The EU’s Viennese Mirror

If a European Union bureaucrat could travel to Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century, he would be surprised by how closely the Hapsburg Empire resembled today’s EU. By learning from Austria-Hungary's mistakes, today’s Europeans may yet be able to reform and reinvigorate an empire whose most important work still lies ahead.

If a European Union bureaucrat could travel to fin de siècle Vienna, he would be surprised by how closely the Hapsburg Empire resembled today’s EU. Like the EU, Austria-Hungary was an experiment in supranational engineering, comprising 51 million inhabitants, 11 nationalities, and 14 languages. Presiding over this microcosm of Europe was a double-throned Emperor-King and twin parliaments representing the largely independent Austrian and Hungarian halves of the realm.

The Hapsburg Empire acted as a stabilizing force for its peoples and for Europe. To its scattered ethnic groups, it performed the twin roles of referee and bouncer, pacifying indigenous rivalries and protecting pint-sized nations from predatory states. It also filled a geopolitical vacuum at the heart of the continent, placing a check on Germany and Russia.

So long as it performed these functions, Austria was viewed as a “European necessity” – a balancer of nationalities and of nations for which there was no conceivable substitute. But, by the early 1900’s, the empire faced two problems that cast doubt on its ability to fulfill these missions.

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