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Professor contrasts two WWI interpretations

| Thursday, November 6, 2014

John Deak, assistant professor of history at Notre Dame, gave a lecture Thursday on the divide between mainstream and revisionist interpretations of the Habsburg Empire’s downfall during World War I, as part of the Nanovic Institute World War I Lecture Series.

“What I’ve seen in the last 30 years is a complete and utter gap between what World War I historians say about the Habsburg empire and what Habsburg scholars … say about the empire,” Deak said. “The problem is that we don’t talk to each other.”

Deak said traditional scholarship views the Habsburg Empire as an outdated monarchy in decline even before the outbreak of World War I.

“The Habsburg Empire is seen and written about as a weak political anachronism … that isn’t equipped to survive [after World War I],” Deak said. “It’s been cast as a historical breaking point when the golden epoch of the 19th century Europe crashes to an end.”

Revisionists, on the other hand, view the Habsburg Empire as a functioning monarchy and seek alternative explanations for its collapse, he said.

“The Habsburg Monarchy was vibrant: it was a functioning state under the rule of law,” Deak said. “I think [World War I] killed the empire in a dramatic way, but since the 1920’s … this idea has been completely downplayed.”

Despite Austria-Hungary’s best efforts, World War I destroyed many years of political and infrastructural improvement, Deak said.

“This bureaucratic state of trying to manage democracy and build infrastructure was completely thrown out the window,” he said “By the time 1917 comes around … there’s no way to put the thing back together again.”

Many historians also overlook Austria-Hungary’s resilience during the war, Deak said, as the empire was forced to raise three armies between 1914 and 1916 despite losing over a million soldiers.

Further study of the Habsburg Empire not only provides a better understanding of the causes of collapse, but it also sheds light on the war’s effects on Europe, he said.

“We need to give the war more credit than we do,” he said. “I think if we tune our focus on understanding why an empire, which was continually evolving and aiming for multinational democracy … could collapse so quickly, we might understand the First World War in more important ways.”

Though this revisionist argument provides “common-sense interpretations” on the downfall of Austria-Hungary, academia still favors the traditional view of a failing empire, Deak said.

“The trope that the Habsburg monarchy in 1914 was on the verge of collapse when war broke out is something we’re going to see more and more of in the literature being published today,” he said.

According to Deak, part of this divide is because World War I historians spend little time studying the Habsburg Empire, focusing only on the brief month of activity during which Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in June of 1914.

“Historians of the First World War generally develop some interest in the Habsburg monarchy, but then they either forget it or they kick it off,” Deak said.

In addition to viewing Austria-Hungary as the “sick-man” of Europe, “generalist” World War I scholars also believe the dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy enabled the multiple nations formerly comprising the empire to develop as modern states, he said.

“The First World War is the point in time that open the gates of this prison and lets these prisoners out,” Deak said. “This largely fits into the trope that the First World War was this modern cataclysm that broke open Central Europe.”

Deak said it is important to recognize the effects of this divide in historical interpretation.

“When we commemorate one thing, we inevitably don’t say other things,” he said. “I think history has become quite esoteric over the last 30 years.”

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