Tag Archives: Czechs

Where’s Charlemagne When We Need Him?

1 Jul


Not the most brilliant thing I’ve read lately but one important, though really flawed, point:

“BY 1900, only two genuine multinational empires remained. One was the Ottoman, which was by then in the process of abandoning its traditional religious toleration for Turkish nationalism and even racism. [A completely, unfair, simplistic and un-historical assessment]  The other was Austria-Hungary, home to 11 major national groups: a paradise in comparison with what it was to become. Its army had 11 official languages, and officers were obliged to address the men in up to four of them.

It wasn’t terribly efficient, but it secured an astonishing degree of loyalty. It also brought rapid economic and cultural progress to an area extending from the Swiss border to what is today western Ukraine. During World War I, Austria-Hungary fielded eight million soldiers commanded by, among others, some 25,000 Jewish reserve officers. Thirty years later, the nation-states that succeeded the empire sent most of the surviving Jewish officers to the gas chambers.”

Unfortunately, the poison of the ethnic-based nation-state ideal had gotten too far by then.  Even the portrait of Austria-Hungary he gives us is completely idealized and existed in the form he describes for less than a century.

(Click above)

How sweet though, to have lived in a world that interesting instead of the stupefying monotony of the modern nation-state.  But that idea is so powerful — no, not because it’s natural and inborn, but because the modern, bureaucratic state was the first with the technical apparatus to impose it on its population(s) — that it deletes all historical files dealing with plurality.  Not a single European tourist who comes to New York fails to make the same comment: “Amazing…all these peoples living together…” and I want to explain that that’s how humanity lived for most of its civilized existence — or just pull my hair out — but I usually don’t bother.

But that reminds me: I do live in a world that “sweet” and “interesting:”

Mr. Deak (Hungarian?) is also wrong on an even more crucial point.  The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires were not the world’s last multi-ethnic states.  There’s still China.  Most of southeast Asia.  And Russia.  And most ex-Soviet republics.  And certain Latin American countries.  And almost all of Africa.  And Syria and Lebanon and Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan and the world’s great wonder, India.  Even Turkey.  (And wherever ethnic nationalism is a problem in those countries it’s based on the Western intellectual model.)  In fact, most of the world still lives in “plural” situations.  Only Europe (and even in Europe there’s Spain and the U.K.), has an issue with this concept, but it seems to be fading even there.  Its last bastion will probably be the growing number of viciously homogenized, ugly little states of Eastern Europe and the Balkans.  Which brings us back to Michael Ignatieff:

“The misery of the Balkans stems in part from a pathetic longing to be good Europeans — that is, to import the West’s murderous ideological fashions.  These fashions proved fatal in the Balkans because national unification could be realized only by ripping apart the plural fabric of Balkan village life in the name of the violent dream of ethnic purity.”

From Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, Michael Ignatieff


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