From the Dolomites to Galicia – national indifference and “Habsburg patriotism” in the Austro-Hungarian empire’s literature

By Balázs Gyimesi | 22 April 2017

To quote this document: Balázs Gyimesi, “From the Dolomites to Galicia – national indifference and “Habsburg patriotism” in the Austro-Hungarian empire’s literature”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Saturday 22 April 2017,, displayed on 30 May 2017

Mein stärkstes Erlebnis war der Krieg und der Untergang meines Vaterlandes, des einzigen, das ich je besessen: der österreichisch-ungarischen Monarchie.

My strongest experience was the war and the downfall of my fatherland, the only one I have ever had: that of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

Joseph Roth to Otto Forst de Battaglia, 28 October 1932

The Habsburg empire’s literature offers an intriguing landscape of Habsburg patriotism, which can be seen as a form of “national indifference”, a response to specific societal and political changes which affected the empire in its last decades, such as secularisation and nationalisation. This form of multi-layered belonging, having both territorial and religious anchors, but ultimately being attached to the institution of the Habsburg monarchy, was masterfully demonstrated in Roth’s chef-d’oeuvre, “Radetzky March” (1932). Through an analysis of fiction and nonfiction works of authors born in the Austro-Hungarian empire, the article will explore the notions of Habsburg patriotism, national indifference and a possible contemporary manifestation of the latter phenomenon, a form of “European patriotism”.

The Austrian Empire, and its successor after 1867, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which are also commonly referred to as the Habsburg monarchy, occupied a central place in Europe’s history, ruling over vast regions of Central and Eastern Europe and a population of about 52 million on the eve of the empire’s demise. At the end of the First World War, the Treaty of St-Germain-en-Laye (1919) and the Treaty of Trianon (1920) led to the disintegration of the empire into several sovereign countries, which defined themselves as nation states as opposed to the multi-ethnic nature of the Habsburg Empire, focusing on a nation-building process through the means of politics but also that of culture, for which literature was of great importance. However, the question arises how the authors of the Habsburg monarchy viewed the empire and its multi-ethnic nature. Did their works hold elements of “national indifference” and a possible “Habsburg patriotism” as opposed to national allegiances?

The article will attempt to answer these questions by analysing the works of authors who were connected to the Habsburg Empire’s capital, Vienna, in the first third of the 20th century, with a special focus on Roth’s “Radetzky March”[1]

. This period covers the last decade of the Habsburg empire, its disintegration, and the birth of the new nation states, offering a fertile territory for the study of the possible existence of “national indifference” and a possible “Habsburg patriotism” in a time of solidifying national movements and consequent nation building. As it will be demonstrated in the present article, the notion of “Habsburg patriotism” is closely related to “national indifference”, a concept that was thoroughly analysed in Tara Zahra’s seminal paper “Imagined Noncommunities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis”.

“Habsburg patriotism” – a form of “national indifference”?

The term “national indifference” was defined by Zahra (2010) as a multidimensional notion, which encompasses national ambivalence and apathy, but goes beyond these phenomena. For Zahra, national indifference was “often a response to modern mass politics” (Zahra, 2010: 99). In the Habsburg empire, the political importance of the constituent nations has started to develop with the acknowledgement of their equal status by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1848. Later, their role acquired further strength as the empire devolved certain powers to the historic kingdoms and crownlands (Berger, 2008: 189). The Kingdom of Hungary profited greatly of this political move of the emperor, as the Compromise of 1867, or Ausgleich, re-established the internal sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hungary, resulting in a dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary (Frank, 2001). The results of the compromise left, however, the other constituent nations, e.g. the Czech and Polish, dissatisfied with their situation.

Amidst an era marked by emerging national movements, was there room for “Habsburg patriotism”? If so, could it be defined as a response to the calls for national sovereignty in the Habsburg Empire? The phenomenon was closely analysed by William D. Godsey (2016) in his study of the correspondence of Countess Rosa Neipperg, born in 1832 and died in 1905 in Vienna. The aforementioned milestones of the national movements in the Habsburg empire took place during Rosa Neipperg’s lifetime, making her correspondence on these issues highly intriguing.

“Habsburg patriotism” is “a diverse, interconnected kinds of commitment that ranged from territorially defined attachments to a confessionally charged form of belonging” (Godsey, 2016: 41), a multi-layered form of patriotism which is above all directed at the Habsburg monarchy instead of national allegiances. Godsey observes a “lack of a national commitment” in Rosa Neipperg’s letters; even though Neipperg had a strong Bohemian orientation, it “was firmly embedded in the broader Habsburg one” (Godsey, 2016: 47). Furthermore, Neipperg’s “Habsburg patriotism” is described by Godsey as a “response to specific historical conditionstied to larger processes of change such as secularization, democratization, and nationalization”. “Habsburg patriotism” can therefore be seen as a form of Zahra’s definition of “national indifference”, since it

The unorthodox modernity of the Habsburg empire’s literature

Countess Neipperg’s private correspondence demonstrated the existence of “Habsburg patriotism” among the nobility, but was this idea represented in other segments of society? Authors have the power to convey ideas to their readership through their work; did prominent authors of the Habsburg empire promote the idea of “national indifference” and “Habsburg patriotism” in particular in their oeuvre?

According to Christof Dejung and Martin Lengwiler (2015), the literature of the Habsburg monarchy had its own form of modernisation, which was characterised by a permeating national indifference and by a celebration of intercultural actions. However, this modernisation effort went against the current of the Western narrative of modernisation, which was closely linked to the formation of the national collective, and prevailed over the Habsburg literature’s vision of modernity. The Western modernisation focussed on the strengthening of the national narrative, for which the French culture and literature, among others, served as an important example, whereas the modernisation efforts of the literature of the Habsburg empire were to be found in the “anchorage of interculturality”[2]

 (Dejung and Lengwiler, 2015: 178). In the following, the article will discuss certain examples of both fiction and nonfiction works reflecting this form of modernisation, written by authors connected to Vienna in the first third of the 20th century.

Nationalism is the new religion” – “Habsburg patriotism” in Roth’s “Radetzky March

Vienna was the pulsing capital of the Habsburg empire, attracting artists and intellectuals coming from all across the empire. Among them was Joseph Roth, a Galician Jew, who was born in 1894 in the small town of Brody, close to the Russian border of the empire, and lived in several European cities, such as Paris and Berlin. Roth’s chef-d’oeuvre is “Radetzky March”, published in 1932, which is also the name of a famed military march by Johann Strauss Sr., a musical piece which serves as a major motive of the novel. Roth’s novel discusses the last decades of the Habsburg empire, the question of rising nationalism, as well as the allegiance to the empire. “Radetzky March” reflects the countercurrent modernization of literature on the territory of the (former) Habsburg empire, with national indifference playing an important role in the characters’ self-definition.

The novel recites the saga of the fictional House of Trotta von Sipolje, a family of Slovenian origin which rises from peasantry to nobility following a heroic act of the main character’s grandfather, Hauptmann Trotta. The novel mainly focuses on the grandson Carl Joseph Trotta’s life and career as a lieutenant in the emperor’s army. The main character’s grandfather is explicitly of Slovenian origin, however, with his decoration and the family’s rise to higher ranks of society, the role of the Slovenian roots fades for the coming generations. Carl Joseph’s father, Joseph Trotta, is described as a person who already sees himself as an “Austrian, a servant and bureaucrat of the Habsburgs, his Heimat being the Imperial Palace in Vienna”[3]

, and firmly opposes Carl Joseph’s passing idea of returning to Slovenia. This shifting identity of the Trottas recalls Zahra’s definition of national indifference. Furthermore, the Austrian orientation of Joseph Trotta is, similarly to Neipperg’s Bohemian orientation, explicitly embedded into a broader Habsburg one.

One of the most explicit examples of Habsburg patriotism in Roth’s novel is introduced in a scene in which Carl Joseph and his father dine with Count Chojnicki in the latter’s home in the Galician town “B.” (probably an allusion to Roth’s hometown, Brody). Count Wojciech Chojnicki is described as a worldly nobleman, who states in the discussion with the Trottas that the monarchy will indeed fall apart, as

“the time does not want us anymore! These times want to create independent nation states! One does not believe in God anymore. Nationalism is the new religion. […] The monarchy, our monarchy is founded on devoutness: on the belief, that God has chosen the Habsburgs to reign over so and so many Christian peoples.”[4]

Chojnicki’s Habsburg patriotism fits into Godsey’s definition of “confessionally charged form of belonging”, as the Count refers to God and the Habsburgs’ divine mission to reign over the (Christian) peoples of the monarchy. This manifestation of Habsburg patriotism in “Radetzky March” is anchored in Roth’s own religiosity, and also reveals Roth’s sense of nostalgia, as the novel was published 13 years after the end of the Habsburg empire, which Roth described as his only homeland (Spencer, 2008: 233).

The question of “Heimat” and nationality

Several authors of the Habsburg empire reflected on the question of nationality and “Heimat”, a German word expressing a multi-faceted idea of “homeland” and belonging, encompassing among others territorial and cultural aspects, and which is difficult to translate into English (see “Heimat: A Critical Theory of the German Idea of Homeland” by Peter Blickle, 2004). The question of “Heimat” was addressed by Ödön von Horváth, author of “Tales of the Vienna Woods”[5]

, in an essay published in 1929:

“You are asking about my Heimat, I answer: I was born in Fiume, grew up in Belgrade, Budapest, Preßburg (Bratislava), Vienna and Munich, and have a Hungarian passport – but “Heimat”? I don’t know that. I am a typical old Austro-Hungarian blend: Hungarian, Croatian, German, Czech […] I only write in German now, I belong to the German Kulturkreis, the German Volk. However: The word “Fatherland”, nationalistically falsified, is foreign to me.”[6]

Von Horváth’s essay demonstrates the complexity and multi-layered nature of his identity, which reveals a certain form of indifference towards the both territorially and politically defined “Fatherland”. However, von Horváth saw himself as part of the German Kulturkreis [culture group] and even Volk [people] due to his attachment to the German language. Nevertheless, he remained a self-described “old Austro-Hungarian blend” without a Heimat in post-Habsburg Central Europe.

Robert Musil, author of “The Man without Qualities” (published between 1930-43), intensively studied the issue of nationalism. Musil demonstrated a complicated relationship with the empire; the fictional country of Kakanien, where the action of Musil’s unfinished chef-d’oeuvre takes place, is a satirical, rather pejorative take on the k. u. k. Monarchie (Kaiserlich und Königlich, Imperial and Royal). However, Musil’s main character, Ulrich, can be seen as nationally indifferent, as he lacks any quality, including the sense of national belonging. Musil discussed the issue of nation and nationalism in several essays, including “The Nation as Ideal and Reality”[7] (1921), in which he expressed nuanced opinions on the tension between nationalism and supranationalism, and called for leaving the “dead end” of “nationalist-imperialism” behind.

A possible European patriotism?

To conclude, let us briefly examine Stefan Zweig’s view on the matter. Zweig is one of the best-known authors and intellectuals of the Habsburg monarchy and Austria. In his seminal book, “The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European”, posthumously published in 1942, Zweig writes about his Heimat:

“I was born in 1881 in one of the large and mighty empires, in the monarchy of the Habsburgs, but you shall not look for it on the map: it has been washed away without a trace. […] Therefore, I do not belong to anywhere, everywhere I am an alien and in best case a guest; also, the Heimat that was chosen by my heart, Europe, is now lost to me (...).”[8]

Today, the political map of Europe is indeed in stark contrast to the one at the time of Stefan Zweig’s birth. Several sovereign countries are now to be found in Central Europe, across which the cities once inhabited by authors such as Roth, Von Horváth, Musil, or Zweig, are scattered. As the works introduced above demonstrate, many of these brilliant minds of the Habsburg empire have lost their Heimat with the demise of the Habsburg monarchy. Zweig, however, shifted to a “European patriotism” in his preface to “The World of Yesterday”, which raises some intriguing questions; is there today, in the age of European integration in the form of the European Union, a new manifestation of national indifference, a “European patriotism”?  Although the political representation of nations within the European Union differs greatly from their situation as “constituent nations” in the Habsburg empire, is there a European patriotism, similar to Habsburg patriotism, to be found in the works of contemporary intellectuals? This question could be discussed in further articles, focusing on present examples of national indifference in a united Europe.


Aller plus loin

Berger, S. (2008), A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Europe, 1789 – 1914, John Wiley & Sons

Blickle, P. (2004), Heimat: A Critical Theory of the German Idea of Homeland, Camden House

Dejung, C., Lengwiler, M. (2015), Ränder der Moderne: Neue Perspektiven auf die Europäische Geschichte (1800–1930), Böhlau Verlag, Köln Weimar

Godsey, W. D. (2016), A Noblewoman's Changing Perspective on the World: The Habsburg Patriotism of Rosa Neipperg-Lobkowicz (1832–1905), Austrian History Yearbook, 47, 37-60. doi: 10.1017/S0067237816000060

Jonsson, S. (2001), Subject Without Nation: Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity, Duke University Press

Mehigan, T. J. (2003), The Critical Response to Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, Camden House

Musil, R. (1921), Die Nation als Ideal und als Wirklichkeit,

Spencer, M. (2008), In the Shadow of Empire: Austrian Experiences of Modernity in the Writings of Musil, Roth, and Bachmann, Camden House

Roth, J. (1932), Radetzkymarsch, Gustav Kiepenheuer Verlag, Berlin

Von Horváth, Ö. (1929), Fiume, Belgrad, Budapest, Preßburg, Wien, München,

Zahra, T. (2010), Imagined Noncommunities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis, Slavic Review, 69(1), 93-119. doi:10.1017/S0037677900016715





„Radetzkymarsch“ by Joseph Roth, 1932


„Verankerung der Interkulturalität“


“Er war ein Österreicher, Diener und Beamter der Habsburger, und seine Heimat war die Kaiserliche Burg zu Wien“, Part II, Chapter 9, „Radetzkymarsch“ by Joseph Roth.


“Die Zeit will uns nicht mehr! Diese Zeit will sich erst selbständige Nationalstaaten schaffen! Man glaubt nicht mehr an Gott. Die neue Religion ist der Nationalismus. (…) Die Monarchie, unsere Monarchie ist gegründet auf die Frömmigkeit: auf dem Glauben, daß Gott die Habsburger erwählt hat, über so und so viele christliche Völker zu regieren.“ Part II, Chapter 11 Radetzkymarsch by Joseph Roth


„Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald"


„Sie fragen mich nach meiner Heimat, ich antworte: ich wurde in Fiume geboren, bin in Belgrad, Budapest, Preßburg, Wien und München aufgewachsen und habe einen ungarischen Paß – aber: »Heimat«? Kenn ich nicht. Ich bin eine typisch alt-österreichisch-ungarische Mischung: magyarisch, kroatisch, deutsch […] schreibe nunmehr nur Deutsch, gehöre also dem deutschen Kulturkreis an, dem deutschen Volke. Allerdings: der Begriff »Vaterland«, nationalistisch gefälscht, ist mir fremd. Mein Vaterland ist das Volk.“


„Die Nation als Ideal und als Wirklichkeit“, by Robert Musil, 1921


“Ich bin 1881 in einem großen und mächtigen Kaiserreiche geboren, in der Monarchie der Habsburger, aber man suche sie nicht auf der Karte: sie ist weggewaschen ohne Spur. […] So gehöre ich nirgends mehr hin, überall Fremder und bestenfalls Gast; auch die eigentliche Heimat, die mein Herz sich erwählt, Europa, ist mir verloren (…).“

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