In Radetzky March, Joseph Roth’s classic saga of Habsburg decline, the cynical Count Chojnicki discusses politics with an imperial officer in a military outpost. They have a lot to talk about, because the Habsburg Empire is in political turmoil. Hungary is blocking funds for the Habsburg army, preventing it from responding to a furious arms race between other European powers. The Slavs are preparing an uprising against Vienna, the empire’s capital. Czech and German speakers in Bohemia are having a bitter fight about language laws. Russia, meanwhile, is taking advantage of the divisions in the empire by playing one nation off against another.

“The empire is doomed,” Chojnicki says. “The instant the Kaiser shuts his eyes, we’ll crumble into a hundred pieces. . . . All the nations will set up their own filthy little states.”

Caroline de Gruyter
Caroline de Gruyter is the European affairs correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.

This is fiction, set over one hundred years ago. But today, these lines feel eerily familiar. It is becoming hard to read history books or novels about the end of the Habsburg Empire without being reminded of the current pessimism surrounding the European Union, especially since the UK voted on June 23 to leave the bloc.

It is worth examining the parallels and differences between then and now, because in many ways the EU is comparable with the Habsburg Empire, although the union is not necessarily doomed as the empire was. The main similarity is probably the pervasive skepticism of the elites. But what brought the Habsburg Empire down was the collapse of the state as a consequence of losing World War I. When the state gave up the ghost, citizens turned to nationalist politicians. This is fundamentally different from the challenge the EU currently faces—a loss of popular support as a result of a massive backlash against globalization.

The Habsburg Empire, the EU’s Forerunner?

The Habsburg Empire, formed in 1526 and later known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had much in common with the European Union. It was a complex international construction that aimed to bring security and prosperity to several nations by eliminating borders and pumping money around. The Habsburgers had a well-functioning internal market, set up as a tool to foster political cohesion. Each nation in the empire had its own distinct arrangement with Vienna, just as every EU member state nowadays carves out its own deals (and exceptions) with Brussels.

Habsburg was also an advanced bureaucracy, albeit on a much bigger scale than the EU. Even after Empress Maria Theresa’s reforms in the eighteenth century, the Habsburg Empire was known—and ridiculed—for its huge, centralized administration. Likewise, many perceive and despise the EU as a giant bureaucracy. In reality, the union has fewer civil servants than Paris’s town hall, but most of them are in the same business as Roth’s fictional weights and measures inspector: administering and monitoring the functioning of the internal market and other agreements between member states.

The similarities between the EU and the Habsburg Empire do not end there. Most Habsburg emperors loathed warfare, just like the Europeans who, traumatized by two world wars, set up the European Economic Community in the 1950s. The emperors preferred to acquire territories peacefully by marrying off family members all over Europe. And like in the EU, small nations felt relatively safe and protected in the empire: being part of it meant being protected from invasion by bigger neighbors. All nations were granted equal rights under the Crown.

For these reasons and perhaps more, Otto von Habsburg, the son of the last Habsburg emperor, Karl, was a convinced European until his death in 2011. Otto, who was born too late to rule the eleven-nation dynasty, often repeated “I am a European.” He saw the EU as a worthy successor of the perished empire. As a German citizen and a member of the conservative Christian Social Union party, he was a member of the European Parliament for many years. He once said that “there was something much bigger and much more important than Austria or Hungary or whatever simply because Europe itself exists and we could only solve problems by uniting.”

There are also significant differences between the Habsburg Empire and the EU. To start with, the empire was a state, while the union, of course, is not. The empire had an army and a foreign policy. It employed thousands of citizens throughout its territory in schools, post offices, and municipalities, providing anything from civil registration to, indeed, the inspection of weights and measures. Because Vienna had its citizens directly on the payroll, providing services and paying them, many ordinary people tended to identify strongly with the empire. Brussels, by contrast, employs thousands of Europeans in Brussels and Luxembourg, but very few elsewhere. The union does not play a direct role in the lives of most citizens in its member states. They, in turn, hardly identify with it.

This strong identification with the state is one reason why the empire survived, in many shapes and forms, for almost four hundred years. The imperial family was rather aloof, locked up in a tight-knit coterie of people of good standing. History books and novels emphasize the sclerotic aspects of the Habsburg Empire: the pomp, hierarchies, and antiquatedness that contrasted with the rapidly changing popular mood during the last decades before World War I in 1914–1918.

This was one of the main themes of the era’s many Viennese commentators, artists, and politicians—Habsburg’s elite—many of whose writings are still in print. These intellectuals portrayed the empire as stagnant in every way, with all its energy going into its own survival. Roth documented this well. So did Viennese writer and journalist Karl Kraus; Hungarian aristocrat, diplomat, and politician Miklós Bánffy; and Austrian novelists Stefan Zweig and Robert Musil. Many of these authors felt it was time for a new system to end the impasse. As they saw it, the establishment was incapable of implementing the changes and reforms needed for the inevitable transformation to modern society.

It is this image of Habsburg in its last years and days that they beautifully and articulately transmitted to posterity. And it is this image that today strikes Europeans preoccupied with the EU’s problems as similar to their stagnating world. When Roth’s Count Chojnicki says, “The Empire is doomed,” Europeans wonder: Is this about us?

Waiting for the Music to Stop

The EU’s problems are certainly numerous. The banking crisis in 2008, the eurozone crisis that began in 2009, and the economic slowdown that followed rattled the solid sense of security that many Europeans enjoyed even during the Cold War. For the first time in decades, many realize that the EU is more vulnerable than they thought. Now a refugee crisis, terrorist attacks, Britain’s departure from the union, and the rise of anti-EU, anti-immigrant parties in several EU member states are eroding this sense of security even more. In some circles, the atmosphere is becoming almost apocalyptic.

Well-known analysts, officials, and politicians are openly alluding to the end of the EU. Author Robert Kaplan wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Europe is returning to a “medieval map” full of fractures and deep divisions that go back centuries. In the Washington Post, journalist Anne Applebaum predicted that Brexit would mean the end of both the UK and the EU. In his first speech as European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker said his administration would be a “last chance Commission.” While European leaders insult each other about bank bail-in rules, border closures, and redistribution of refugees, European Council President Donald Tusk has said that the risk of an EU breakup “is real.” Some capitals suspect that the six founding EU countries are secretly preparing for a hard-core rump Europe under the cover of planning the sixtieth anniversary celebration of the Treaty of Rome, the EU’s founding document, in 2017. Speaking off the record, one official explained the general jitteriness as follows: “It reminds me of musical chairs. EU member states are still dancing, but they are all waiting for the music to stop.”

Even if the music continues, the current mind-set is similar to that in Roth’s book. Many Europeans are starting to ask themselves when and how the EU, like the Habsburg Empire, will crumble into 100 pieces. “This is a psychological crisis,” said Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, in an interview. “It is about perception, not reality.”

On the Wrong Side of History

And perceptions matter. When it comes to the Habsburgs, the image of an outdated, malfunctioning empire incapable of satisfying its citizens’ needs has been dominant for the past one hundred years. The reason: since 1918, empires have been on the wrong side of history. After World War I, democracy and people’s right to self-determination won out. Habsburg was defeated. So was the Ottoman Empire. In 1918, Woodrow Wilson, then U.S. president, gave his Fourteen Points speech, in which he outlined a radical new basis for world peace.

A nation’s right to self-determination soon became a principle of international law. Ever since, the Habsburg Empire has been seen and described through the prism that small nations are better than large empires, as historian Pieter M. Judson pointed out in his new book, The Habsburg Empire: A New History. “In the decades before 1914 an influential group of participant observers in the empire’s military, bureaucratic, and aristocratic elites spread dire predictions about the inability of the empire to survive,” Judson wrote. He quoted Prince Karl Schwarzenberg, who said in 1903, “Everywhere you turn there is decay, and nowhere can be seen that firm will and that firm hand that are so urgently needed.”

Today’s equivalent could be French Prime Minister Manuel Valls saying the EU should protect its borders or “the very idea of Europe [could] be thrown into doubt. . . . It could disappear, of course – the European project, not Europe itself, not our values, but the concept we have of Europe.”

When Europeans read about the Habsburg world, they read about stagnation that made many citizens frustrated and cynical. Nothing was what it seemed to be; everyone had to pretend things were going well; all was theater and masquerade. To this day, the Viennese love costumed balls and political trickery. Like many EU observers and politicians now, the late Habsburgers were unsure of themselves. One of the many Habsburg stories still going around in Vienna is that Emperor Franz Joseph once reluctantly sent his army to the Balkans to quell an uprising, murmuring to his generals that he was sure they would lose the encounter, just like many before. Officials at the European Commission talk about their Western Balkan projects in much the same way.

Despite these striking parallels, however, it was the war that undid the empire, not its political and psychological outdatedness or a supposed lack of reforms. During Franz Joseph’s long reign, society changed profoundly. Thanks to Habsburg’s own internal market, the economy grew rapidly. Communications and transportation infrastructures expanded, literacy grew, and citizens demanded ever more services from the state. They also demanded more rights. Many of these, including the right for people to vote and organize themselves in trade unions, were granted in the end. The emperor could have moved faster, perhaps, or in a different way. But he listened to citizens’ concerns and eventually acted. “The idea that the end of the empire was caused by struggling peoples is wrong,” said Robert Cooper, a former British diplomat and EU foreign policy adviser, in an interview.

In Vienna’s Hofburg, the epicenter of the Habsburg Empire, officials were as preoccupied with renegotiating minority rights, voting arrangements, and tax deductions as officials in Brussels are now. Hungary, for instance, constantly demanded more rights, money, and powers. The emperor usually gave in, fearing the empire was too weak to refuse. He profoundly disagreed with Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, who wanted to be tough with Hungary. The role of Hungary in the nineteenth century, often putting on the brakes without much regard for others, is reminiscent of the UK’s recent maneuvers in the EU. Each time the emperor accommodated Hungary, the Czechs, Croats, and others became jealous and had to be pacified too. Every concession caused more frustrations and more tinkering with central rules. Vienna behaved much like Brussels nowadays as it is confronted by member states’ demands for better deals, extra budget rebates, or yet another EU treaty change: not inflexible, but forever bending common rules and watering down principles.

This is how common interests, motivation, and institutional glue in the empire slowly dissolved. While France, Russia, and other big powers were arming themselves at an alarming rate, preparing the ground for the 1914–1918 war, Hungary prevented the emperor from doing the same. As a result, the Habsburgers were easily defeated during the conflict. They were a ragtag army. They shot at themselves, were disorganized, and had outdated equipment. They reacted far too slowly to every challenge. This is why they lost the war in the end.

The empire survived until 1918. Two developments in particular proved fatal. One was the fact that all imperial resources were invested into a war that went badly from the beginning. Everything else suffered from neglect. Families were torn apart, lives were disrupted because of the war. The state, which previously had given citizens prosperity and security, could not provide for them any longer. This is why ultimately, people lost faith in the empire. And this explains why they finally turned to nationalist leaders who simply promised them better lives.

The second reason why the empire went under is related to the first: the military war effort was so overwhelming that army generals, who were unpopular, effectively took over the Habsburg leadership from the emperor. They were opposed to Franz Joseph’s political reforms and compromises and established absolutist rule, adjourning parliament and freezing the emancipation of women, minorities, and lower social classes. They turned back the clock in many ways.

In November 1916, Emperor Franz Joseph died. In Vienna, several exhibitions opened in 2016 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of his death. The emperor may have been distant and old-fashioned, but many people respected him. His successor, Karl, was young and relatively unknown. He tried to put a stop to the war he could not win. But the German emperor, his mighty ally, obliged him to carry on. From 1917, as the military situation worsened further, many Habsburg citizens had nowhere else to turn with their grievances and complaints than to local leaders who distanced themselves from the hated military. They did this with nationalist slogans advocating self-determination, which previously had never appealed to anyone. Emperor Karl abdicated in November 1918.

This is how the empire collapsed: not by revolution or because someone had better ideas, but slowly, because the war turned a system that was beneficial to its citizens into an intolerable burden.

Lessons for the EU

The strongest parallel between the European Union today and the Habsburg Empire in the early twentieth century is neither a lack of reforms nor the revolutionary appeal of self-rule and nationalism. On the contrary: The EU, like the empire a century ago, is constantly renegotiating its arrangements with member states. The union is also trying to become more inclusive and transparent, without quite knowing how to. Nationalism may be undermining the EU nowadays, but one hundred years ago it was only the very last nail in the empire’s coffin.

A more striking resemblance between then and now is the habit of intellectuals of viewing the union and the empire as doomed. Maybe “an intuitive feeling of impending crisis among the intellectual elite was the very source of their creativity,” as historian John W. Mason wrote in his book The Dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1867–1918. Judson went a step further: “This elite mood of existential pessimism in 1914 was one factor that encouraged some members of the General Staff and Diplomatic Corps to risk taking Austria-Hungary to war. Believing that a cataclysm like a war offered them the last opportunity to silence the political conflict at home and forestall damage to the empire’s great power status abroad, they embraced it.”

The Habsburg Empire was relatively stable because ordinary citizens hardly shared the negative sentiments nurtured by the elite. Popular support for the monarchy collapsed only in the course of the war, causing the dissolution of the state. In the EU, by contrast, bottom-up Euroskepticism has grown steadily during the last decade or two. It finds different forms of expression: nationalism, antiglobalization, and political indifference. The future of the EU will depend on how this toxic mix develops further and how leaders exploit it.

There are two lessons the EU can draw from the Habsburg experience. The first is that the union must not lose more popular support. It is important that those who do not want to see the world’s biggest peace project fall apart finally speak up and defend it, reforming it where necessary. Otherwise, populists in several member states may come to power and destroy the EU.

The second lesson may sound a little far-fetched on a continent that has not known war for seven decades. But the union is surrounded by nations and (religious) groupings that seek to destabilize and destroy it. EU leaders should therefore acknowledge that military conflicts are not unthinkable any longer, and that the chance of an accident triggering such a conflict is increasing. Those in Europe who think a common enemy can help reunite the continent are most probably mistaken.

Contemporary readers of Radetzky March and of other books from and about the Habsburg era may think that World War I enabled the people to rise up against the imperial yoke. But by rereading these books, one sees that the profiteers from the war were not citizens but their new leaders. The war was their golden opportunity. The leaders exploited the chaos to such an extent that they helped pave the way for a second war two decades later. Perhaps Count Chojnicki already saw a glimpse of this when he lamented the imminent fall of the empire: “How much longer, how much longer? This era no longer wants us!”

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent for NRC Handelsblad in Vienna.