Krishan Kumar’s new book, Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped the Modern World, (Princeton, 2017), looks at five empires: the Roman, the Ottoman, the Habsburg, the Russian/Soviet, and the French. What becomes clear at the very beginning is that Kumar’s approach is, by and large, a sympathetic one. The underlying understanding is that the histories of these empires are relevant to our present situation as more or less successful models of multiculturalism and diversity.
It is for the Habsburg Empire, especially in its late Austrian Habsburg variant, that the greatest warmth is reserved. Kumar’s characterization of the “most lovable” empire is, in fact, along the lines of recent research on the Habsburg imperial project. Stephen Howe, another contemporary historian, is not alone is celebrating the Austrian achievement in glowing terms: “None other of the great modern empires shared power more widely among their constituent peoples and none came closer to achieving something which was perhaps an impossibility, a contradiction in terms: sustaining a multinational empire which was also a democracy … It deserves some retrospective applause, even a small sigh of regret for its passing” (Empire: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford, 2002).
Kumar views the Austro-Hungarian imperial model as one that managed to foster “a common identity and a widespread acceptance” (p.171). This identity was based on loyalty to the ruling dynasty and the person of the emperor and “stood against principles of narrow nationalism and chauvinism” (p.200). The importance of the dynastic idea had been highlighted in A.J.P. Taylor’s classic study The Habsburg Empire, 1809-1918 (1948), in which Taylor famously wrote: “In other countries dynasties are episodes in the history of the people: in the Habsburg Empire peoples are complications in the history of the dynasty.”
With all their weaknesses – which Taylor was quick to point out – the Habsburgs had managed to sustain a cosmopolitan model, which could be described as a “lovable empire” and not sound absurd.