Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The role of history: Concerning ‘historic’ and ‘history-less’ peoples

The source material related to the problem of the nationalities in the Habsburg Monarchy often distinguishes between ‘historic’ peoples and ‘history-less’ peoples – peoples that possessed a history and peoples that supposedly did not. This is a somewhat confusing distinction to us today: after all, if an ethnic group has existed for centuries, how can it not have a history?

The explanation lies in the orientation of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historical research. At that time political history was principally seen from the perspective of the elites, with some authors only regarding an ethnic group as ‘historic’ if it possessed its own ruling class (Otto Bauer), and others only admitting the ‘historicity’ of a people if it had itself been the driving force in a rise to national statehood (Josef Redlich).  

Modern historical research, by contrast, does not predominantly see a people’s history simply in terms of battles and treaties but endeavours to investigate its society, politics, economy and culture from a number of different perspectives. This approach also reveals differences in the historical development of the various nationalities of the Habsburg Monarchy, but in a different respect, namely, that of their having enjoyed different shares in political power. For this phenomenon, modern social history uses the terms ‘dominant ethnic groups’ and ‘non-dominant ethnic groups’.

In the nineteenth century the dominant peoples of the Habsburg Monarchy were the German-Austrians and the Italians, as they possessed their own social and economic elites (nobility and grande bourgeoisie) and modern literary languages. Furthermore, in spite of being spread across a number of different states, both these language groups had developed a strong cultural and linguistic national identity.

An ambivalent position was occupied by the Poles, the Hungarians and to a certain extent the Czechs and the Croats, all of whom had experienced a weakening of their political tradition, as their proto-national states had declined in the course of history or had been absorbed into larger empires. Their national tongues had largely been excluded from the sphere of civil administration but had nevertheless still been able to maintain certain qualities as written and literary languages.

In these cases a certain echo of past statehood was still perceptible in the remains of long-lost traditions that were revived in the process of the rise to nationhood. These language groups achieved varying degrees of success in having their demands realized. While the Magyars succeeded in acquiring autonomy within the Habsburg Monarchy (through the Compromise of 1867), the others only achieved their long-sought-after independence after the disintegration of Austria-Hungary.

Other ethnic groups such as the Serbs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Ukrainians (‘Ruthenes’) or Romanians had no codified written language and were only in a limited sense able to refer back to the existence of a state in the past – often in the form of idealized historical roots in the medieval period or in the empires of antiquity.

The Slovenes, for example, took the early medieval land of Carantania as the source of inspiration for their national claims, and the Slovaks the Great Moravian Empire. The Romanians saw themselves as the descendants of the Dacians of antiquity and as true humanists explained the fact of their speaking a Romance language with the theory that Dacians had intermarried with Roman colonists. The Serbs blamed the downfall of their medieval kingdom on Ottoman expansion in the Balkans, with the principal point of reference being the Battle of Kosovo (‘Battle of Blackbird’s Field’) of 1389. By virtue of their origins in the Kievan Rus’ the Ukrainians considered that their ethnic group had been involved in the birth of Russia’s statehood. This kind of mythicized early statehood, which had been lost through the aggression of more dominant ethnic groups, was now used by the respective peoples as a form of moral evidence in order to defend their ‘historic rights’ to the territories where they lived.

Translation: Peter John Nicholson


Kann, Robert A.: Zur Problematik der Nationalitätenfrage in der Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, in: Wandruszka, Adam/Urbanitsch, Peter (Hrsg.): Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, Band III: Die Völker des Reiches, Wien 1980, Teilband 2, 1304–1338

Křen, Jan: Dvě století střední Evropy [Zwei Jahrhunderte Mitteleuropas], Praha 2005

Rumpler, Helmut: Eine Chance für Mitteleuropa. Bürgerliche Emanzipation und Staatsverfall in der Habsburgermonarchie [Österreichische Geschichte 1804–1914, hrsg. von Herwig Wolfram], Wien 2005

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    “Viribus unitis” or prison of nations?

    The multi-ethnic Austria-Hungary formed a relatively stable environment for the co-existence of the many ethnic communities. The much-vaunted “unity in diversity” was in fact overshadowed by numerous inequalities. This was illustrated above all in the differing weight of the various language groups involved in political and economic rule. These inequalities were increasingly challenged by the disadvantaged nationalities. As a result, the nationality issue dominated political affairs, leading to destabilisation of the Monarchy.


  • Development

    Nation-building – national programmes and positions

    Nation-building was part of the emancipation by large sections of the population from feudal dependence. In line with the ideals of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, the nation – understood as a community of free citizens – was to become the sovereign in place of feudal potentates.