Reviewed by Matthew Berg (Department of History, John Carroll University)
Published on H-German (October, 2007)
Austria through the Ages--and Bad Leonfelden over a Generation or Two
Articulating a concise history of Austria from its earliest known settlement to the present is a daunting task. The historian must construct a cohesive narrative for a region that has been a diverse cultural, ethnic, religious, and linguistic territorial expanse for millennia, and only rather homogeneous for most of the twentieth century. To his credit, Steven Beller, an independent historian who has authored several commendable works on Austrian political and cultural history primarily focusing on the later Habsburg monarchy, makes solid decisions. The result is a work whose leitmotifs are traditional political and diplomatic history and a particular interest in the fate of Austrian Jews--areas that reflect Beller's interests and the themes of his previous publications.
Most historians of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Austria would agree that the author's thesis, while by no means novel, remains a compelling one for organizing the kind of sweeping narrative he presents. "All along," he argues, "'Austria' strove to define itself in ways which would make it appear legitimate to itself and others. Sometimes it succeeded, but never for long, and never fully, always with a slight lack of conviction. Austrian history is a case study in the other side of European history, of those concepts of political coherence left in the wake of the triumphant nation-state. Austria's post-war awkwardness with its past and its sense of identity is part of a very long tradition" (pp. 8-9). The challenges Beller confronts--and does an effective job sorting out--are: how to frame the relationship between policies and their effects effectively; how to do justice to the tensions between those who perceived their privileges as inalienable and who came to perceive themselves as disadvantaged; and the identification of the threats and opportunities perceived by proponents of modernity as well as those who felt endangered by it.
The book is organized sensibly in chronological fashion. Its opening chapter provides a brief overview of the region that is contemporary Austria from the earliest identified Iron Age culture through Roman rule, through the Babenbergs and up to the emergence of the Habsburgs as regional powerbrokers. Beller effectively conveys the state of flux that characterized the rise and fall of families' efforts--and contests within families--to establish preeminence in an area that came to include much of contemporary Bavaria, Bohemia and Moravia, western Hungary, parts of northern Italy, and the northern and the northeastern Adriatic coastline. The second chapter focuses on Habsburg consolidation, the myth and reality of "divine right" monarchy, and Maria Theresa's encounters with challenges that would eventually result in reform initiatives under Joseph II. Beller's narrative becomes richer and more detailed in the third chapter, "Countering Reform, 1740-1866." In it, Beller raises fundamental questions of "Austrianness" that address issues such as "Austrian identity-as-German identity" during the Napoleonic Wars and the emperor as a unifying force for non-Germans, despite the first serious centrifugal tugs of separatism in Hungary and elsewhere in 1848 and afterwards. Chapter 4 examines challenges the monarchy found itself compelled to negotiate between the defeats of 1866 and 1918, while chapter 5 offers a richly detailed, thoughtful exploration of society, economy, and a thwarted sense of Germanness versus a nascent sense of post-imperial Austrianness that found resolution in the Anschluß. Chapter 6 introduces readers to the Second Republic, a field of inquiry less known to nonspecialists, and Beller applies the same consistent attention to detail evident in the previous chapters when he turns to matters of reconstruction, political and economic developments, and debates over Austrian identity.
Some readers, however, may find Beller's approach altogether too conventional. His narrative includes foci on competing dynasties up to the emergence of Habsburg dominance, the clash between Enlightenment values and absolutism, revolution, and reaction. He is interested in regional histories and social/ethnic groups largely insofar as they have an impact on statist conceptions of politics. These choices reflect traditional perspectives in Austrian (and European)-focused historiography, which--although they may continue to raise important questions--nonetheless eschew sensitivity to regional studies that underscore significant expressions of heterogeneity, or social historical approaches that provide insight into social classes, ethnic groups, or women, with whom Beller only acquaints us through encounters with their political representatives.
Still, there are certain exceptions to the book's otherwise consistent and adroitly handled focus on high politics and diplomacy. While their intent is laudable, something is left wanting in their execution. First, Beller's interest in high culture can seem like a curious digression from his focus on high politics. While such sections are not non sequiturs, they also are not consistently integrated into the narrative flow of the chapters in which they appear.
Second, his particularly detailed study of Jewish experiences, while significant and relevant in the context of a discussion of identity and politics from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, may be received by some readers as coming at the expense of less detailed examination of other groups such as Czechs, Italians, or South Slavs. These groups' increasingly pronounced sense of alienation--or, alternatively, examples of their integration--provide us with no less significant insights into questions of identity and prevailing political and social circumstances. It would be unfair and inaccurate, however, to suggest that Beller ignores these other groups. He notes, for example: "The Monarchy was in its last decades Janus-faced. One face, with its cosmopolitan and pluralist high modern culture--pointed forward; the other, shadier face of the same society--with its ethnic strife, social and political oppression, authoritarianism, racism and rampant antisemitism--pointed backwards, or, if forward, to an anti-modern and radically illiberal future that was to reach its hideous realization in the death camps of Hitler's Third Reich" (p. 142). His point, although it flirts with a troublesome teleological explanation, is nonetheless an indication of his appreciation for the experiences of these groups alongside those of Austria's Jews. Nonetheless, many readers--even as they recognize the strength of Beller's treatment of Austrian Jews--will likely find that he never provides a justification for his choices of emphasis or de-emphasis.
Third, Beller selects Bad Leonfelden as a single case study in regional differentiation that either confirms general trends, or locates the persistence of traditional values in the face of change. It is a town that he knows well, given family and other personal connections. One might applaud his willingness to introduce an intimate case study into a sweeping narrative. However, I found his focus on this town a curious diversion within the text, neither deeply embedded enough in the fabric of the larger themes into which it is introduced, nor juxtaposed with other micro-case studies that might allow the reader to gain a clearer appreciation for continuity and discontinuity, regional differentiations, or representation during the Second Republic or at any earlier moment.
Finally, given that the primary readership for this book is likely to be college students unfamiliar with Austria or an interested general public, Beller might have crafted a more extensive bibliography--one not merely structured by period, but thematized within these temporal categories to highlight issues he does not address sufficiently (ethnic minorities, regional case studies, and the social implications of economic developments, for example). Perhaps, alternatively, distinct short bibliographic essays for each period Beller identified would have been appropriate. In either case, a greater pedagogical commitment in the bibliography would have counterbalanced the near complete absence of footnotes.
Any scholar who undertakes the challenge of representing a topic of such breadth and depth in relatively few pages is likely to make choices that do not satisfactorily address the demands of at least some of his or her peers. In the end, Beller's work is more than merely credible; he highlights the issues his thesis identifies with great care and offers the reader an elegant, thoughtful book. In the case of a project of this scale, it is certainly easier to criticize than to create an alternative. We should be thankful that he embraced this challenge and created a book with pedagogical value, one that will lend itself to combination with supplementary texts for an introductory course on Austria, and makes for an entertaining read.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Matthew Berg. Review of Beller, Steven, A Concise History of Austria.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2007 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.