Reimagining American Community

ScreenHunter_78 Apr. 09 14.08The Habsburg Monarchy has long been a point of interest for me, for its (relatively) peaceable approach to diplomacy and statecraft in an era marked by extremes of violence and brutality.  It was not without reason that Maximilian I Habsburg adopted as the family’s motto an adaptation of Ovid’s couplet:  ‘Leave the waging of war to others! but you, happy Austria, marry:  for the realms which Mars awards to others, Venus transfers to you’.

The figure of Klemens Wenzel, Fürst von Metternich, brash, self-assured and notably promiscuous in a manner foreshadowing James Bond though he was, also represented to me this promise of a peaceable, Catholic social order which respected difference whilst at the same time holding firmly to a set of humane values inspired by Christian orthodoxy.  Metternich used his position to fight tooth-and-nail on behalf of the rights of different ethnic communities within the Empire he served, notably Hungarians and Jews, every bit as much as he opposed the errant ‘presumptions’ of nationalism, of reductive individualism and of what would later become Manchester-style liberalism.  His firm belief in the desirability of a just peace between nations (over-against the ‘iron-and-blood’ grandstanding of the Prussians at the time) was tempered with an equally firm conviction of the original sinfulness of humankind.  With these principles, and with a hard-headedly realist approach to international affairs, his Congress of Vienna managed to give Europe over thirty years of much-needed peace before the liberal revolutions of 1848 forced him into exile.

I thus feel that it is a grave disgrace that the best-known intellectual legacy of the nation is an extreme form of the very reductive individualism that Metternich opposed his whole life.  This ‘Austrian School’, the body of economic theory pioneered by Menger and Böhm-Bawerk which finds its most influential expression in the work of Friedrich Hayek, makes an idol out of individual preference as expressed in the marketplace, and uses the philosophical assumptions of liberalism to deflect any critique of those preferences from the standpoint of Christian ethics or natural law.

There exists another ‘Austrian school’, however (though it doesn’t go by that name), whose ideas managed to find expression in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum.  This encyclical managed to electrify Europe’s Catholic social thinkers and activists, prompting a wide array of humane projects, purposive communities and philosophical clubs which strove to echo the humanistic realism of that document; a number of the more interesting ones found fertile ground in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Prior to the publication of Rerum Novarum, however, those most interested in pioneering a Catholic alternative to both capitalism and communism tended to congregate in Vienna, around Karl Freiherr von Vogelsang, a Prussian convert to Catholicism inspired by the social teachings of Bishop Wilhelm Freiherr von Ketteler of Mainz.

Freiherr von Vogelsang is a controversial figure, and with very good reason.  Though he himself harboured no racial animus toward Jews, his writings do contain elements of a cultural bigotry toward Jews which managed to attract some unfortunate attention – such as that of anti-Semitic populist politician Karl Lueger, who co-founded the Christian Social Party.  It is a failing shared by many 19th-century theorists (such as Richard Oastler and Clifford Hugh Douglas) whose critiques of capitalism and alternative theories and policy proposals are otherwise intriguing and potentially useful; it is a failing nevertheless, and not to be ignored or excused away.  However, several of the people who participated in the Christian Social movement he founded in Austria-Hungary read von Vogelsang’s political writings in productive and inspiring ways.


 One of Freiherr von Vogelsang’s most imaginative and dynamic associates was Dr Janez Evangelist Krek, a Slovene from Ribnica who from a very early age expressed an interest in social activism and joining the priesthood, inspired by the radical-traditionalist Croatian Bishop Anton Mahnič.  Even at his first Mass, which he gave at the age of twenty-three, he gave a homily stressing the need for a socially-minded, pro-poor Catholic movement which could restore some dignity to a Slovene peasantry who, in the wake of 1848, were still no better off than serfs, and in some urgent ways much worse off.  They had been dumped unwitting and untrained into a money-driven economy in which the prices for their produce were undercut by cheap American imports, and in which their only hope of escape (which in most cases proved a false hope) was to take on high-interest loans by using their own land as collateral.  Dr Krek understood that for the average Slovene, partaking in the monetary economy meant serfdom to a faraway German-, Italian- or French-speaking banker, rather than serfdom to a local lord who could at least look him in the eye and speak to him in his own tongue.

Thus, it is little surprise that Dr Krek took St Thomas Aquinas’s natural-law ethics as the foundation for his economic remedies, and the basic conviction that each person is imbued, by virtue of her singular personhood, with a certain set of complementary rights and duties which may not be abridged nor denied to her.  One sees this influence in a number of places.  Dr Krek was highly critical of money and the way in which it had been fetishised into a commodity in itself, rather than merely being a marker of value aiding in the circulation of goods (just as in Summa Theologica Thomas Aquinas warned against seeing money as having value in itself, as part of his broadside against usury).  At the same time, though, even as he championed co-operative ownership of enterprises and public ownership of utilities, he vigorously defended the conditional principle of private ownership of land, for the same reasons Aquinas did – a person will care more deeply about, and act with greater consideration to preserve, things he considers his own.

His views have often been characterised as ‘socialist’.  Indeed, he used the term ‘socialist’ to describe his own views, and it is true that his support for public ownership of utilities, reintroduction of common pastures and dissatisfaction with an economy in which money is considered a commodity do share some commonality with socialism.  But Dr Krek’s emphasis on the value of private land ownership and his scepticism that absolute equality of outcomes can be achieved (or is even desirable) bear far more in common with a radical reading of the Angelic Doctor than with Marx.

That said, he was not a systematic thinker and theologian, but an activist – his primary interest was in promoting, organising and lending support to the Slovene co-operative movement, which blossomed during his tenure.  Of particular interest to him were the credit and lending co-operatives – Dr Krek believed that the sort of holistic dignity he sought for common Slovenians could be achieved only if villages could take greater control of their own credit resources, directed toward their own vision of the good (rather than that of a far-off German, Italian, Swiss or French banker).  For the most part, he concentrated on rural credit associations based on the co-operative self-help theories of the German traditionalist-conservative mayor Friedrich Raiffeisen:  each parish would have its own organisation whose members adopted unlimited liability, from which only the accountant could derive monetary compensation, and whose profits would be used for collective investments rather than being redistributed directly amongst the members.

However, under his guidance the co-operative movement branched out – not just Raiffeisen-model rural credit associations but also urban ones with greater individual flexibility; as well as trade co-operatives and even a co-operative school in Ljubljana (the second school of its kind in all of Europe).  In this movement, Krek was highly influential, and perhaps could be considered the primary political mover and shaker:  at the height of his activity in the Slovene Lands, between 1894 and 1912, more than 560 new co-operatives were founded in his home province of Krain alone.  By 1914, there were over twelve thousand credit co-operatives throughout the Slovene Lands.  He also founded a Christian Social trade union (the “Yugoslav Labour Association”) which long outlived him, and which went on to become one of the important organisational foci of Yugoslav resistance to the Nazis before it was disbanded in 1941.

As a politician as well as an activist priest, Dr Krek enthusiastically promoted localist concerns and the protection of Slovenian linguistic, cultural and political rights.  His famous May Declaration was aimed at creating a Southern Slavic kingdom within the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and devolving some of the powers of the Kaiser to the Empire’s constituent kingdoms.  Though he was tireless in promoting his programme to the point of dying from exhaustion, his ad hoc, often trial-and-error based approach to policy and problem-solving reflected a tragic view of human institutions, a legacy of having lived as a minority in a multicultural empire which did not always live up to its ideals.


On the twenty-ninth of January last year, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna presided over the beatification ceremony of Blessed Hildegard Freund Burjan, the first female politician to be recognised as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church.  A Prussian immigrant to Vienna much as von Vogelsang had been, she converted to Catholicism in 1909 after recovering from a near-fatal kidney ailment.  (Three years later she had a pregnancy which threatened her life, though when her physicians recommended that she terminate, she steadfastly refused to do so.)  She was immediately taken with a fervour for social reform as she joined the circle of Viennese Catholic reformist thinkers of which von Vogelsang had been the centre.  Inspired by Rerum Novarum, she founded the organisation “Verein christlicher Heimarbeiterinnen” – the Society for Christian Home-Based Workers – and fought for the rights of women labourers to living wages, maternity leave and assistance for leave due to illness or injury.  She also tackled the issue of child labour in Austria, calling for tougher enforcement of existing laws which could bring an end to the exploitation of children as young as six in work-days 14 hours long.

She felt compelled to embark on a short-lived political career as a consequence of her activism on behalf of working-class women and children, and thus became the first female member of the Viennese branch of the Christian Social Party during World War I, where she was called the ‘conscience of Parliament’.  St Hildegard was enthusiastically welcomed by many of its members, including its co-founder Fr Ignaz Seipel, and she used her position in the Christian Social Party to secure improved wages and working conditions of home-based workers.  However, having been born a secular Jew and being married to a Hungarian-Jewish engineer, Alexander Burjan, she faced a great deal of anti-Semitic animus from within the ranks of her own party, as well as continuing to struggle with the limitations of her own health and the need to balance her obligations to her family with her public life.  In 1920 she retired from politics.

She did not, however, retire from public life or from her activism, which continued with the foundation, with the moral support of Fr Seipel, in 1919 of “Caritas Socialis”, and her continued leadership of that sisterhood.  “Caritas Socialis” dedicated itself to the aid of the homeless, of prostitutes, of impoverished children and of single-parent families, and was able to secure logistical support from the Austrian government thanks to St Hildegard’s efforts and persuasion.  It was to the work of “Caritas Socialis” that she dedicated her efforts until her death in 1933; though her efforts ensured that the organisation continues to exist and continues in the mission she had designed for it to the present day.

St Hildegard Burjan’s social activism sprang from her reading of Rerum Novarum and from her conviction that the face of Our Lord is best seen in the poor and ostracised.  Moreover, she was firmly convinced, as Dr Krek had been, that placing in the hands of the poor the means to achieve a dignified life for themselves is a more complete definition of charity than merely giving ‘money or small favours’.  She engaged the economy intellectually as a result of her pro-poor activism; she was insistent that our economic lives and actions be rooted in moral considerations rather than the crass self-interest of Homo oeconomicus.  During her brief career in Austria’s Parliament, she made a blunt demand for something like full-cost accounting, in seeming anticipation of the fair trade movement:

‘Let us buy only from conscientious merchants; let us not force down the prices so much; from time to time, let us demand that manufacturers account for the origin of the goods! All too often it is the wealthy woman who forces merchants to deliver on impossible conditions, and this is always at the expense of the poor home-based workers.’

Perhaps because of her Prussian upbringing, though, her idealism was of a more philosophical and universalistic bent than that of Dr Krek.  However, even though localism very rarely played an explicit role in her thinking, and in spite of the global mission she had envisioned for her organisation, the actions of “Caritas Socialis” both in St Hildegard’s lifetime and after it reflected a deeply localist orientation to problem-solving.

Certainly a large part of the reason the Eastern March is so compelling to me, from the reign of the Babenbergs down to the twentieth century, is that it truly does straddle the West and East of Christendom.  The tragic outlook on human institutions which comes out of the Slavs’ long history of being subject to conquest and oppression (whether by Vikings, Mongols, Germans, Magyars or Turks) can, if left unchecked, find its final expression in an unholy, all-devouring nihilism; on the other hand, the faith in rationality and zealous idealism one so often finds amongst the Teutons can, if left unchecked, find its final expression in totalitarian nightmares.  Though Austria herself did experience her share of those nightmares, many of them self-inflicted, she still somehow managed to retain enough of her balance between the claims of tragedy and idealism to produce these blossoms of Catholic (in both senses of the word) social thought and action.


Arnež, John A.  ‘The Economic Thought of Dr. Janez Evangelist Krek’.  Slovene Studies 11 (1989):  65-74.

Bousfeld, Jonathan and Robert Humphreys.  The Rough Guide to Austria.  London, UK:  Penguin Books, 2001.

Caritas Socialis.  Hildegard Burjan:  mit Spannungen Leben.  Wien, Austria:  Schwesterngemeinschaft Caritas Socialis, 2012.  Accessed 7 March 2013.

Černič, Barbara.  ‘The Role of Dr Janez Evangelist Krek in the Slovene Cooperative Movement’.  Slovene Studies 11 (1989):  75-81.

Cooper, Matthew F.  Heavy Anglican, The.  ‘A Few Words on Metternich’.

Cruz, Joan Carroll.  Saintly Women of Modern Times.  Huntington, IN:  Our Sunday Visitor, 2004.

Klein, Michael.  ‘The Cooperative Work of Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen and its Christian Roots’.  IRU Courier 1 (2009):  4-16.  Accessed 7 March 2013.

Kuhn, Michael.  EuropeInfos.  ‘Hildegard Burjan – a European Woman and Politician’.  Last modified April 2012.

Mally, Eva.  Slovenski odpor:  osvobodilna fronta slovenskega naroda od 1941 do 1945.  Ljubljana, Slovenija:  Inštitut za novejšo zdogovino, 2011.  Accessed 7 March 2013.

Pauley, Bruce F.  From Prejudice to Persecution:  a History of Austrian Anti-Semitism.  Chapel Hill, NC:  University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Vatican Information Service.  ‘Blessed Hildegard Burjan:  Mother and Politician’.

About the Author
Matthew Cooper is a machinist by trade, a development economist by training (but not by temperament) and a blogger by hobby, at The Heavy Anglo Orthodox. He is a Wisconsin native of English, Swabian, Yugoslav and Czech-Jewish extraction, who moved successively so far east - to wit: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Kazakhstan, China - that he ended up west of the Mississippi, in Minneapolis. He's a self described Tory radical, but has yet to adequately explain how this squares with his soft spot for Christopher Lasch.