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Research in an imperial setting

Archival research, which student of history has not done it? Many of us have spent days in brick buildings with artificial lights, staring at ancient documents with unreadable handwritten texts, hoping to find something that is useful. To some, this may sound dreadful, but to us? We love this stuff! I mean, we chose to be historians and what way to better experience and understand the past than by reading material which is actually from the time period you are researching?

Well… it can be even better! During the process of writing my master thesis, the Foundation of Austrian Studies enabled me to enhance this experience even more. In February 2018 I contacted prof. Monika Baár, who holds the Special Chair for Central European Studies at Leiden University, about the possibility of writing my thesis on an imperial Austrian state identity.

During our discussions we quickly arrived at the assumed mutual exclusivity of imperial loyalty versus nationalism, which has been unquestioned for many decades in late-Habsburg historic research. Subsequently, the concept of dynastic loyalty, also known as Kaisertreue, had been interpreted by historians as a purely ‘imperial force’ meant to hold the empire together. However, since new studies had shown that the opposition between nationalism and an imperial state identity was much more complex, Prof. Baár and I agreed that Kaisertreue might not be so one-sided after all and thus my thesis subject was born.

I had found several primary sources, such as newspapers, an army journal, and pamphlets, but prof. Baár and I agreed that more sources would be beneficial to my argument. She encouraged me to go to Vienna to visit the Austrian State Archives and, with the help of the Foundation for Austrian Studies, I did.

The state archives cover a vast period of time and due to the massive amount of material, they had to divide it over several buildings. Before I went I checked the online database to see what was available, where I could find it, and how I could request the boxes. As most material was in the Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv, I decided to go there first.

If you are doing research on Austrian history I cannot but utterly recommend you to visit Vienna and to experience the beauty and splendour of the imperial city yourself! I found the archive right next to the grand imperial Hofburg, the archive being a palace itself (it was founded by Maria Theresia in 1749). When you enter you are directed up a marble stairway and pass by a bust of Franz Joseph I (see picture). The reading room itself was part of the palace and honestly, reading about dynastic loyalty within this imperial ambience made the topic feel much more alive.

After the archive closed at four pm, I would walk over to the Universität Wien, a magnificent and imposing building next to the famous Ringstraße. It was built to impress with large marble staircases, a gargantuan library, and naturally a statue of Franz Joseph. Believe me when I tell you that after a day of reading imperial texts, there was no better setting than the inner courtyard of this university to rework my text.

In the end, the sources that I found in Vienna helped much to improve my thesis. Based on sources relating to two imperial visits to Austrian Galicia in 1880 and 1894 I could argue that Kaisertreue was actively promoted by nationalist politicians. Dynastic loyalty was not just an imperial force, but it could also serve nationalist goals and aspirations. By appearing to be more Kaisertreu than other subjects, the nationalists could claim legitimacy towards both the imperial centre and their peoples.

However, by experiencing Vienna first-hand it also increased my understanding of the importance of dynastic loyalty for the Habsburgs beyond the theory. Vienna is essentially a collection of buildings and monuments to instil its visitor with imperial splendour, power, and respect for an ancient dynasty. So, if you really want to understand and experience Austrian history, I would definitely recommend visiting Vienna and its archives.

Niels Bakhuis

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