The myth of Kakania

Arms of the Austro Hungarian Empire -

It is surprising that the myth of Kakania is still alive. Almost 100 years has passed since the fall of the Dual Monarchy of Austria and Hungary, or Kaiserliche und königliche (k. und k. ) Österreich-Ungarn Monarchie. Elevated into the ideal space, Kakania continues to exist and fascinate those who succumb to her charms. Kakania is well represented in literature. Some of the famous novels of the twentieth century deal with her peculiar qualities, with the most known being Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities, Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March and Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk. Here are some elements of this myth:

– the harmonious co-existence of nations, based on the universalist policy of the monarchy which continued the medieval and feudal tradition of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation,

– the universal idea of the ​​Latin culture and Catholicism,

– conservatism; Franz Joseph as the guarantor of permanence of the monarchy,

– the willingness of the Habsburgs  to seek harmony and smooth out contradictions (bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube),

– the role of mediating between the East and the West,

– the cultural assimilation of the Slavs,

– the special role of the Jews and their culture.

The mythical image of Kakania is known mostly through Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday. Even more peculiar is the image given to Kakania by Stanislaw Vincenz in In the Upper Highlands in which the author combines literature with anthropological observations.

Vincenz see Kakania in entirely mythical terms:

events had then a different meaning than today, and maybe even other than you can imagine it now. First of all, this was the world of European peace without a smallest cloud on the horizon and of the solid stability of the Habsburg monarchy.

Geography of Kakania is quite special, deeply meaningful and evoking emotions. The monarchy itself was a pinnacle of order. It was saturated with sacrum and oriented towards the transcendence but, beyond its borders, space was formless and chaotic. Vienna was filled with sacrum to the utmost degree because that’s where Emperor Franz Joseph resided. For men from the provinces, going to Vienna was akin to a pilgrimage to a holy place.


Zweig writes “The “Emperor”, this word was the epitome of all power, the symbol of Austria’s permanence; we had learned from childhood to pronounce these two syllables with awe”. Franz Joseph was well suited to become a mythical figure. He ascended the throne when he was 18 years and reigned for 68 years. His longevity strengthened his subjects’ conviction that the world in which they lived in was immutable. Vienna was the centre of the monarchy and, therefore, of the whole world. The Emperor was the guarantor of this orderly arrangement. He did not utter his pronouncements to convey statements that could be easily understood. His messages were rather like parables. This is the usual way of communicating fundamental truths by the person staying in the realm of the sacred. A sacred text cannot be translated into everyday language; its meaning is felt rather than understood.

The order symbolised by the Emperor is contrasted with the chaos of the world outside of Kakania. Beyond its eastern borders, there is terra incognita with all possible negative characteristics. The space that is external to Kakania is formless and threatening. Its social order is based on slavery and people who live there are without names and marked only with numbers.

In contrast, Kakania is perfectly harmonious. Space and time are perceived as belonging to the sphere of sacrum. As people see Kakania as perfectly arranged, they have no need for what we nowadays call progress. They are hostile even to the principles that are now considered as fundamental – the equality, constitutionalism, universal education and political democracy. The concept of progress has pejorative meaning because it threatens the order that existed since time immemorial. Vincenz writes: “egalite – that diluted tar, it tastes great at the beginning but then it turns into manure; liberte – an office charged with the task of cutting off heads”.


The dual monarchy is permeated by music. Its inhabitants are extremely fond of music which means they are also cheerful, reconciled with life, and accepting the world in its imperial and the royal version. Zweig saw in Vienna a city wonderfully orchestrated, with the Emperor as a conductor:

Making music, dancing, the theatre, conversation, proper and urbane deportment, these were cultivated here as particular arts. It was not the military, nor the political, nor the commercial that was predominant in the life of the individual and of the masses.

Nowhere was it easier to be a European than in Vienna, a city which managed to harmonise contradictions. Zweig writes about the golden age of certainty and security in Vienna in such words:

At court, among the nobility, and among the people, the German was related in blood to the Slavic, the Hungarian, the Spanish, the Italian, the French, the Flemish; and it was the Particular genius of this city of music That Dissolved all the contrasts harmoniously into a new and unique thing, the Austrian, the Viennese. Hospitable and endowed with a talent for receptivity Particular, the city drew the most diverse forces to it, loosened, propitiated, and pacified them. It was sweet -to live here, in this atmosphere of spiritual conciliation, and subconsciously every citizen Became supranational, cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world.

The special character of central Europe was in the mixing of tongues and ethnic groups. Xenophobia was weak or non-existent in that region and various national groups lived together more or less peacefully. Language did not determine one’s identity and individuals were often free to choose to what national group they wanted to belong.  As religious, linguistic and ethnic differences were of little importance, people were often cultural hybrids. People were however strongly attached to their countryside which gave them the sense of immutability and permanence. This attachment was the core of their identities. The familiar landscape allowed them to reassert their identity.

Jews are an important element of the myth of Kakania. They found in Austria a favourable environment in which they could develop their talents. The Austrian culture existed to a large extent thanks to the Jews. It would be hard to imagine that culture without Roth, Kafka, Schnitzler, Hofmannstahl, Zweig, Freud, Mahler, and Schoenberg. Zweig writes that Jews “thought about their being Austrian as a mission for the world. All that Europe and America admire as the expression of the Austrian culture in music, in literature, the theatre, the arts and crafts had been created to a large extent by Viennese Jews”.

Arcadia is by nature weak and vulnerable to violation from the outside world. The Habsburg Arcadia had to vanish in the twentieth century, a century of predilection for violence (the dictatorship of the proletariat of communists and the Darwinian chauvinism of fascists), a cynical lie (propaganda), desacralisation of space, time and culture, et cetera – the list of sins of the twentieth century is rather long.

The Arcadian image of Kakania is, to a high degree, literary fantasy. It’s certainly a case of the idealisation of the past. Kakania was indeed a highly original political entity, but not without its own problems, and plenty of them. Musil describes its more sinister side in The Confusions of Young Törless. In Man without Qualities, he ridicules Kakania as an anachronism. And so does Hasek in The Good Soldier Svejk. Only Vincenz is unconditionally devoted to Kakania, possibly because his opus magnum describes a mythical land which existed primarily in his own mind. In the Upper Highlands is highly original and deserves to be better known.



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4 responses to “The myth of Kakania

  1. I really enjoyed this essay. I live in Vienna and have a special relationship to Kakania. The culture was dominated by Jewish talent, but inspired Gentiles all the more. Names like Hugo von Hofmannsthal or Ferdinand von Saar, Ernst Mach or Marie Ebner Eschenbach come to mind.
    In Peter Watsons “The German genius” Vienna appears as a central place of the 20th century. Thanks a lot for that article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jurek, I was in Vienna two days ago and I loved it. I spent three days there. We could have met and talked about Kakania. I particularly like Musil’s masterpiece which, in my opinion, is the best and most intelligent novel ever written.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. nina

    Kakania is alive in Vienna.
    They’ve never leaved it, firmly turned to their past.
    I worry they would even go for their own Brexit, it would be a return to the gray 90s of my arrival here..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, indeed, people tend to mythologise their past and allow emotions to cloud their judgment. Vienna is not unique in Europe as the capital city of a former empire and therefore too big for a small country. Lisbon and Brussels are in the same category. Brexit is a sad spectacle and I also worry that other countries may decide to leave the EU.


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