A History of the Habsburg Empire; & Kaunitz & Enlightened Absolutism

Derek Beales | Published in History Today
  • A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1273-1700
    Jean Berenger (Translated by C.K. Simpson) – Longman, 1993 - xiv+ 407pp. - £42 hb, £16.99 pb
  • Kaunitz & Enlightened Absolutism, 1753-1780
    Franz A.J. Szabo – Cambridge, 1994 - xviii + 380 pp. - £50hb, £22.95 pb

The last work to appear in English covering the whole field of Berenger’s History of the Habsburg Empire, 1273-1700 was Archdeacon Coxe's History of the House of Austria, 1218-1792, published in three volumes in 1807. A replacement is certainly overdue, and Professor Berenger is well equipped to write it. His book provides an up-to-date account of the formation of the Austrian monarchy and of the political, social, economic and artistic development of the provinces that in 1700 composed it, together with discussion of the role of Habsburgs as Holy Roman Emperors and of relations with the Spanish branch of the dynasty and with other powers. lt will be found invaluable for its range and long perspective, its bibliographies, its glossary of German terms, its maps and its tables. Given what is already available in English on Charles V and on the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the volume will perhaps prove especially useful on the Middle Aged and on the neglected rule of Ferdinand l.

The story is highly complex, and some clarity has been lost through the use of confusing terminology. The author shows himself perfectly aware that 'the Habsburg Empire' of his title is a misnomer, completely anachronistic in this period. It would greatly have helped the reader if he had abandoned it and confined his use of 'the Empire' to the German Reich. There is also confusion between 'orders' and 'Estates' and 'Diets'. But the translation is in general idiomatic and effective.

Kaunitz will figure in Berenger's second volume as the longest serving of all the chief ministers of the Austrian Habsburgs, who exerted immense influence during the reigns of three successive monarchs, Maria Theresa, Joseph Il and Leopold II. As state chancellor his chief responsibility was foreign policy, but from the late 1750s he became a major figure in domestic affairs, especially through his membership of the new policy-making Council of State which was set up at his insistence in 1760. There is no worthwhile biography of him, and Szabo's new study is the first extended account of his contribution to internal reform down to the death of Maria Theresa. It is chiefly based on arduous work in Viennese archives which, despite grave losses through Eire and war in the twentieth century, still contain a forbidding mass of relevant material. Szabo has exploited these sources ably. He is particularly original on the chancellor's cultural interests and on his policies towards Hungary, but in every field of domestic policy he gives us new insight into Kaunitz's mind, plans and methods.

Concentration on Kaunitz's papers naturally leads to some exaggeration of his influence. To say that 'in the Habsburg Monarchy ministerial initiatives counted for everything' is to display a respect for officialdom too common in German scholarship. As for Kaunitz's notorious foibles, Szabo denies some of them and attributes others to ME. The chancellor's 'work-habits', we are told, 'were meticulous, and he prized punctuality and frugality'. But he was often hours late, even for interviews with the empress; and his daughter-in-law, who was constantly in his company, thought him uniquely eccentric.

No statesman has ever been better satisfied with his own achievements. Szabo shows that he was highly intelligent, and wise, liberal and skilful in many domestic matters. But a full assessment of Kaunitz would entail a thorough reappraisal of his foreign policy. Szabo, understandably, has not attempted this vast task, though he stresses the interaction between external and internal affairs and it is an essential part of his interpretation that the chancellor was prudent, judicious and unaggressive in his diplomacy. He has not faced up to the possibility that, as T.C.W. Blanning has recently argued, Kaunitz's foreign policy was fundamentally misconceived and ultimately disastrous. Szabo's book is nonetheless one of the best descriptions ever written of enlightened absolutism in operation.

DEREK BEALES is the author of Mozart and the Habsburgs (Reading University Press, 1993).

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week