Myths and Narratives of Habsburg and Ottoman Multinationalism 1848-1918

The Habsburg and Ottoman Empires went down together as allies in the First World War 1914-18. The last Habsburg emperor Karl abdicated already in November 1918, whereas the last sultan Mehmet VI held out as prisoner in his own palace until 1922. Together, the empires left behind some fifteen to twenty nation-states from Poland in the north to Iraq in the south.

In current right-wing as well as Islamist political discourses, the two empires are often depicted as almost archetypal adversaries, with the Ottoman sieges of Vienna in 1527 and 1683 taking the role as a decisive moment that prevented Islam from entering Europe. In fact they might have had more in common than it is usually admitted. In the name of dynastic legitimacy, they would rule a multitude of lands and peoples from two geographical crossroads – Istanbul and Vienna – and in an almost parallel interaction: their dynasties both rose to prominence in the late thirteenth century; their power peaked between the mid-fifteenth to mid-sixteenth century; they managed to survive a series of political crises from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century to embark on ambitious reform programs that were unusual for the very fact that they tried to understand the challenge of their inner diversity as an asset.

The modern paradigm, although associated with the emancipation of the individual, did not generally work in their favour. Modernity both created opportunities for wider groups of people to articulate their ideals and identities by means of written and physical communication, and opportunities for the state to control and homogenise their population by means of schools and infrastructure; but the nation-state alone seemed suited to reconcile them. In such a world, the Habsburg and Ottoman empires were anomalies, anachronisms, or even impossibilities. Liberal forces criticised their autocratic and dynastic notions of power, but liberalism also worked together with nationalism and created narratives about the forced coexistence of the nations they ruled. It created a double impetus for political reform and national purification that is necessary to keep in mind if one wants to understand why the modern history of Eastern Europe and the Middle East is not only one of democratization and social development, but also one of civil strife, ethnic cleansings and genocides.

The painful experiences of the twentieth century in particular and the increasing stress on multicultural coexistence as an essential good of liberal democracy have led to a sneaking re-evaluation of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, sometimes an outright nostalgia. In some cases, such as contemporary Turkey, this goes hand in hand with a rhetoric that serves obvious geopolitical purposes, but at least unconsciously it is also evoked in the integration efforts of the European Union that, in this sense, have a no less political agenda.

 For the sake of fairness it is important to keep in mind that the Habsburg and Ottoman empires were both remnants of a pre-modern world where most political units were inherently diverse – fragmented by technical, geographical, social and even psychological obstacles of communication. As long as the objective of the men in power was not to foster equal citizens but to maintain an authoritarian principle that legitimised their own rule, this problem was not so much ignored as non-existent. The hierarchy itself, the unequal distribution of resources and the monopoly of violence were all parts of a world of differences and distinctions. The popular term multiculturalism would give a euphemistic description of a coexistence built on the segregation of classes, genders and communities, although it would be equally anachronistic to imagine a world marred by tensions between religions, languages and social strata of people whose horizons were spatially limited. As such they are badly suited to exemplify anything similar to what we mean by coexistence or confrontation.

And still, what both empires did during the course of their modern reforms – from 1839 in the Ottoman Empire, after 1848 in the Habsburg Empire – was precisely that: they created narratives of pluralism and coexistence that were not entirely unlike our own, which might be what strikes a note with many people today.