At a funeral in Washington on the eve of the current millennium, a trio of Serbian sisters who had lived most of their lives in exile sat observing the other mourners. As a well-turned-out young man approached the coffin to pay his last respects to the deceased, one sister admiringly observed, “But he must be from Vienna.” “Yes, certainly from Vienna,” cheerfully agreed the second sister. “Of course he is from Vienna!,” exclaimed the third sister, as though she had just recognized a distant but endearing relative. To the amazement of those who overheard them, the young man, whom they had never seen before, did in fact prove to be from Vienna. Some collection of residual Habsburg-era traits or mannerisms gave him away to his fellow Middle Europeans, instantly summoning sunny nostalgia for the romance of a shared Danubian past at an occasion as somber as a funeral in decidedly unromantic Clintonian Washington.

It was hard to imagine why these elderly South Slavs would be so excited to see a debonair Viennese gentleman. Their father, a prominent Yugoslavian diplomat, had represented the country that arguably won the most from the Habsburg Empire’s demise at the end of the First World War, a conflict nationalist extremists of its core Serbian realm did much to start. He served abroad during the Second World War, when Yugoslavia was under the yoke of Nazi Germany, which by then included Vienna and the former Habsburg crown lands and was ruled by a much less sympathetic Austrian. At the time of the funeral in question, their home country was run by another aggressive nationalist, a vicious ex-communist whose brazen support of ethnic cleansing shortly led to a nato bombing campaign, a popular revolution that ousted him, and an international war crimes trial from which he was only spared judgment by a prison heart attack. To our modern sensibilities, so powerfully shaped by the twentieth century’s unforgiving demons of ethnic conflict, it is virtually inconceivable that the realm of memory could conjure up pleasant recognition scenes that would have been much more, as the Austrians say, gemütlich a century before.

Yet in his “new” history of the Habsburg Empire,1 Pieter Judson sets out to demonstrate that nationalism was not the corrosive agent of doom we all thought it was. In a provocative thesis covering the last 150 years of the Empire’s existence, he argues instead that nationalism—the modern concept of an ethnic community defined by common linguistic and cultural traditions—complemented rather than challenged imperial governance. The “nations” that boldly asserted independence in late 1918 arose not from magically reawakened Herderian spirits of collective defiance but from deliberate measures taken by the imperial government itself to improve efficiency, undermine non-national sources of opposition, and—in its last decades—promote a supra-ethnic Habsburg patriotism based upon multiethnic inclusiveness and legally guaranteed civic equality. Rather than feebly reacting to angry waves of unstoppable national liberation, the Habsburg state proved remarkably adept at the reform, compromise, and balance it needed not merely to survive but to flourish. If its rulers held their thrones for more than six hundred years, something obviously had gone right.

At the same time, the “nationalists” among the Empire’s dozen or so minorities made abundant use of imperial institutions not to destroy the empire but to reshape its structures to maximum local advantage. As late as 1917, as Judson colorfully notes, Slovene activists implored the last Habsburg Emperor, the hapless Charles I and IV, to create a composite administrative unit for the South Slavs in a petition that included the improbably loyal declaration, “Long live the Habsburgs and a happy Yugoslavia under their scepter!” The funereal Serbian sisters of Washington may well have smiled.

Judson’s greatest strength lies in his skillful synthesis of post–Cold War scholarship on the Habsburg Empire. Much of it refutes, if episodically, the older “decline and fall” narrative that reassured earlier generations. Victorious nationalist leaders used it to appeal to alleged Habsburg abuses to justify their rebellions and legitimize their new or expanded states. For Habsburg patriots who survived in what they thought of as the Never Never Land of life after empire, the same nationalists coalesced as perfect villains: dastardly traitors who conspired with wartime enemies to mobilize masses of ungrateful yokels in rejecting the benefits of imperial Kultur in favor of peasant folkways, provincial particularism, and pernicious democracy. Cheerful well-wishers among the triumphant Allies crowed over what they believed to be the well-deserved disintegration of a reactionary anachronism at the righteous hands of popular sovereignty. Hopeful Marxists already energized by the Bolshevik Revolution celebrated imperial apocalypse as evidence that history stood on their side as the feudal residue of empire yielded to the nation-state capitalism that their crude ideology promised would in turn beget socialist revolution. In all cases, as we later learned in history class, Habsburg collapse was the inevitable result of irreconcilable national conflict.

If we peer out from under the 20/20 hindsight, some of Judson’s empirical evidence suggests that this conclusion was far from foregone. As early as the reign of Maria Theresa (1740–1780), the imperial state had emerged as a leveling protector of diverse populations. Peasants in the Empire’s underdeveloped (we are not allowed to say “backward” anymore) eastern marches could appeal to the dynasty in faraway Vienna for protection against their local feudal lords—even to the point of rising in violent rebellion against breaches of their traditional liberties under the banner of their just Habsburg rulers. Since those monarchs feared potent “national” nobilities as threats to their power, they often reacted with great sympathy to empower lower orders who embraced imperial pride as an appellate authority. As the Empire grew more bureaucratized in the nineteenth century, incipient nationalists could avail themselves of its institutions—a luxuriant web of schools, courts, administrative bodies, scientific societies, census commissions, and civic associations among them—to advocate vociferously for their communities’ rights under the law. The ever-pressing problem of language usage, for example, was adjudicated in imperial courts by Austrian-trained jurists who evaluated the arguments of Austrian-trained lawyers, regardless of what language they all spoke at home. To the immense consternation of Austrian elites in the Empire’s core, a curiously large number of minority nationalists wrote their treatises on ethnic difference in the fluent and highly academic German they had learned in imperial universities. Establishing local political legitimacy came to involve constructing government offices, theaters, libraries, gardens, museums, post offices, and other public spaces in a recognizably imperial style that self-consciously copied neoclassical Austrian institutional building, often even using the same “imperial yellow” paint that still inscribes the architecture of officialdom everywhere from Western Ukraine to the Trentino-Alto Adige.

In many contexts the very concept of “nation” thus depended on established imperial standards. It should be no wonder that the Habsburg successor states at least initially preserved imperial laws and regulations as they stumbled into creating new bureaucracies that perhaps comfortingly mirrored those of their imperial pasts. Even subversives depended on the imperial system. Liberals of various ethnicities used its intellectual infrastructure to evangelize their ideology of reform and democratization via decidedly imperial formats of education, administration, and parliamentarianism. Ultramontane Catholics more interested in religious revival than national agitation appealed to imperial guarantees of local liberties to oppose new social and educational policies of which they disapproved. Paradoxically, these partisans of Papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception—both new elements of religious dogma—excelled at using cutting-edge imperial transportation and communications networks to spread their message by rail, telegraph, and newspaper print. The Marxist Social Democratic Party, founded in 1889 and the largest faction in the imperial parliament after the introduction of universal male suffrage in 1907, made use of imperial connections to marshal its class-based adherents in hope of exercising greater influence than limited national parties could do. As the Czech nationalist intellectual František Palacký paraphrased Voltaire’s cynical quip about God: for many of its subjects, if the Empire had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent it. The Habsburg monarch who presided over it all was thus no frightened Wagnerian deity awaiting his inevitable end in some gloomy palace. Rather he was “everybody’s emperor” whether or not he agreed with all of his subjects on issues of everyday importance in what had become “their empire.”

The argument is not completely persuasive, however. Judson freely admits that many of these arrangements, however interesting, were purely strategic in character and thus may not have reflected a wholehearted embrace of the long-lived and long-reigning Emperor Franz Josef (r. 1848–1916) as some kind of universal Middle European grandpa. The Bosnian Serb imperial subjects who murdered his heir in 1914 probably saw him differently, as did the uniquely large number of Slavic imperial soldiers who turned coat to fight against him on the Allied side in the world war that followed. Judson may have found these people too inconvenient to mention, but at one point even he contradicts his argument by correctly noting that “Hungarian nationalists sought to increase their country’s independence from Austria in every way.” He might have added a discussion of the separate Hungarian parliament’s consistent refusal to fund the imperial military at internationally competitive levels, for nervous Magyar notables long feared that Vienna would use a larger and better-equipped imperial army to crush their jealously guarded autonomy. Clearly not everyone was as happy an imperial citizen as the anecdotal evidence suggests.

Even without these quibbles, Judson’s impressive accumulation of such anecdotal evidence never answers a more fundamental question that hangs over all 452 pages of his prose: is it possible to utilize the institutions of a prevailing political order without fully accepting or endorsing it? Dissidents in the post-Stalinist ussr, which also suffered from an eventually explosive and perhaps inevitable problem of nationalities, routinely defended their actions in reference to their official rights under Soviet law as overseen by institutions of Soviet officialdom. Yet they still proceeded to dance on their own defunct empire’s grave as soon as it collapsed. I strongly suspect that many disgruntled Habsburg subjects were equally capable of expedient cynicism and cognitive dissonance when no reasonable alternative was at hand. It was one of their intellectual heirs, after all, who famously wrote that his “powerless” compatriots were constrained to “live within a lie” even if they need not accept it. Acknowledging that would not have tarnished Judson’s acumen. But given what happened in most Habsburg lands after 1918, he should be congratulated for revealing that the Empire deserves healthier esteem than it has heretofore received.

1 The Habsburg Empire: A New History, by Pieter M. Judson; Harvard University Press, 592 pages, $35.