Retracing the Enlightenment

A few days ago I was in Vienna, the old capital of Austria-Hungary. It’s a wonderful city. Every shop, every church, every house, every workplace seems to demand a separate emphasis; the fusion between office and metropolis, imperial and urban, is so seamless – as though its history were traced in blueprint some millennia ago. One can watch businessmen travelling to work from inside the comforts of Trotsky’s Café Central and feel not at all misplaced.

But one is especially struck by the Austrian obsession with Kaiser Franz Josef:

Statue of Franz Joseph I in Vienna

His figure rather literally rises high above many of the city’s architectural projects that he himself had commissioned. In many important ways he typified the late enlightened despot: an idea might not supplant the king, it was said, but it could certainly guide him. Franz would offer equal rights and dignitaries first to the Hungarians, and then to the Croats, Galician Poles and Bohemians, his “divide and rule” strategy apparently a genuine reflection of populism rather than cynical regime preservation. Into this he would melt his gentle and benevolent patronage of the arts and sciences: to this day, perhaps the most impressive monuments to his legacy remain the two museums that stand apart like sun to moon at the Maria-Theresien-Platz:

The Maria-Theresien-Platz

The Maria-Theresien-Platz

It would seem unthinkable that we might be able to build these sort of monuments today, because what can possible be grand when there are queues at food banks? Styles have changed, of course – these days we we choose glass over concrete and marble. But is it really possible that we could concentrate so much effort, so much manpower and – gasp – taxpayers money on a single area of land, primarily under the auspice of the rich and and well-to-do, when the causes of social democracy struggle with poverty in every modern city?

It’s oddly like the old troubling question with which the aesthetically-minded atheist is confronted: could he live without the great churches and cathedrals of the Medieval world, or the sanctimonious high culture of the Renaissance? It’s for everyone to decide for himself, I suppose, but much as one does not have to love Athena to appreciate the Parthenon in her city, nor does the tourist need to care for imperialism to love the buildings and treat them as remarkable human accomplishments, however morally dubious at their inception. Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistene Chapel was funded by a special raising of Papal indulgences; but that does not mean we cannot like or dislike the art that it facilitated. All I think I can say is that, surely, it’s the task of modern citizens to reclaim whatever these “enlightened” aristocrats as our own.

(And this is me showing how it’s done:)


Nostalgia is the natural reserve of regret; it is surely a good thing that popular consent, today, is a necessary precondition to the public funding of infrastructure. On the train from Prague to Vienna we passed some fields of sunflowers, a sight I had never seen before except in film – but it was August, you see, and they were dying, the yellow petals having some time ago lost their hue. I want to go back there some time in spring, some time. But isn’t that telling? While we ought to appreciate whatever historical legacy there might be, and the buildings its poor erected on our behalf, that does not mean that the present and future must be dismissed without prospect. What is great has changed; and the lenses of welfare democracy through which we see the city’s public buildings certainly elevates them above its poor who have long since died unforgotten.

And herein lies the most important case for abolishing the British monarchy, throwing open its old homes to the public: so that our imperial past, with its terrible legacy, may at last be severed and its few crowning achievements preserved for the citizenry of the modern world. The Viennese may have been forced to do it in 1918, and for this it is perhaps remembered as a sad tragedy – the death of an enlightened empire; but it reaffirmed their priorities as a people rather than a nation under the guide of an alien aristocrat. Buckingham Palace, these days, with its celebrity aura lingers like the Vatican and its pretensions to statehood: both represent empty anachronisms that can only drink gold, and thus whose future is short.

One of the many things that Britain can learn from Europe. We might not be able to fill in the channel but we can certainly share their republican outlook – ideological unity, after all, is what really matters in this infant Union.


2 Comments on “Retracing the Enlightenment”

  1. Andrew Coates says:

    Having recently re-read Joseph Roth’s the Radetzky March and – for the first time – the Emperor’s Tomb I really appreciated this post!

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