Review: The Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy – 1867-1918, Zsuzsa Gáspár (editor)
In what is now called Széchenyi tér, at the Pest end of Budapest’s Chain Bridge, there is a large seated statue of the 19th-century Hungarian politician Ferenc Deák (1803-1876). Despite its size, the monument is not particularly prominent amidst the trees and the swirling traffic, but take a close look at the side of the pedestal facing the Danube and you see an intriguing sculpture depicting two children clasping hands. They also each have a shield, one showing the Austrian coat-of-arms, the other that of Hungary.
50 years from start to finish
The symbolism is quite clear. The children represent the so-called Compromise of 1867, when Austria and Hungary came to an agreement whereby Hungary gained a large degree of autonomy within the Habsburg empire. The politician Deák is acknowledged as having done much to bring about the Compromise, and with it the establishment of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy, as the empire then officially became known.
The Dual Monarchy collapsed in 1918 at the end of the First World War. National movements in its constituent parts seeking independence or unity with another perceived mother country, or even a new formation, saw to that. Hungary itself declared independence and then sought in vain to stop Slovaks, Romanians, Serbs, Croats and Ruthenes in Hungary’s pre-1918 territories from also going their own way and breaking from the political control exercised by Budapest. Thus the Dual Monarchy lasted half a century, not a particularly long time in terms of human history. Yet though the Monarchy disappeared over nine decades ago its memory lives on – more than that, as this book argues, its culture and in some ways its politics still have a resonance today.
The empire’s look
This is a lavishly illustrated volume and what are immediately striking are its images. It may not be obvious to those living in the countries which used to make up the Monarchy how similar the major cities of the region are, at least in looks. The book’s large colour photographs of railway stations, opera houses, theatres and metropolitan thoroughfares make the architectural similarities quite clear. That is perhaps not surprising given that architects of the great building boom witnessed during the Dual Monarchy often copied each other’s styles, or in some cases, as exemplified by the theatre architects Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer, the same architects would design public buildings for different locations across the Monarchy’s territory, and even beyond. The cities for which Fellner and Helmer designed theatres included Budapest, Szeged, Kolozsvár/Cluj, Nagyvárad/Oradea, Pozsony (today Bratislava), Vienna, Salzburg, Zagreb, Prague and Brno, not to mention Berlin, Hamburg, Sofia and Odessa.
Apart from images of architectural masterpieces, the book contains interesting photos depicting political, cultural and social aspects of the Dual Monarchy. Many of these are unusual in that they are not the familiar ones which often appear in history books or archive photo collections.
But this is not simply a picture book with brief captions. The images are accompanied by explanatory texts – about the people portrayed, the social situation a photograph depicts, or about political events. In addition there are a number of extensive, informative essays about the Dual Monarchy – its politics, cultural and social life, as well as its inner tensions.
Reflection on today
Perhaps the most interesting essay, in the sense of thought-provoking, is the last one by Hungarian historian András Ger? titled The Heritage of the Empire. He makes a comparison between the Central Europe of the Dual Monarchy and today’s Central Europe comprising states which are again “united”, only this time as part of the European Union. What are the similarities between these EU members, both individually and collectively, and the former regions of the Dual Monarchy? What good things can be learnt from the past which could still be applied, and what negative aspects should be avoided?
It’s not all the same what choices are made, Ger? argues, pointing out that the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók and the Austrian Adolph Hitler were both “sons” of the Dual Monarchy. The impact each had was, of course, in contradiction with that of the other – one, based on tolerance and inclusion, was positive and creative, the other, based on exclusion and political arrogance, was negative and destructive. Need it be emphasised that these themes of tolerance versus intolerance, creativity versus destruction, are still with us?
Buy the book
The Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy – 1867-1918
Zsuzsa Gáspár (editor)
Hardback, large format
Illustrated, 240 pages
New Holland Publishers, 2008