In Defense of Empire: Habsburg Sociology and the European Nation-State, 1870-1920

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This dissertation asks how Europe’s multinational states legitimized themselves in the face of new, nation-based theories of sovereignty around the turn of the twentieth century. It answers this question by analyzing the production, reception, and circulation of the concept of “empire” in and between Central and Eastern Europe, and between the European continent and European colonies. It argues that a binary distinction between “modern,” unitary, mononational states and backward, decentralized, multinational “empires” emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century among European nationalist jurists, who used these paired concepts to justify both ethnonational homogenization and overseas expansion. It also shows that Habsburg subjects in linguistically and religiously diverse regions of the Dual Monarchy, and especially Hapsburg Jews, successfully challenged this discursive construction of multinational states as abnormal, archaic, and “imperial.” The redefinition of Austria as an “empire,” that is, an association of nations with historic rights to territory, posed challenges that could only be overcome, scholars from the Monarchy realized, by replacing the dichotomy of nation and empire with a new set of legal, political, and sociological concepts. Social analysis of the state provided, they believed, the means by which to produce these new concepts. A century before the “imperial turn” of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, legal scholars from Habsburg Austria turned to the sociology of the state and articulated an influential, if now forgotten, critique of the increasingly hegemonic nationalist legal principles that both undergirded European imperial projects and threatened the continued existence of pluralistic multinational states.

Identifying the major figures and institutions involved in the elaboration of this critique, this dissertation reveals an alternative to Britain, France, and Germany’s national-imperial sociologies and a distinct tradition of international law. Members of this alternative school reconfigured “society” as a transnational category of analysis and the state as a space of competition and negotiation between interest groups. They also highlighted the processes of internal colonization that produced supposed nation-states and drew attention to the hazy boundary between the European metropole and colony. Some even questioned the distinction between “multiracial” Western European and “multinational” Eastern European states and the reality of the nation as a transhistorical entity. The Bukovinian-Jewish sociologist of law Eugen Ehrlich, for example, reframed international law as an already-existing global network of transborder normative communities and legal pluralism as a fundamental element of, rather than hindrance to, political modernization, while the Galician-Jewish sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz advanced the thesis that the origin of states, including supposed nation-states, lay in foreign conquest and imperial expansion, rather than in the organic growth of pre-existing ethnic units. These jurists-turned-sociologists were enthusiastically received by scholars in other ethnolinguistically diverse and stratified regions of the European periphery, such as by Manuel González Prada in Peru and Benoy Kumar Sarkar in Bengal, who creatively adapted Habsburg critiques of the European nation-state to their own political needs.

By offering a transnational legal and intellectual history of “empire” and its contested transition from a discursive to an analytical category, this dissertation contributes to larger debates about the viability of Europe’s multinational monarchies, the roots of twentieth-century federalism and internationalism, and the relationship between the social sciences, nationalism, and imperialism. It bridges the divide between two transformational moments in twentieth-century global history: the partial, though, to many, deeply significant, nationalization of European empires before 1918 and the frustrated efforts of anticolonial leaders to construct multiracial, democratic European empires in the era after 1945. Methodologically, my research challenges historians to look beyond more familiar intra-imperial and inter-colonial networks of exchange, to reconsider our use of “empire” and “nation-state” as units of comparative historical analysis, and to break down the artificial distinction between “Europe” and non-Europe that was drawn by nationalist social scientists in the late nineteenth century. Most significantly, it compels us to see methodological nationalism as a geographically and temporally limited phenomenon whose rise to dominance in the twentieth century was resisted by both European and non-European actors.






Prendergast, Thomas (2020). In Defense of Empire: Habsburg Sociology and the European Nation-State, 1870-1920. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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