Growing up in Britain after the war, the German-speaking world was like a closed book to me. It appeared only in the negative, in an avalanche of anti- books, of comics and pulp paperbacks printed on cheap paper that turned brown and crumbled into flakes after a few years. That avalanche gathered speed slowly, depending on the gradual increase in postwar paper stocks and the even more gradual increase in my pocket money. You bought your weekly “fix” in their luridly attractive covers- the only splashes of colour in the drab Austerity 1950s- at the raffish shops that then existed in every British small town, their tottering piles of well-thumbed “stock” presided over by some wheezing, overweight old reprobate with nicotine yellow fingers and glasses held together with sticking plaster. Perhaps there would be some Nazi “memorabilia” in the window along with dog-eared copies of Camp on Blood Island or Dennis Wheatley’s “Satanic” novels. Later (much later) came cigarette papers, bongs, Heavy Metal T-shirts and Hells Angels posters, maybe even porn and hardcore under the counter for adults.

For us children, the glory of these shops was that, when you’d finished reading one lot of comics, you could return them and get half your money back towards your next selection. The villains we read about were always the Nazis, the stormtroopers in their bucket helmets and the Gestapo in their sinisterly appealing black uniforms. They were the financial and imaginative currency of our boyhood in the years until we discovered girls. We knew that Germans == Nazis, the ideal enemy every child needs if he (or she) is to see himself as a hero. The Communists never had the same appeal for us, not even the maniacal Red Chinese who began to feature in American comics in the early 1950s, around the time of the Korean War. We read the few American comic books in circulation for their superior production values, but they never gained a hold on our imaginations. We were Europeans- or rather we were half-Europeans, since the result of the three wars, the First, the Second and the Cold War, which many historians now view as a single, protracted conflict, was to split Europe down the middle. Just as the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation and the Thirty Years War shattered the unity of medieval Europe, so 1914-45 destroyed what Eric Hobsbawm called the “liberal bourgeois culture” of the 19th century, when Europe had been more united culturally and intellectually than at any time since the Middle Ages.


Fourty years passed before I learned much more about German-speaking Europe, a failure in which at least I was not alone. If the English remain deeply equivocal about Europe, it’s not just due to our island insularity or the trauma of losing the Empire, or even because English identity was first formed in European wars (with the French). It’s also because half of Europe was missing for us until very recently, cut off geographically and politically by the Iron Curtain and cut off intellectually and culturally by the legacy of the Second World War and Nazism. In the end, it was writers like Joseph Roth, Paul Celan, Robert Musil, Walter Benjamin, Gregor von Rezzori, Robert Walser and W.G. Sebald who opened for me the secret door to that lost world of Old Europe.

What sort of world was it, the world that supplied, in Tony Judt’s phrase, “the engine room of European culture for the first third of the 20th century”? Before 1914, Europe from the eastern borders of France to the western borders of Russia and from the Baltic to the Black Sea was divided between the rising power of Prussia and the declining powers of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires. The inhabitants of all three polities were much given to historical dreaming, a clue that their actual history had failed to deliver for them. The Germans dreamt emotional fantasies of the second Sturm und Drang movement and of a Greater Germany. The Slavs, at first among intellectuals and later among the peasant masses, awaking from their own dreamless sleep, dreamt at one and the same time of their fractured, individual nationalisms and of a united Pan Slavism- a contradiction in terms that has since become familiar among other underdeveloped peoples in the Arab world and Africa.

None of these dreams could come true without a seismic change in the political map of Europe of the sort that only war or revolution, or both, can accomplish. At the time, the status quo seemed both immutable and insupportable (hence the relief with which European governments, and their peoples, greeted the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914) . Bismarck had already considered and rejected adding the German areas of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Prussia back in 1866, thereby frustrating German dreams of a Greater Germany. The Slavs could dream all they wanted, but their reality was stuck as subjects of the Habsburg Empire (those Slavs who were ruled by the Ottomans were more fortunate, having mostly achieved independence). The later history of the Habsburgs is consumed with their attempts to solve the “national question” -i.e. the Slavs- without relinquishing imperial control, an impossible conundrum.

A Greater Germany and some sort of Slav independence might be the wave of the future, but the Habsburgs had no intention of going gently into the historical night that awaits ex- empires once they start relinquishing control. Even more than most imperial regimes, the Habsburgs felt they had a lock on eternity as the successors to the Holy Roman Empire, in turn the successor to the Roman Empire in the West. Critics might see this as one long drawn-out decline -in its day, the Holy Roman Empire was called neither holy nor Roman nor an Empire. But the authentic thread of a united Europe ran through Vienna, where it became twisted into the notion of a Europe as a family business, owned and operated by a single clan.

As AJP Taylor wrote, the Habsburgs were the “greatest family in modern history and the history of central Europe revolves around them, not they around it.”[1] As for the thread, it’s Ariadne’s: trace it back and it leads you to a monster. What happened in the German-speaking lands after the Dual Monarchy self-destructed in 1918 still haunts Europe, from Auschwitz to ethnic wars in the Balkans. If the current European Union seems a little pale and bloodless, it’s because the blood has all been spilt. Blood isn’t a viable metaphor in modern Europe, nor can its 19th century “liberal bourgeois culture” be reconstructed since a crucial part is missing. The missing part was German, but German in those days meant German-speaking: the language not the ethnicity. (One version of Ariadne’s thread, one way of viewing the history of 20th century Europe, is to track the change in the meaning of the word “German” from a linguistic to a national identity, culminating in the Nazis’ obscene fictions about blood and race.) Since we’re dealing with unity, and therefore with wholeness, the missing part is also the most important part: without it, the whole can’t be whole.

The Old Habsburg Empire comprised a thin, German-speaking urban layer on top of an otherwise rural and empty world- empty apart from those millions of peasants, most of them Slav, who have left no trace. Overlaid like a grid on the agrarian blankness was the apparatus of imperial administration, whose most visible marks were railways and cavalry barracks. This was the world of the Radetsky March, a world which built barracks rather than the factories that were going up in more advanced European countries like Britain, Belgium, and later on, in France and Prussia/Germany. If you were middle-class and wanted to get ahead in the Old Empire, you spoke German and became a civil servant, which is how bureaucracy became an important theme for Musil and Kafka.

Another feature of the Old Empire was the cult of personal loyalty to the Emperor, a cult that had nothing to do with the personality cults we’re familiar with thanks (or no thanks) to Fascism and Soviet-style Communism. Confined to the middle and upper classes, and blending the ancien, feudal, aristocratic spirit with an imperial brand of patriotism, it was the expression of a society where virtually every decent job, right down to the level of village schoolteacher and local stationmaster, was a state appointment.

In the cities of the Old Empire, and their equivalents across the border in Germany, there were overstuffed parlours and studies full of dark wood and leather, still preserved in early photographs, along with horses, tram tracks, elegant boulevards, piano lessons, little girls in white gloves, and Jews.

Seen from its upper strata, the Old Empire resembled the society Proust describes in France in the same period, but without Proust’s French accent of gossip and social and sexual snobbery. Vienna itself, in Claudio Magris’s telling description, was “a great provincial city”. [2]Outside the capital, social divisions in the Empire were harsher, more de haut en bas, than their French equivalents, which is hardly surprising since France was the country of the French Revolution and Austro-Hungary the bastion of absolutism and Catholic reaction. Across the great plains of central Europe, an embalmed aristocracy faced off against an unreconstructed peasantry. Feudal relations in many places had an extra turn of the screw, doubling as colonial relations. The Old Empire was “a colonial empire whose colonies happened to be located contiguously on the same continent.”[3] Its anachronistic social relations, frozen in place by an ancien regime which both ruled over and depended on them in a mutual death-grip, were Old Europe’s fatal flaw, the fault line along which it cracked like a bad egg, releasing the stink of xenophobias and tribalisms.

You can see the process take place in the microcosm of Gregor von Rezzori’s Bukovnia, where nationalities and identities bloomed like weeds in the desert after the Habsburg Empire collapsed in 1918. “The Romanians…established themselves as the new masters…and they remained largely isolated from those who spoke other languages and were now the new minorities. The so-called Bukovnia Swabians- settlers who had established themselves in the region at the time of Emperor Joseph the Second- segregated themselves in a flag-waving Greater Germany clannishness. ..the Ruthenians refused to have anything to do with either former Austrians, who they felt had treated them as second-class citizens, or the Romanians, who cold-shouldered them in turn. Poles, Russians and Armenians had always congregated in small splinter groups. (Everyone) despised the Jews.” And Bukovnia was an area where there was no really serious social strife, beyond a brief period of disorder following the war!

We all know how this story ends. It ends in the Holocaust. It ends with the Final Solution, as if all the xenophobias and tribalisms in Europe chased each other down to a bottom line and found there hatred of the Jews, last as it was first among their number. “They (the Nazis),” Moishe Postone has written, “lost their war against the Soviet Union, America and Britain. They won their war, their “revolution” against the European Jews. They not only succeeded in murdering six million Jewish children, women and men. They succeeded in destroying a culture- a very old culture- that of European Jewry.”[4]

But, as we also know from the histories of post-colonial Africa or post-Communist Yugoslavia, xenophobia and tribalism are necessary but not sufficient explanations for barbarism. They have to be evoked and manipulated by other, consciously political forces. In turn, for those forces to be unleashed, the Old Europe had to die.

Everyone who lived through 1918 understood this more or less. There was a widespread feeling the end of the war meant the end of a world, but that feeling was most acute in Austria, and most acute of all in Vienna, at once the “cockpit of modernism” and the capital of a disintegrating ancien regime. Like the Russian and the Ottoman Empires, the Habsburg Empire had functioned as a political anachronism, an artificial bulwark against modernity. Unlike the other belligerents in 1914-18, defeat for these three meant extinction- by social revolution in the case of Russia; by political dismemberment in the case of the Ottoman Empire; and by a combination of national revolutions and political dismemberment in the case of Austro-Hungary. Since Russia was otherwise engaged and the Ottomans belonged to distant Asia, it was left to Austro-Hungary’s thinkers and writers to give full expression to the sense that the European age had ended, an ending they experienced with double the impact, the end of Old Europe coinciding with the end of their own Empire. It’s no wonder they often confused the two.

Austrian loyalists blamed Western perfidy and/or the Peace of Versailles for dismembering the Empire. In reality, Austro-Hungary spontaneously combusted under the pressures of a war the Empire itself had triggered and embraced as the escape from its own insoluble problems. Naturally, the process looked different from the inside. The Old Empire had combined the culture of the Enlightenment with the political structure of ancien absolutism. Where historians tend to see that as a contradiction, viewed from the standpoint of educated, bourgeois, comfortable Vienna around the time of the fin de siecle, it could appear to be a happy fusion, the basis for a living world. This is the background to the politics of someone like Joseph Roth, who went from cheering the Red Army’s victories in the Russo-Polish war to becoming an arch-royalist and reactionary propagandist for the Habsburgs in exile.

Roth’s politics flowed from his romantic modernism: he combined despair over the modern bureaucratic-industrial state, which reduced men to machines, with a yearning for a new life in a new world- the archetypal modernist stance, looking forwards and backwards at the same time, like the Empire’s Double-Headed Eagle. A man of the left, Roth was highly critical of the Empire for as long as it existed. He became equally disenchanted with socialism after he visited the early Soviet Union in the 1920s. Roth’s trip convinced him that Russian communism was even more “scientific”, even more regimented and soulless than the bourgeois societies it purported to replace. In the polarised politics of the 1930s, Roth turned to supporting the Habsburgs in exile because he could see no other alternative to Fascism.

Roth’s apparent passion for the Habsburg Emperors was really a reflex of his opposition to “the truly macabre invention of ‘distinct nation states’” and of the nationalism he saw engulfing Europe in a second catastrophe.[5] As a Jew, Roth argued that the Empire’s Jews were the real “Austrians” all along, its true believers and patriots together with other minorities like the Muslims and the Slavs. This was the ultimate riposte to Nazi ideology- the assimilated and the outcasts were the true loyalists- like arguing today that Europe’s Muslims and other immigrants are the real Europeans. Roth idealised an Austro-Hungary that would stand in for the German identity that Central Europe’s Jews were having torn from them by the Nazis. Austria could be the cosmopolitan place for people without a place.[6] Roth is an extreme example (an alcoholic’s attraction to lost causes may also have had something to do with it in his case), but the broad thrust of his political odyssey was not unusual. Many Austrian intellectuals, Gentile as well as Jewish, continued to pine for the so-called “Austrian Mission” that formed the ideology of the Old Empire

The Austrian Mission in its classic form had two aspects. Its outward-facing aspect was the belief, common in Europe since the Middle Ages, that Austria was the “front-line state” defending the West against Islam (nowadays this mythical “front line” has moved to Siberia). Austria had more reason to believe in this than some other contenders for the position, since the tidal wave of Islamic expansion had brought the Ottomans to the gates of Vienna twice-for the second, and last, time in 1683.

The other face of the “ Austrian Mission” was domestic. Austria saw itself as “the cradle of (individual) genius” and “the mother of the nations”, engaged in a tolerant civilising mission to bring European values to Slav peasants. All successful ideologies require a pinch of idealism. The Austrian Mission foreshadowed the ideal of a united Europe of which Austrians, thanks to their history, their geography, their unique tolerance and wisdom etc etc., were the natural representatives. According to Eric Hosbawm, similar notions have formed “the core of the ‘European idea’ from Napoleon to the Pan-European Movement of the 1920s and from Goebbels to the European Economic Community.” But the persistence of this illusion in Austria’s case was remarkable. Or perhaps not so remarkable, given Austrians’ later embrace of Nazism and their subsequent need to deny it. As recently as 1946, Austria’s President was still talking about his country’s “historic mission” as “the vanguard and saviour of the West.”

The truth is, the “Austrian Mission” was a fake from start to finish, which makes it all the more ironic that Roth, who saw so clearly and so early through both Communism and Nazism, should have chosen to invest it with his imaginative energies. Roth’s fellow novelist, Robert Musil, who was also a shrewd political commentator, had no time for such fantasies. “ ‘Austrian’ culture (ie Austria’s civilising mission)”, Musil observed, “was an error of perspective on the part of the Viennese.” Musil’s great novel ‘A Man Without Qualities’ is set in the rotten state of Kakania, which is Austro-Hungary barely disguised. In his 1913 essay, Politics in Austria, Musil analysed the twilight of the Habsburgs with brutal honesty. “Somewhere or other in this state there must be a secret, underlying idea. But one cannot discover it….probably the whole thing is merely motion, resulting from the lack of a driving idea.”

By then, Austro-Hungary was an Empire that everyone knew had no clothes. None of the other powers gave any credence to Austria’s purported role as a defence against Islam, whose expansionist energies had in any case run out of steam back in 1683: by the early 1900s, the Ottoman Empire was in even worse shape than the Habsburgs’. Domestically, too, the ‘Austrian Idea’ of a civilising mission, cosmpolitan and tolerant, had been ripped apart by the newly rebellious nationalities, exposed as a figleaf for Germanic cultural hegemony and colonial-style domination of “the peoples.” Above all, the Habsburg Emperors themselves never believed in the Mission, which was, as Musil suggested, largely the creation of Viennese intellectuals. The Emperors encouraged the ‘Austrian idea’, they paid lip service to it as a useful ideology, but their own aims were very different. They were interested in their own survival and their own greatness. In 1915, when Prussian Germany took over the collapsing Austrian war machine, the “Austrian Mission” turned out to mean “no more than compelling Slavs to fight for German hegemony in Europe.”[7]

For as long as the Old Empire lasted, the Austrian Mission enabled the elite to ignore its flaws. Once the Empire was no more, it allowed the survivors to wallow in a politics of nostalgia instead of facing up to the real reasons for Austria’s demise. Basically, they blamed everybody else, the victorious powers in general and the US and President Woodrow Wilson in particular. W.J.Stein, an Austrian who emigrated to England where he worked as a schoolteacher, wrote in his 1936 memoirs, “The Peace of Versailles, dismembering Austria in the most senseless way and with the stroke of a pen destroying what had been a natural economic unit is among those things about which one cannot speak without bitterness…Wilson knew nothing of the people to whom he imagined himself giving a new form of life.” Stein mourned the loss of an Austria whose “exposed international position..and its rather chaotic internal conditions, including as it did no less than 13 different nations, made (it) a fitting school for outstanding individuals who, with the natural kindness and fluidity of the Austrian temperament, developed a rather world-wide range of vision.”

At the other end of the social scale, Count Polzer-Holditz, whose brother was personal secretary to the last Habsburg Emperor, traced the great betrayal farther back in history in his own memoirs. He blamed “Berlin and Budapest”, “Berlin” for preventing Austria making a separate, early peace in 1914-18 and “Budapest” for stopping the Empire reorganising itself into a kind of federation with autonomy for “the nations” ( because the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy vetoed all concessions to the Slavs). We can judge the likely result of Polzer-Holditz’s reforms, had they ever been carried out, by the advice he gave his master: he recommended the Emperor Charles declare an imperial military dictatorship.


Both W.J. Stein and Count Polzer-Holditz were followers of Rudolf Steiner. You don’t hear much about Steiner these days, but in his time Steiner was famous throughout Europe, an academic turned occultist and founder of the Anthroposophical Movement. Steiner’s biography may sound eccentric, but the early 20th century was a time of crisis for the old European order, and for bourgeois society as a whole. There was a widespread sense that something was fundamentally wrong together with a widespread urge to find an alternative to what Max Weber called the “iron cage” of modern mass industrial and bureaucratic society. It was a second phase of the Enlightenment, an anti-Enlightenment if you will, because the Enlightenment had ended in Blake’s “dark satanic mills” and Wordsworth's “shades of the prison house”. The crisis was felt with real anguish and intensity by artists and intellectuals of the time, following Nietzsche who became a cult figure to the younger generation.

People felt themselves to be responding to the bankruptcy of the bourgeois order and to a new, modern world they experienced as mechanical, administrative, anti-individual, cutting them off from nature, by which they meant from some authentic version of human nature as well as from nature as a whole. Many of their responses were about going “back to nature” –or forward to nature in new ways. They embody a mixture of hope- often they’re very utopian, large-scale projects to rethink humanity from the ground up- and “modernist despair”, all jumbled up together. This was the individual crisis that ran alongside the geopolitical crisis. While it led many people to greet the start of the First World War with relief or even outright enthusiasm, it also produced a creative outpouring including the artistic avant-garde known as Modernism, the first bohemias in the cities, vegetarianism, naturism, sun-worship, proto-hippies, political movements like anarchism and Marxism, and all sorts of spiritual movements, the biggest and most successful of which by far, until Steiner’s Anthroposophy outdid it, was Madame Blavatsky’sTheosophy.

Rudolf Steiner was born in 1861 in Kralvejec, at that time situated in Hungary, later part of Yugoslavia. His father was a stationmaster on the Imperial railways, an archetypal post in Austro-Hungary. The family moved a lot as Steiner senior was transferred around the fringes of the Empire. Rudolf grew up to be a classic scholarship boy, a provincial who advanced through his intellect.

By the time he was 18, Steiner was studying at the Vienna Polytechnic under Karl Julius Schroer, a charismatic lecturer and expert on Goethe who taught that Germany was destined to be “the Greece of modern times.” Schroer followed the tradition of German cultural nationalism that had developed during the 19th century as a counterweight to Germany’s chronic political divisions and weakness. Schroer himself described this dynamic when he wrote, “in literature and in art the German peoples, divided as they are in politics, have found a soil wherein they grow conscious of their unity and live a great and noble life in common.”

To thinkers like Schroer and his pupil Steiner, statements of this sort were not nationalist. On the contrary, they believed one of the distinguishing features of German cultural formation was its freedom from national feeling, in Steiner’s words its “archetypal trait of German cosmopolitanism.” Harold James calls 19th century German nationalism “a messianic nationalism (which) claimed to represent a ‘universal’ nation and promised to the whole world salvation through the German people.” It was hardly unique in that respect. The British at the height of their Empire, and the Americans after 1945 both saw themselves as the bearers of, for the former, justice and civilisation and, for the latter, democracy and freedom. Both claimed to be acting from altruistic motives to bring their special gifts to the world. What made German cultural nationalism unique was that it was in full flow before Germany became a nation, let alone an empire or a Great Power. Harold James argues that the resulting temporal dissonance left Germany, “after 1871…alone (playing) Great Power politics with all the unfulfilled ambition and romantic expectation of a movement for national awakening.”

After graduating from the Polytechnic, Steiner spent six years as a private tutor in Vienna, then went to Weimar, to the Goethe archives as part of a team of scholars editing Goethe’s collected works. In 1897, he was in Berlin, a rising star on the academic circuit with excellent credentials and famous mentors. But he quit academia and plunged into Berlin’s radical and artistic bohemia, editing a literary magazine, mixing with poets and anarchists and lecturing at the socialist Workers Education Institute. In 1901-2, he was invited to talk to the small coterie of Berlin Theosophists, where he soon declared himself to be a spiritual seer. Later, he founded Anthroposophy as a breakaway movement from Theosophy, in opposition to Theosophy’s increasing turn to the East (around 1910, the Theosophists identified an unknown Indian boy, Krishnamurti, as the new Messiah). For the rest of his life- he died in 1925 - Steiner toured Europe, building his Anthroposophical Movement and lecturing on the occult truths he divined from the spiritual world. His collected works, mostly transcriptions of his lectures, run to over 300 volumes.

Steiner’s reaction to the outbreak of war in 1914 was to move himself and his followers to a hillside outside Basle, Switzerland, where they laboured to build the Goetheanum, a massive temple of the arts and mysteries. In 25 lectures called ‘The Karma of Untruthfulness’ delivered in 1916, Steiner gave his view of the war and the Western powers’ war aims, by then known to include dissolving the Habsburg Empire and replacing it with new nations like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (in effect the programme carried out at Versailles). Steiner defends Germany and Austro-Hungary and blames the West, especially Britain, for causing the war. At the same time, he claims he is entirely objective and free from nationalist feeling.

Steiner squares this circle by revisioning the war as a conflict between spirit ( both in the broad sense of “cultural” and the specific, Steinerian sense of the occult) and materialism. The German people are a spiritual people. By definition, they’re the opposite of narrow-minded and nationalist. The British are materialists. Materialism goes with nationalism, which is the cause of international conflicts and wars; but, seen from a wider perspective, nationalism is merely the reflex of materialism. The “powers of the periphery”, as Steiner calls the Allies, want to break up the Old Empire and “free the nations” (the Slavs), although they know full well these nations can never have an independent existence. They’re bound to be dominated by either Russia or Britain, increasingly by the latter as British power spreads. Steiner was quite right about all this although he got his powers wrong. The new nations created in 1918 were indeed dominated by greater powers, but by either Russia or Germany, not by Britain.

For Steiner, Austro-Hungary was the “indispensable empire”. The cause of the First World War was a plot by the nationalities, led by the Serbs, secretly urged on by Russia ( allied with Britain) to break up the Empire. This fact proved German innocence. But the Old Empire was also proof of German values, since Austro-Hungary was prime example of a supra-national state. Rather than a crumbling, authoritarian imperium, Steiner saw the Habsburg Empire as being ahead of its time, containing the answer to the problem of nationalism which everyone recognised by 1914 was the key problem for the old European world order.

“The structure of the Austrian state is entirely federalistic not centralistic,” Steiner lectured his audience, “and before the war it tended increasingly to grant federal status to the different peoples.”

As a description of the Habsburg Empire, the only trouble with this is that it wasn’t true. It was true that, facing constant unrest and internal pressures, the Habsburgs had made some concessions to the nationalities, mainly over language issues (the use of languages other than German in education, civil service appointments and the like)- only for their German subjects to resent and resist the reforms as threatening their hegemony. It was also true that, under rival pressures from the German aristocracy, the Habsburgs granted a second set of concessions (from 1867), dismantling their own absolute rule and setting up representative government institutions- only for successive Emperors alternately to ignore or suspend them. The Habsburgs themselves were the sole power in their Empire. They never had the slightest interest in diminishing that power either democratically, via a constitution, or geographically, via a federation.

Steiner’s picture of his homeland was a fantasy. But it was a fantasy he shared with many others in Viennese intellectual circles. By 1916, those who had remained in Vienna during the war found themselves under pressure from “the nationalities” (or so they felt) and thus forced to make a distinction between their identity as Germans and their identity as subjects of the Empire. For them, the result was a sharpening and a rise in overtly German nationalism conceived, as Nicholas Goodrich-Clarke puts it, as a “rearguard action against Slav demands for political and national expression within the increasingly anachronistic multinational Habsburg Empire.” [8]


Exiles were better able to hold together the old duality of German pride and Imperial citizenship in a single supra-nationalism. Of course, such intellectual freedom of manouevre was reserved for the gentiles among them. For their Jewish counterparts like Roth or Manes Sperber, any talk of “the Germans” or ideas of “Germanness” referred to an identity from which they were being ruthlessly expelled, while “Europe” described a world that was soon to be irretrievably lost to them, and to itself. As much as the coming catastrophe destroyed the old culture of European Jewry, it also destroyed a relatively new one, the culture of progressive, enlightened 19th century Europe, exposing the ethnic and racial flaw that was built into the organisation of its empires with their race-based colonies and its nations with their ethnic essentialism. That flaw first revealed itself in the contradiction between nation-building and nationalism on the one hand and universal values on the other, and for the people who were forced to live the contradiction most acutely, the assimilated Jews.

To be a Jew in Old Europe meant to assimilate or be prepared to assimilate. Zygmunt Bauman described assimilation as “the quintessential impossibility” because it commands a stranger to stop being a stranger while at the same time, by definition, he can never be a native. The impossibility could be finessed for a while until it cracked open under the impact of nationalism, the 19th century obsession which seemed at first to be a reflex of the other 19th century obsession with reason and “progress”, only to turn and trump it.

The same proto-nationalist and nationalist forces that undermined the Old Empire stripped assimilation of its apparent utility, and the work began in the same geographical area- not among the sophisticated assimilated Jews in the German heartland, but in the East. “Before the Second World War, East-Central Europe was a seemingly bottomless reservoir of Ostjuden, shtetl and ghetto Jews. As they moved westward, joining their more affluent and enlightened co-religionists who were hoping to find acceptance in the societies of their chosen homelands, these Ostjuden scratched open the half-healed wounds of Jewish strangeness and continuously re-charged, inflamed and contaminated the “assimilation problem’....this part of Europe was also a veritable cauldron of aspiring or budding would-be ‘native’ nations and conflicting nationalist pressures and demands...the old and new nationalisms strewn across East-Central Europe’s multidimensionally heterogeneous demographic mixture were particularly bigoted and ruthless....(the Jews) found themselves squeezed between conflicting territorial and cultural claims.”[9].

In the meantime, an Old Austrian liberal intellectual like Steiner could claim that not only were the Germans a people of the spirit and the Habsburg Empire a beacon of “federalism” and peace as opposed to nationalism and war, but also that the Empire had an even greater destiny as the home of Steiner’s “spiritual science”, which alone could combat world-wide materialism, spread by the British through their very different brand of Empire. Steiner concluded, “we see how Central Europe has to put up a fight on behalf of mankind, for it is the pole which opposes the impulses coming from the West.”

Thinkers like Steiner had grown up in Old Europe with its history of territorial wars. They saw imperial agglomerations, imperial constructions, as part of the solution rather than part of the problem, a view that seemed permanently outmoded after 1945 but which has crept back into fashion since 9/11. Peace was guaranteed by creating a balance between a small number of Great Powers. Nationalism was a bad thing, the genie the First World War let out of the bottle. The war tossed all the boundaries and borders of central Europe (and the Middle East) into the melting pot, letting loose a bevy of competing nationalisms. But in the new world order-or disorder- other, more positive views of nationalism emerged, stimulated by these “facts on the ground” and championed by the victors, rather than the losers, of 1914-18. Working within the framework of Woodrow Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points, the peacemakers at Versailles not only recognised but also encouraged the process. To the victorious Allies, nationalism, if not actually the causus belli, in retrospect came to seem what they’d fought for all along, a justification for so much senseless slaughter. It was a noble aim of freeing peoples who were the victims of reaction and militarism on the part of the Central Powers. (the Allies didn’t apply this analysis to their own colonial Empires, where they ruled over peoples who were not Europeans and therefore didn’t count).

This was a very different ‘European Mission’ from the ‘Austrian’ one, if equally mythical. To the Allies, the new European nationalisms were a progressive force, replacing the time-honoured ways central and southern European peasants defined themselves by tribe or family or religion- the old world of clans and blood feuds. No doubt there was some truth in this but, as Europe was to discover in the 1990s in the Balkans, the adjustment turned out to be partial and incomplete. Moreover nationalism, in as much as it replaces old hatreds, can equally be used to organise and exacerbate still greater hatreds of its own[10].

After Woodrow Wilson conflated nationalism with democracy in his concept of “self-determination.”, self-determination duly became the ruling principle at Versailles. Nationalism, ethnicity and democracy were supposed to go together in Wilson’s post-war order. They would be the new guarantors of peace, replacing the balance of powers, and with the crucial addition of a League of Nations to mediate disputes. If the League of Nations was Wilson’s brainchild and the centrepiece of his new world order, “self-determination” was that order’s fundamental principle. Though the phrase itself hasn’t survived, Wilson’s idea, in all its imprecision and vague high-mindedness (trying to define exactly what it meant and how to apply it was a recurring problem at Versailles), remains a key ingredient in America’s global stance.

Rival versions of a New Europe, Wilson’s principle of self-determination and Steiner’s allegiance to a benign Old Austria, were ideals that finessed a dark side: self-determination in a Europe of tangled ethnicities and minority populations could be a recipe for endless violent fragmentation, while a civilised cosmopolitan unity of the sort Steiner championed depended on imperial overrule. Both men found themselves open to attack by their respective “realist” Rights. In America, this meant isolation and non-involvement whose spokesmen torpedoed Wilson’s cherished League of Nations. In Europe, as the leader of a pan-European or universal movement, Steiner came under fire from all sides. During the war, British Theosophists saw him as pro-German. After 1918, he was attacked by German right-wingers, engaged in a witch hunt for the perpetrators of “Dolchstoss”, the “stab in the back” they believed had defeated Germany.


Stunned by a defeat they hadn’t expected until the very last minute, the German Right convinced themselves the country had been betrayed, cheated of inevitable victory by its politicians who had signed at Versailles and more broadly, by forces on the home front who had eroded German morale and German will to fight- the unions, working men, common soldiers, liberals, leftists, the usual right-wing list of “enemy within”. Under the terms of the armistice, German troops were able to march home to a heroes’ welcome and Germany itself was never occupied. The result was that the German defeat was real, but it wasn’t experienced as such by the majority of the German people. They only experienced post-war chaos and misery, giving the Right, consumed with resentment and the desire for retribution, an opening to make mischief.

Someone like Steiner with his weird internationalist spiritual movement, sitting out the war in Switzerland and engaged in suspicious dealings with the ex-Imperial Chief of Staff General von Moltke was an obvious target.[11] By 1918, too, Steiner had begun to acknowledge some German responsibility for the war- anathema to the Right. In his academic way, he did it by quoting previous authorities, beginning by repeating Nietzsche’s description of the Kaiserreich- the modern German state that grew out of Prussia- as “the murder of the German spirit”.

Like the “Austrian Mission”, this was a common theme among German-speaking thinkers, dating back to the end of the 19th century, to Wagner among others. The basic idea was that Germany, the state, was a philistine travesty of Germany, the broader culture. A crude political and economic nationalism had drowned out German cultural nationalism with its spiritual and universal pretensions at the very moment Germany was born as a political entity. Though this critique wasn’t new, Steiner’s way of articulating it soon revealed its fatal flaw, the way it could be prised open and made to serve a new-style nationalism of blood and race that neither its original authors nor Steiner himself ever imagined .

Steiner’s intentions were the exact opposite. He was a genuine internationalist who wanted to use Nietzsche’s phrase as code for how Germany had gone wrong when it abandoned the spiritual and the cosmopolitan for the material and the national. The Germans had built an empire but “failed to provide this empire with a mission rooted in the inner nature and reality of its people” Steiner wrote in an Appeal to the German People and the Civilised World. They should have developed a “politics of true culture” not power politics, which in the contemporary world “must inevitably turn to pure military power”[12]. Militarism together with nationalism had rushed to fill the vacuum. “Fundamentally, nationalism is nothing other than the consequence of a lack of ideas,” Steiner said elsewhere, using “idea” as a technical term in his “spiritual science”, where it means something closer to creative inspiration. Steiner’s millions of words explaining how to achieve spiritual clairvoyance basically come down to uniting reason and emotion, logic and feeling, the head and the heart in the psychological coniunctio oppositorum familiar from the writings of mystics (though Steiner gave it his own “scientific” and meta-historical twist). According to Steiner, this is the natural psychology of the German character, the German type. German people have a special sense of “reality” as opposed to “abstract concepts”. They grasp “truths with which human blood accords, truths filled with warm human feeling.”

In other words, Steiner wanted the benefits of nationalism without its drawbacks. He manipulated the related notions of blood, national character and nationalism to mean two different things. Blood is good when it comes to the Germans grasping reality in a wholehearted way instead of peddling sterile abstractions (an echo of Germany’s old resentment of the rationalist French). But blood is bad when it’s an ingredient in nationalism, which the Germans reject. “Whether seen as a matter of blood or as a matter of karma....what we have been discussing (i.e. nationalism) must of necessity result in conflicts in human existence.”

Later, others would sweep aside Steiner’s careful discriminations, or simply expose their contradiction. They will say, blood means blood; and go on to unite reality, blood and nation in a race-based nationalism. In fact, they’d already done so. Back in the 1870s, Richard Wagner added up his criticisms of the philistine money culture and decided the sum total pointed to the Jews as Germany’s enemy within. In the same decade in Austria, George von Schonerer welded together the Germanic enthusiasms and rituals of Viennese student fraternities into a political Pan-German movement that was viciously anti-Semitic. And Wagner and Schonerer were just the start.


If you want to understand what happened in central Europe in the early 20th century, the 1870s are the key decade. In Germany, those were years of economic crisis and depression. The Germans even had their own name for it- Grunderkrise, the “grinding”. Like similar periods in other countries, it gave rise to a politics of resentment which got mixed up with, or took the form of, a reaction against modernity itself and the pace of social change.

This nexus, the right-wing version of left, progressive artistic and political modernism, has been repeated many times at many levels in different countries over the last 150 years. As politics ceased to be the exclusive property of monarchs and aristocracies and became slowly more democratic, so economics began to drive them. At the same time, rapid social change in the wake of the Industrial Revolution created large groups of losers, from peasants to the “little men” of urban lower middle classes. Hard economic times put them up for grabs politically. The terms of the resulting struggle were set between revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries, the political groupings brought into being by the French Revolution.

Behind the scenes between, say, 1870 and 1930, the two forces re-positioned themselves, like two overweight wrestlers, to take account of the birth of modern society. Instead of Church and King, this fresh round of their struggle took place over issues of class and nation, increasingly seen through the prism of ethnicity and “race”. After about 1870, revolutionaries become socialists while counterrevolutionaries ceased to be drawn from the old aristocracy and become middle-class ideologues and politicians who took up mass, demagogic politics. According to Arno Mayer, “rather than rely on deference and prescription they appealed to lower orders of city and country, inflaming and manipulating their resentment of those above them, their fear of those below them and their estrangement from the real world about them. They may be said to have raised the popular anti-revolution from below to vitalize and collaborate with the counterrevolution from above.” The new scapegoats taking the place of Protestants, freemasons and philosophes- the old enemies of the counterrevolutionaries- were the Jews.

The motor that began turning in Germany-Austria in the 1870s ended up by producing a full-fledged historical nightmare but it wasn’t a simple process. There’s plenty of room for argument over how much of Nazism was foreshadowed in traditional German ways of thinking about themselves and their place in the world. Jeffrey Herf has argued that Germany’s peculiar path to modernity involved an Industrial Revolution without the standard European forerunner of a bourgeois revolution. Rapid industrialization combined with an authoritarian (Prussian) state, without any of the liberal Enlightenment protections, so that when the right-wing revolt against modernity came to Germany it took a form Herf calls “reactionary modernism” that “found in nationalism a third force ‘beyond’ capitalism and Marxism.”

Even so, for the Nazis to come into existence- let alone into power- took a series of major social and economic catastrophes, one on top of another-German defeat in 1918; the dissolution of both the Kaiserreich and the Habsburg Empire; political and social strife between conservatives and radicals, capital and labour, in a weakened, post-war Germany in the 1920s; plus the final hammer blow of the Great Depression. The economic devastation was the most important factor, fuelling the others. In the winter of 1918-19, the US relief administrator Herbert Hoover reported that 200 million people in the defeated enemy countries faced famine (and almost the same number among the victors). Europe didn’t return to pre-1914 levels of production until 1925. Only America had the money and power to remake Europe with some sort of Marshall Plan, but, as Margaret Macmillan has pointed out, 1919 wasn’t 1945.

“The United States….did not have the preponderance of power that it had after the Second World War. Its European Allies were not exhausted and desperate, prepared to take American aid even at the price of accepting American suggestions” (while) “Congress and the American public were torn between an impulse to help and a sense that the United States had done enough in winning the war. After the Second World War, their mood was very much the same but with a crucial difference: in place of the diffuse threat of revolution there was a single clear enemy in the Soviet Union.” Macmillan concludes soberly that, “Perhaps with American money and European co-operation a stronger Europe could have been built (post-1918), more able to resist the challenges of the 1930s.”[13]

Rudolf Steiner lived through those post-war years before his early death in 1925, and his work reflects them. After 1918, he turned from lecturing and writing on spiritual and cultural topics to socio-economic themes. With the Reich gone, the issue was how to keep German society together in the face of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary challenges from the left and right. Steiner’s solution was his Threefold Social Commonwealth, which essentially relied on the organicist tradition in German thought that, when applied to politics, supported the idea of a state where “there was a place for everyone and everyone knew his place”. In Steiner’s version, the three orders were the economy, politics and “spiritual and cultural activity”. Each was to be kept separate from the others and each should have its own legislative and administrative bodies.

Each order was of equal value. Each had its own, unique contribution to make to society. Once the orders recognised this fact, there would be no need for them to be at odds. The Threefold Commonwealth was the antithesis, literally the "anti-thesis”, of the Marxist idea of conflicting classes. The plan aroused a lot of interest in its day, much more than you might expect for such an obvious intellectual pipe dream, probably because it appealed to some of the deep themes of German history. In a country only united- only created- fifty years previously, harmony and unity were vital compensatory concerns precisely because of their underlying absence. In his‘ The Coming of the Third Reich’, Richard J. Evans describes a Germany that “did not enter nationhood in 1871 in a wholly stable condition. It was riven by rapidly deepending internal conflicts which were increasingly exported into the unresolved tensions of the political system that Bismark had created. These tensions found release in an increasingly vociferous nationalism, mixed in with alarmingly strident doses of racism and antisemtisim.”[14]

There followed the trauma of the First World War, defeat in that war, and a Marxist revolution in Germany that almost succeeded before being crushed by the right-wing paramilitaries of the Free Corps, terrifying the German bourgeoisie in the process. Under the circumstances there were numerous appeals to a “lost” German unity, epitomised by the old Reich, which its defenders claimed may have been authoritarian but was free from “divisive” politics and class struggles; and numerous schemes for national reconstruction or resurrection. Steiner’s was a liberal version of this trend: Hitler’s and the Nazis’ the extreme nationalist version. Both versions depicted Germany as a national community, a social and cultural monolith with the result that although Steiner’s version of “Germanness” wasn’t racial or ethnic, it was open to the danger of conversion. In the early 1920s, one version of a German national renewal programme must have seemed no more likely to succeed than any other. Indeed, there is evidence the Nazis treated Steiner as (briefly) a serious rival and put some effort into brushing or, being the Nazis, beating him and his followers aside.

Steiner’s plan was doomed not so much by its content as by its audience. In postwar Germany there just weren’t that many liberals ready to listen: there weren’t that many liberals period. The history of the Weimar Republic is of constant calls for unity and liberal democracy while German voters increasingly chose the extremes, the Communists on the left and the nationalists, including the Nazis, on the right, both of them committed to destroying the Weimar order. The Communist vision for Germany was self-explanatory and revolutionary. The nationalist vision was more complicated. Whatever else the war had been, it was an experience of real social unity whose lingering myth of the “front generation” celebrated German soldiers bound together in a spirit of comradeship and self-sacrifice transcending all differences of class or cause. When, after the war, the call for social harmony and unity revived on the right it was no longer in the old Bismarckian terms of tradition and respect for authority but in a new violent, militarist, “frontline” mould which the Nazis would wrap around a core of racial hatred and scapegoating antisemitism- in all, the opposite of Steiner’s rarefied, rationalist, but traditionally bourgeois programme.[15] In a country where “fear and hatred ruled the day” the future lay with Hitler’s vision of national revival rather than his rivals , though not until yet another disaster, the Great Depression, finally shattered the liberal centre[16].

But in the immediate aftermath of the war, that future was still undecided as were the conditions of the peace itself. The big, competing political ideas of the day were the old (German) Empire’s military-imperial absolutism, Communism riding high after Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution and President Wilson’s vision of national self-determination and democracy for Europe. As social and political conflict between left and right escalated in a Germany frozen between armistice and peace conference, Steiner lobbied for influential support . In 1917, he’d submitted a memorandum to the Austrian government; now he went to talk to Prince Max von Baden who seemed sympathetic to “threefolding”. But when von Baden became the last Chancellor of Imperial Germany, he ignored the idea. Steiner had more luck with the business community. Frightened by the unrest, business and labour groups were agreeing to co-operate to maintain order, very much in the spirit of Steiner’s ideas. After three businessmen led by Emil Molt sought his advice, the ‘Appeal To The German People and the Civilised World’ appeared as a newspaper advertisement in March 1919, signed by many German intellectuals who were not known as Steiner followers. The manifesto, followed by a new organisation to promote the Threefold Social Commonwealth, made Steiner famous in circles outside of his usual spiritualists and occultists and helped re-connect him with the mainstream German intellectual world that he had abandoned when he introduced his “spiritual science”.

In April 1919, in response to another request from Molt, Steiner branched out into education, creating the first Waldorf school for the workers at Molt’s Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory. All this activity seemed like something important and some of it, like the Waldorf education movement, proved lasting. But by June, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the moment for “threefolding” effectively passed. Although the Threefold campaign carried on, Steiner himself always understood that the nature of future change in Germany was inextricably linked with the nature of the peace negotiated at Versailles, where he and his ideas had no presence. In the end, the Threefold movement did just enough to infuriate the Brownshirts who threatened Steiner’s meetings and beat him up in Munich in 1923. Two years later he was dead of a mysterious stomach ailment, his political project expiring along with him.


If history is not all determined, it isn’t undetermined either. The weight of history militates against logical solutions to political and social problems, of the kind advocated by liberal intellectuals like Steiner. Instead, history’s coefficient of drag leaves it open to irrational, demagogic appeals that derive their force from their connections to historical wrongs, historical resentments, historical hopes and historical dreams- in other words, to history itself. Steiner was right about both the major political-historical issues in his lifetime. The only way to save the Habsburg Empire was to reform it into some federation of autonomous “nations”, with a resulting loss of power for the Emperor. The only way to avoid post-war economic and social breakdown in the defeated powers from having dire political consequences after 1918 was to change their socio-economic structure, either through outright revolution, as Rosa Luxembourg advocated, or through some sort of social reform, with a resulting loss of power for the old elites. Steiner’s own solutions may have been inadequate and his grasp of political realities non-existent, but he was spot on when it came to analysing the problems. In both instances, something needed urgently to be done. In neither case was it possible that it would be,

After the dissolution of the Old Empire, Austria went in the opposite direction from the one recommended by Steiner. While exiles such as Roth and Steiner clung to a politics of nostalgia, the real ideological action lay elsewhere, in a painfully evolving sense of what it meant to be “German”. Under the Habsburgs, “German” had meant German-speaking: if you wanted to get on in the world, you moved to a town, learned German and probably got a job in the Imperial civil service or in one of the independent professions that were starting to coalesce. These included academia where Rudolf Steiner energetically climbed the ladder through the drudgery of the Goethe Archives before breaking away for a more exciting freelance life in Vienna. If Steiner and his fellow Viennese intellectuals represent one possible political odyssey among the ex-citizens of the Old Empire, the von Rezzoris represent another. The von Rezzoris were Italian, seigneurs of a Habsburg fief in Sicily, who moved to Vienna in the mid-18th century. Gregor von Rezzori’s grandfather kept his Italian name. Yet less than a generation later, Gregor von Rezzori’s father became a keen German nationalist, a supporter of the Greater German movement and a rigid anti-Semite. Later in life, as a member of the colonial gentry in Bukovnia, von Rezzori snr. recanted, turning into a staunchly conservative Austrian patriot with nothing but contempt for neo-imperial Germany, which he regarded as an upstart country full of Prussian zealots, militant and nationalist in tone where Austria was aristocratic and imperial.

The trauma of war and defeat in 1918 put the idea of being German in a national, ethnic sense back into play among people like the von Rezzoris. Blocked for half a century by Bismarck’s rejection of a greater Germany and the ideology of the “Austrian Mission”, all the old myths about Charlemagne and the original Reich returned, but not all at once, and not in any simple way. In his “Memoirs of an Anti-Semite”, Gregor von Rezzori brilliantly analysed this complex development, akin to a psychological tying yourself in knots, by which the German-speaking classes of the Old Empire moved during the 1920s and 1930s from loyalty to Austria and the “Austrian Mission”-internationalist, civilizing, cultural- to embrace ideas of a restored Reich and of German greatness that were Volkish, nationalist and anti-Semitic.

Where else did they have to go? Because the Habsburgs had hijacked the mood rather than the substance of the Enlightenment and hitched it to their own dynastic glory, once the Empire collapsed, the whole insubstantial structure of fin de siecle Vienna, of Austria as “the cradle of genius” and “mother of the nations” went down with it. Notions of German nationalism with its familiars of Sturm und Drang, blood and iron, Wotan and Wagner, which had lingered beneath the Imperial surface, revived and slowly shook themselves free from nostalgia for “Austria”. In the end, only a few of the old guard, like von Rezzori senior, were still able to shake their heads and turn their backs when news of the Anschluss reached them.

Looking back at their own history after 1918, Austrians imagined they had been the enlightened administrators of semi-barbaric peasantries and the tolerant, worldly ringmasters of a multinational and multicultural empire. They forgot that Gladstone had said, in 1880, “there is not a spot upon the whole map where you can lay your finger and say, there Austria did good.” In other words, Austrians saw themselves in the same way the British did after the collapse of the British Empire, and with as much, or as little, justification. Austrian self-deception only deepened after 1945. Austria emerged from the Second World War surprisingly well, becoming a sort of second Switzerland, envied for its prosperity but also an object of suspicion, thanks to its dubious past. Unlike Germany, Austria managed to duck most of the responsibility for Nazism. Austrians put forward various arguments in their own defence: they’d never wanted the Anschluss in the first place; Britain, France and the other powers permitted the Anschluss to take place therefore they were the ones responsible for what happened; and so on. As one Austrian satirist put it, the Austrians discovered they had been Germans when they committed war crimes. When they became Austrians again, in 1945, they had nothing to feel guilty about.

More seriously, Austrians tried to revive the distinction, made by their famous historian Heinrich von Srbik, between two kinds of “German idea”- kleindeutsch, which was narrow, Prussian, nationalist and power-based; and grossdeutsch, which was Viennese, cultural, civilising, universal, and Christian. The latter idea was supposedly the source of the Austrian Mission, which had taken shape after the Habsburgs failed to unite Germany under their own rule in the 18th century. Just as German emphasis on the spiritual and the irrational stemmed from Germany’s perceived inferiority to the powerful, rationalist French, so Austria’s supranationalism, its self-image as a multinational empire, was a substitute for the weakness of its nationalism. After the Second World War, there was no going back to this or any other version of the Austrian Idea. Any attempt to do so meant not so much rewriting history as ignoring it altogether. Everyone knew what had taken place (Srbik himself ended his career as a National Socialist). Austria alone chose to deny it.

Such massive denial comes at a high psychic price. Thomas Bernhard was the remorseless critic of Austria’s Second Republic, which enshrined the “Habsburg myth” and created a faux Fin de Siecle culture of Strauss waltzes and Viennese coffee shops after 1945. Bernhard’s work seems like pure invention, but appearances are deceptive. A lot of Bernhard is based on accurate reporting of Austrian conditions. Bernhard’s weird characters seem to be archetypal figures, like Beckett’s tramps and down-and-outs. In fact, they’re recognisable Austrian types, exaggerated no doubt but instantly familiar to an inhabitant of the Habsburg Empire, as would have been the social conditions they inhabit- isolated intellectuals in the cities; half-mad landed gentry ruling over great estates; a sea of rural peasant backwardness. Bernhard’s monomaniacal characters, his half-mad Princes and philosophers and his impotent would-be scholars make him, among other things, the artist who defined the neurosis lying in wait for the Austrian character at the end of its tortured evolution from the Austrian Mission through German nationalism, National Socialism and clerical fascism to denying that any of it happened in the first place. It was a double denial- denying where you’ve been (Nazism) and trying to return to a position (the Austrian Mission) which was itself a denial of the realities of the Old Empire.


“Europe”, the Europe that Eric Hobsbawm reminds us has always been an intellectual construct rather than a geographical entity, has undergone its own political redemption or reconstruction, since 1945. There has been some denial involved here too, notably in those countries like France (with Vichy) and Italy with a history of collaboration with or active involvement in Nazism. The most radical and violent of the Sixties student revolts took place in Germany precisely because German youth felt their parents’ wartime generation had never really faced their responsibility for Nazi crimes. At the same time, no one young or old seriously thought that Germany posed a danger to its neighbours or to the general peace. In 1945, everyone realised Germany would one day revive as a great European power. The sensible move therefore was to restrain any renewed German appetite for European hegemony by entangling it in a web of alliances and partnerships, above all with its old enemy, France. Later, the nascent European community developed as an economic bloc in a world where size matters economically.

Britain has remained the odd man out throughout both these developments, torn between acknowledging their logic and clinging to the traditional British strategy of staying out of Europe, relying on a balance among opposing continental powers and intervening only when one or other power threatens to become dominant (the French, the Germans, the Russians). That strategy was meant to serve the British Empire. The loss of Empire, almost as sudden and complete for Britain in the Second World War as it was for Austro-Hungary in the First, although Britain at least remained as a coherent nation state in its own right, has left the British still chasing the ghost of world power, usually by holding the coattails of the successor superpower, the USA.

Whatever else it may have been, the British Empire was certainly a powerful idea, or ideology. “Europe”, on the other hand, all too often looks like a brand-name in search of an idea. To put it another way, the idea of a united Europe seems too thin, too evanescent. “The new Europe as idealised by its advocates needs to elaborate an idea that embodies its new quality” is a typical recent judgement on the matter.[17] But if the new Europe is all substance, Old Europe, the Europe implied in the “Austrian Mission”, was all idea and exactly as its true believers predicted, when the Habsburg Empire disappeared, the “European” idea itself fragmented. Part of it gravitated to the dark side, becoming subsumed into the Nazi’s plan for a German-ruled, ethnically cleansed Aryan Europe. Part of it survived for a while in fanciful, idealist, practically ineffectual but interesting and important forms among the cults, communes and “alternative” societies that sprung up before and after the Great War. Some of them moved to Switzerland like Steiner’s Goetheanum and the famous settlement at Monte Verita in Ascona. Some found expression in fantasy projects for an “Alpine Architecture” and had their last ethereal echoes in that odd cinematic sub-genre, the German mountaineering film.

What content can we give the idea of European union today? A cultural content? No one really knows what a European- as opposed to an Italian or a French or a German-culture might look like.[18] A political content then? If so, what sort of political content? The problem with giving any substance to the idea of a united Europe is not only that it never had much to begin with, but also that the most compelling substance it did have depended on an enemy i.e. the barbarians. Europe began in fear of the enemy in the East. For 1000 years, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the second siege of Vienna, invaders from Islam and elsewhere regularly attacked the territory we call “Europe”. Ever since then, the quickest way to establish your identity as a European has been to claim you are the first (or last) line of defence against the Asiatic hordes. Of course, you have to keep a sharp eye on where the line is drawn, since it tends to move about. In the late 19th century, Vienna, embroiled in one of its endless disputes with the other half of the Dual Monarchy, didn’t hesitate to call the Hungarians “barbarian-Asiatics”. By 1945, the West-East divide had taken a leap westwards and settled in the middle of Germany. Now it’s in Siberia or Sicily or, if you believe the Serbs which no one did, in Bosnia and Kosovo.

A Europe defined by its enemies is always on the lookout for a new enemy, always ready to turn itself into Fortress Europe, to give rein, or at least to give credence, to xenophobia. This can take various forms, some less obvious than others like those American commentators who see the new Europe as being based on traditional European anti-Americanism (when they’re not worrying about it being based on traditional European anti-semitism). Inside the Fortress, with the demise of aggressive nationalisms in Europe, Europeans’ identities (as opposed to an identity for Europe as a whole) have become largely private, discretionary, and commercialised- for Jews as well as gentiles. In this postmodern identity-quilt which is the European version, bitterly arrived at, of America’s multiethnic, multiracial democracy, it’s easy to forget that the pioneers were once again the Jews. To Zygmunt Bauman, it’s the ultimate irony that the very destruction of assimilation as a project for old European Jewry, preparatory to the physical destruction of the Jews themselves, led to a period of “astounding Jewish cultural creativity” when figures like Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Roth, Lukacs and many others mapped modernity as isolated, homeless wanderers in consciousness[19].

As for the New Europe as a whole, perhaps all the talk of supra-nationalism or some sort of post-national Europeanism is anachronistic, answers to a problem that no longer exists, or exists only on the fringes, with the majority of EU citizens recoiling from the old barbarisms when they reared their heads in the Balkans and (so far at least) rejecting the new racisms as they emerge in far right anti-immigrant parties and movements. Perhaps Europe qua Europe doesn’t need an identity and would be better off without one. Or perhaps it will evolve an identity gradually as the outcome of increasing political and economic union, rather than the other way around. Perhaps it already has. In a May 2000 speech, German foreign minister Joschka Fischer declared, “The core of the concept of Europe after 1945 was and still is a rejection of the European balance-of--power principle and the hegemonic ambitions of individual states that had emerged following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648”. When he was President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi likewise said that in Europe“the rule of law has replaced the crude interplay of power…power politics have lost their influence.” Both men want Europe to do for the world- or a substantial slice of it- what modern nation states have achieved within their own boundaries: replacing the rule of men with the rule of law; force and violence with peaceful solutions; raw power with democratic politics.

That would be a political holy grail indeed. It’s why Americans, struggling with the insoluble contradictions of being an imperial power in the 21st century, are so interested in “Europe”- much more interested than Europeans themselves, who remain doggedly focused on the affairs of their individual nation-states. But the thing is not easy. Pondering the need for the rule of law as the antidote to “a basic human proclivity for violence”, Harold James concluded it only works if the law is seen by all to be fair and impartial rather than a cover for inequalities and oppressions, the mask of power. The only basis James could find for such law is religious or natural law. “The basic model is given in the Abrahamic faiths by the Ten Commandments.” Ergo, the only historical model he could find for his pacific, law-based European ideal was that ramshackle construction the Holy Roman Empire. Modern Europe, James wrote, is “the Holy Roman Empire in denial”.[20]

James ignores the reality of the Holy Roman Empire as the incubator of the Habsburg Empire’s deeply reactionary, obscurantist Catholic tyranny, tolerant and tolerated only by virtue of its own hopeless inefficiency and surviving into later centuries because the other powers saw it would create more problems to dismember than to leave in place.[21] In the end, the Habsburgs destroyed it themselves and brought Old Europe down with them.

To call on the destroyers of Old Europe to be the presiding spirits of the New seems perverse. But James is tracking a different version of Catholic history, one more acceptable to the Vatican. According to this version, the Church has been the benign alternative to revolution throughout modern history, from the French Revolution to Soviet Communism, which was opposed by a Western European network of Christian Democratic parties (most of them created with American input and pressure). They in turn formed the seedbed for the European Union. To James, “for Central Europeans, the Holy Roman Empire was what preceded the modern nation-state” and the idea of Catholic Europe remained to be revived at times of crisis for the modern state, starting with the moment of its creation in the French Revolution.

Once again, this is to ignore many of the realities of modern history, including those chillingly spelled out by an anti-revolutionary Crown-and-Church apologist like Joseph de Maistre, in whose writing the rule of law becomes the reign of the executioner. In other words, religion- or “values” as James would prefer- doesn‘t offer a shortcut to a European (or any) ideal. The Church’s historical record puts it more on the side of authority and tyranny than impartiality or human rights, especially when it comes to giving the latter social substance. James is really just reviving the revolution versus counter-revolution argument in postmodern dress. His argument proposes a counterfactual. America revisits ancien Europe but this time comes out on the side, not of revolutionary France (as it did in reality), but of the forces of Catholic reaction- albeit presented in modern, liberal dress as an interdenominational dialogue involving even Muslims and “secular humanists”.

Having given up one failed project spreading democracy and freedom, the United States, were James’ extraordinary suggestion ever to be taken up, would embark on a still more quixotic one: pledging the greatest military power the world has ever seen to the cause of the long-dead fantasists of the “Austrian Idea” or the “Austrian Mission”.

What about the other way “to provide a universal basis for restraining violence”?. To Marx, most existing law was empty “bourgeois legalism”, codes of inequality. He would have understood the syndrome James describes as “the propensity for the subversion and destruction of a rule-based order (that) comes about whenever there is a perception that rules are arbitrary and unjust, and that they reflect the imposition of particular interests in a high-handed display of imperial power”.[22] The difference is that Marx would have cheered. Where James sees an endless cycle of revolt and the re-imposition of an imperial order. Marx’s work was dedicated to the idea that the cycle could and would be broken in the modern world, under conditions created by the Industrial Revolution and capitalism. Rather than seek his “idea” in “values” rooted in some dessicated notion of natural law, or religion lite, Marx argued the other way around- sort out the inequality and you sort out your values, or rather sort out both at the same time in the transformative act of revolution whose values will be those of the fully realised human condition, fully realised for the first time.[23]

Twenty years after the Berlin Wall fell, reviving Marxism seems even more quixotic. Tony Judt for one has argued strongly against any such lingering notions on the Left. Marxism is inseparable from the crimes of “actually existing socialism”. Add Marx’s own theoretical mistakes and incoherences and “this skull will never smile again”. Yet it’s not clear why the loss of Marx should cripple the European Left any more than finding out that most of what Freud thought was wrong has ended the practise of psychiatry. There is still the need for social justice, still the struggle against oppression and repression, even still revolution. The danger inthe West’s so-called success in defeating secular radicalism on the Left is the return of the revolutionary impulse from the Right in distorted forms entwined with primitive nationalisms, ethnic hatred and politico-religious fundamentalisms.

In other words, History hasn’t ended, and the American commentators who declared it so in the early 1990s, eager to give their own Empire the seal of permanence, had to backpedal rapidly after 9/11. Perhaps Europe will find a way to redeem the failed promise of its own old Empires, whose thirst for glory and dominion always trumped their ability to civilize and pacify. Perhaps the European social democracies will find a renewed confidence and proceed to the next stage of political union, with the British no doubt still mulling over among themselves whether or not they belong in Europe in the first place. Or perhaps a New World order subsuming Europe altogether will come to pass. Rudolf Steiner thought the emergence of a world economy, the process we call “globalisation”, was the first step towards it.

Until then, there have been two great examples of a unified Europe in history. The first was in the Middle Ages: its creators spoke Latin and looked to Rome. The second was around the fin de siecle when the creators spoke German and many were Jews. My favourite legacy from the first of those ages is in the 12th century cathedral at Otranto on the heel of Italy. There, for a while, the cultures of Byzantium, the Arab word and the West, spearheaded by the Normans, met in a productive syncretism. Otranto cathedral’s floor in one of its glories, unlike anything we think of as a conventional Christian work of art. The design depicts the whole of Creation, the Incarnation, the Redemption and the Resurrection, with elephants, fantastic beasts, the signs of the zodiac and the labours of the year. Solomon and Sheba are next to Alexander the Great, Adam and Eve and King Arthur. Figures from classical mythology appear alongside Biblical characters like Noah and Jonah. The floor is a comic book in stone, like the comics I lusted after as a child, but there are no Nazis here, only a bunch of early medieval stories and legends, secular, spiritual, Latin, Greek. Some people have read it as a blueprint (generous, inclusive, multi-cultural) for the idea of a united Europe.[24]

As for Europe’s second moment, I came across its last residues almost fifty years ago, when I visited the United States for the first time, in those sections of Manhattan where the refugees had settled and in time recovered their faith in “property and learning”- the creed of the old European bourgeoisie, according to Musil’s Count Leinsdoff. Entering their apartments, with their polished, dark interiors, pristine neatness, and spicy aromas, tended by ancient Polish or German cooks and maidservants, you could feel as if you were in Vienna or Berlin in the early 1900s rather than New York in the 1960s. They are gone now, vanished in their turn, as the original tenants died off and the next generation, grown tall and rich and wholly American, quit the city and moved out to the spacious suburbs of Connecticut and Long Island.

[1] AJP Taylor, ‘The Hapsburg Monarchy 1809-1918’ p.12

[2] Claudio Magris, ‘Danube’ (London: Harvill Press, 2001) p.175.

[3] Gregor von Rezzori ‘The Snows of Yesteryear’ (London: Vintage, 1991).

[4] Moishe Postone, ‘Antisemitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to ‘Holocaust’.’ New German Critique No 19 Winter 1980. p.114.

[5] It’s been argued that Roth’s royalism was not wholly serious, that it was a kind of melancholy pose or bitter jest on the part of a man whose realistic political options had all closed. Unlike many of his fellow Austrians, Roth understood the nature of Nazism and the threat posed by Hitler clearly from the start. In 1933, when Hitler took power, Roth broke off all relations with Germany including with the Frankfurter Zeitung, where Roth was a star journalist. Roth died in poverty in Paris in 1939.

[6] The phrase is Tony Judt’s from his essay ‘The Jewish Europe of Manes Sperber’ in ‘Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century’ (London: Vintage UK, 2009) p 66.

[7] AJP Taylor, ‘The Hapsburg Monarchy 1809-1918’. p.254

[8] Nicholas Goodrich-Clarke, ‘The Occult Roots of Nazism’ (London/NY: IB Tauris, 1992) p. 11.

[9] Zygmunt Bauman, ‘Jews and Other Europeans, Old and New’ Malcolm Hay of Seaton Memorial Lecture 2007. (jpr/policy debate, Institute of Jewish Policy Research June 2008).

[10] The complex and always bloody dynamics on the historical border between the old tribal world and the modern world of nations is currently and tragically on display in Afghanistan. For the bloodletting that accompanies even a successful creation of national identity see Italy, where brutal communal violence came close to civil war in 1945 and where several Mafias retain prominent positions within the current Italian state.

[11] There was nothing to the von Moltke charges which came about because the General’s wife was a Steiner follower. Steiner later defended the retired and quasi-disgraced von Moltke claiming the General had been put in the impossible position of the being the man who “started” the First World War because, in July/August 1914, the Kaiser and other German politicians panicked and abandoned all attempts at foreign policy, leaving the situation to the military. While Steiner’s argument and his evidence from von Moltke’s notes go some way towards proving the war was not a deep-laid and long-planned German plot- as many among the victorious Allies claimed at the time- they don’t show von Moltke himself as anything but a convinced militarist who saw the war as “righteous”, “defensive” and all but inevitable (“for years it had been on a political horizon like a storm cloud” von Moltke wrote). Today, the problem of World War One’s origins has become “not one of discovering ‘the aggressor’. It lies in the nature of a progressively deteriorating international situation which increasingly escaped from the control of governments” according to Eric Hosbawm (‘The Age of Empire 1875-1914’ (New York: Vintage, 1989) p.312).

The true believers in conspiratorial versions of World War One turned out to be the German right, led by their disappointed military, who accused von Moltke of deliberately setting out to lose the war in its early stages (at the Battle of the Marne) as part of a Masonic plot led by Rudolf Steiner. This was the thesis of Luddendorf’s 1934 book ‘The Marne Drama, The Case of Moltke and Hentsch’ which in turn was based on General von Gleisch’s 1921 “Rudolf Steiner as Prophet’ that described the supposed occult relationship between Steiner and von Moltke.

[12] Preface to ‘The Question of War Guilt’ 1919.

[13] Margaret Macmillan, ‘Peacemakers’ (London: John Murray, 2002) p. 69-70.

[14] Richard J. Evans, ‘The Coming of the Third Reich’ (London: Penguin Books, 2004). p. 21.

[15]“Traditional” because the bourgeoisie always seek to put both themselves as a class, and the capitalist system that created them, above politics and to establish both as natural phenomena; and therefore eternal and beyond challenge. Their ideal for society is a frictionless social harmony in which there is a place for everyone and everyone knows their place. Steiner’s version is progressive in viewing modern economies as essentially collective, interdependent modes of production that should be based on need eg workers need work and at least a living wage.

[16] Evans, ‘The Coming of the Third Reich’ p. 78.

[17] Harold James, ‘The Roman Predicament- How The Rules of International Order Create The Politics of Empire’ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006) p. 126.

[18] For a stirringly eloquent vision of Europe as a cultural quantity, see George Steiner’s Nexus lecture ‘The Idea of Europe’ (edited version) in ‘The Liberal’ issue 8` Steiner’s idea of Europe seems to be a giant university. As he laments, this is not an idea Europe’s political and economic power-brokers show much interest in.

[19] Bauman ‘Jews and Other Europeans’.

[20] Harold James, ‘The Roman Predicament’ p. 147, 140.

[21] Both the “Holy” and “Roman” (therefore the universal) aspects of the Holy Roman Empire were destroyed- or destroyed themselves-in the horrors of the Thirty Years War. By 1648, the HRE had revealed itself as no more than a vehicle of German Catholic power. See Diarmid MacCulloch, ‘The Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700’ (London: Penguin Books 2004) p. 500. As for the third term, “Empire”, the Holy Roman Empire was formally dissolved by Napoleon in 1806. It reappeared in its modern form in 1871, when Bismark constituted Germany as a nation state and deliberately named the new state the “German Empire” or “Second Reich”.

[22] James p. 149, 1-2.

[23] James quotes Isiah Berlin’s 1959 essay on ‘European Unity and Its Vicissitudes’ where Berlin called for “a return to the ancient notion of natural law, but for some of us, in empiricist dress- no longer necessarily based on theological or metaphysical foundations.”

[24] Also in Otranto cathedral, stacked in glass-fronted cabinets, are the remains of 800 local men beheaded by the Turks when they took the town in 1480- an event that shocked Europe at the time, and a grisly reminder of what happened when the East-West encounter first turned violent on Europe’s borders, long before the violence gravitated into the European heartland with the Holocaust. Today, the uneasy presence of millions of Muslim immigrants in Europe and the unsettled relations between the EU and Turkey contain echoes of both violences, the religious/imperial and the ethic/nationalist, making their resolution crucial matters for Europe’s future. All contents mike bygrave 2014