In these times when scholars like to stick knowing, indeterminate (and often misleading) titles on their books, you don’t often see a work of history with a straightforward, old-fashioned tag like “Imperial Victor and Military Genius” on it. Yet un-ironic and admiring is precisely what British historian Alan Sked intends with his new character study of Field Marshal Radetzky, the Czech noble who devoted his very long military career to the service of the Habsburg empire, meanwhile inspiring the famous oom-pah-pah march.
For Sked, Radetzky was the greatest field commander of the 19th century, bar none – the man who outfoxed Napoleon and, decades later, saved the Habsburg empire from collapse during the revolutions of 1848-49 by his audacious maneuvers against the Italian rebels.
(The image above depicts the bombastic monument to Radetzky that once stood on a square in Prague. Understandably, it was taken down in 1918.)
In part, the book wants to poke holes in the liberal-romantic interpretation which sees the 19th and early 20th centuries as a record of the march toward freedom by the oppressed subjects of hulking, senile empires. The chaos that ensued when the empires finally fell in the early 20th century – bringing democracy, yes, as it laid the groundwork for fascism and Bolshevism – was at least delayed through the actions of Radetzky many years earlier, Sked argues.
This got me to wondering about the echoes, if any, between this year of the “Arab spring” and the 1848 “springtime of the nations.” Will the people of Tunisia and Egypt (and Yemen, Syria, Libya…) have to wait as long for real sovereignty as the Czechs, Italians, Croats, and all the others who rose up against the bumbling, patriarchal, and in many ways admirable Austrian empire? Will the grandchildren of today’s demonstrators look back to the days of Mubarak et. al as a golden age – as many in Central Europe look back fondly to the pre-1989, pre-1939, and pre-1914 eras?