Armin Thurnher: Waltzing Past the Graveyard

Roundup: Talking About History

Armin Thurnher is editor-in-chief of the Falter magazine in Vienna and the author of several books on modern Austria.

VIENNA — On Saturday, July 16, central Vienna assumed the bearing of a costume drama, as Austria's democratically elected leaders, members of the European aristocracy, church representatives and military regiments in historic dress assembled in St. Stephen's Cathedral to pay their respects to the House of Habsburg -- or, more specifically, to Otto Habsburg -- Lothringen, son of Austria's last emperor, who died two weeks ago at 98. He was born in Vienna on the cusp of World War I -- the conflict which put an end to his family's long-lived empire.

But the nation still focused its undivided attention on his funeral: indeed, the public broadcaster ORF covered the funeral for nine straight hours. The viewers at home, and the 1,000 guests invited to St. Stephens -- including the Austrian President Heinz Fischer, Chancellor Werner Faymann -- bore witness to formal funeral rites that may never be practiced again. They listened intently as representatives from the Vatican offered their condolences on behalf of Pope Benedict, and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn pronounced a solemn homage to the Habsburg family. A part of the audience then marched through the city center, past a cordon of tourists -- some bewildered, others in awe - toward the Imperial Crypt. There, the Master of Ceremonies knocked three times on the door before the monks inside opened it to make way for the coffin.

All this ceremonial pomp, however, was not a mere exercise in nostalgia; it was a tribute to a past that never really died. Yes, Vienna is no longer a world capital -- the ubiquitous portraits of the emperors have all been packed away, but Habsburg political culture (including some of its pernicious aspects) is still very much alive.

From the moment of its establishment in 1438, the House of Habsburg was never a modern centralized nation-state, but rather a multi-national empire that left its mark not only on Austria, but across the continent. The most concrete reminders of its rule -- in cities from Lviv to Warsaw, Prague to Sarajevo -- are the many remnants of Habsburg architecture in the form of train stations, schools, and government buildings....

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