Theses Doctoral

Law, Time, and Sovereignty in Central Europe: Imperial Constitutions, Historical Rights, and the Afterlives of Empire

Wheatley, Natasha Grace

This dissertation is a study of the codification of empire and its unexpected consequences. It returns to the constitutional history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — a subject whose heyday had passed by the late 1920s — to offer a new history of sovereignty in Central Europe. It argues that the imperatives of imperial constitutionalism spurred the creation a rich jurisprudence on the death, birth, and survival of states; and that this jurisprudence, in turn, outlived the imperial context of its formation and shaped the “new international order” in interwar Central Europe. “Law, Time, and Sovereignty” documents how contemporaries “thought themselves through” the transition from a dynastic Europe of two-bodied emperor-kings to the world of the League of Nations.
The project of writing an imperial constitution, triggered by the revolutions of 1848, forced jurists, politicians and others to articulate the genesis, logic, and evolution of imperial rule, generating in the process a bank or archive of imperial self-knowledge. Searching for the right language to describe imperial sovereignty entailed the creative translation of the structures and relationships of medieval composite monarchy into the conceptual molds of nineteenth-century legal thought. While the empire’s constituent principalities (especially Hungary and Bohemia) theoretically possessed autonomy, centuries of slow centralization from Vienna had rendered that legal independence immaterial. Seeking conceptual means to manage the paradox of states that existed in law but not in fact, legal scholars and regional claim-makers alike cultivated a language of “historical rights” to serve as a placeholder for the suspended sovereignty of these sleeping states, swallowed up but not dissolved in the python of empire. Remarkably, “historical rights” became a kind of Trojan horse that smuggled the specter of international law into the internal workings of imperial constitutional law: the line between the two orders grew porous long before the formal sovereign rupture of 1918.
Drawing on nineteenth-century legal studies and government legislation as well as parliamentary debates and other public statements, I thus show how imperial constitutional law — closely intertwined with the new academic discipline of constitutional law that emerged coterminously — provides an extraordinarily powerful vantage point from which to observe the construction of “modern” notions of statehood, rights, and sovereignty out of the raw materials of dynastic law. What is more, I reveal how the intellectual products of this constitutional tradition survived the empire’s dissolution in 1918: bodies of legal knowledge designed to capture and codify the fractured nature of imperial sovereignty eventually served as intellectual tools for managing its absence. When the empire collapsed under the pressure of four years of total war, a carefully cultivated discursive terrain lay waiting, well-stocked with tropes, arguments, and claims concerning the pre-existing statehood of many of the empire’s component parts. At the Paris Peace Conference and beyond, claim-makers redeployed the rhetorical arsenal of imperial constitutional debate on the world stage, arguing for the survival of these historic polities and their rights over the rupture of imperial collapse. The interwar settlement in Central Europe, I contend, cannot be understood outside a broader sweep of legal ideas forged in the cradle of imperial law. In this way, my dissertation offers a new pre-history of the interwar international order (often narrated as a Central European “year zero”), as well as a history and post-history of the empire’s legal worlds.
Sensitive throughout to the co-implication of political and epistemological questions, this dissertation is not only a history of sovereignty but also a history of knowledge about sovereignty. At its heart lies a preoccupation with the relationship between law and time. By tracking law’s “persons” and their survival through time — especially their talent for both reinvention and continuity, and their capacity to carry rights through history — it sketches a more anthropological portrait of the particular tools and logics by which legal thought sets itself in history and resists the effects of time’s passing. In offering a new account of the transfer of rights and their subjects between old world orders and new, “Law, Time and Sovereignty” doubles as a study of the temporal life of states.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Mazower, Mark A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 8, 2016