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Engraving by Aegidius Sadeler, Family Tree of the House of Habsburg on Wikimedia

Empires, Wars, Collapse: 1914-2024

Iryna Vushko—

I was putting the finishing touch on my book on the history of places and people from a hundred years ago and was watching an apocalypse of unprecedented proportions in real life, the scenes of massive exodus from Ukraine streamed live on TV in spring and summer of 2022. I watched it all from the safety of my home in the U.S., while most of my family was on the other side of that story—in Ukraine.  We have seen some of it before, a historian in me was thinking. And yet, we have not, at least not since 1945: the mass death of civilians and the mass relocation of survivors heading into the unknown. None of that could happened in the Europe of the twenty-first century, so many of us wanted to think. And yet it did.

The Lost Fatherland of my Habsburg protagonists is in a way, a reflection, of my lost fatherland, more than a century after them. With its focus on the crisis and apocalypses of the early twentieth century Europe, the book grew with me as I was watching and experiencing the long-drawn-out war in Ukraine between 2014 and today. What does it mean to lose your home and not being able to return? Where and how do you belong in the world that disintegrated before your eyes and then re-emerged in ways you could never imagine, or could never accept? How do you rebuild your life after parts of it had been ripped away?

The twenty-one protagonists at the center of this book faced some of these dilemmas, and more. Born and raised in the Habsburg Empire, they all lived comfortable lives and made successful careers before 1918. Lawyers, writers, intellectuals—they were all sufficiently well-off and influential. All of them engaged in politics and government; travelled for leisure and work; most were familiar faces in European cabinets. Theirs was, in Stefan Zweig’s definition, the world of stability. It was also the world of peace and acceptance. Most of Habsburg subjects—their national and professional affiliations notwithstanding—endorsed their rulers and their state. They lived and built their lives accordingly panning for theirs and their children’s future in this Habsburg state that, in their visions, would have no end, at least not during their live time. That state was surely imperfect, just as any other. But it was generally accepted. Even the nationalists preferred this state over any other that could replace it.

The war changed it all. 1914 came as a shock to many under the Habsburgs—just as 2014 came a shock to many, in Ukraine. More shock was to come, after 1914 and after 2014. What everyone in 1914 thought would be a short conflict turned into an unprecedented global war that took millions of lives. As people were dying so were states. The Habsburg Empire was once one of the villains responsible for the war’s outbreak in 1914. Now it became its victim. As the war drew to a close in 1918, it became clear that the Habsburg state would not survive. By early 1919, the empire was no longer on the map, replaced now by several new states organized on the national principle.

It is only in retrospect that many the ruling elites in the new states would claim independence as an achievement of long-term struggle against Habsburg rule. But what most of them experienced in 1918 and 1919 was, rather, the shock of collapse and the unpredictability of transition and next steps. Joseph Redlich, a native of Vienna with family ties to Moravia, was one of them. In 1919, he boarded an overcrowded train to his other home in what now becomes a part of a different state named Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia took territory and the property that came with it: what once had been his home and family business was no longer his. He was not the only one to experience this and other losses: Semen Vityk, a Ukrainian, had spent most of his life before 1918 between Vienna and Lemberg (Lwów in Polish and L’viv in Ukrainian). As the latter became engulfed in civil war between the Poles and the Ukrainians, he stayed behind in Vienna, an impoverished emigree no longer enjoying the perks that once came with the political status he had once held. It did not take long for him to be recruited by the communists who claimed to offer the social and the national liberation to so many, like Vityk lost in this new world of the many unknown. Alcide De Gasperi, a co-founder of the European Union, is perhaps the most famous of my protagonists. He too spent most of his life before 1918 between his native Trento and Vienna. The sense of loss became aggravated further with the onset of fascism in Italy. He became a target and a victim. He survived fascism and WWII not just to tell his story but also to set a precedent: Europe and peace could only survive in unity and a community of people and state committed to the same values. Even though the Habsburg state had long disappeared from the map, its legacy and its values lived on—through the numerous crises of interwar and the unthinkable tragedies of WWII to shape a new Europe that emerged after 1945.

The story could and should have ended here, with the happy end, if not in 1945 than in 1991: The collapse of communism and the transition to democracy and sovereignty for so many who could traced their family roots to the Habsburg era. But history can only teach us so much. As I am writing this piece, Ukrainians are celebrating the first Oscar for the best film in their history: “The 20 Days in Mariupol,” to cite the director, Mstyslav Chernov, is the film that should have never been shot on the tragedy that should have never happened, and the fatherland that should have never been taken away.


Iryna Vushko is assistant professor of history at Princeton University and the author of The Politics of Cultural Retreat: Imperial Bureaucracy in Austrian Galicia, 1772–1867, which won the Kulczycki Book Prize in Polish Studies. She lives in Kingston, NJ.


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