Thursday, 10 March 2016

Adapting to post-imperial life: hard for Austria. Just as hard for Britain.

Its always a joy to make a new friendship. I particularly enjoyed meeting a new Austrian colleague the other day. In conversations covering a wide range of subjects  work, naturally, but much else besides – he struck me by his intelligence, culture and thoughtfulness. Among other matters, on Austria itself.

The country entered the century as the dominant partner in the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. That monarchy, or rather Empire, ceased to exist after the First World War, where it made the mistake of fighting on the wrong side. That’s not wrong in any moral sense, simply wrong in the sense that it was the side that lost.

Now many years ago my wife and I visited Hungary, and we were struck by the liveliness of resentment over the loss of territory that component of the Empire suffered after the war. To give some of the peoples within the old borders of Hungary their own countries, Hungary was deprived of 72% of its territory; because borders are never neat, 31% of ethnic Hungarians found themselves outside Hungary – a total of 3.3 million people, in such countries as Czechoslovakia or Romania. 80 years on, there was still considerable bitterness on the subject.

So it was interesting talking about Austria. In 1914, at the outbreak of war, the Empire covered a population of 52.8 million. After the post-war settlements, the newly separate nation of Austria had just 6.5 million. In other words, it had lost seven out of eight people over which it had previous ruled.

The new dispensation required some radical mindset adjustments. The view an Austrian might have had of the nation’s place in the world no longer corresponded to reality. To take just one obvious change, the old Empire had been a major naval power, but modern Austria is landlocked. Above all, though, Austria no longer had an imperial role.

An Austrian fleet? Not a sight we’d see any more...
Austro-Hungarian WW1 warships at Pola, today in Croatia
Indeed, it was one of the smaller countries of Europe.

If Hungary had such difficulty adapting to these changes that it was still struggling with them eight decades on, one can imagine that the re-examination Austrians had to undergo would have left them deeply perturbed and confused. There were serious internal conflicts within Austria between the wars, leading to the emergence of extremist movements, and preparing the ground for the eventual Nazi annexation.

All this reminded me of a statement the late left-wing Labour MP Tony Benn once made: “the last colony of the British Empire will be England.”

We too in Britain had to come to terms with a post-imperial life. It hasn’t always been easy. Nor is the process complete: the Iraq War showed a continuing desire to pursue a far bigger role on the world stage than Britain’s real power justifies. At least Austria has reconciled to its position as a prosperous but small European state. That has made it a fully integrated member of the European Union.

With a referendum on EU membership due on 23 June, that’s not an adjustment that Britain has fully made yet.

No comments: