The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire
by A. Wess Mitchell
Princeton University Press, 2018
How do we explain the centuries-long survival, indeed primacy, of the Austrian Habsburg Empire, impossibly polyglot, almost entirely landlocked, surrounded by stronger enemies? This is the central question of A. Wess Mitchell's substantial, revelatory new book The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire. “How did an externally encircled, internally fractious, and financially weak state survive and even thrive for so long in Europe's most dangerous neighborhood?” The Habsburg Empire faced powerful, opportunistic rivals on in all directions, from the Ottoman Empire to the Russian Empire to the scattered but wealthy and often iron-tough pocket-kingdoms of Germany, and Habsburgs themselves were virtually never the strongest, largest, or wealthiest kingdom in any pairing.
The combination of elements should have led to the Habsburg's quick eradication as a major power, particularly after the last Habsburg ruler of Spain died without an heir in 1700. And yet this didn't happen, despite the fact that, as Mitchell points out, the military challenges were non-stop:
Few empires in history better exemplify the unforgiving nature of interstitial geography than the Habsburg Monarchy. From its emergence as a stand-alone entity in the early eighteenth century until its collapse after the First World War, the Danubian realm of the Austrian Habsburgs was engaged in uninterrupted military competition across a space extending from the warm waters of the Adriatic to the snowy crests of the Carpathians and from the Balkans to the Alps.
In these pages, Mitchell, who works at the State Department in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, lays out a multi-faceted answer to the question of Habsburg survival and its ability to act as a bulwark for the most culturally and ethnographically diverse population of any European Great Power. “A major pillar of the Habsburg claim to legitimacy as a supranational ruling dynasty,” Mitchell writes, “was the ability to shelter its dominions against the cyclonic forces of the wider region,” and a good deal of the book's unlikely dramatic tension comes from Mitchell's ability to tell the stories of those cyclonic forces in addition to making broader claims about the canniness of the Habsburg state, the finely-honed and sometimes uncanny ability of its rulers to play off stronger enemies against each other, to re-frame potential conflicts in ways that opened up new possibilities, and to make the most of what was often a poorly-financed second-rate military.
The story is never more dramatic than when two of the Enlightenment's most polarizing offspring were circling each other warily across the vast chessboard of Europe. Frederick the Great wielded the powerful machinery of the Prussian state and army with the insight of louche genius, and his opinion of the Habsburgs was as direct as it was coarse. Facing him was the only woman ever to rule the Habsburg Empire, Maria Theresa, who had come to the throne very young in 1740 with no illusions about the danger of her new position. “Intelligent, resolute, and hearty in physical constitution,” Mitchell writes, “she later described the daunting scene she found on taking the throne, 'without money, without credit, without army, without expertise … without counsel.'” She referred to Frederick as “the Monster,” and the story of their great contest here epitomizes both the risks and the strange effectiveness of the Habsburg model.
The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire is the kind of clear-headed and fascinating treatment of military affairs that the subject has needed for quite some time. Readers who take one look at the title, glance at the cover (a periwigged Prince Eugene of Savoy, looking like the physical embodiment of every dry college history lecture ever given), and immediately think this is a book best left to a couple-dozen experts in Austrian history should think again; this is a genuinely fascinating epic of national survival.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website ishttp://www.stevedonoghue.com.