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.
First, it proved incapable of reconciling and representing its constituents’ interests. The heart of the problem was the 1867 Compromise, which divided the empire into Austrian and Hungarian halves. By excluding the Slavs – who accounted for half the empire’s population – the Compromise was seen as a vehicle for German/Magyar domination. All attempts at modifying the arrangement stopped short of what was needed: a political settlement between Germans and Slavs like that between Germans and Magyars.