The Hungarian painter Béla Zombory-Moldován was 29 when his life changed forever.
In 1914, war broke out while he was vacationing with friends on the Adriatic coast. Within a week the carefree, gentle artist from a wealthy family was on his way to the front, in uniform.
As he wrote in The Burning of the World, his memoirs of the first year of the war published in 2014 by his grandson, he had no idea what awaited him.
“No one in my family since my grandfather had been in a war. Until it confronted us, everyone had regarded war as an absurdity. Now it was reality. If it was any consolation, the enemy must be having the same problem.”
In a Europe that been peaceful for over 70 years, these words involuntarily draw parallels.
Nobody says war will break out in Europe in 2021. 1914 is certainly not 2021.
But worldwide, tectonic plates are moving again. Armed conflict surrounds us – see Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
And just as in 1914 the imminent collapse of the multinational Habsburg Empire was the subject of much speculation in Zombory-Moldován’s time, some now allude to the disintegration of the European Union. We’ve had several crises in the last decade. Every crisis, we keep hearing, is ‘existential’ for the EU.
Could one such crisis really prove fatal to the EU? Could it fall apart, like the Habsburg Empire? And, before we jump to conclusions: how did that exactly happen, back in 1918?
These are some of the questions I explore in my book It Will Not Get Better; Travels Through the European Union and the Habsburg Empire.
I lived in Vienna, once the capital of the Empire, from 2013-2017. To my surprise the Habsburg spirit is still strongly present – in politics, literature, architecture, and outlook on the world.
As a western European, more focused on the transatlantic world than on continental Europe and its history, I immersed myself in it.
What I learned during my Viennese years gradually changed the way I looked at the European Union.
What strikes me most is how our debates about Europe are often framed by unrealistic expectations. To federalists the EU always disappoints, because it doesn’t have the power to act.
Nationalists find the EU too powerful, and are constantly disappointed, too. Europeans are so busy discussing these conflicting abstractions that they often forget to look at the reality.
How does the EU function? Could it it be that the EU as it is – a halfway house both underperforming and powerful – is actually all we’re going to get?
Contrary to the EU, the Habsburg Empire was a state with an army and a foreign policy. But there are many similarities.
The Empire provided a ‘roof’ over the heads of several nations that were jealous of each other and seldom agreed on anything. Habsburg rulers provided security for all by keeping big nations in check and protecting the small ones.
They were as eagerly looking for compromises as European leaders are nowadays when they meet in Brussels. And like the EU, the Empire was in permanent negotiation with itself and within itself, constantly reforming and changing arrangements with member states – pushed by popular demand, or because external events forced them to, or because in complex systems one reform tends to make others necessary.
The Empire was as obsessed with itself as the EU is, constantly navel-gazing and looking for signs of existential demise.
The Empire had a single market and a common currency.
Like the EU is today, it was surrounded by large, assertive rivals. Feeling militarily exposed, it tried to maintain buffer zones just outside its external borders and to form alliances with some mighty neighbours.
The Empire perfected the art of avoiding conflict and gaining time. “Fortwursteln” [muddling through] was the cornerstone of Habsburg policy. Sounds familiar?
One last parallel perhaps: the Habsburg Empire permanently felt insecure and suffered from low self-esteem.
Its intellectual elite was critical, often cynical. It is probably no coincidence that the works of Joseph Roth, Karl Kraus and Stefan Zweig feel so modern to us today.
We often criticise the EU for being weak, divided and slow.
Multiple crises hit Europe during recent years, with summits in Brussels labelled ‘make or break’. The EU, however, survived it all.
Having lived in Brussels before moving to Vienna, I covered several crises. I remember the panic, the drama.
But I also recall something else: each time European leaders looked at the precipice, they moved away and compromised. They clearly wanted the EU to survive.
In this sense the euro crisis, the migration crisis and Brexit transformed the EU.
National leaders realised they couldn’t weather international storms all alone. They started to see that in a world dominated by messy rivalries the EU, with all its faults and flaws, actually provided sovereignty.
As Mario Draghi said: “There is no sovereignty in solitude”.
Living a stone’s throw from the Schönbrunn palace in Vienna, talking to members of the Habsburg family and many others, I realised that the Empire had a similar function.
Nobody saw the arrangement as ideal. But each nation got more than enough out of it to justify investing in it. As a result it survived for some six hundred years.
Surrounded by large, sometimes hostile powers the Empire gave small nations a roof over their head, providing peace, security and welfare. This was the deal. Not more, not less.
It unravelled not because of nationalism, but because of the war.
After 1914 most resources were redirected to the front. Slowly the state stopped taking care of its people. Many lost their jobs and livelihoods. Meanwhile the death toll rose. Interestingly, it was only at that point that many turned to nationalist politicians whose ‘solutions’ they had never really trusted before.
In the first year of the war, Béla Zombory-Moldován, the young Hungarian painter, got injured and returned home. He never managed to resume normal life. The war raged on. Something was irreparably broken – a world, a way of life that would never return.
Society was under the spell of slogans and big words – ‘renewal’, ‘new vision’, ‘democracy’ – and a whirlwind of -isms chasing one another ever faster, ever more confusing.
Maybe, the painter said, “some revolutionary transformation may already be under way; maybe these are all just straws in the wind”.
Our situation, again, is different.
Still, these words don’t sound out of place in 2021.