Learning From History About Reform | Dan Mikhaylov

Politicians’ behaviour often corroborates the Hegelian maxim that “the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”. How else shall we explain NATO’s announcement of the planned 400% increase in its military presence in Iraq, which dismisses the lugubrious implications of earlier liberal interventionism on both the country itself and several other states in the area? Or understand why the recent onslaught of cold weather in the American South and the ensuing failure of renewable energy generators will probably not convince vehement proponents of wind and solar from across the political spectrum to take off their rose-tinted spectacles? 

This list of questions can continue forever, but the message is already clear – learning from the past is not the bailiwick of our political leaders and theorists. We prefer to think in absolutes, with some unwaveringly opposing modernisation with a peculiar, ill-defined notion of traditionalism and others being prepared to dismantle entire systems in the even more whimsical name of progress. When it comes to socioeconomic reform, a balance must be struck between our inherent instinct to conserve and the irrefutable requirement to adapt to the pressures of the new world. To learn from history, we can turn to the Habsburg Monarchy for an educative account that simultaneously demonstrates the shortcomings of radical reform and illustrates why directionless conservatism, bridled by the status-quo at hand, bodes no better for humanity.

I understand that bridging the gap between extracting meaningful lessons from the past and duly applying them to contemporary socio-political problems could prove difficult on some occasions. After all, historical outcomes neither can, nor should be taken out of the historical contexts that created them or disentangled from the natural and anthropogenic particularities that moulded those historical contexts. Thus, professional and amateur historians alike tend to study the causes and consequences of a certain war in conjunction with the battles that occurred during the armed conflict. However, avoiding a distorted impression of history by accounting for each outcome’s context and specificities must not prevent us from drawing conclusions, with which we can connect the past’s wisdom with the present’s desperate need for guidance. While few historical frameworks provide a sufficient dataset to determine the validity of our equilibrium between the aforementioned policy extremes and test our expectations, they nonetheless exist and promise to offer some useful and impactful lessons.

One such framework narrates the profoundly different stories of the Habsburg monarch, Joseph II, and the Austrian Chancellor, Klemens von Metternich. The former reigned over the entire Habsburg realm between 1780 and 1790 and went down in history as a radical exponents of enlightened absolutism, prepared to challenge every institution that he deemed irrational or inefficient. Meanwhile, the latter’s tenure in government lasted from 1821 until 1848 and gave birth to the term “Metternich Era”, a period of political and socioeconomic stagnation in the Monarchy, during which the imperial authorities unwaveringly sabotaged any campaigns to revamp the state bureaucracy and alter the existing power arrangements. These differences notwithstanding, both careers in ended in failure. Joseph II overworked himself to death and perished, having alienated even the most loyal allies and begrudgingly cancelled many of his reforms to prevent widespread political upheaval. In the meantime, Metternich’s ignorance of progress resulted in the 1848 Revolution and the liberal-nationalist Hungarian uprising only suppressed with Russian military assistance.

Joseph II

Without doubt, Joseph II’s tragedy was his own creation. According to Cambridge University’s Timothy Blanning, his explicit denial of the Monarchy as a polycentric agglomeration of territories, united exclusively by respect for the monarch and replete with profound inconsistencies and exemptions was his undoing. Reflecting this unpopular attitude, the ruler’s policies directly challenged some of the most influential powerholders in the Habsburg domain and resultantly alienated many of his otherwise approving subjects.

Firstly, his insistence on reducing the nobility’s political clout and curtailing their privileges cost Joseph II his popularity within the Monarchy’s Hungarian possessions. The ruler instigated a multidimensional attack on the nobility’s position in Hungarian society. He opened magnate academies and offered scholarships to the wider public to promote social mobility and undermine their monopoly on education in matters of statecraft and administration. He also conducted multiple cadastral surveys to redraw the local land borders, which disadvantaged the Hungarian nobles, and even forced them to participate by supervising peasant and fertile land description without having any representation in the district and state fiscal commissions that determined land boundaries. Furthermore, the monarch assailed the nobility by stripping them of policing functions and broadening the mandate of Count Pergen’s Austrian police force to Hungary and removing the Hungarian crown from Buda in a symbolic blow to the country’s longstanding autocratic tradition, while also imposing German as the sole language of administration and education.

Secondly, his pursuit to subordinate the Catholic Church in all but doctrinal matters saw Joseph II – a member of a royal family with a reputation of defending Catholicism and the Catholic lifestyle – estrange the clergy from his court. He infringed on their historical autonomy in society by prescribing that parish priests read out new laws before congregation and swear direct loyalty to the crown at the time of appointment. He similarly intervened in the workings of religious universities, such as the University of Leuven, which proved unpopular with students and supervisors alike. His Act of Toleration and the state-led liberalisation of the press contrastingly appeared disquieting to the wider Catholic public, for they contributed to a substantial increase in the number of Protestants and Protestant churches and provoked extensive scrutiny of the Catholic Church’s structure and dogma.  

This compendium of controversial, in many respects iconoclastic policies backfired. Although his land reform prohibited nobles from fining peasants for wrongdoing and conferred on the latter considerable freedom of occupation and movement, Joseph II lost many supporters over his zealous pursuit of this programme. His officials, influenced by the same Enlightenment texts as him, resigned en masse. Count Karl von Zinzendorf, instructed to oversee Bohemian land surveys, abandoned his government post following the introduction of the Grundsteuer tax on immovable property. Other officials in charge of abolishing serfdom followed suit, including the ruler’s law instructor and subsequent legal advisor, Karl Anton von Martini. Even the members of the Brabantian estates, who backed secession from the Monarchy, initially constituted a mere counter-reform movement, which interpreted Joseph II’s reform to be in contravention of their political and economic rights and wanted to agree on a compromise with him instead of declaring independence. 


If Joseph II’s brief, yet troubled reign presents a rebuttal against left-wing progressivism and liberal campaigns to sacrifice our cultural heritage to globalisation and the voracious ever-expanding market, Metternich’s record in government is a warning to inflexible traditionalists. The Metternich Era is remembered by historians as a prolonged period of stagnation in nearly all facets of contemporary life, deliberately orchestrated by the Austrian state to delay the advent of chaos instigated by a series of uprisings across the European continent in 1848.

In tandem with the Austrian Emperor Francis I, Metternich failed to foresee and prevent Austria’s exclusion from the German Customs Union, which was founded in 1833 under Prussia’s auspices, and which paved the path for the subsequent unification of Germany around Prussia. In Italy, Metternich allowed a comparable foreign policy failure. Rather than resolving the problem of Italian nationalism by empowering the Italian populations to have greater political participation in their respective countries between the 1822 Congress of Verona and the emergence of the Risorgimento movement in 1848, Metternich opted for a more technocratic, status-quo-driven approach. Throughout the period, Austria continued to deny Italians municipal self-government and partnered with France with suppress nationalist revolts in Parma and Modena, which failed to transcend “the cycle of crisis [between Italian nationalists and local rulers] altogether”.

On the domestic front, Metternichian conservatism also left much to be desired. Until 1835, the monarchy’s national ideology presupposed an outright rejection of socio-political reform and stopping improvements to the administrative bureaucracy. For instance, plans to create the Northern Italian, Illyrian, and Galician elements of the Ministry of the Interior to standardise policy implementation and devolve powers to different regions never materialised, with anti-monarchic factions earning a monopoly on advocating for change. In an unequivocally traditionalist fashion, Metternich’s Austria sought to lionise the idea of medieval provincial diets, reviving the formerly operational ones and creating new diets in those regions where no such institutions had existed. However, this only expanded the government bureaucracy and reinforced popular discontent with it.

His domestic policy proved especially ruinous in Hungary. There, the Monarchy struggled to placate major powerholders from among the nobility and forge a makeshift alliance with local conservatives against Lajos Kossuth’s liberal-nationalists. Turning a blind eye to local disobedience, exemplified in how some Hungarian counties dismissed their officials to complicate the work of the Austrian bureaucrats, and failing to use punitive violence or connivance as bargaining chips in domestic power talks. In turn, this allowed the nationalists and progressives to pass populist legislation and dominate public discourse. Greater coverage inevitably replenished the ranks of their supporters, while such populist reforms as the introduction of the Hungarian language as the language of administration helping nationalists win over the moderates in the Hungarian Diet. In short, as the renowned historian AJP Taylor has found in his 1990 publication, The Habsburg Monarchy 1809-1918: A History of the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary, Metternich’s half-hearted response and reticence to make concessions with the aim of mounting an anti-nationalist coalition played a leading role in the 1848 Hungarian revolution.


More often than not, history is complex and subject to multiple – and frequently – conflicting interpretations. Because of this, learning from history is hardly ever a walk in the park. Even navigating through a plethora of policies, promulgated by Joseph II or Chancellor Metternich, at times poses a formidable challenge. 

But this should not preclude that we learn from history and actively practise what we have learned. Now that we find ourselves at the crossroads and ponder on how best to rebuild the United Kingdom after the coronavirus pandemic and recover from the social and economic hardships it has wrought, we must ensure that our blueprint for reconstruction is measured. A progressive agenda, even if sugar-coated in capitalist thinking, is still the same progressive agenda, which sticks in the craw of many Britons and threatens to erase the very foundations on which it stands. Directionless conservatism is not an answer, either. By insisting that everything in Britain works well and that our institutions, created under a very different set of circumstances than what we have today, require no adjustment, we will surely miss out. An inflexible emphasis on the status-quo will strip us of the chance to determine the UK’s developmental agenda and make our proposals irrelevant to the conditions and experiences of the young generations. 

If history can teach us anything, it is that compromise is a necessity. Conservatives must remember this; only by compromising and reconciling between our appreciation for the present with the need to improve in the future will the conservative movement continue to prosper.

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