Saturday 19 November 2016

Radetzky’s March

In a possibly desperate attempt to justify my claims about framing and history, I would like to comment, briefly, on an all-round Austrian hero, about whom only a few, even among wargamers, ever seem to hear. The interest is not so much in the content of our hero’s life, but it the circumstances which have made him so obscure.

An article in December’s History Today magazine (yes, even history magazines run ahead of the calendar) about Josef Radetzky is about his contemporary fame and his subsequent obscurity. Radetzky fought the Turks in the 1780’s, the French in 1813 and crushed the 1848 uprisings in Italy. Now, however, he is rarely recalled, except through an obscure 1932 novel, and Johan Strauss’ March in his honour.

In his lifetime, (1766 – 1858) he was hailed as a military genius; his accomplishments were lauded across Europe. At his death he lay in state in Milan, then in Vienna, and then in Heldenburg, where he was buried.  The Times of London compared him to Wellington, an honour which, at that time, no higher could be paid to a foreigner.

So why has Radetzky slipped into obscurity. The answer seems to be that he was just a bit unfortunate with the results of the timing of his achievements.

For example, from 1809 – 1817 he was chief of staff of the Austrian army. He has been described as the chief architect of the defeat of Napoleon. However, the major success of this time was the Battle of Leipzig and the 1813 – 1814 campaign. This led to Napoleon’s abdication, of course. But it was then overshadowed by Napoleon’s return and the subsequent Waterloo campaign, in which the Austrian army was no involved. Rather fewer people cared about the success in 1814 when it all had to be done again in 1815.

Similarly, Radetzky was the commander of Austrian forces in Italy in 1848. He ignored his superiors, went on the offensive, crushed the Piedmontese and pretty well finished the revolutionary war before it started. Again, he was badly served by history. His activities in Italy were undone within a year of his death as the Risorgimento took place. What might have happened if Radetzky had still been in command? It is, of course, hard to say, but Italy might look rather different today if he had.

So what happened? It is possibly, of course, that Radetzky’s achievements are still lauded in Austria and similar parts of the former Empire. Anglo-American historiography, however, has almost entirely ignored him.

Firstly, as noted, his main achievements were largely undone by the next steps in history. It is not exactly Radetzky’s fault that Napoleon escaped from Elba, or that Italy was reunified in a way which no-one expected. It is not his fault, either, that history can argue that Napoleon defeated himself in 1812 in Russia, and everything else was a mopping up operation. As a military officer Radetzky defeated Napoleon in 1809 at Aspern, and it could be claimed that Wagram was a stalemate. The politics of the situations overshadowed the purely military aspects.

Thus, in our historiography, at least, we remember Wellington and Nelson, but not Radetzky. But there is a wider and further framing question here. We can regard Radetzky as simply being on the wrong side of history. He fought for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which collapsed in 1918. Historians ever since have been picking over the corpse to establish the causes of that failure.  The empire, according to one view, was simply a conservative, reactionary state with little hope of surviving in the longer term anyway. Successes like Radetzky were just bumps in the road to inevitable failure and collapse. A multi-ethnic, multi-national empire like that could never survive the transition to modernism and the nation state. The empire was justly kicked out of Italy, Germany and, of course, was responsible for the outbreak of World War One. On this analysis Radetzky fought, and won, in vain.

Our interpretation of Radetzky thus lies in the frame in which we try to understand him. In the frame of 1813-1814 he might well stand as ‘the Great’, a Field Marshall of outstanding ability. But in the frame of even 1813-1815 his success is a little more nuanced; Leipzig was not the final world. Similarly, in the context of the 1848 revolutions, his contribution is a success, at least when viewed from the side of the Empire. By 1860 that view is much less focussing on success; it is overshadowed by subsequent events.

Of course, on an even broader canvas, Radetzky becomes ever less important. Most of the achievements he could lay claim to were undone by 1918. The Empire collapsed. The post-Napoleon Europe his victories achieved had died on the Western and Eastern fronts. From the viewpoint of this history, Radetzky is at best a side-show, a tragic figure trying to hold back the tide of historical inevitability.

Radetzky, of course, would not, and could not see it like that. He did what he had to do (all right, he did not have to father a child in his eighties on a woman who was not his wife). As chief of staff and governor in Italy, he did what the context of his times required. It is not his fault that he was on the wrong side of our current (or at least recent) historiographical debates and viewpoints. He would not have seen, I suspect, his activities as either tragic or irrelevant.

So hopefully this idea of framing history is coming into a little bit of perspective. The importance of someone is a function, at least in part, of the time frame we impose on them. Similarly, the importance of an event is, in part, a function of the time frame. Further, both are limited by our concepts of what happened next. Leipzig is trumped by Waterloo. Finally, the importance of people and events are also framed by our impressions of what went forward. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was doomed to fail (and it did, of course) and so anyone appearing to oppose that decline and fall is, simply put, irrelevant.


  1. Fascinating post. Using Radetzky like this gives a great illustration of what framing does to our view of historical events and people.

    I suspect his obscurity has a lot to do with an Anglo-centric view. It would be interesting to get a perspective from inside the former A-H empire (I suspect there are many many different ones).

    What's seen as the inevitable collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is itself dependent on your frame. The Hapsburg realm had weathered many other cataclysms before and survived. It had seen off or survived the Ottomans, Protestantism, Louis XIV, Charles Albert and Frederick 'the Great', Napoleon, the 1848 Revolutions. Nationalism could have been another in this long list.

    1. I think that there is definitely a Anglo-centric viewpoint going on here, yes, and also a bit of 'well we know it will fail anyway'. The reasons the AH empire went down are a lot more complex than any single frame, as well, agreed. But whether we can cope with more than a few frames at a time seems a bit moot.

  2. Thanks for another great post. It really does show that the chosen frame shapes our view of the past. This includes, as nundanket mentions, our national/cultural perspective. I'm not familiar with A-H historiography, but it may be that Radetzky is better known in German or Hungarian language historiography. I certainly know that figures seen as important in Scandinavian historiography are almost invisible in English historiography. Language and transmission are thus yet more different frames to consider.

    1. Being a (near) monoglot, I can see that language is a great problem. I guess you have to be very good in a second language in order to be comfortable with the historiography of somewhere else. Translations don't quite cut it (as a reader of Latin translated into English, even my smattering of Latin can tell 'it isn't really saying that'.)

      There are also, I guess, implicit cultural frames which we apply as well. The Times did it to Radetzky, and I think we do it all the time to everything else. That is why we get a bit uncomfortable with, say, Vlad the Impaler.