A 'Prison of Nations'?, a text by Andreas Faludi

A 'Prison of Nations'?, a text by Andreas Faludi

The Rule of Law Report (European Commission 2021) challenging her country has not amused Hungarian Minister of Justice Judit Varga (2021). She defended her country’s unwillingness ‘…to allow the LGBT+ lobby into our schools and kindergartens….’ With the European Parliament having won its battle for a bigger voice at the Conference on the Future of Europe (Sánchez Nicolás 2021) she expects the people to insist on the Union respecting “…the division of competences and national identity”. She hopes — here it comes — that the people will express their views also as to whether “…they want to be the subjects of an empire that advances its own political agenda in the name of artificially created groups.” For added emphasis, she says: “We opt for smart integration — not forced integration — and reject every effort that brings about an empire driven by Brussels bureaucrats.” 

The map with the ethic mix of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire is from the Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd (1911) https://maps.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/shepherd_1911/shepherd-c-168.jpg

There may come an occasion for discussing the pursuit for LGBT+ rights in the context of human rights campaigns world-wide. But this blog is about the figure of speech ‘Europe as Empire’, evoking memories of empires being denigrated as ‘prisons of nations’. Minister Varga may not in fact be aware, but this same figure of speech has played a role also in the Brexit debate. Then, the Conservative member of the House of Lords of Downton Abbey fame, Julian Fellowes invoked it. He “…called for Britain to leave the ‘autocratic’ and ‘anti-democratic’ European Union”, comparing it with “…the Austro-Hungarian empire, the collapse of which plunged the continent into the First World War.‘ (Hastings 2016)

For the record, it was not its collapse that plunged the continent into the First World War, but the other way round: The First World War caused the collapse of the, admittedly already tottering Austrian-Hungarian empire. But that’s just an aside. Rather, it is as regards the dismissal as oppressive that I beg to differ. Sure, it was complex. But above all, it favoured the Hungarians. Short of having gained full independence in a constitutional compromise reached in 1867, the newly minted Kingdom of Hungary got leeway to pursue the dream of a unified state. So, for all intents and purposes, their part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire became a nation-state within allowed to be, if you want oppressive of the more than half of its inhabitants that were not Magyar.

Not so with the Austrian parts. They continued as a multi-national empire. So, the numerous nationalities other than the German speakers — much as the Hungarians in their part, a minority, too — received consideration in matters of language rights and national culture.

Point is, in pursuing such liberal policies, its rulers were often hindered by the Hungarians who, under the joint constitution had say in the matter, at least of structural reforms, also in the Austrian lands. So, there was no question of the Austrians being able to grant similar rights to the Checks as had previously been accorded to the Hungarians. Not wishing for their own ethnicities other than the Magyars to ask for similar treatment, the Hungarians systematically opposed further devolution in Austria such as, for instance, the heir apparent Franz Ferdinand — not exactly a friend of Hungary — was advocating.

So, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire as such, nor its Austrian half were oppressive; the Magyars in their virtual nation-state Hungary were. And, if the European Union bears comparison with the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, then on account of its looseness, not its oppressiveness. For the sake of unity, it tolerated an irredentist, vigorously nationalistic Hungary. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”?


European Commission (2021) Rule of Law Report. Available at:


Hastings, Ch. (2016) Mail on Sunday. Available at: 


Sánchez Nicolás, E. (2021) ‘MEPs win battle for bigger citizen’s voice at Conference’. Available at: https://euobserver.com/democracy/151802.

Varga, J. (2021) ‘Blurred lines – the case of the ‘political EU Commission’. Available at: https://euobserver.com/opinion/152601utm_source=euobs&utm_medium=email.

The map with the ethic mix of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire is from the Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd (1911) https://maps.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/shepherd_1911/shepherd-c-168.jpg