Mítosz és emlékezet: A Habsburg Birodalom felbomlása az osztrák és a magyar politikai elit emlékirat-irodalmában

TitleMítosz és emlékezet: A Habsburg Birodalom felbomlása az osztrák és a magyar politikai elit emlékirat-irodalmában
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialRomsics, Gergely

Title translated:
Myth and Remembrance: The Dissolution of the Habsburg Empire in the Memoir Literature of the Austro-Hungarian Political Elite. Series: A múlt ösvényén.

PublisherBudapest: L'Harmattan
ISSNISBN 963 9457 56 6
Review year


Full Text

This volume, the first by Gergely Romsics, is a historical study of a new kind, borrowing from neighboring disciplines (such as literary studies, anthropology, sociology or social psychology) to analyze texts (their use of language, employment of narratives and poetic aspects) and reflect on the formation and workings of collective memory. In other words, Romsics aims not at a historical reconstruction or construction but at the recreation of the past on the basis of mental frames (p.8). He offers his readers an empirical study applying theories of Halbwachs, Assmann, White and Ricouer, among others.
More concretely, Mítosz és emlékezet deals with the early phase of the (still ongoing) debate on the dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy, when this development occupied a place somewhere in the zone between memory and history and polemics were raging between “competing narratives of virtual histories” (p.19). Interested in the reception of the dissolution, Romsics relies on close to a hundred memoirs written in the inter-war period by members of the political elite (pragmatically defined, see p.14, and individually introduced at the end of the book, pp.171-198) of the “losing sides” (his material is in German and Hungarian), since these memoirs provided the first explanations of the phenomenon (p.13).
The questions posed are: what events were retained in these memoirs, how were they made to fit together and with what purpose (strengthening which elements of group identity) (p.16)? In other words, the types of emplotment, the methods of argumentation, group-specific uses of language and sharing of worldviews [that “aim at unifying and centralizing a linguistic-ideological world” (p.21)] are in the focus of Romsics’s attention. He explores the narrative schemes, language use and interrelations of the authors under scrutiny, using his material as an indicator of various collectives of memory. He presents a(n admittedly) static image of the various groups he aims to introduce, delineate and compare.
In the first instance, he distinguishes between three groups, old Austrians (29 persons who looked back on the whole Monarchy as the primary locus of their identity, they were “the elite with an imperial consciousness,” as his chapter title states), new Austrians (22 persons committed to the new Austrian state, one way or another) and Hungarians (46 persons), thereby creating the largest possible groups to then further explore them and their inner diversity (p.15, p.22).
Members of the first group of old Austrians (altösterreicher) have written strikingly homogeneous narratives with similar poetic framings and quickly and strongly ritualized elements. Their narratives are typically elegiac-tragic with a stress on the Abgrund between the former times (a kind of mythical golden age) and their present, symbolizing and ritualizing the status of their authors as outside contemporary society (p.57). Their “special access to the past” went hand in hand with their exclusion from the present, in which they were keen on preserving elements of this past, if only through exercises in memory (p.138).
In their constructions, the tragic and most significant development of the dissolution was at the same time somehow inexplicable [f.e. the nationality problem occupies very little space in their narratives (p.43)]. At times their (at least slight) cognitive dissonance is detectable: while they are introducing motifs that could explain the dissolution, instead of basing their narratives on the joint presentation of such motifs, they stick to the idea of an “inexplicable tragedy” (p.44). In their overall view, the Monarchy did not fall apart, but rather it was torn apart (see the myth of theZerstückelungsfriede). Typically, only in their presentations of 1917-18 do they begin to point to reasons of the dissolution (which most likely coincides with the time when they began to detect them). At the same time, in their narration of 1918, signs of strong identification are multiple (p.47). Characteristically, these parts are often lyrical, metaphorical and at these points they tend to employ ample rhetorical devices (p.57). Among the most frequently mentioned reasons for the dissolution is the “chauvinistic, selfish and inconsistent behavior” of the Hungarians (p.49), while they also view the First World War as immensely tragic and as the primary reason behind the dissolution – since, in their view, the centrifugal forces would not have been strong enough to split the Monarchy. In line with this, many tend to put much blame on the Foreign Ministry (p.42).
Interestingly, even though they see the dissolution as the direct consequence of the loss of the war and the impositions that followed it, they do not connect it back to the Austrian declaration of war in 1914. This is in certainly partly due to the fact that in these memoirs Franz Joseph remains beyond criticism and tends take on a symbolic role. On the other hand, Romsics points out that the poetic analogies between the passing away of the Monarch in 1916 and his Empire soon after relate ambivalently to the analytical parts of the texts of these memoirs (p.35) – Charles’s reign tends to be presented as already a time in between.
Among the second large group under scrutiny, the Hungarians, Romsics detects that there are various versions of basically two grand narratives concerning the events of 1918-20, one dominant and privileged in the Horthy era represented by 33 memoirs [with significant differences between conservative-nationalists, classical liberals and those representing “the idea of Szeged,” who are basically unified only in their view of October 1918 and Mihály Károlyi (p.71, pp.91-95)], the other narrative outside the realms of power, written mainly by those social democrats who were active in the revolutions of 1918-19 (13 memoirs) – controversially Romsics excludes the communists through claiming that they do not relate to the same issues (pp.61-2).
Members of the former, broadly Horthyist group presented the dissolution of historic Hungary as the result of a short-term, inorganic development that was due to personal mistakes. Typical is the conception of Trianon as a direct consequence of the events of October 1918 to August 1919, often equating bourgeois radicalism with Bolshevism and employing various conspiracy theories – though at the same time and rather inconsistently also blaming the Entente and France in particular (p.92). The latter group, people consisting mostly of social democrats, saw the origins of the breakup in the serious societal problems and political stagnation of the Dualist era. Frequently they had to respond to accusations of their responsibility and hold defense speeches of sorts. Notably, the assessments of the Dualist period and of October 1918 correlate negatively in the cases of both groups (and in opposite ways). Interesting is the similar function of the presentations of the emblematic enemy roles of István Tisza and Mihály Károlyi in the two discourses, even if the means of their presentations were rather different (p.88).
The narrative of the broadly conceived Horthyist majority remained focused on internal (Hungarian) matters and typically revealed their authors’ conviction of the vitality of historic Hungary (p.72).The dissolution tends to be the most detailed and elevated or passionately written part of their memoirs, when the language used is particularly metaphorical and associative (p.73). At the same time, in Romsics’s assessment, symbolic and mythical forms of narration are generally quite frequent among the Hungarian memoirists (p.161). Notably, the manipulation of time dimensions [dramatization through the use of the present tense in particular (pp.142-3)] is also common. Crucially, neither the Monarchy, nor the dynasty occupies a central place for members of the Hungarian group of memoirists (p.66, p.70). Consequently, there is no sense of a loss of identity or an absolute historical caesura – 1918-1920 rather meant the beginning of the fight to abolish the discrepancy between “righteous demands and the real situation” (p.96). For these reasons, their stories tend to be heroic and tragic.
The third large group Gergely Romsics analyzes consists of the members of the Austro-German elite for whom attachment to the Imperial idea was only secondary in importance compared to their sense of belonging to an ethnically defined Austrianness. Therefore, the dissolution of the Monarchy did not constitute such a radical caesura for them, was not seen as something unprecedented or uniquely tragic. In their memoirs it was not depicted as something inorganic, and thus there are fewer emotional or accusing parts in their narratives (p.118).
In their no doubt polemic texts, issues of contemporary (i.e. inter-war) Austria and ideological differences were much more divisive than views on the dissolution of the Monarchy. On the latter issue, points of commonality existed among the new Austrians, unlike among the Hungarian writers of memoirs (p.123). They all more or less shared a Austro–German national perspective, agreeing that the Entente powers and the nationalities were responsible for the dissolution, and implying that they were ready to give up on non-German speaking territories, while claiming the right to the German-speaking ones. These meant a quasi-consensus concerning the years 1918-20, in stark contrast to Hungary, and enabled to narrate the foundation of the state at the end of the war as a heroic story. In my view, a way to put the differences more sharply would be to claim that while current conflicts arguably structure the narrations of the state foundation in Austria after the fall of the Monarchy, it is the perceptions of the events of 1918-20 that structure Hungarian political divides – the relative weight of the recent past and the present is reverse in the two cases.
Nevertheless, three groups can be identified among the new Austrians: the right-wing radicals, the Christian socialists and the social democrats, even though generational differences overshadow other indicators of differences between the first two groups (p.109). The univocal rejection of the imperial legacy is characteristic only of the social democrats (who put topoi of oppression into the center, while the main complaint of right-wing radicals was the dynasty’s lack of concern with German sacro egoismo), whose two main actors, Renner and Bauer differ on several important points otherwise. Christian socialists are the most ambivalent of the three concerning the legacy of the Monarchy, in this respect coming close to the people who were once supporters of Franz Ferdinand (p.113). Their image of the Monarchy was improving, especially after 1934, when they began to put more stress on Austrian continuities. In opposition to the two Austrian myths of foundation (the Viennese revolution of the social democrats versus the nation-defending struggle of the countryside, the genesis of a communitas), they began to emphasize the role of the years between 1923 and 1927 and depict it as the real foundation of the second Austria (instead of the new Austria) through Ignaz Seipel, with the accompanying redescription of 1918-23 as a period of crisis.
Viewing form and content as inseparable, Romsics devotes a separate chapter to the use of language (nomenclature for example), poetic means (metaphors in particular, though what is considered one is to some extent a matter of perspective and political preference and routine), narratives techniques and time conceptions employed. These in themselves do not assess the factual basis of the memoirs. On the other hand, exploring them certainly shows that these texts are heterogloss and that their genre is a mixed one. Romsics’s main focus is on the public and polemical, which are interrupted by “subjective moments” in the pages of these memoirs – though he also claims that personal experiences on the one hand, and grand politics, collective identities and ideological frames on the other cannot be neatly separated (pp.163-6). He points out the importance of exploring the correlations between the choice of certain narratives and group-specific uses of language, and claims that the latter are as essential to shared memory as shared topics or the acceptance of the same factual basis (p.155). The material studied is particularly intriguing, so Romsics, since it shows the adaptations of a discourse still being created, the simultaneity of fresh memories and early ritualizations (p.153).
In sum, Romsics wrote a well-argued comparative study of early narratives dealing with one of the most controversial periods and questions of traditional Hungarian historiography of the 20th century. In this sense his primary focus on the image of the immediate years after 1918 can be seen as determined by his Hungarian interests, but here what we know and can know concerning these times are studied with new methods and in a new perspective. Through them, Romsics is capable of pointing to the nation-centeredness of Hungarian narratives on 1918-20, and explain how the political accusations and divides related to these years made them crucial for many political-ideological forces and the national political culture in general. On the other hand, Romsics strangely and somewhat paradoxically refrains from including the communist narratives partly because of their break with nation-centeredness. Moreover, while this is a reliable and highly readable presentation of a well-defined pool of sources, the material used could no doubt be complemented by other types. The greatest weakness of the work I see in its insufficient attention paid to the concrete times of writing and the transformations of what were the most contested and debated issues of the inter-war period. In other words, Romsics could have aimed to reconstruct debates, not just positions and their forms of delivery. With these few points of criticism in mind, this remains an interesting and insightful book.


In 2006, the book appeared in English translation (translated by Thomas DeKornfeld and Helen Hiltabidle) with the translated title I indicated above, and it is distributed by Columbia University Press.