It’s more than a century since the Austro-Hungarian empire was dissolved after the First World War but, according to Georg von Habsburg, his family name still carries a powerful resonance. “The concept of central Europe is very much alive,” says Von Habsburg. “It was wonderful to see people commemorating the anniversary of the First World War. Interest in history is growing and growing.”
At its height the Austro-Hungarian empire stretched from present-day Italy and comprised parts of Ukraine, Poland, Bosnia, Romania and other countries. The dual monarchy was home to more than 50 million people, who spoke almost 20 languages, and had two capitals: Vienna and Budapest.
The spirit of the Austro-Hungarian empire lives on in the Visegrad Four, the grouping of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. “It’s not a successor to the empire but it’s a good example of how Central Europe recognises its common history and common culture,” says Von Habsburg. “Look at the streets in Vienna, Budapest and Prague; you can easily interchange them. You see these links in families. In Hungary, for example, it’s rare to have a family without a Slovak or German grandmother. That shared history and culture is visible and tangible.”
Born in Bavaria in 1964, Von Habsburg’s father was Otto von Habsburg, the last crown prince of Austria-Hungary and the son of the last Habsburg emperor, Charles I. A citizen of both Austria and Hungary, Georg lives in Soskut, a small town outside Budapest but he views Central Europe as his real home. “I disconnect myself from passports,” he says. “I define myself through my family history. I am a Central European and a Hungarian – and a European by conviction.”
A former president of the Hungarian Red Cross, he is now special adviser to the organisation and ambassador at large for Hungary, as part of prime minister Viktor Orbán’s office. In that role he was active in lobbying for Budapest to host the 2024 Olympic Games. Though the nation pulled out of that race, Georg is still working to bring international sports competitions to Hungary.
Georg’s role is independent from the government but even though he is not involved in domestic politics, he is a staunch defender of the country. “Hungary is thinking very regionally, trying to promote Central Europe,” he says. “This is not something nationalistic. I am astonished sometimes at what I read about Hungary because it is not what I experience. Hungary has a stable government, which is a huge advantage, so it can focus on its own problems.” He believes that both Orbán and Austria’s chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, should be afforded time and be judged on their results.
His main project at the moment is organising and collating his father’s archive, which has been brought to Budapest. Born in 1912, Otto von Habsburg served for 20 years as an mep for Bavaria. His life spans almost a century of European history (he died in 2011). The archive will eventually be digitised and hosted by a new foundation, run jointly by the family and the prime minister’s office.
History is still very much a living discipline across Central Europe. Georg believes that the way it is taught and the perception of the Austro-Hungarian empire is changing for the better. “When you looked at history books, the Habsburg empire was always presented as something negative,” he says. “Now people are finding out the real truth. Look at Hungary after 1867, after the compromise with Austria, when the dual monarchy was founded – you can see how the country developed. It was such a positive and constructive time.”
But the dissolution of the empire has left a bitter legacy for the family: they lost land and property, and were forbidden from entering Austria for years. After being exiled in 1919, Otto was prevented from crossing the border again until 1966. “My first passport was Austrian,” says Georg. “It said that it was valid for all countries except Austria.”
Nowadays the family can come and go as they please but Austria is still ambivalent about its former ruling dynasty. The Habsburg empire is central to its tourism: Schönbrunn Palace, the family’s former summer residence, is Vienna’s most popular attraction – yet the Habsburgs are forbidden from using their titles and the prefix “von” before the family name. There is almost no likelihood of recovering the family holdings. “They are critical of us,” says Georg. “But they use the family name for all their tourism.”
During the cold war, Austria was neutral despite its proximity to the perceived front line in Germany. It is not a member of Nato but it contributes troops to the organisation’s peacekeeping missions and has joined the Partnership for Peace framework. According to Georg, Austria is still seeking its role in the 21st century. “They have not yet found how they want to position themselves in foreign policy,” he says. “They are still focusing on neutrality. But it is no longer of importance.” So what would the best path be? Georg believes that Austria should work closely with the Visegrad Four. “Central Europe has incredible potential,” he says. “It is a huge market. If the Central European countries continue like this, not only in national collaboration but regional collaboration, I see a very bright future.”
Stroll down Lviv’s broad Freedom Avenue and it is easy to forget for a moment that you are in Ukraine and not in some quieter recess of Vienna. The Lviv opera house, which stands at one end of the avenue, is in the same neo Renaissance style as Vienna’s Staatsoper; Viennese-style coffee houses serving colourful pastries radiate out from it; and the old town is full of restaurants trying to recapture lost imperial glory.
The Austro-Hungarian empire – lacking a unifying language, faith or ethnicity – tried to tie its disparate lands together using culture and architecture. Lviv was one of its most easterly outposts but Austrian influence emanated from it into the empire’s hinterlands, and to points even further east.
Today, with the monuments to emperors and generals gone, it is that general cultivated air that permeates the Austrian past. That connection has made Lviv into a brand in today’s Ukraine. Companies work the city’s name into everything from strudel to artisanal coffee to evoke the old empire and its presumed good taste, in a battle against dry Soviet cakes and the ubiquitous Nescafé.
For decades my grandmother, a Ukrainian-American, would say that she was Austrian rather than Ukrainian. To be Austrian was to be cultured, Western and sophisticated; a nod to a different outlook. To be Ukrainian, especially during the cold war years in the US, was to fall victim to that transitive property of Ukrainian equals Russian equals communist.
Today, Lviv is a very different place from what it once was. Even its name has changed from the Austrian Lemberg to its current Ukrainian identifier. And the memory of a European past has made it an anchor for Ukraine’s western rather than eastern ambitions. Simultaneously, it has become a reserve of Ukrainian language: it is the largest city in the country where Ukrainian rather than Russian dominates.
Interwoven Ukrainian patriotism and nationalism are strong in Lviv – but they do not clash with a growing nostalgia for the Habsburg past. Part of the reason is that the Nazi and Soviet chapters of the city’s history were so much darker.
Today it is hard to find anyone in Lviv who had family who lived there before the Second World War. Yet the city’s old town, with its cafés and restaurants, turns back the clock to focus on fin de siècle decadence, rarely acknowledging the world wars and deportations that decimated the city’s Polish and Jewish communities. These groups once made up the majority of the city’s inhabitants. And if you walk its cobblestoned streets you can still see the signs of this Polish and Jewish past. Those hints of diversity have made a younger generation curious about the past. The Austrian part is an easier place to start to untangle that history but, no matter how good the coffee, it isn’t coming back.
About the writer: Ian Bateson is a journalist and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He is writing a book with the working title A Real Country: Ukraine After Revolution and During War.