The legacy of the Habsburg Empire through a historian's eyes


Robert J.W. Evans, a professor of history at Oxford, is one of the world's leading authorities on the historical development of Central Europe. Among other things, he has written an award-winning history of the Habsburg Empire, which is considered required reading for anyone interested in the evolution and legacy of the Habsburg monarchs who dominated this part of the world for six centuries up to the end of the First World War. Having started his academic career as a linguist, Professor Evans is also well known for his analysis of the role language played in the history of Central Europe and the impact it had on this region's political and cultural development. I spoke with the professor when he was in Prague recently to receive an honorary doctorate from Charles University, a place where he had studied as a graduate student in the 1960s.

I started by asking him how it felt to be coming back to receive this honour nearly forty years later:

"Oh I'm immensely gratified because I am extremely fond of Prague and I have had some kinds of connections with the university here since my own student days in the 1960s. So to that extent it's a high honour, which I'm extremely pleased about. It's always nice to feel that one's work is appreciated. For decades, it was really only in private rather than in public that Czech colleagues could say they thought I was saying something interesting. After 1989, it's of course become possible to take a broader view here and I feel extremely flattered that my work is taken seriously and translated and discussed and so on. The other thing I should add - in a less personal way - is that Charles University is a remarkably important central institution in the history of the Czech lands. And to that extent a formal association like this with a place that contributed to the development of the Hussite movement, which led to the Reformation and which contributed enormously to the rise of Czech national culture in the 19th century. These things make it extraordinarily gratifying to be brought on board, as it were, with one of the premier academic institutions of Central Europe."

You have an interest in the role of language, or rather languages, in the historical development of Central Europe. Could you perhaps give us some examples of the influence language had on the historical evolution of this region?

"Well, no one would question that the diversity of languages in Central Europe has been an important historical factor. That is pretty obvious. But it does tend very often to be subsumed in the notion of nationality; as if nationality and language ran together. Of course, if we look more broadly across Europe and the world, we know perfectly well that they don't necessarily run together. But equally then, I think for this reason we ought to explore the sort of nationalism that is very intimately linked with language. And we shouldn't just ignore the technical and practical features of language, which may be important in this sort of context. There are very practical ways in which people have to respond in certain situations with or without competence in a given language. And there are certain structural features of language which are very important. I would mention just one example which is relevant in the context of Czech - Czech, like Hungarian for example, is a language that can't distinguish between people who live in the country that the Czechs live in and the people who are ethnically Czech. So of course "cesky" stands for them both and "Cesi" are those who live in Bohemia. This in the age of nationalism made for extraordinary difficulties in distinguishing between those who did not regard themselves as ethnics Czechs but shared the territory of Bohemia. These were Germans mostly and sometimes Jews. This was particularly true after 1918 when Czechoslovakia came into existence and the language of state in the first Czechoslovak Republic was automatically a way of dividing and alienating rather than unifying the various national groups who lived in the country. And that had huge political consequences."

Would you say this engendered an antipathy among ethnic Germans towards the Czechoslovak state, which would have contributed to their fairly wholehearted acceptance of Hitler's annexation of the country?

"Well, the linguistic dimension to this was quite considerable. It's a very interesting case because, of course, as we know the first Czechoslovak Republic was democratic. In many ways, it was genuinely democratic. It had elaborate regulations for language as for many other things. And those regulations on paper were really quite generous to the other languages of the country. But there is no question that there was a language of state. The Czech or Czechoslovak language system meant - for practical purposes - Czech in the Czech half of the republic and Slovak in the other. Even within the Czechoslovak entity there were frictions about what constituted the correct languages and the nature of their dialects. And of course a lot of Czech speakers did still regard Slovak as being a kind of dialect. But that was a limited problem compared with the difficulties faced by Germans and others in trying to assert what they took to be their rights, especially the rights of Germans. So there was an animosity there, which was in substantial measures actually generated by the features of the languages themselves."

Looking back at the Habsburg Empire, do you think the shared historical experience of the countries that were once part of this entity has left them with some common characteristics that still persist to this day?

Franz Kafka, photo: www.gerard-bertrand.netFranz Kafka, photo: "Oh, there's no question about that. Of course, everyone knows about the cuisine, for example, and a good deal of the older architecture. There are also other features which one could say are Habsburg in nature. I don't think one should indulge in too much nostalgia about this. There are features that are capable of development and which in the different countries have developed in different ways. But underlying this, I think there are some very conspicuous features about the way in which people react and - reverting to the question of language again - there's also the way in which people speak. The languages may be extremely diverse, but there are forms of speech that are recognisably common in the areas where the Habsburgs ruled for a substantial period of time. And these do create certain kinds of common tradition, which are perhaps a bit more recognised now than they used to be although people are not necessarily aware of them and are not necessarily happy if they are drawn to their attention. But one good example would be the nature of certain kinds of bureaucratic process. In Prague nowadays, this would always be thought of as being associated with the world of Franz Kafka. Of course, the world of Franz Kafka was very much the world of the Habsburg administration. This is not by any means to be viewed in a purely negative sense. I think Kafka himself was a very diligent bureaucrat in his own job looking after the problems of workers' insurance. There were lots of people like Franz Kafka who actually did a very competent job. But the important thing is they did very much the same kind of job, right across that Habsburg monarchy. And to that extent the legacy is with us still."

Do you perhaps have any examples of the forms of speech that might prevail within what was once the Habsburg Empire?

"There are some underlying features of the way the languages are pronounced, which linguists sometimes say form part of an overall pattern. But of course it's more at the level of words that are used in administration, in schooling and in other kinds of common tradition from the old days of the monarchy. The most famous of course are the culinary expressions, which are either the same words or are direct translations of the same words in the various languages."

As a historian of this part of the world, would you care to speculate on some of the historical issues that might be crucial or relevant to the future development of Central Europe?

"Well, I don't think one needs to justify studying the history of the Habsburg lands and so on in terms of contemporary politics. Nevertheless, it's evident that there are all sorts of issues today which are better understood if one has some sense of that historical background. I don't believe that one can relate directly the sorts of issues that were faced a century or more ago by a multinational empire in Central Europe to the sort of issues we face today. In some ways, the changes have been very substantial and new kinds of linkages have developed. At the same time, others which were very important in the past have fallen away. Nevertheless, quite a lot of the earlier traditions did survive. They're not by any means identical in the different countries of present-day Central Europe, but there are features there which are perhaps relevant. Certainly politicians and other commentators should not be ignoring these when they look at the way in which this part of the world is going to respond to certain kinds of challenges or impulses of the present. It's certainly true that those who were reasonably familiar with the history of the region around 1989 would not necessarily have predicted the events of that year. We're not futurologists. We were probably not very good at seeing when the communist structures in the region would fall apart. Nevertheless, we could see some of the things that would move into the vacuum created by the failure of communism and to that extent I think the post-1989 transitions have justified quite a lot of the understandings that historians bring to this region."