Thus opens the blurb of ‘Altered Pasts’. (Evans 2014) The same counterfactual – Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand surviving to succeed Franz Joseph to the Austrian-Hungarian throne is what ‘Der Komet’ (The Comet; Stein 2013) is about. Engaging in our friendly barter, Klaus Kunzmann has made me read this scenario of cultural and linguistic communities cohabiting in an empire that has anything but disappeared. Indeed, such had been Karl Renner’s vision, topic of an earlier blog. With his original work from the late-19th century now available in English, his model of national-cultural autonomy has drawn international attention since. (Nimni ed. 2015)
Never mind Stein’s plot, the vehicle merely for conveying a utopian vision. But I with my Austrian upbringing and a history buff enjoyed the idea of the former empire persisting as a truly multi-ethnic and polyglot polity where Jews had made their mark in all walks of life, causing some resentment, true, but never to boiling point. And, of course, Austrian culture continued, is the assumption, and not the sugour-coated replica which it is now, but its original.
How did Stein think this was possible? By drawing on historic sources showing the pretender to the throne Franz Ferdinand having been inspired, amongst others by a Romanian lawyer, Aurel Popovic, proposing in 1908 to turn the double monarchy into a veritable federation of 15 member states, but with strong minority rights for all that did not share in the dominant culture of each. Indeed, I have seen such a map in a museum envisaging such territorial divisions.
One of the fortes of Stein is that, a historian, in the footnotes he painstakingly relates reality to what could have been. The emperor could for instance continue to carry amongst his titles the minor one of being Auschwitz, and Theresienstadt remain the sleepy garrison town that it was.
Austrian born, the author pokes fun also with his presumed German readership. I have some sympathy for the Austrian penchant for putting their ever-so-serious neighbours into their place. A – surely apocryphal – story told is about German front line reports in the waning days of the Great War describing the situation as serious but not catastrophic and the Austrians as catastrophic but not serious. In the end, of course, really dire reports came from the 1918 German Spring Offensive. Famished German troopers may have been more interested, as Erich Maria Remark (1929) writes in his famous novel ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, in the corned beef plentiful in the trenches of their opponents than in a breakthrough.
Be that as it may, Stein’s message that, if only rampant nationalism had been checked, if only extant ideas about cohabitation in multi-ethnic polities had been given a chance, history would have been less gruesome than it has been. Alas, this is Utopia and maybe why Stein lets his dream literally speaking explode: Astronomers on the moon – a German colony entry to which required showing your passport upon leaving the moon rocket – discover a comet soon due to hit the earth. The thought of a peaceful future was too good to be true.


Evans, R. (2014) Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History, Little Brown, London.
Nimni, E. (Ed) (2015) National-cultural Autonomy and its Contemporary Critics, Routledge, London.
Remark, E.M. (1929) All Quiet on the Western Front, Little, Brown and Company, New York.
Stein, H. (2013) Der Komet, Galiani Verlag Berlin, Berlin.

The illustration shows the Cover of Nimni (2015).


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