A Stroll Through the Ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Photo Source Roman Boed | CC BY 2.0

My grandmother told me that in Prague one day, when she was a child, she saw a man throwing coins onto the street and yet nobody was picking them up. Then her mother explained that those coins weren’t valid because the Austro-Hungarian Empire had ceased to exist, and, on that very day, October 28th, 1918, Prague had become the capital of a new state, Czechoslovakia. The little girl didn’t understand a thing: how could she possibly be living in a different country if everything was as before, and there were families living in her apartment block who spoke German and Yiddish, as well as Czech?

Central European literature has described the various ethnic groups and nations which made up the complex fabric of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Before the Great War, these peoples supported the Empire, although there were separatist groups who sought to break it apart; the novel The Good Solider Svejk by the Czech Jaroslav Hasek, focuses on these tendencies. Miklos Bánffy, in his Transylvanian Trilogyillustrates the turmoil of the years leading up to the Great War, both from the Hungarian standpoint as well as that of the Viennese politicians. Joseph Roth, a firm supporter of the Empire, prophesies in The Radetzky March: “When the Emperor says goodbye, we will be split into a hundred pieces./…/ Each people will set up its miserable statelet/…/Nationalism is the new religion.”

Nationalist and separatist movements grew in strength during the Great War and pressed for independence from the Empire. The American president Woodrow Wilson was a keen supporter of the Czech nationalist politician Tomas Masaryk, among others. After the Great War, Wilson maintained that the peace outlined in the Paris Conference should guarantee the rights of states that had seceded from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, his well-intentioned words were little more than a superficial gloss, beneath which lurked his desire to turn his country into the world’s major power; a proposal helped greatly by the dismantlement of the European empires.

What were the ethnically complex states which emerged from the ruins of the Empire like? By way of example, we could take Czechoslovakia.

Its multiculturalism, inherited from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was one of its distinguishing features. Prague, in the first decades of the 20th century, did not yet have a million inhabitants; 92% were Czechs and 8% were German speakers, of whom two thirds were Jewish. This Jewish minority was economically powerful and culturally influential. An important German minority lived on the border region of the Sudets. This diversity gave rise to some splendid cultural results; in those first decades Czechoslovakia had a miraculously broad range of writers working both in Czech and German: the novelists Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hasek, and the poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Jaroslav Seifert, among others. What was more, the young government offered hospitality and economic support to political refugees, notably to exiles from the Russian Revolution. At that time, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, the novelist Nina Berberova and the linguist Roman Jakobson all lived in Prague and wrote some of their best work there.

However, the fledgling democracy of the philosopher-president Tomas Masaryk also made some less successful decisions; something similar happened in other countries which had recently become independent: the articles of the Constitution, which dates from 1920, did not mention the national minorities. So chuffed were the Czechs at having obtained their own space, they forgot to grant the German and Slovak minorities the same rights which they themselves enjoyed. In 1918, riding a wave of euphoria, Masaryk proclaimed: “We Czechs have just created our State and we have no intention of talking about autonomy for the Germans [of Czechoslovakia].” The Slovaks, ethnically and linguistically Slavic, like the Czechs, were invited by Masaryk to share the new country so as to increase the population, but he treated them with disdainful paternalism. So it was that right at the start of his years as president, Masaryk unwittingly insulted and humiliated two powerful minorities.

The consequences were not long in coming. After the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the robust and upwardly mobile German minority in the Sudets, eager for a partner that would give them better treatment, started to grow closer to a Germany which would end up voting for Hitler. After the Second World War, propelled by anti-German hatred, Czechoslovakia punished the inhabitants of the Sudets by forcibly moving the populations of whole towns into German territory, even though they had been an integral part of Czech territory for centuries.

In much the same way, Slovakia, in 1938-9, distanced itself from the Czechs in order to achieve closer ties to Hitler, who had granted them permission to create an independent State on the condition of absolute loyalty to the Reich. After Hitler’s fall, a reunified Czechoslovakia entered the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. However, four decades later, after the fall of Communism and the restoration of democracy, in 1992 Slovakia became fully independent by means of a pact – not put to a referendum – between the federal premier Meciar and Klaus, his Czech opposite number.

So the hegemony of the Czech ethnic group, proclaimed in Czechoslovakia’s first constitution after the Great War, did not have a happy outcome. The Czech people, like other Central European nations, had been used to sharing their space with foreign elements for centuries, living as they did in an amalgam of cultures, languages, religions and nations. Their capital, Prague, is an architectural challenge to any kind of monolithic culture. Today, these Central European states, which spent four decades under the Soviet yoke, are still licking the wounds inflicted by totalitarian Communism, which ended almost three decades ago. Putin did all he could to retain the countries which had formed part of the Soviet empire. By accepting the ex-Communist countries into its club despite their being fractious and antagonistic, the European Union put an end to Putin’s dream of extending Russia’s dominance into Europe. These countries are trying to build societies which are protected from the cosmopolitanism of the past, and tremble at the sight of any outside influence. Members of the EU but not the Eurozone, these rebels which emerged from the Austro-Hungarian Empire – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – have entrenched themselves in the fortress of Visegrad in opposition to Brussels.

I can imagine how my grandmother, who came from that early cosmopolitan Prague, might feel. I’m sure that she would not understand why instead of hearing three different languages in the street, she could hear only one, Czech.  What’s more, she wouldn’t be happy not being able to pay with euros, the common European currency, nor to be able to welcome desperate refugees into her territory. And she would think that the hegemony of a single ethnic group always leads to cultural impoverishment.

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)