Baird on Bellabarba, 'Das Habsburgerreich 1765-1918'

Marco Bellabarba
Kurt J. Baird

Marco Bellabarba. Das Habsburgerreich 1765-1918. Translated by Barbara Kleiner. Munich: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2020. x + 193 pp. $34.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-11-067488-0.

Reviewed by Kurt J. Baird (University of York) Published on H-German (February, 2021) Commissioned by Jasper Heinzen (Department of History, University of York)

Printable Version:

Marco Bellabarba has produced a welcome synthesis, translated from Italian into German by Barbara Kleiner, on the history of the Habsburg Empire during the (very) long nineteenth century. Das Habsburgerreich, 1765-1918 is a history of friction, contradictions, and tension, which charts the difficulties faced by successive generations of Habsburg governments in reconciling the myriad of particularisms and prejudices found within the territories of the House of Austria. This narrative culminates in the bloody fighting in Galicia, Serbia, and Italy during World War I, which exacerbated the deficiencies in the cultural, social, and intellectual frameworks used by governments throughout the nineteenth century to create loyal Habsburg subjects.

Yet Bellabarba’s book is not a work that charts the inevitable demise of the Habsburg Empire, describing the nineteenth century, as Carlile Aylmer McCartney once did in his influential monograph, The Habsburg Empire, 1790-1918 (1968), as an extended period of regression. It bridges the divide between histories of the last twenty years that have identified the many nuanced ways the empire was able to harness the provincial, ethnic, and national tensions within its borders, while also clearly highlighting the fractious nature of these forces. In doing so, Bellabarba provides readers with an understanding of why, after so much political capital was spent by leaders of the Habsburg Empire, Robert Musil’s Polish farmer from Galicia, Czech lawyer from Bohemia, and Italian judge from South Tyrol could not simply answer “I am an Austrian!” to the self-reflective question “Am I an Austrian?”

In Das Habsburgerreich, the government of the Habsburg Empire is full of ideas in its attempt to create Austrians. Bellabarba begins with the Habsburgs’ first total approach at establishing a centralized polity by the empress Maria Theresia and her son Joseph II. This approach, as he explains, involved a series of domestic reforms launched in response to Austria’s defeat in the three wars against Prussia (the First and Second Silesian Wars of 1740-48 and the Seven Years’ War of 1756-63). What follows is a history that traces the Habsburg Empire’s response to the highs of victory against Napoleon and the lows of defeat in the Austro-Italian War (1859) and German War (1866). Statesmen turned inward to reform the empire’s domestic structures and to rationalize the administrative, judicial, and legislative traditions of its many provinces after war. In the process, they were confronted with internal pressures at every stage from those who saw top-down, central reforms as eroding their regional communitarian identities. Resistance prevented the smooth creation of a centralized state and unified peoples against outsiders.

In chapter 1, Bellabarba summarizes the reforms of Maria Theresia and Joseph II, detailing succinctly their approaches to fiscal-military improvement and peasant-noble relations, before establishing the reasons why the emperor as sole ruler could not overcome his noble-landowners’ conservatism in the 1780s. Chapter 2 examines the first decades of the Austrian Empire under Foreign Minister Prince Metternich and Interior Minister Count Kolowrat. In this segment, Bellabarba outlines why, during the reign of Francis I (II) and Ferdinand I, the Habsburg Empire was unable to prevent bourgeois liberalism in the cities and the agitation of the overtaxed “masses” in the country from undermining Metternich’s “bureaucratic absolutism.” This apparatus of state power relied on insulated “foreign” bureaucrats allied with the regional high nobility. The paternal laws of the nobility were the foundation of the “Metternich system” and used to control Habsburg subjects. Yet this system provided no way of placating the desires of the unrepresented, who through the 1830s and ’40s wanted to remove the stifling manorial and economic power of landowners. This they eventually did through the violent revolts of 1848.

As Bellabarba argues in chapter 3, the neo-absolutism of Franz Josef I’s early reign may have removed serfdom, but its aggressive suppression of demands for national self-determination and greater political representation led to further agitation. The discountenance of local particularisms by successive governments led by Interior Ministers Prince Felix Schwarzenberg and Baron Alexander Bach eventually led to the loss of Lombardy-Venice in 1859. Here popular resentment of Habsburg bureaucracy coupled with demands for press freedom, religious equality, and political citizenship had been a source of friction since the 1810s, Bellabarba makes clear. Unlike in 1848, military force could not prevail over domestic turmoil, which received a boost from the intervention of Piedmont.

The constitutional era under Anton von Schmerling, introduced after defeat in Italy and the creation of the Dual Monarchy in 1867, allowed, in part, for national self-determination. But this, as Bellabarba shows in chapters 4 and 5, introduced a new set of problems, namely, political conflict along ethnic-cultural divides. Croatians, Slovaks, and Poles resented the political power given to Hungary in Transleithania. In Cisleithania, Italians, Bohemians, and Moravians railed at the supremacy of Germans in the Reichsrat. By the late nineteenth century, nationality, determined by linguistic and ethnic similarities and the right of the people to participate in the governing of a nation through male suffrage, had become the defining issue for the empire. This problem became particularly acute when Austria-Hungary acquired Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Now a people with little history of Habsburg rule but with a tremendous resentment of imperial power had to be integrated into the fragile multiethnic monarchy. Alas, for those loyal to the dynasty, the Habsburg Empire had run out of ideas. And with war erupting in 1914, they no longer had the time to come up with a few more.

There are no lost opportunities in Bellabarba’s history of the Habsburg Empire, just cause and effect. And there is no driving narrative of inevitable failure that describes a polity unable to emerge into the twentieth century as a modern European nation. Das Habsburgerreich is a refreshing account of the political and intellectual history of the last 150 odd years of this composite state, showcasing the many attempts of the Habsburg Empire to maintain imperial loyalty in all of its regions. There are, however, some minor errors. The armies of Maria Theresia incurred three hundred thousand casualties during the Seven Years’ War, not three hundred thousand deaths in battle, and a few typos will need to be amended in the next edition (p. 19). Though it does not break new ground or elucidate gaps in our knowledge, each chapter linearly presents and interprets up-to-date scholarship in easily comprehensible sections. Bellabarba’s work will serve as a perfect primer on the Habsburg Empire for undergraduate courses taught in German on the rise of nations and nationalism in Europe, political and intellectual history in all its forms, Central and Eastern European modern history, histories of empire, and topics on the dynasty’s late period.

Citation: Kurt J. Baird. Review of Bellabarba, Marco, Das Habsburgerreich 1765-1918. H-German, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.