” has framed our understanding of early modern Europe. It encompassed the processes and features of building the apparatuses of the state as well as the formal and informal institutions that make up a state: building and organizing armies, taxing the populace, policing citizens, and controlling the food supply. Finally, building a state means creating “technical personnel” to coordinate all of the above. It meant creating a bureaucracy, building a bigger army, and therefore fighting more successful wars. Early in the modern period, these innovations in the reach and the technologies of statecraft snowballed, accumulating more and more objects, tools of knowledge, and aspects of society as it formed. After the eighteenth century, the state increasingly took over education from the Church and private institutions, determining the curriculum to create obedient subjects and potential state agents.2 It would acquire knowledge in road and bridge building, it would fund railroads and build canals to create greater networks of transportation for its armies and in order to speed the flow of taxable commercial goods.3 States broke down the intertwined economic, social, and political authority of guilds in the towns and the nobility in the countryside.4 Citizenship and public law ultimately were set at the state level; people’s rights and obligations as citizens were no longer dependent fully on their belonging to a town, a civitas, but to the state.

The Habsburg monarchy from Maria Theresia to Francis Joseph offers us a rich multinational and multicultural history. But it typically has not been the subject of books that approach it from the standpoint of state building. Positive assessments of the Habsburg monarchy, ones that put the monarchy squarely in the middle of European history, are few and far between. For a long time, the history of imperial Austria in the modern era has been a story of backwardness, a failure to innovate, and thus a story of decline and fall.5 If anything, the Habsburg monarchy has typically been seen as a failed state which could not and did not provide an adequate army to survive the First World War or the proper democratic outlets for its many national movements.6

The idea that the Habsburg Empire was not a state, or was a failed one, has long and deep roots. Its seeds were planted by the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, first published by his students in 1837. Hegel taught that progress happens in a complicated process, but that it could be understood linearly, through the rise and fall of successive civilizations. Hegel’s contribution to a holistic understanding of the past came from looking at pinnacle civilizations at any given time. At the time of his writing, this was Prussia. The modern form of society in his own time became the nation-state, and it would be Prussia’s historical raison d’être to unite Germany under its tutelage. Austria was not a pinnacle civilization. It contributed little to the forward movement and progress of European civilization. If anything, Austria served as an obstacle to European development. It was a hindrance and therefore a topic for antiquarians but not for true historians who sought to understand the progress of humanity as a whole.7

Following Hegel, historians, historical sociologists, economists, and political scientists have seen the Austrian state as an anachronism. As the rest of western Europe developed into “modern” nation-states, between the Renaissance and the First World War, Austria remained bound by a supposedly medieval organization of formerly independent kingdoms and lands. The persistence of this view is striking and its place in modern history texts is pernicious. By the twentieth century Austria was, according to a recent volume on the First World War, a “medieval holdover.”8 For Hegel, the diverging historic paths of Prussia and Austria showcased where the “world-spirit” was at work and where it was wholly absent. In courses on German history, we often see and hear the phrase, “While Prussia innovated, Austria incubated.”9 Prussia acquired legitimacy as a European power through a thorough reform of its institutions while Austria clung to its legitimacy through the loose unification of its historic parts. One was destined to rise, to become a state, while the other was doomed to decline and fall as a rickety old empire and a monument to a bygone age.

Historical studies of state building, the way we understand the emergence of modern states on the map of Europe, have largely followed Hegel’s lead. In the works of Tilly and his fellow scholars in comparative politics of the Social Science Research Council, the long-term structural changes that Europe underwent between 1500 and 1900 favored the development of nation-states. Tilly wrote in the introduction to his landmark edited volume of 1975, that “the relative homogeneity of the European population facilitated the emergence of the national state” because it made it “easy to divide the continent up into mutually exclusive territories.”10 As subsequent authors wrote on the state-building aspects of military, police, and taxation, for all their erudition and sophistication, the nation-state was still the endpoint; they wrote in the universe that Hegel created in the second decade of the nineteenth century. Within European history at large and in western civilization courses (even if less so than when I attended college in the late 1990s), we still follow Hegel’s narrative of the rise of the nation-state.

This is a major mistake. State building needs to come to Habsburg central Europe and be read by historians, sociologists, and political scientists, because the state was utterly transformative there. Moreover, historians of Europe have done something Tilly probably never intended: we have written large parts of Europe out of the narrative of European history. Nonnational narratives—narratives that do not arrive at the establishment of nation-states—have been ignored. The Habsburg monarchy, for instance, appears as an imposing or great blotch of a single color on the European map, but it is rarely covered in our textbooks or in our courses on western civilization. The story of western Europe’s rise has for a long time been taken as the story of Europe. The story of the less fortunate east—whether as economically backward or the “bloodlands” between Hitler and Stalin—has long been the story of pathology and misery. It is also, now, a story of the nation-state.

This book presents a new history of the Austrian state-building project, a history which is also a deeply European one. Standing at the center of Europe, the Austrian monarchy was home to a multitude of established and emerging national movements.11 A largely peasant society in 1740, it was industrialized in many places by the First World War, and was establishing robust trading and economic links all over the world. Moreover, it developed strong state institutions that constantly had to negotiate with regional and local interests, interests that became increasingly shaped by nationalist ideas. In a very real sense, the Habsburg monarchy offers many lessons to the multinational, global present. Particularly relevant is the story that historians have largely ignored—that of the central state.

Recent studies which look beyond the nation-state paradigm for understanding the past—for Europe’s past offers the present more than just the story of emerging nation-states—have offered much in the way of subverting a larger and overly simplistic narrative of East and West, modern and anachronistic, democratic and despotic.12 The Hegelian narrative of Europe loses its primacy through the ever-evolving European Union and by the influence of postcolonial history. Nation-states no longer seem like the “natural” endpoint of state building. Now we can pose the question of how nations will fit into the new Europe? Are regions like Catalonia or Bavaria better units than nation-states? During a talk at the Johns Hopkins University Center in Bologna, Italy, in 1995, Tony Judt asked his audience to consider the Habsburg Empire as a multinational antecedent of the EU: “For what is ‘Brussels’ after all, if not a renewed attempt to achieve that ideal of efficient, universal administration, shorn of particularisms and driven by rational calculation and the rule of law?”13 It is time we begin to consider, twenty years after Judt’s lecture, just what the Habsburg monarchy can tell us about the emergence of states and about the possibilities and challenges of multinationalism, or transnationalism, in Europe.

The story of the Habsburg state has become relevant once again, and the nation-state histories which have underpinned our understanding of progress now seem less natural and absolute. But we still have far to go. We need new narratives of central-European history that take account of historical change divorced from narratives that privilege political decline and the rise of the nation-state. It is imperative that we look at what kind of state the Habsburg monarchy was, how it developed over the nineteenth century, and in what ways its structures answered and did not answer the challenges of exercising sovereignty in a diverse space with many languages and a variety of social, legal, and economic systems. The real challenge is that state-building and political developments make for large, sweeping narratives, while telling the story of the Habsburg monarchy calls for qualifications, exceptions, and complexity. From Barrington Moore to Theda Skocpol, writing about how states develop, and how political participation emerges within states, has required comparative history and a broader view: the “big structures, large processes, and huge comparisons,” to borrow a phrase from Charles Tilly.14 These works have provided historians and social scientists with broad outlines and an incredibly broad view of institutional change over the centuries; but they have also—unintentionally—created large gaps in our knowledge of states by focusing on paradigmatic cases. Moreover, the trend has been to write about state building and the larger social and economic processes that accompany the emergence and solidification of states as divorced from context, from contingency, and from people. This did not have to be the case.

Applying the knowledge and questions of state building to the problem of the Habsburg Empire has traditionally meant telling the story of what the Habsburg Empire failed to do:15 it failed to become a highly centralized nation-state; to adapt to modernity; and, eventually, to survive the First World War. It missed out on the key developments of strong states, including the mobilization of nationalism, rapid industrialization, and the maintenance of its great power status.16 But such stories miss what actually happened in the monarchy; they miss the intentions of the rulers, the dynamics of compromise that characterized Habsburg rule, and they miss the fundamental groundwork for central European political culture that was forged under the Habsburg rulers. To tell this story, I focus on the intentions of Vienna and its central reformers, who continually sought to refine the Austrian state between 1740 and 1914.

The Bureaucrats

In telling the story of the Austrian state-building project, I have invariably told the story of imperial Austria’s officials and bureaucrats. The word bureaucracy, and by extension bureaucrat, carry a pejorative meaning. Literally, bureaucracy means “rule of the office” and is often used as a foil to democracy, “rule by the people.” Bureaucracy therefore signifies larger problems of complex societies, like red tape, bean counting, and, of course, the arbitrary use of authority. But democracy and bureaucracy are false antonyms. Administration, to use a less pejorative term, in the twenty-first century is inherent to modern democratic societies. Bureaucracy is the instrument of parliaments, presidents, and elected representatives to “accomplish the complex social tasks” that the people charge their elected representatives to do.17 Bureaucratic power seems like a boring thing, filled with tedium and routine. But the very act of collecting papers and selecting cases and files produced norms—norms that would build routines in bureaucratic policy making in the far corners of the monarchy. These routines extended and concentrated authority in the state and its officials, and structured how the Habsburg monarchy developed, in terms of infrastructure and institutions of political representation, over the course of the nineteenth century.18

Telling such stories is not without its challenges. The Austrian writer Robert Musil (1880–1942), one of the greats of twentieth-century modernism, peppered his unfinished magnum opus, The Man Without Qualities, with casual observations on imperial Austrian politics and the bureaucracy. One such passage evokes the cultural capital and yet mystique of Austrian bureaucratic culture. The protagonist, Ulrich, while listening to proposals on “the Parallel Campaign” to celebrate Francis Joseph’s seventy-year jubilee (which would have occurred in 1918), told an impertinent joke. His interlocutor, Diotima, ignored him and continued speaking. Ulrich “searched involuntarily between her words for the yellow and black strings, which punctured and bound together the leaves of paper in the ministries.” Doderer tells us that Diotima continued speaking and Ulrich tried to interrupt, but somehow “in that moment, the vestral incense of the high bureaucracy gently clouded over his interruption and gently veiled its tactlessness. Ulrich was astounded. He stood up, his visit had obviously come to an end.”19

Ulrich lost his sense of time, and his ability to speak or even to think, in the incense cloud of Austria’s gentle bureaucracy. Bureaucratic organization, red tape, laws in legalese—all of these things combine to cloud our vision of the past. How can we grasp the essence of change when we cannot see its center? How can we find our own way through? The bureaucracy produced all the pages that fill the files of the General Administrative Archives in Vienna and its papers fill up mountains of files in provincial and national archives across central Europe. Its reports, drafts, and documents, fastened together with “the yellow and black strings” that Musil mentions, are the single largest evidence of their existence. And yet the authors of these reports remain hidden behind the cloud of incense, evading our grasp. Waltraud Heindl, the master of the history of Austria’s imperial civil service, writes of the inherent “secrecy” that impedes study of the bureaucracy. The scholar encounters anonymity and “the intangible . . . that which is meaningful and that which resists meaning.”20 The bureaucracy produces mountains of paper, but these papers offer no direct account of its own history. The names on the reports are scribbled at the bottom, often illegible. One can cross check them with the names printed in the Court and State Handbook of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, published yearly between 1874 and 1918, but names can tell us only so much. As the Austrian state expanded and the volumes of paper increased, crowding the bureaucrats out of their own offices, the bureaucrats systematically pulped the paper, thus shredding the vestiges of their own recent past. Finally, the Austrian bureaucracy hid its own numbers. For large periods of time, we do not know with any certainty how many people the state employed. The incense cloud sits over large swathes of state building, veiling our inquiries.

Nevertheless, pockets of clarity appear now and then. Bureaucrats left behind discernible traces of themselves and their careers. My sources include memoirs, handbooks, reports, private letters, statistical handbooks, and manuals on regulations and comportment of the bureaucrats themselves. In many ways, the state-building project is their story: the reformation of the bureaucracy under Maria Theresia; Joseph II’s infusion of the civil service with a particular statist ethos; the reforming impulse of the bureaucracy in bloom after the revolutions of 1848; and the struggle to maintain the bureaucracy as a cohesive force in the monarchy after the systematic expansion of suffrage after 1860. But I am well aware that, though the story I tell is particular, it is also the story of the central, imperial state. This, at least on the surface, goes against the grain of recent work in the field of empire and bureaucracy studies. In particular, relatively recent work on colonial bureaucracies has emphasized how regional and local bureaucrats implemented their own ideas and followed their own interests independent of the metropole.21 Bureaucrats frequently changed their orders on the ground in order to negotiate the differences between the grand ideas in the central offices and the realities of their local situation. Bureaucrats had to and did form their own tools of knowledge, their own methods of administration, and their own strategies for state building. Habsburg bureaucrats did this as well, proving to be a flexible instrument that navigated the linguistic, legal, and social diversity of the Habsburg lands. The late imperial period of the Habsburg Empire (roughly from 1867 to 1918) has been widely criticized for its “bureaucratic absolutism,” but absolutism in the monarchy was always negotiated. Officials were the negotiators. How this bureaucracy formed, the constitutional structures on which it grew, and finally, how the bureaucracy came to be both the glue which held the state together and the lubricant which ameliorated its natural friction, is the story of this book.

MAP I.1. Lands of the House of Habsburg in 1740

Maria Theresia and State Building

The story of the Austrian state is therefore a story of becoming—a process—which started both with war, defeat, and—ironically—a family document. Charles VI, after he became the head of the House of Habsburg in 1711, drew up the Pragmatic Sanction. Charles, in order to maintain his family’s inheritance and ensure that his lands would not be divided among his descendants, declared that the lands of the Habsburgs were “indivisible and inseparable,” and, in so doing, imagined their lands as a single entity.22 When Maria Theresia ascended the Habsburg throne on the basis of the Pragmatic Sanction in 1740, however, she had to defend both her lands and the idea of an “indivisible and inseparable” monarchy (see Map I.1). She found herself beset on all sides by powerful princes who hoped to pick apart her patrimony. The most daring of these princes was Frederick II of Prussia, who invaded the Habsburg province of Silesia in December 1740. Smelling blood in the water, the Bavarian Duke Charles Albert—her cousin by marriage—had declared himself “Archduke of Austria” and threatened to march on Vienna. By November 1741, she was surrounded by enemies: the Bavarians had taken Linz and occupied Upper Austria and Prague had fallen to a Franco-Bavarian army. Saxony also invaded Bohemia. The War of Austrian Succession (1740–48) threatened to tear apart the House of Austria, rending it from almost all its possessions in but a few years.23 Maria Theresia survived the war and was able to defeat the Bavarian challenge to her house’s reign. She maintained most all of her patrimony, reclaiming her lands from Bavarian, Saxon, and French armies. In spite of her victories, she could not unseat Frederick II of Prussia from Silesia, which he held for the remainder of the war and incorporated into his growing Prussian kingdom.

The War of Austrian Succession strained Maria Theresia’s resources to their limit, deepening her debt, and stretched her abilities to field armies to defend her lands. Many historians see this war as a turning point for the venerable Habsburg family—a significant step down the road of decline that paralleled the rise of Prussia. In reality it marked a moment of change and restoration. Defeats have a way of making change more acceptable, easier; they often can pave the way for reform. Maria Theresia now began a search for a bigger and better army, an army that would crush Frederick’s and that would be commensurate with the defense of the realm.

To build a bigger and better army and maintain it for action at any moment to defend her lands, Maria Theresia would have to reorganize her state. As a result of the War of Austrian Succession, as a result of her search for new ways to protect her patrimony, Maria Theresia began a state-making process that would flourish during her reign and that of her successor and son, Joseph II. Considering the need to change the structure of her government, in 1749 Maria Theresia began to write down her political testament. She begins her story by drawing attention to how far she had come: “When the unexpected and lamentable death of my father of blessed memory occurred . . . [I] was at the time the more devoid of the experience and knowledge needful to rule dominions so extensive and so various because my father had never been pleased to initiate or inform me in the conduct of either internal or foreign affairs, I found myself suddenly without either money, troops, or counsel.”24 Under Maria Theresia, the Habsburgs became more assertive of their prerogatives and powers. But the story does not end there; in fact, it is only the beginning.

From the War of Austrian Succession to her death in 1780, Maria Theresia, her son Joseph II, and their advisors created a new state. This occurred in two discrete steps. First, Maria Theresia created new structures for her patrimony and increased the number of officials to staff them. After the structures were in place, Habsburg public officials were infused with an ethos and given a mission to serve and transform the lands under the Habsburg scepter. This second process would not end, but would evolve over the course of the nineteenth century as Austria’s state evolved and the work of public administration expanded and changed. This book is a story of this process—a state-building process that offers up confirmation, variation, and alternatives to the larger structural history of modern Europe.

In the wake of the war, as Maria Theresia studied the structures which supported her authority, she saw a tangled mess of reforms and inherited tradition. Indeed, it was, in Maria Theresia’s own words, “dominions so extensive and so various” that posed her problem—a difficulty that the Habsburgs had traditionally solved through a certain flexibility and willingness to rule all their kingdoms and lands according to local customs and through compromise with the local nobility. Her many lands and provinces were administered from Vienna by four distinct chancelleries. Each chancellery was responsible for a group of provinces. The Bohemian chancellery was responsible for communicating and coordinating the wishes of the crown with the three lands of the Bohemian crown (Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia). An Austrian chancellery did the same for the “hereditary lands”—lands that the Habsburgs had ruled in one form or another since the days of Rudolf I in the thirteenth century. Separate chancelleries also administered the crown’s prerogatives for Hungary and Transylvania. Fighting the War of Austrian Succession forced Maria Theresia to negotiate with the nobility in each of her disparate kingdoms and lands through these four separate chancelleries over taxes and soldier contingents. Austria’s war with Prussia proved the woeful inefficiency of such a system. The crown administered four different groups of provinces separately, negotiated with them for revenues separately, and—most importantly—depended on administrative bodies to implement its wishes. It was not always possible to find four capable chancellors, ready to represent the wishes of the crown over the vested interests of the noble estates. Often Maria Theresia’s chancelleries represented the rights and prerogatives of the nobility at the expense of her own.

The “big picture” arguments of Charles Tilly have emphasized that the extreme fiscal costs of war meant that only strong states capable of raising enough taxes to field armies would survive. The constant pressure for bigger and better-equipped armies then forged state institutions, as monarchs searched for more efficient ways to extract tax revenues and people from their lands. The early reforms of Maria Theresia followed this pattern. Following the War of Austrian Succession, Maria Theresia’s government undertook a series of administrative and fiscal reforms that reorganized the way in which Vienna related to its provinces. Maria Theresia responded to defeat by cleaning her house of old nobles who defended their own social interests at the expense of her own. She quickly found advisors who would rectify her patrimony’s finances and restore her position as a leading monarch of Europe. These men would ruffle feathers, alienate the old guard, and suggest new ways of creating a steady income. Such changes, sudden and brutal, set in motion deep-reaching reforms that would pull the disparate Habsburg kingdoms, counties, and lands toward Vienna. Over time, fiscal policies built up new structures and institutions that would come to form the backbone of an imperial state.

These early structural and fiscal policies emerged under Friedrich Wilhelm von Haugwitz in the 1740s and gained their fullest expression in the following decade. Haugwitz may have been “ugly, unrefined, and colorless” to the high nobles at the Habsburg’s court,25 but he was just the shade of man Maria Theresia needed to reform the fiscal situation of the Habsburg’s public coffers, which were even uglier. He sought to intervene in Austria’s provinces and local administration and to flip the structures of power in the crown’s favor—away from the nobility who collected taxes, maintained law and order, and served as the crown’s local administrators. Haugwitz’s interventions concentrated on the fiscal techniques of the Habsburg state. Haugwitz proposed financial and, above all, structural reforms to wrest financial control from the nobles and the chancelleries in Vienna, which were staffed by the nobles who administered the provinces on behalf of the empress.26 The basis of Haugwitz’s system came out of an emergent discourse on state sovereignty and fiscal power, which meant that state finances had to reflect the sovereignty of the state—which they did not, at least not yet. Haugwitz argued “that the Monarchy’s defective system of finance and government constituted an internal enemy fully as dangerous to the Crown as the more obvious enemies without.”27 The problem would be imposing the power of the sovereign onto the estates and breaking the latter’s will to resist the former’s fiscal claims. If the crown could not raise revenue as it saw fit, the realm would be indefensible.

It was here, in the negotiation of fiscal prerogatives between the crown and the estates, that the Austrian state-building project started to outgrow the mere “war makes the state” paradigm.28 State building quickly became a public good, an ideology that freed itself from bigger armies and steady supplies of troops. After a series of reforms led by Haugwitz met with the intransigence of the chancelleries in 1748, Maria Theresia was even more determined to change the entire structure of government, because the intransigence represented the system of particularism and privilege that Haugwitz convinced her needed to be overcome. In the chancelleries, nobles—Maria Theresia’s own advisors—pursued their interests with a fierceness that Haugwitz had to overcome. They fought Haugwitz’s reforms and principles, which included the regular taxation of noble land in peacetime.29 Maria Theresia responded decisively. She dissolved the Bohemian and Austrian chancelleries, put the administration of justice under the supervision of a supreme court (a slight to patrimonial justice), and united the fiscal and administrative power of the crown under a new central administration, the Directorium in Publicis et Cameralibus, with Haugwitz as president.30 All of this she did by fiat, not consulting with the noble estates—who were not inclined willingly to grant assent to such a turning of the tables.

Revolutions in Austria have a habit of being silent administrative revolutions—but that makes them no less disruptive when viewed from a longer-term perspective. Haugwitz’s reforms in the center quickly affected the provinces and the local levels of government. The Directorium served a new crown council—the Conferenz in Internis, which would enable the crown to enforce its will in the provinces regarding all aspects of social and political life in the hereditary lands and in the lands of the Bohemian crown. For these reforms to succeed, Haugwitz needed new agents and officials and new offices to “represent” the will of the crown in the lands and countryside. The provincial offices came in the form of Repraesentationen und Cammern to represent the crown—not the people nor the nobles. These offices were intended to replace the officers of the estates in the provinces in all local matters, from army provisioning to tax assessment and collection, from administration to executive matters. More locally, royal power seeped into the countryside through “circle offices” (Kreisämter), which functioned as intermediary offices between the crown’s provincial governments and the local authorities dominated by the local lords and town magistrates. These counties were led by a circle, or better put, county prefect who was to watch over the implementation of royal edicts in the localities and to ensure that the local lords did not abuse the authority that was left to them. Local clergy, school officials, and above all the nobility would see the crown’s county prefects as a thorn in their side.31

Throughout the 1750s, Haugwitz’s reforms showed the power of structural change. Within ten years, he had broken the authority of the estates in more than half of the Habsburg’s kingdoms and lands by simply changing the structures of central government and installing new administrative organs—loyal to Vienna—in the provinces. Additionally, fruits of Haugwitz’s reforms had already increased the annual contribution of the various lands, leading to plans for a standing army of 108,000 men. Moreover, Haugwitz’s reforms stirred a veritable stew of injured economic and political interests, because the reforms sought to strengthen the authority of the crown, to strip the estates of their abilities to skim tax revenue and maintain their own interests through the provincial administration, and to establish local offices to supervise the rural nobles and oversee the implementation of Maria Theresia’s edicts.

But when these structural changes failed to secure a complete victory over Frederick II’s Prussia in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), Maria Theresia turned her ear to the reform proposals of her foreign minister, Anton Wenzel Kaunitz (1711–94). Haugwitz’s sacking tells us a few things about the Austrian state-building project. For his demotion indicated that the building of a central state apparatus would engage multiple thinkers, reformers, and planners over the course of more than a century and a half. The torch had passed for the moment to Kaunitz. It would be taken up again and again, as servants of the crown became servants of the state and sought not only to consolidate that state but to adapt it to a growing and changing empire.

What Kaunitz had in mind, however, was to use the structures of taxation and supervision, which Haugwitz had created, to transform society. Haugwitz had made a bureaucracy that reached into the provinces and reported back to Vienna, with both information and money. Kaunitz wanted to make it a two-way street. After 1761, Kaunitz transformed the administration and the very structures that Haugwitz created in the provinces to do more than oversee taxes and represent the interests of the ruling prince. Instead, they were vessels for new ideas, new methods of farming, promotion of healthy bodies (which in turn made a more productive labor force and soldiery), industry, and commerce. Kaunitz laid down these ideas in a memorandum on “founding principles,” which he presented to the Council of State in January 1761.32 The memo exhibited many of the larger ideas regarding enlightened statecraft in the eighteenth century. Kaunitz wrote that the state should act as a “sensible warden,” which sees its population not merely as “contributors to the needs of the state, but should see to it that their sustenance and physical strength is expanded and increased.”33 For Kaunitz, then, the bureaucracy could be the channel for new social projects that contributed to the general prosperity of society.34

By the end of Maria Theresia’s reign, the bureaucracy not only had a structure but a mission. Haugwitz had sought to change the structures of princely authority. Kaunitz saw an opportunity to use the new structures of state that Haugwitz had created as a foundation for new relationships between ruler and ruled. In the six decades that followed Maria Theresia’s reign, the bureaucrats would deepen their roots into the lands of the Habsburgs and weave themselves into the fabric of greater Habsburg society. Thus, what began as a war in which Maria Theresia defended her patrimony and the right to rule her diverse lands would emerge as a major reform project that would continue under her son, eventual co-regent and successor, Joseph II. This reform project would transform, in the five decades of Maria Theresia and Joseph II’s combined rule, the relationship between temporal authority and the various levels of political, social, and spiritual authority in the lands of the Habsburgs. With taxes and changes to the framework of governance came new ideas of governance: rationality and secular grounding of authority in natural law, which expressed itself in service to the common good through service to the state, replaced rule by the grace of God.35 And as the basis of authority changed, how that authority was exercised was transformed as well.

This process of state building can be understood on many different levels, from the theoretical basis of authority to actually building and staffing new state offices. Suffice it to say for now that Maria Theresia created new state institutions, which would have lasting significance for central Europe. These new institutions and the new bureaucracy they necessitated had the immediate effect of suppressing the traditional political rights of the provincial nobility and replacing many provincial institutions, which had allowed the nobility to resist the growing budgetary and military needs of the crown. Thus, the process of state building in the era of enlightened absolutism radically altered the structure of social and political life in central Europe; traditional rights of nations, provinces, cities, and the noble estates were abrogated, annulled, or ignored as Maria Theresia, and later Joseph II, sought to create unity and conformity out of the mixture of kingdoms and lands that the imperial house controlled.36 Although her reforms created a state that does not fit the ideal-typical mold of a modern European nation-state à la Charles Tilly, the Habsburg state that Maria Theresia forged would have a lasting impact in the economic, social, and political development of Habsburg central Europe over the next two centuries and beyond. Moreover these state reforms set other reforms in motion, which would gradually transform Austrian society from one based on privilege and hierarchy to one based on equality under the law.37

Between 1740 and 1790, from the beginning of Maria Theresia’s reign to the end of Joseph II’s, the Habsburg monarchs attempted in a concerted effort to solve the perennial problem of the Habsburg Empire—that is, how to rule “dominions so extensive and so various” in the most efficient and efficacious way possible. Their efforts restructured the Habsburg state and changed the entire nature of Habsburg rule, which would be based on a new attitude and call upon its servants to exhibit a new ethos. But their efforts did not necessarily reflect a steady process. Each monarch brought her and his own concept to crack the Habsburg nut: diversity, particularism, breadth. Maria Theresia responded to crisis with structural reforms. Joseph II would build upon these structures and his contribution would be as equally great: it was one of attitude. By 1790, Maria Theresia and Joseph’s combined reforms had far surpassed the fiscal and cameralist theories out of which their first steps originated;38 they had created a whole new pillar of the state—a bureaucracy. This bureaucracy would become a pillar of Austrian statecraft. Eventually, the bureaucracy would work to build new pillars: representative government, the rule of law, judicial review, which would complicate the nature of rule in Austria and expand participation in governance. That is the story of Austria’s long nineteenth century and the story that is the subject of this book.

What I hope to show in this book about imperial Austria are its many possibilities. Between 1740 and 1914 it was not a state in decline, but rather a continually evolving polity. In many ways it offers models and warnings for multinational polities like the European Union whose education, legal, and infrastructure- and state-building policies the Habsburg monarchy resembled. That the monarchy fell and its multinational project fell, can be considered a European tragedy. And yet, it took steps, especially after 1914, to bring about its own destruction. If I can convince you that this was not the only possibility for the monarchy in 1914, than I can be assured that we have come a long way from seeing its history as just one long narrative of decline. Maybe, after all these years, Hegel, who said that this multinational Empire was a thing unto itself and therefore not worth historical study, owes us all an apology.


1. Waltraud Heindl, Josephinische Mandarine: Bürokratie und Beamte in Österreich, 1848–1914 (Vienna: Böhlau, 2013), 92.

2. For the role of education in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe, see both James Van Horn Melton, Absolutism and the Eighteenth-Century Origins of Compulsory Schooling in Prussia and Austria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); and Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870–1914, 1st ed. (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1976).

3. For instance, see Jo Guldi’s new book on infrastructure building in Great Britain, Jo Guldi, Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012).

4. Mack Walker, German Home Towns: Community, State, and General Estate, 1648–1871 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998).

5. Josef Redlich, Das österreichische Staats- und Reichsproblem: Geschichtliche Darstellung der inneren Politik der Habsburgischen Monarchie von 1848 bis zum Untergang des Reiches, 2 vols. (Leipzig: P. Reinhold, 1920); Viktor Bibl, Der Zerfall Österreichs (Vienna: Rikola Verlag, 1922); A. J. P. Taylor, The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809–1918: A History of the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary (London: H. Hamilton, 1948); A. J. May, The Hapsburg Monarchy, 1867–1914 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951); Robert A. Kann, A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526–1918 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974); H. Seton-Watson, The “Sick Heart” of Modern Europe: The Problem of the Danubian Lands (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975); Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1981); Erich Zöllner, Geschichte Österreichs (Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1961). For a summary and criticism of this body of work, see Gary B. Cohen, “Neither Absolutism nor Anarchy: New Narratives on Society and Government in Late Imperial Austria,” Austrian History Yearbook 29, no. 1 (1998): 37–61.

6. For a recent, and excellent, treatment on the Habsburg Empire’s First World War, see Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary at War, 1914–1918 (London: Allen Lane, 2014). Yet, it is fascinating to examine that these failure narratives of the Habsburg state themselves emerge out of British propaganda in the First World War. See R. Seton-Watson, German, Slav, and Magyar: A Study in the Origins of the Great War (London: Williams and Norgate, 1916); R Seton-Watson, The Southern Slav Question and the Habsburg Monarchy (New York: H. Fertig, 1969); Arthur J. May, “R. W. Seton-Watson and British Anti-Hapsburg Sentiment,” American Slavic and East European Review 20, no. 1 (February 1, 1961): 40–54; Mark Cornwall, The Undermining of Austria-Hungary: The Battle for Hearts and Minds (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000).

7. G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York: Dover Publications, 1956), 453; Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Sämtliche Werke, 20 vols., ed. Hermann Glockner, Jubiläumsausgabe (Stuttgart: Fromanns Verlag, 1949), 11, 564.

8. David Fromkin, Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? (New York: Knopf, 2005), 24.

9. Our readings of German history in the nineteenth century rest on this important moment in the early nineteenth century, when the eventual victor in Germany (Prussia) committed itself to reforms and the eventual loser (Austria) did not. See, for instance, the masterwork of Thomas Nipperdey, in which he states that Austria’s lack of reform in the period between 1806 and 1812 was “of great significance for the way German history progressed.” Thomas Nipperdey, Deutsche Geschichte, 1800–1866: Bürgerwelt und starker Staat (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1983; repr., 1998), 80.

10. Charles Tilly, “Reflections on the History of European State-Making,” in The Formation of National States in Western Europe, ed. Charles Tilly and Gabriel Ardant, Studies in Political Development 8 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975), 28.

11. Rogers Brubaker’s sociological studies of nationalism have been instrumental in shaping the way historians of central Europe have reimagined the national political disputes in the region. See Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); and the essays in Rogers Brubaker, Ethnicity Without Groups (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006).

12. Some of the most influential works in this regard since the 1990s have been Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994); Gary B. Cohen, The Politics of Ethnic Survival: Germans in Prague, 1861–1914, 2nd ed., Central European Studies (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2006); Tara Zahra, Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the Bohemian Lands, 1900–1948 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2008); Jeremy King, Budweisers into Czechs and Germans: A Local History of Bohemian Politics, 1848–1948 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002).

13. Tony Judt, A Grand Illusion? An Essay on Europe (repr., New York: New York University, 2011), 115.

14. Charles Tilly, Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1984).

15. This often takes the form of “roads not taken” and “missed turns.” For the most articulate expressions of this literature, see Redlich, Staats- und Reichsproblem; Robert A. Kann, The Multinational Empire: Nationalism and National Reform in the Habsburg Monarchy, 1848–1918, 2 vols., expanded ed. (New York: Octagon Books, 1964); Ian Reifowitz, “Francis Joseph’s Fatal Mistake: The Consequences of Rejecting Kremsier/Kroměříž,” Nationalities Papers 37, no. 2 (2009): 133–57.

16. For a nuanced discussion of these characteristics that does not doom the monarchy to failure, see Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power, vol. 2, The Rise of Classes and Nation-States, 1760–1914 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 330–32.

17. Kenneth J. Meier and Laurence J. O’Toole, Bureaucracy in a Democratic State: A Governance Perspective (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 1; Ezra N. Suleiman, Dismantling Democratic States (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003), 2–3.

18. For a recent meditation on paperwork and state power that looks at the “materiality” of paperwork, more than the content, see Ben Kafka, The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork (New York: Zone Books, 2012), chap. 1.

19. Robert Musil, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 2011), 94.

20. Heindl, Josephinische Mandarine, 24.

21. C. A. Bayly, Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780–1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996).

22. On the Pragmatic Sanction, see Friedrich Walter, Österreichische Verfassungs- und Verwaltungsgeschichte von 1500–1955, ed. Adam Wandruszka, Veröffentlichungen der Kommission für Neuere Geschichte Österreichs 59 (Vienna: Böhlau, 1972), 81–83; Charles W Ingrao, The Habsburg Monarchy, 1618–1815, 2nd ed., New Approaches to European History 21 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 129; Jean Bérenger, A History of the Habsburg Empire, 2 vols. (London: Longman, 1994), 2: 35–37.

23. Reed Browning, The War of the Austrian Succession (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 39–89.

24. “Maria Theresa’s Political Testament,” in The Habsburg and Hohenzollern Dynasties in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, ed. C. A. Macartney, Documentary History of Western Civilization (New York: Walker, 1970), 94–132; quote on 97.

25. Ingrao, Habsburg Monarchy, 160.

26. P. G. M. Dickson, Finance and Government Under Maria Theresia, 1740–1780, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 1: 212–26.

27. Ibid., 1: 222–23.

28. Samuel E. Finer, “State- and Nation-Building in Europe: The Role of the Military,” in Formation of National States in Western Europe, ed. Charles Tilly and and Gabriel Ardant, 84–163; Arthur A. Stein, The Nation at War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Pres, 1980); for a recent comparative perspective, see Miguel Angel Centeno and Agustín Ferraro, eds., State and Nation Making in Latin America and Spain: Republics of the Possible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

29. For a thorough discussion of Haugwitz’s reforms and the resistance to them in 1748 see above all, Friedrich Walter, Die Theresianische Staatsreform von 1749, Österreich Archiv (Vienna: Verlag für Geschichte und Politik, 1958), 44–56.

30. See Dickson, Finance, 1: 224–25; Franz A. J. Szabo, Kaunitz and Enlightened Absolutism, 1753–1780 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 77–78; Walter, Der Theresianische Staatsreform, 56–57.

31. The county as an administrative unit already existed in the lands of the Bohemian crown—dating back to the days of King Ottokar in the thirteenth century. Under Haugwitz, however, these offices took new importance as the local agents of the crown and were extended to the other provinces in the hereditary lands as well. Again, Hungary, and Transylvania remained distinct from the system and were allowed to maintain their “traditional rights.” For more on the Kreisämter see, Arnold Luschin von Ebengreuth, Grundriss der österreichischen Reichsgeschichte: Eine Bearbeitung seines Lehrbuchs der “österreichischen Reichsgeschichte” Edition Classic (1899; repr., Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, 2008), 317–18.

32. For a discussion of Kaunitz’s grundregeln, see Friedrich Walter, Die Geschichte der österreichischen Zentralverwaltung in der Zeit Maria Theresias, vol. 1, bk. 1 of Die Österreichische Zentralverwaltung. II. Abteilung. Von der Vereinigung der österreichischen und böhmischen Hofkanzlei bis zur Einrichtung der Ministerialverfassung (1749–1848) [hereafter ÖZV II/1/1], Veröffentlichungen der Kommission für neuere Geschichte Österreichs 32 (Vienna: Adolf Holzhausens Nachfolger, 1938), 282–86; Szabo, Kaunitz, 83–84.

33. An edited form of Kaunitz’s grundregeln is available in Harm Klueting, ed., Der Josephinismus: Ausgewählte Quellen zur Geschichte der theresianisch-josephinischen Reformen (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1995), 62–75; quote on 67.

34. ÖZV, II/1/1: 282.

35. See the work of Helmut Reinalter, who made the examination of Joseph II and enlightened absolutism in Austria the focus of his academic work. The body of his scholarship is excellently summed up in his book, Helmut Reinalter, Joseph II: Reformer auf dem Kaiserthron, Beck’sche Reihe 2735 (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2011), esp. 20–25.

36. See Ingrao, Habsburg Monarchy, 203–4.

37. Gerald Stourzh invokes the idea of isonomia—a society based on the equality under the law—as a fundamental category to understanding the transformation of society to one based on equality. This is, in his words, the “Tocquevellian Moment.” See especially his essay “Equal Rights: Equalizing the Individual’s Status and the Breakthrough of the Modern Liberal State,” in Gerald Stourzh, From Vienna to Chicago and Back: Essays on Intellectual History and Political Thought in Europe and America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 275–303.

38. For our purposes here, cameralism combined new and specific practical knowledge of administration. It offered Maria Theresia and Joseph II a body of knowledge and practitioners on which to call for their reforms. Cameralism has been notoriously difficult to define since historians have split on whether it was a form of academic theory or a vocation, applied to the facets of knowledge necessary for state service. Andre Wakefield has made the case for a holistic viewpoint, combining cameralists of the book and of the bureau. See Andre Wakefield, “Books, Bureaus, and the Historiography of Cameralism,” European Journal of Law and Economics 19, no. 3 (2005): 311–20; and his more recent book, The Disordered Police State: German Cameralism as Science and Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). See also David F. Lindenfeld, The Practical Imagination the German Sciences of State in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 14–20.