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Hofer's call to restore Austrian monarchy deserves to be heard

The recent Austrian presidential elections were annulled after a result indistinguishable from 50-50 and a top court's confirmation of doubts about some irregularities. The polls will be repeated on October 2nd and especially because of the Freedom Party's softening stance on some EU- and immigration-related issues, a majority expects Norbert Hofer to beat his green rival.



The anthem of Austria-Hungary, the imperial and civic stanzas of it, in Czech. Other versions

As Sputnik tells us, the possible future president of Austria would like to create a regional group – the Austrian monarchy – that would be analogous to Benelux, a group that clearly amplifies the voice of the three members in the EU. If you think it sounds silly, think twice.




The support for such an alliance would be high in all the member countries – which are supposed to approximate the monarchy as closely as possible. It means that the union would include Austria, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, Croatia, and Slovenia.




There are two biggest questions about the "details":

  1. What institutions from the monarchy would we actually want to restore?
  2. What would happen to Visegrád Four and what would be the relationship between the two if both of them existed?
The name of Austria-Hungary probably sounded unfair to the Slavic nations in the monarchy – Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, and Slovenes (Yankees: these are the primary correct words in English, not Czechians, Slovakians, Croatians, and Slovenians; the countries are derived from the name of the first male inhabitant, so to say, whether you find it PC enough or not!) – especially because the Czech lands were the industrial heart of the monarchy in the last 50+ years of its existence.

But it was a cosmetic asymmetry that the Slavic nations didn't really care about much. They cared about the life and it was good enough. In 1918, Czechoslovaks knew well what they were doing and almost every Slav in that country adopted Czechoslovakism in one way or another once it was clear that the monarchy was kaput sometime in 1918. And I am confident that Czechoslovakia was the most nicely working successor state in the following 20 years. However, one must realize that this modern attitude emerged rather abruptly. As recently as during the First World War, Czechs more or less liked their monarchy although the history was later rewritten to make us think that everyone had called it a "prison of the nations" (CZ: "žalář národů"). The top Czech 19th century historian (and politician) František Palacký (see the CZK 1000 banknote) defended Austroslavism and promoted some flattering slogans, e.g. "If there were no Austria, we would have to invent one in the interest of our nation and Europe."

If Austria-Hungary were restored, does it imply Norbert Hofer would seek a role for the Habsburg House? The immediate answer is "no, you must be joking" or "you must have slept for a century" except that if he proposed such a thing – probably some ceremonial role – it's plausible that outside Austria proper, there could be a significant public support for such a setup. Even if they had no role, it would still make sense to call the new union "The Habsburg Group".

And would the monarchy have an anthem? If we wanted to restore our old anthem, we would probably have to force Prussians to abandon the anthem ("The German Anthem") that they stole in 1918. There are so many other songs they may still steal, e.g. Rosamunde. ;-)

Don't get me wrong: In the existing real-world politics, the political parties trying to restore the kingdom or monarchy etc. were always examples of "mostly prank" parties on part with the Pirates and the Erotic Initiative. But even the Pirates have scored nicely in many countries (I don't even want to mention the Greens – absolute psychopaths who have grown into one of the mainstream parties in many countries, anyway) and the ludicrous character of such proposals could quickly be replaced with a serious perspective with the support of the leader of the most "central" country in the union.

Also, Hofer probably hopes that the monarchy would amplify the voice of Vienna. But it's questionable what would be the relative strength of Austria proper within the new Austrian monarchy. All the other non-Austrian countries of the Habsburg Group could "implicitly" agree with some enhanced voice of Vienna – perhaps proportionally to its higher GDP (Austria was lucky to avoid communism despite its near one-half's occupation by the Soviets). But I find it unlikely that anything of the sort could be codified formally.

Habsburg vs Visegrád Group

Meanwhile, a similar regional bloc emerged and gained some "natural logic" in recent years, especially due to the attitudes towards migration, the Visegrád Group. Named after the Visegrád Castle in Hungary (the name means "Upper Castle" in Slavic languages and is therefore understood in all countries of V4 except for Hungary), the group was founded in 1991 as a "revival" of a 14th century alliance of kings who met at that castle (which also included Luxembourg at that time) and originally had the purpose of coordinating the integration efforts of these 3 (later, after the Velvet Divorce, 4) post-communist countries.

In some sense, the Visegrád Triangle/Group was "imposed upon us". But the situation has changed. We do want to strengthen our voice and we feel that the V4 opinions on immigration are much closer than the typical pairs of opinions within the EU. As a combo, V4 may be as strong within the EU as France or something like that.

Where does it leave Austria proper? Well, Austria proper has often been isolated within the EU. You may remember the huge hysterical sanctions imposed by the rest of Europe during the political career of Jörg Haider. In reality, the opinions of the average Austrians about the immigration are much less PC than the German opinions – and indeed, it's still OK to be de facto a slightly polished Nazi in certain corners of Austria. In the recent situation, it means that Austria has rather similar attitudes to V4.

Austria hasn't ever been offered the Visegrád membership because so far, it has always been viewed as a club of countries that have gone through decades of communism, which Austria hasn't. But maybe this "stigma" should be abandoned.

Do I find the Habsburg Group more natural than the Visegrád Group? This shouldn't be viewed as a shortage of love for our Polish friends but I probably do. I do think that – probably largely due to the shared imperial centuries – many Czech or Slovak things and expectations are close to those in Austria but also Slovenia and Croatia than to those in Poland.

One of the special things that singles out Poland is its violently anti-Russian attitude. This is largely absent in the Habsburg Group. I do believe that this difference ultimately boils down to the 19th century maps, too.

Last night, I watched "The Operation Danube" [trailer] for the first time, a 2009 Polish-Czech drama comedy about the 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Polish army (and also 4 other armies whose troops weren't explicitly shown in the movie; "the Operation Danube" was a codeword for the occupation of Czechoslovakia). The movie got worse-than-50% ratings but it was fun as entertainment. It started with some mess in the Polish army that was ordered to invade Czechoslovakia. The mess included an XXL female commander and her extra-marital relationship with another soldier – even though her husband was a nearby commander, too.

OK, a group of Polish soldiers arrive in a celebrated tank that was a "hero" of some operations in the Second World War. This obsolete technology accidentally demolished a wall and entered a Czech pub where the folks were just drinking – not unexpected in my homeland – and celebrating the retirement of a dispatcher or something like that. There were some initial conflicts but after some surprises on both sides (after their brainwashing at home, all the occupiers had to be shocked once they encountered happy, politically mainstream, unarmed civilians everywhere: Whom should they fight?) they gradually began to cooperate and about 3 Polish soldiers had various romantic relationships with 3 Czech girls. When it was clear that they befriended each other (love, common interest about Polish pigeons etc. etc.), things became a bit more extreme. The Polish tank also entered a minor battle against a Soviet tank, to win back the village and freedom of their (Poles') Czechs, and a subgroup of these folks finally took the old tank with the plan to emigrate to... Vienna. ;-) It looked over the edge but maybe it wasn't.

There are lots of things to analyze and criticize or confirm about that movie – I could give a 3-hour lecture on those issues. But one of the observations that are relevant for the present discussion is that the Poles are culturally far from Austria, indeed. When they talked about Vienna for the first time, a Polish soldier asked whether they still had the Eiffel Tower, or something like that. This is funny but to some extent realistic and understandable.

Almost no Czech or Slovak or Hungarian or Croat or Slovene would do this mistake – largely because we still have some understanding that "Vienna is us" while "Paris is not us". It's much easier to discriminate between two things if you identify with one of them but not with the other. But this difference is absent in Poland. Poland simply didn't belong to the Austrian monarchy. Well, a small Southern strip of the contemporary Poland did, to make things even more complicated, but the Poles' identity was mostly created elsewhere.

I think that in the absence of some internal conflict, the Visegrád Group won't be disbanded – and the Poles won't be expelled from it. So I think that Hofer may want to be more specific about the reconciliation of his ideas with the existing regional blocs. The text above was rather playful but I think that when we return to realistic solutions, the maximum we can imagine is that Austria – and perhaps Croatia and Slovenia – will join the Visegrád Group. The Catholic post-Yugoslav countries have already negotiated about their future membership but this process got recently frozen, I think.

But if Austria were joined the Visegrád Group, I suppose that it wouldn't be "immediately" a big guy in the group. It would have to join with some humility – and celebrate the reunion with their Hungarian and West/Southwest Slavic brothers. Maybe they could get much more influential later. After all, the Habsburg House didn't become the dominant dynasty of the Central Europe immediately, either.

Alternatively, the Visegrád Group and Austria-Hungary may overlap and co-exist. After all, the Austrian monarchy and the Holy Roman Empire co-existed and overlapped, too. For example, Czechia was a part of Austria (most of the time) and the Holy Roman Empire (always) but Hungary was never a part of the Holy Roman Empire. The hyperlink clarifies that Austria was unified through the "owners of the land" (emperors) while the Holy Roman Empire was an EU-like political bloc that was getting increasingly irrelevant. We no longer live in feudalism so there's no counterpart of the "guaranteed to stay" unions connected through the emperors.

Things may be interesting to watch. Aside from Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia, I could imagine that Bavaria will gain some degree of independence from Germany and will join the Visegrád Group, too.

The Austrian monarchy was one of the predecessors of or templates for the European Union and you may be surprised why it's getting these mostly positive ratings from me. Well, I simply think that around the early 20th century, this union was an authentic one – it was merging several nations that were borderline capable of thinking as one nation and create a "demos". (Yes, much of this agreement was due to the previous rather aggressive and morally questionable re-Catholicization and Germanization, but those who lived in the 20th century could no longer change this past.) I am sure that this won't be the case of the EU anytime soon but it was possibly the case in Austria-Hungary.

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