Finding Order in Diversity: A Q&A with Scott Berg

We talked to Scott Berg, the author of Finding Order in Diversity: Religious Toleration in the Habsburg Empire, 1792–1848, about the aspects of the Habsburg Empire studied for the first time in this book and their possible relevance to readers today.

Finding Order in Diversity: Religious Toleration in the Habsburg Empire, 1792–1848 covers the tumultuous period in the Habsburg Empire from Joseph II’s failed reforms through the Revolutions of 1848, documenting the ongoing struggle between religious activism and civil peace. Though civil peace and religious toleration eventually became the norm, this book documents the decades of heavy-handed state efforts to get there.

Q: Could you give a brief description of your book?

My book looks at policies of religious toleration in what has typically been seen as a pretty conservative period in Habsburg history: the French Revolution to the aftermath of the1848 Revolutions. The Habsburg Empire developed a well-deserved reputation for toleration and multiculturalism at the end of the nineteenth century, which I argue originated in these policies of religious toleration that developed in this conservative era. Implementing toleration also involved restraining some activities of the Catholic Church, which the Habsburgs kept, politically, at arm’s length for the only time in its history.

I also wanted to stress the imprint of the Enlightenment on Habsburg institutions, even conservative ones. The Habsburg Empire offers a good case study for this project because of the presence of significant numbers of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Eastern Christians, and Orthodox Christians across present-day Austria, Hungary, northern Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, southern Poland, western Ukraine, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and northern Italy.


Q: What is the goal of your book? What motivated you to write it?

The goal of the book is to illustrate how the state navigated the rocky waters of religious tensions in a period in which the majority of people still fiercely adhered to the tenets of their particular confession. Basically, how did the state make sure people, with ancient feuds, get along? In addition, this book offers a nuanced analysis of the Habsburg state’s relation to the Catholic Church, which was quite distant, especially compared to other European governments and their relationship with the institution of the majority confession in these states.

I did not have an “aha” moment when coming across this topic.  I have always liked religious history and grew up in a period when historians were moving away from national frameworks, which drew me to this topic. In addition, as a student, I found Joseph’s reforms in the 1780s fascinating and was never satisfied with the simple answer that they just disappeared when he died and rigid conservatives took over.  I originally wanted to look at religious policy, in general, in this time period but found that topic way too broad and found myself looking, increasingly, at toleration and attempts to regulate peaceful co-existence, which was a nagging question for me. Finally, the increasing acknowledgment diversity in our own society pushed me to this topic of how diverse societies manage to get along.


Q: What are a few things that are being studied for the first time in this book?

As I stated above, I was never satisfied with the answer that Joseph’s reforms sort of just ended when he died.  Now, when you dig into the literature, particularly the literature in German, works do acknowledge the continuing influence of Joseph’s reforms, particularly in the bureaucracy. However, while that theme does recur in this book, it really is not the point of it. This book looks at Habsburg toleration from an objective point of view and analyzes how Habsburg institutions approached conversions, mixed marriages, and religious polemics, which were explosive issues at the time.  The few that have looked at these issues in any detail have done so through a nationalist or ideological lens, often without the benefit of archival documents.


Q: Is there anything about this book you think readers would find particularly relevant to their own experiences in today’s world?

Many people today interact with various forms of media designed to keep them perpetually enraged, often using misinformation, and which politicize even the most mundane events, which few people argue is good for institutions.  The Habsburgs sort of foresaw this problem of controversial topics being available for open discussion because it would lead to mobs and instability. They also addressed the problem of how to depoliticize difference, not exploit it, and did so through the police.  When censorship collapsed in 1848 and, later, in the second half of the nineteenth century, differences, including mundane everyday ones, became politicized as irreconcilable ethnic or religious ones, which ultimately weakened faith in institutions.  One could argue a vaguely similar trend, with many important differences of course, is happening today.

We also see the legacy of Habsburg toleration and promotion of the Enlightenment on the successor states of this empire. One could point, for example, to one of the most dangerous hotspots in the world since 2014:  the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.  Ukrainian nationalism, as with other nationalisms, came about in the nineteenth century and emerged in the Habsburg Empire, in part to combat Polish domination of Galicia, which is in present-day southern Poland and western Ukraine.

However, these origins are contested, often in religious terms, most notably by Vladimir Putin, and while this book does not provide a detailed analysis of the origins of Ukrainian nationalism, it does describe how the Habsburgs protected the largely Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and promoted Ukrainian language (called Ruthenian) and education for the priesthood, in contrast to Russification polices in Tsarist Russia.  As a result, it helped create a Ukrainian identity and helps explain the pro-western stance of the country, particularly in western Ukraine.


Q: Your book makes the observation that the famed Habsburg toleration took root through deeply conservative policies. Can you tell us about that dichotomy?

It is sort of counterintuitive to associate efforts to promote toleration and co-existence with conservativism, but in the period after the French Revolution, conservatives feared popular politics, and even Liberals only wanted to expand political representation to elites without an aristocratic background. However, that didn’t stop rulers in other countries from appealing to the majority religion in the states they ruled in order to garner popular support for their regime.  The Habsburg regime, however, feared popular support, even if in their favor, because of the unpredictability of it.  In addition, appealing to the majority religion for public support would imply that political power rested with the people.

However, although the Habsburgs were the face of the post-French Revolutionary conservatism, the Enlightenment had made deep inroads into the ruling class and the bureaucracy, which also explains why the government promoted vague notions of morality rather than confessional dogma.  In short, one can point to the desire for order, which would not be well served by stirring up the general population with religious polemics, and to Enlightenment values that the ruling class held, which also militated against promoting political Catholicism.


Q: What are some of the factors that motivated the Habsburgs to institutionalize toleration and reject confessionalism?

Embracing Catholic confessionalism, which would have rallied the 2/3 of the population that was Catholic, would have implied that obtaining popular support mattered.  Officials did not, of course, explicitly spell it out in these terms, but you can read between the lines.  Few officials had an appetite for a culture war, even when it would benefit Catholicism, and the desire to avoid discussion of controversial topics trumped other concerns.  In documents, officials stressed avoiding uproar on controversial topics, such as mixed marriages and conversions, and often preferred not addressing topics for fear that a ruling on a certain matter would spark discussion on it.  While one can read these actions as sweeping problems under the rug, one can also appreciate the desire to avoid exploiting divisions among diverse populations, which was done in the 20th century, with tragic consequences.

I have focused on the cynical explanations for the Habsburgs institutionalizing toleration and rejecting confessionalism, but we also cannot ignore how deep the Enlightenment had penetrated Habsburg society and institutions.  While present-day expectations for religious freedom were not present in the Habsburg Empire (as they were not in most places around the world at the time), freedom of conscience and the rule of law were considered core rights of living in the Habsburg Empire, and the Counter-Reformation, which had only ended in 1780, was considered a shameful event in Habsburg history.


Q: Can you tell us a little about the interesting tension between the Habsburgs’ political and state policies and their continued familial dedication to Catholicism?

I state at the beginning of the book that Emperor Francis II/I and top officials were good Catholics and that nothing indicates otherwise.  However, they had been educated in the Enlightenment, which did not deny the core tenets of their religion but which also stressed toleration and disavowed fanaticism.  Instead, officials stressed the vague concept of morality and good behavior, which aligned with the Enlightenment and middle-class values of the nineteenth century. Francis Joseph adhered to more traditional forms of Catholicism, thanks to the influence of his mother, but he was not willing to break with the precedent of toleration that had been set in the pre-1848 period.


Q: Is there anything that shocked or surprised you while working on this project?

I was surprised at the popularity of religion, which has been studied in German literature, in the nineteenth century. Issues, such as mixed marriages between Catholics and Protestants, really did arouse popular outrage.  Even Liberals, who are typically associated with anticlericalism, actually sympathized with the Church, which it viewed as oppressed under the heavy hand of the state.  I was also surprised at the extent Habsburgs officials went to in order to regulate religious practices, particularly of the Catholic Church.  For example, obtaining a religious blessing for interconfessional mixed marriages today is arguably harder today than in the Habsburg Empire in this period because of the heavy hand of the state in regulating religious affairs.

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