A New History
Email this review


A fresh look at this sprawling empire that rejects its previous characterization as “backward” and asserts an overall administrative enlightenment the citizenry found engaging.

At the heart of this subtly argued work of deep scholarship, Judson (19th and 20th Century History/European Univ. Institute; Guardians of the Nation: Activists on the Language Frontiers of Imperial Austria, 2007, etc.) provides a careful examination of the imperial institutions, administrative policies, and cultural practices that reached far and wide into the vast Hapsburg Empire. As he moves chronologically, the author argues that from the “accidental” reign of Maria Theresa in the 17th century onward, the empire that had steadily grown in size with some brilliant dynastic marriages since the 15th century became a “model of common imperial citizenship,” which emancipated the peasants and considerably extended education and literacy. Maria Theresa inaugurated a strong centralized authority, extending from Transylvania in the east to Innsbruck in the west, from Prague to Trieste, with a rooted sense that individuals had “common legal rights and obligations anchored in their unmediated relationship to a central state.” The subsequent reigns of her sons, Joseph II and Leopold II, and nephew Francis—the last Holy Roman Emperor until its dissolution in 1804, when he became Francis I, Emperor of Austria—consolidated and furthered her reforms. On the one hand, Judson argues, the empire of “enlightened despots” represented a full-fledged rule of law, with a burgeoning bureaucracy; on the other hand, it was anxious about its people’s increasingly social and political activism, especially in Hungary. The industriousness and civic-mindedness in the citizenry (“engagement in public life”) propelled society when the central authority broke down. Morover, where previous historians have characterized Chancellor Klemens Metternich’s rule as a police state, Judson sees an emerging liberalism. The empire’s need to navigate concepts of nationhood based on diverse languages did not sink the empire after World War I so much as the corrosive effects of wartime misery, famine, and harsh military treatment.

A nuanced scholarly reappraisal of a significant European empire.

Pub Date: April 25th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-674-04776-1
Page count: 562pp
Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2016


NonfictionHEART OF EUROPE by Peter H. Wilson
by Peter H. Wilson
NonfictionTWILIGHT OF THE HAPSBURGS by Alan Palmer
by Alan Palmer