My own interest has always been in the early modern Habsburg monarchy, but I would be the first to admit that it is the history of modern period – especially the final century that has been the most dynamic. Habsburg elites – even the regime itself – had great difficulty creating a narrative that was meaningful for its subjects during the 19th-century age of revolution and nationalism. What little success they had was quickly eradicated during and after the World War I, when the ultimately victorious Western allies forged the image of the monarchy as a politically and culturally oppressive “prison of nations.” That image solidified further as the newly created successor states – as well as postwar Hungary – represented themselves as its victims. In the West, the trend intensified through successive stages of fascism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and Cold War stalemate. Very little changed in this prevailing narrative across North America and Europe.
That image has changed remarkably in the West. I first noticed and participated in this shift in the 1970s and 1980s as early modernists revisited and partly rehabilitated hopelessly “backward” states like the Holy Roman empire, the Habsburg monarchy and even the Asiatic despotism of the Ottomans. But it was the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s that compelled a thorough reconceptualization of modern Habsburg history. Both the sheer destructiveness of populist nationalism and the tyranny of imperfectly formed democracies have inspired a plethora of scholarly studies in the West that have recast the monarchy in a much more sympathetic and, indeed, positive light.
But is it too late to change the old narrative that still holds sway within the mass media and public that consumes it? The consequences of “creation narratives” are responsible for a cultural malaise that challenges the Enlightenment foundations of liberalism not only in Central Europe, but in the USA.