The Economist recently selected Vienna as the "City of the Century" - and with good reason. It is a beautiful city, steeped in history, art and culture that for hundreds of years served as the stomping ground of the Habsburg dynasty, one of Europe's most storied bloodlines. It was - and still is - a living testament to Imperial grandeur. The social and political currents of the early 20th century eventually precipitated both the death of the empire and the rise of Nazism, but for a long time there was no better place to be alive than Vienna - especially if you were rich.
At their height, the Habsburgs reached levels of Old World wealth, prestige and power that are difficult to understand by modern standards. Like all empires, they went on until they didn't, lurching and jerking through the miasma of history until it all collapsed in a pile of rubble at the end of World War I. In these turbulent times, I think it's useful to look back briefly on the arc of this dynasty and see if their story echoes some of the challenges and anxieties we are wrestling with today. After all, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. On the other hand, who has time for history when it happened so long ago?
The dynasty began as an up-jumped royal house in Switzerland about eight hundred years ago, manoeuvring their way to the seat of the Holy Roman Empire by craftily marrying their own cousins. Coinciding with the full-throttle blossoming of the High Baroque, the Habsburgs really came into their own in the 1700s after the Treaty of Westphalia laid the groundwork for a more stable form of statecraft. Because Vienna was the seat of their power, it became what we know it as today: a collection of impossibly ornate royal palaces, summer homes, fortresses and churches serving as a totem to the vast wealth of a dynasty that straddled Eastern Europe and stretched all the way to the Italian Peninsula.
The Gothic Cathedral of St. Stephen anchors Vienna's urban core, and its ancient pedigree helped provide legitimacy to the Habsburg claim to the Holy Roman Empire. It is a beautiful cathedral, added to in fits and bursts over the centuries. Among other uses, it houses the entrails of the Imperial line. I sat inside the cavernous nave one evening right before Mass, votive candles flickering in the dark. The spectre of power and age goes deep in these ancient Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals. The air just feels different inside a nine hundred year old church. As a place of worship they are extraordinarily moving. As a testament to the wealth and power of medieval Europe they are awe-inspiring.
In the 1700s, as the High Baroque kicked into full swing, the Habsurgs and their aristocratic circles began pouring money into constructing some of the most ostentatious palaces in the world. Drawing on the influence of Versailles and Louis XIV in France, elaborate wings were added to the Imperial Hofburg Palace, the Schönbrunn Summer Palace was completed, and the Upper and Lower Belvedere Palaces were commissioned. Because they had unthinkable wealth, it would have been unthinkable for high-ranking members of the court to do anything other than spend their fortunes on lavish estates, and the Belvedere in particular serves as an instructive example of the ornate rococo style typical of the High Baroque.
The architecture in Vienna is stunning. The Hofburg in particular was designed to be imposing, a physical extension of the immutable wealth and power of the Habsburg dynasty. The above portion was built in the 19th Century, and despite its weightiness, by the time it was completed the Age of Empire was well on its way into the dustbin of history. The Habsburgs, and the imperial cosmology that underwrote their existence, would soon find themselves supplanted by shiny new ideologies that favored the empowerment of the masses - communism, democracy and, in short order, fascism and Nazism.
In the early 19th century, the Austrian Empire - and the rest of Europe - was rocked by Napoleon. He re-wrote the social and political order and placed himself at the top. This was only a temporary set-back, as the Old World powers restored the status quo relatively quickly. But it was a sign that turbulent times lay ahead.
Once the forces of republicanism and universal values were unleashed, they could not be put back in the bottle. As the 19th century wore on, Italian anarchists chafed under the rule of a far-off Emperor in Vienna. Working class resentments found expression in new and disruptive political ideologies. Ethnic groups asserted themselves more forcefully. This last one led to the partition and creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a formula for dual ruler-ship that diluted the absolute power of the Habsburg dynasty but allowed them to keep their magnificent silverware service and their position atop the social and political pecking order.
This sense of diminished power, of loss of control amidst enormous change, sparked a massive Imperial building spree in the dwindling twilight of the 19th century. Some of Vienna's most eye-popping architecture was built during this time, including the beautiful Natural History Museum. It was built in an elegant neo-classical style, designed to both impress and recall the grandeur of the past, to emphasize the ancient roots of the Empire and place its immense wealth on display for the world. It was an attempt to make the Empire great again.
But in the end, it was futile. Despite the building sprees, the political concessions, the vast sums spent trying to recreate an imagined and glorious past, the Habsburg dynasty ended in 1918. Great quantities of blood and treasure were expended in the effort to sustain an Empire whose time had come, and it was still washed away in the churn of the emerging new world. That is the thing about history. It makes sense until it doesn't, and you can flail against the forces of time and change, but you cannot escape them.
Change is inevitable. All empires end. Ideas come and go. New powers rise up. This is a process that cannot be arrested. It's the ferment of life and progress. It's what struck me about my time in Vienna. You walk through this beautiful city, admiring the Baroque architecture and the palaces and the Imperial art collections and the Treasury, and you realize these are the legacies of an Empire, an era and a dynasty that passed into memory kicking and screaming, fighting against tidal forces that could not be turned back.
A century may have passed since then, but things are not so different now. The traditional hierarchy of power is changing. The supremacy of white Judeo-Christians at the top of the political and social pecking order is being challenged - or at least, that is how many are perceiving it. This brings us to an interesting juncture. On the one hand, we can accept that change is inevitable and lean into it. On the other, we can resist it and look to an imagined past for salvation, building monuments to our own greatness. And all the while, the world will continue to change around us whether we like it or not. I think it is clear which path we have chosen, at least for now.
The Habsburgs were a glorious dynasty, and their power was immense. Their Empire stretched across centuries, and they left behind beautiful tombstones attesting to their wealth and power. But they were not able to outrun the political and social changes that eventually brought their time to and end. They tried to look to the past for salvation, but history is indeed a nightmare. Either you wake up and deal with it, or you get swallowed by it. I hope we wake up.