This afterword responds to the contributions of the other commentators and to their reflections about István Deák. The comment considers how his students and colleagues were influenced by his own perspective on Habsburg history, how they understood his approach to that history, and how their work reshaped the Habsburg field. The comment further surveys some of István Deák’s major publications to consider how his writings reshaped Habsburg history and how they may have shaped the historical approaches of his students and academic admirers.

The founding of the Harriman Institute Center for East Central Europe at Columbia dates back to 1954, just before István Deák came to the United States and began his long association with the university, first as a graduate student, then as a faculty member. Though the German term Ostmitteleuropa was used in the 1930s, within the academic circles of German Ostforschung, the formulation of “East Central Europe” seems to have entered American scholarship with Polish émigré scholar Oscar Halecki, author of the 1943 article “East Central Europe in Postwar Organization.” Halecki, who taught at Fordham University after the war, thus offered a compromise between “Central Europe” (which might include Germany) and “Eastern Europe” (which might include Russia), and at Columbia the term was later comfortably used by Cold War scholars with a Polish orientation like Zbigniew Brzezinski and Joseph Rothschild. From István Deák’s Hungarian perspective, however, the term was endowed with greater historical precision, comprising the lands of the Habsburg monarchy, both before and after the end of the monarchy in 1918—and the work of his students and colleagues who have contributed to this forum makes that very evident.

It would be fair to say that the predominance of scholarship in the United States in the Habsburg field today descends genealogically from István and his students. Of course other universities and scholars have played a part in this field— for instance, at the University of Minnesota Center for Austrian Studies or at Princeton with Carl Schorske’s very influential approach to Viennese intellectual history. Still, it would be safe to affirm that Habsburg studies in the United States today would be much more meagerly developed without István’s graduate teaching role at Columbia over the course of some six decades.

To the extent that we can speak of an “István Deák School”— and I wonder whether he would have been skeptical about such an overarching methodological category— it was very much a matter of critical revision concerning the Habsburg monarchy and its successor states. Gábor Egry’s discussion of the Hungarian reviews of The Lawful Revolution: Louis Kossuth and the Hungarians 1848–1849 mentions one reviewer who noted the subversive subtlety of István’s “almost invisible negative opinions.” Certainly, István kept his critical distance from national mythology, even while living on Riverside Drive so close to the Riverside Park statue of “Louis Kossuth the Great Champion of Liberty.” István’s closeness to and distance from that monument was perhaps emblematic of his lifelong relation to Hungarian history, for the statue was his almost exact contemporary, erected in New York in 1928, two years after István’s birth in Székesfehérvár, about forty miles from Budapest. Born in 1926, only eight years after the dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy, István, by his birthdate, was closer chronologically to the revolutions of 1848 than to the present moment.

The Lawful Revolution, published in 1979, appeared just before the whole study of nineteenth-century nationalism was transformed by the publications of Benedict Anderson and Ernest Gellner in the early 1980s, but István already hinted at some of the imminent new approaches in this field.1 “The dead Kossuth suddenly reacquired world fame,” wrote István in the final pages, already rethinking the importance of dead bodies for national cults. “The cult has remained a tool in the hands of politicians,” István continued, already alert to the persistent power of national demagogy. “He was a charismatic leader who reinforced the Hungarians’ suicidal notion that theirs was a particularly exalted destiny, and that the Hungarian contribution to mankind was crucial,” wrote István with crushing irony, one year after the Crown of Saint Stephen was returned from Fort Knox to Hungary, supposedly with István’s diplomatic facilitation. And then the book actually concludes with “poor Szechenyi. . . in his growing madness,” raging over Kossuth, “O! my wasted life!”2 It’s as if the whole book, on its final page, is suddenly reframed from Szechenyi’s bitterly critical perspective.

I remember István very comfortable with his own Hungarian affinities at home, serving Hungarian lunch with the greatest enthusiasm, even when he was most disturbed by Hungarian national politics, as in recent years. Some of his graduate students were Hungarianists, but most were not, and there was perhaps some special sense of connection with the ones who actually made the huge linguistic commitment of learning the language. It’s the great dividing line, the River Leitha/Lajtha, of Habsburg studies: the Habsburg historians who know Hungarian and the ones who don’t (like me). One of his Hungarianist graduate students once told me that after passing his PhD exams he was invited to address István with the Hungarian informal second person, a mark of favor and intimacy that made me a little jealous, since it would clearly never pertain to me. I was not even his student, but I was eager to be included in what seemed to me a sort of family of fellow scholars, very personal in its flavor and very liberal in its inclusions, rather than a methodological István Deák School.

Figure 1

István Deák giving his final in-person keynote at NYU’s Remarque Institute, November 11, 2018. Larry Wolff organized the conference, “The Decline and Fall of Empires: Habsburg and Ottoman, A Centennial Conference.” (Photo courtesy of Dominique K. Reill)

Figure 1

István Deák giving his final in-person keynote at NYU’s Remarque Institute, November 11, 2018. Larry Wolff organized the conference, “The Decline and Fall of Empires: Habsburg and Ottoman, A Centennial Conference.” (Photo courtesy of Dominique K. Reill)

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The use of the informal second person was noted by István, in Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps 1848–1918, as one of the defining characteristics of the body of Habsburg officers and indeed one of the ways that they went “beyond nationalism.” Writing about the archival research in the Kriegsarchiv for that book, István noted: a “major deficiency” in some of the principal official records, “irritating to the researcher but no doubt a real blessing to contemporaries,” namely the absence of “the slightest reference to an officer’s ethnic origin or mother tongue, such consideration being of no importance to the antinationalist Habsburg army. This information can only be inferred from other sources.”3 István looked to the ideological implications of the archive itself as a guide to understanding the patriotic identity of the officer corps.

Back in 1929, when István was a child, Oszkár Jászi published his famous study on The Dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy, specifying the army as one of the monarchy’s “centripetal forces,” and then in 1932 Joseph Roth published his fictional masterpiece on the supranational patriotism of Habsburg army officers, Radetzky March. In 1990, Beyond Nationalism tested these older paradigms against the archival records, with István recreating the military world of his own father in all its complexity. “There were the campaign ribbons in my father’s drawer and the two silver medals, which he had earned for acts of bravery that he never wanted to discuss,” noted István, making the book into a kind of critical investigation into his father’s silence, emblematic of the gap in the historiography.

In his work, as in his conversation, there was always some convergence between the archival record and personal memory, and paradigms of the past always seemed to him a little too neat, too systematic, too sentimental. István’s sense of history generally allowed for what Paul Hanebrink and Ben Frommer, writing as István’s former undergraduate students, describe as “his acknowledgment of the messiness of individual lives and the caution that he exercised before assigning clear-cut labels to actors from the past.” If there is an István Deak School of history writing, this might be the best general summation, though it’s perhaps strange to think of “messiness” as a characteristic of István, whose person, whose presence, whose domesticity, whose professorial life always seemed perfectly ordered and composed.

Holly Case and Máté Rigó note that “Deák was famous for offering all kinds of counterarguments and qualifications to his own statements, effectively exhausting the field of possible critical engagement in situ, and often ending a sentence by starting another with the phrase, ‘but then of course . . .’ The scope of this self-refinement and self-correction was practically endless.” Committed to the messiness of history, his historical writing was governed by the ceaseless pursuit of a clarity that would do justice to the complications. Cynthia Paces relates István’s anecdote about his grandfather smashing his Bohemian crystal in rage against the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, the transparent perfection of crystal shattered messily into fragments by the national emotions of the moment, just six years before István himself was born.

István’s engagement with the Habsburg world, the world of his parents and grandparents, a world still recent and vividly remembered in the decades of his childhood, was a commitment to understanding how people actually understood their messily lived experience of the Habsburg monarchy, like the officers who constitute the subject of Beyond Nationalism. We can see this commitment clearly in some of the major works of his Columbia graduate students: from Pieter Judson’s broadly conceived The Habsburg Empire: A New History (2016) to Jeremy King’s focused urban history of how national categories redefined the life of a Habsburg town, Budweisers into Czechs and Germans (2002), from Daniel Unowsky’s recovery of the rituals of Habsburg patriotism in Imperial Celebrations in Habsburg Austria (2005) to Marsha Rozenblit’s exploration of Jewish engagement with the monarchy in Reconstructing a National Identity: The Jews of Habsburg Austria (2001). István and his students have made it impossible for historians to sum up the Habsburg monarchy as a “nationalities problem”— that phrase that dominated but also constricted the study of Austria-Hungary for most of the twentieth century.

István’s work has encouraged whole new approaches to Habsburg history, when, for instance, the intimate second-person male-bonding of the Habsburg officer corps implicitly encouraged reflection on gender in Habsburg history, as noted in the contribution of Nancy Wingfield. Moving in a different direction, Rebekah Klein-Pejšová considers István’s New York Review of Books review of István Szabó’s film Sunshine as a starting point for thinking about his approach to Habsburg Jewish history.4 On Sunshine István tellingly observed that “the particular interest of the film lies in what it tells us, and fails to tell us, about Central European and Jewish life.” Alison Frank Johnson recalls discussing with István his critical hesitations about the celluloid history in Szabó’s film Colonel Redl, with István bringing his archival research on Habsburg officers to bear upon the cinematic dramatization of “caste honor,” to identify the points of divergence between the director’s conception and the historical record. Cinema, too, was a subject for István’s graduate students, including notably the 2003 Columbia dissertation of David Frey on the early Hungarian film industry in the 1930s. Given István’s fascination with the Habsburg officer corps, it is worth noting that Frey is now a professor at West Point and has brought his academic training under István to the classroom teaching of American officer cadets.

I regarded István for many years as the preeminent Habsburg historian, his work essential to my own scholarship and teaching, and I should perhaps have noted earlier his equally important commitment to the post-Habsburg twentieth century. The first book he reviewed for The New York Review of Books in 1981 was, appropriately, Alan Sked’s study of Radetzky, the Habsburg army, and the revolution of 1848, but the second book he reviewed in 1982 was Randall Braham’s The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary. Over the course of the following decades his review essays for The New York Review of Books continued to pursue the themes of war, genocide, and retribution in twentieth-century Europe, and in 2000 he co-edited the important volume, together with Tony Judt and Jan Gross, on the The Politics of Retribution in Europe: World War II and Its Aftermath.5

Norman Naimark emphasizes István’s search for an appropriate point of critical distance for writing about what was, after all, his own lived experience of the twentieth century. If his Habsburg history writing was about recovering the lived experience of the generations of his parents and grandparents, the complication of twentieth-century post-Habsburg history was the reverse: finding academic distance from his own lived experience while making use of that experience to pose the questions and frame the perspectives. He grew up in Horthy’s Hungary, lived through World War II in Hungary, and witnessed the coming of Stalinism before he emigrated in 1948, one hundred years after his great-grandfather served under Kossuth in the revolution of 1848.

I remember being taken by surprise by István’s last brilliant book, Europe on Trial: The Story of Collaboration, Resistance, and Retribution during World War II, published in 2015; I didn’t quite realize what he had been working on until the afternoon he came downtown from Columbia to present the book to my students at NYU.6 It’s not about the Habsburg monarchy and not even largely about post-Habsburg Europe but rather in some 250 pages sums up bluntly and concisely, country by country, the European experience of World War II, beginning with his own experience in Hungary. Following in part the precedent of his Columbia colleague Robert Paxton, who decades ago explored French collaboration and complicity, István astonishingly laid out the dynamics of collaboration and complicity across the whole continent in a work that is likely to change forever our sense of continental-wide collaboration. Dominique Reill has written about the appreciative critical reception of the book in Italy, by an Italian public that has not always been eager to acknowledge issues of general complicity under fascism and at war. Norman Naimark observes that for István the conventional category of the “bystander” in Nazi Europe (often implicitly or explicitly qualified as the “innocent bystander”) was inadequate to account for the general complicity that might better be considered “passive accommodation” even when distinct from “active collaboration.”

Most countries in Europe that were not actually allied with Hitler (as Italy was until 1943) have thought of themselves as Hitler’s conquered victims (from Holland to Denmark to Czechoslovakia), but István demonstrated that the dynamics of quotidian complicity in occupied Nazi Europe were almost irresistible, and the industries of occupied countries could even do quite well attending to the needs of the Nazi war economy. Of course there were heroes of resistance, and some who risked their lives to save the lives of others, but István compiles a European record of generally pervasive complicity. Case and Rigó suggest that István recognized the constraints on individuals living under difficult regimes, and Eliza Ablovatski sees a characteristic empathy for such individuals in Europe on Trial while Jennifer Foray credits him with facing up to the full complexity of the “lived realities” in Nazi Europe.

Yet, there seems little doubt of the verdict by the end of the book: “One might ask, referring to the title of this book, how well Europe on trial passed the test of the troubled times. The answer is, unfortunately, that Europe did badly,” writes István, who then goes further. “Not only were most Europeans indifferent to the fate of their Jewish, Roma, sectarian, and homosexual neighbors, but millions among them participated in manhunts or at least profited from the disappearances and deaths of the victims.”7 Europe on Trial is not about the Habsburg monarchy and not specifically about the post-Habsburg lands; it is a book that argues implicitly that East Central Europe was very much a part of Europe as a whole, in the worst possible way.

Pieter Judson quotes Beyond Nationalism to indicate István’s appreciation of what he calls “the Habsburg experiment” with its relative political virtues: “I am convinced,” wrote István, “that we can find here a positive lesson while the post-1918 history of the central and east central European nation-states can only show us what to avoid.”8 Ben Frommer recalls undergraduates asking about the Habsburg hymn, Haydn’s “Gott erhalte,” which was sung in every language of the monarchy. István claimed that he didn’t know the German words (as, no doubt, any good Habsburg Hungarian would have claimed) and sang the hymn for his students in Hungarian, a hymn that must have been for him always a relic of nostalgia, since he was born after, in 1926. Nevertheless, there he was positioning himself in the Transleithanian Habsburg world as it once existed, singing the hymn as an act of historical ventriloquy, nostalgia, pedagogy, and, perhaps, with some naive pleasure in the ritual music of patriotism for a nonexistent polity. I wish I’d been there to hear him sing.



Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983); Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983).


István Deák, The Lawful Revolution: Louis Kossuth and the Hungarians 1848–1849 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), 350–51.


István Deák, Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps 1848–1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 21.


István Deák, “Strangers at Home,” New York Review of Books, July 20, 2000, https://www.nybooks.com/archive/, n.p.


István Deák, “A Radical Field Marshal,” New York Review of Books, February 19, 1981, https://www.nybooks.com/archive/, n.p.; Deák, “Could the Hungarian Jews Have Survived?,” New York Review of Books, February 4, 1982, https://www.nybooks.com/archive/, n.p.; István Deák, Jan T. Gross, and Tony Judt, eds., The Politics of Retribution in Europe: World War II and Its Aftermath (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).


István Deák, Europe on Trial: The Story of Collaboration, Resistance, and Retribution during World War II (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2015).


Ibid., 225–26.


Deák, Beyond Nationalism, 9.