Habsburg Solution

Whenever people ask me where in Europe my family came from, I usually say Vienna. That is the location where four out of five grandparents (excluding one “step-grandfather”) lived their adult lives before immigrating to America. Vienna had and still has a unique culture and language, even separate from the rest of Austria. Viennese describes not only a cuisine and dialect of German; it is also a state of being.

The reality, however, is that Vienna is a part of a larger country, so it is probably more accurate to say that my family background is Austrian, even if that doesn’t quite capture the milieu of my grandparents. If I wanted to be even more historically correct, I would say that they are Austro-Hungarian since four of my biological grandparents were born in that empire (three in Vienna and one in Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia).

Most people know very little about Austria-Hungary since it no longer exists as a state, being a victim, along with the German, Turkish, and Russian empires, of World War I. But unlike those other empires, there is no single successor state to carry on an ethnic legacy. At least 12 current nations occupy some territory that was once a part of Austria-Hungary. It was a truly multi-ethnic state full of a dizzying array of languages, religions, and cultures.

While some might see the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a relic of a bygone era, it may actually provide an intriguing what-if scenario and model for the future of conflict resolution. The empire, although not quite a democracy, was a community that allowed different ethnicities to work together within a signal framework. Austrians dominated, with Hungarians taking a secondary role, but other nationalities had a voice in governance too. What would have happened if the Great War had been avoided and Austria-Hungary survived?

This is just the scenario that Matthew Yglesias sketches out. He notes that many great scientists and thinkers (including a number of Jews) would not have emigrated from the country and instead created a “Habsburg renaissance” that would have seen Austria-Hungary excel in all kinds of economic and technological fields. Instead, war, population loss, and communist revolution set the region back.

The irony is that Europe today does in fact resemble the Austro-Hungarian empire, but with democracy in the form of the European Union. After two devastating world wars, European nations understood that they needed an overarching supra-national body to provide unity while maintaining national sovereignty. It’s too bad that it took an immensely bloody 20th century only to get back to a form of governing that already existed in the 19th.

Perhaps the Austro-Hungarian (and European Union) model can help resolve a seemingly intractable conflict of the 21st century. Recently, the former New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief and current Forward editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren, wrote about a proposal for an Israel-Palestine confederation that would look similar to the European Union. The two states would retain sovereignty, but there would be open borders between them. Citizens of each nation would ultimately have the freedom to live in either country, just as a German today can live and work in Paris without issue.

A confederation would also help alleviate the thorny issues of refugees and settlements. Palestinians living abroad would be able to obtain Palestinian citizenship but live in Israel while Israel settlers would retain their Israeli citizenship but live in Palestine. The two nations would have to set up a mechanism to share Jerusalem as one city with two capitals.

The beauty of confederation is the ability to operate within the framework of two states for two peoples while also acknowledging the virtual impossibility of dividing such a tiny sliver of land. This solution might seem untenable, but the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary was also odd and yet it worked until World War I intervened. Perhaps an Israel-Palestine confederation is not realistic in the current environment, but it may end up being the most viable long-term solution. While the modern ethnic nation-state is the most common form of government, it by no means is the only way for people to come together and live in peace.

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