Escaping the Enlightenment


The Enlightenment in the Habsburg Monarchy had a paradoxical legacy: It epitomised all that was procrustean and repressive about the imperial regime and was simultaneously praised as the emancipatory panacea to cure the Monarchies’ multiple ills. My project aims at revealing how these diametrically opposed ascriptions emerged.

Contrary to received opinion, my work retrieves a notable persistency of Enlightenment parlance, precepts, and personae in the Monarchy well after the 1790s. I will analyse the Enlightenment’s ramifications and conflictual repercussions in different contexts within the pluriethnic conglomerate of the Empire. I will demonstrate that the Revolution of 1848 brought the Enlightenment’s abdication in the fields of jurisprudence, aesthetics, education and ecclesiastical affairs. It sat astride on the barricades in 1848, but it was far from defunct or discarded. It was concomitantly attacked as a relict of the old regime and invoked as paragon for the Empire’s reorganisation along liberal principles. Rival regimes of Enlightenment’s history at loggerheads emerged, explaining the reforms of Joseph II in the late eighteenth century, their fate and aftermath in antithetical terms. The Enlightenment’s past came to serve as the key “arbitrator“ (Karen O’Brien) between political and cultural agendas contending for preeminence in the present. The attitude toward the Enlightenment constituted a decisive political litmus-test. It indicated the rift between the newly formed camps of liberals and conservatives. The respective disparagement and emulation of the Enlightenment remained predicated upon distinct, irreconcilable versions of its past.

This incongruence is relevant both epistemologically and politically: I will show that 1848 brought not merely a disagreement over, but a redistribution of Enlightenment pasts. The newly-formed liberals abandoned their erstwhile rejection of Enlightenment’s draconian features and reinvented Aufklärung as their noble political ancestor. Remaking their own descent, they also remade the Enlightenment’s place in the history of the Monarchy.

Equally importantly, liberals felt obliged to reappraise and readjust their political ego-histoires, thereby made compatible with the “post-revolutionary self“. Conservative discourse accepted the liberals’ invocation of the Enlightenment as their progenitor only to draw pejorative conclusions. Conservative publicists were now quick to take up the pre-1848 liberal account of the “Vormärz” as a period characterised by the perpetuation of diluted and pernicious Enlightenment. They made it a passepartout emplotment to read the decades before 1848. In addition, conservative statesmen and authors indulged in reminding the liberals of their earlier derogatory attitude vis-à-vis Aufklärung, thereby validating their charge of liberal hypocrisy.

This concomitance of different historical aprioris implied a dislocation of the Enlightenment on the time axis: Its duration, demise, and the circumstances of its demise were fervidly contested. This proxy war in the arena of history politics had major implications: The emulation of precursors who stood for an interrupted, politically uncompromised past became increasingly indispensable, exercises in “competitive martyrology” (John Burrow) flourished.

But there is another key aspect, inextricably linked to those briefly discussed: The transnational transmission and emulation of implicit emplotments and categories of history politics. Both conservatives and liberals were acutely aware of and indebted to contemporary European elaborations of the problems of Enlightenment and Revolution, Restoration, modern acceleration, social upheaval etc. One of the clues to Habsburg liberals’ redesign of an Enlightenment ancestry in 1848 lies in this very cross-fertilisation of history politics.

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Laufzeit: 01.10.2008 – 30.09.2011