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The University of Southampton
HistoryPart of Humanities

Research project: Treason in the age of Franz Joseph, 1848-1918

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Treason has been a ubiquitous phenomenon throughout human history. It is the worst type of crime, and the abusive word ‘traitor’ continues to resonate in political discourse around the world.

Despite this, treason is seriously under-researched, with few theoretical studies and historical analysis much stronger for the early modern than the modern era.

This book-project, funded by a 3-year Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship, is a vivid case study of treason in the late Habsburg Empire. Under Emperor Franz Joseph, treason laws were widely used – far more than in other European countries – in order to prosecute and punish those seen as betraying the state. The project analyses why treason was thought to be so prevalent, when and where it occurred across the empire, and what repercussions emerged when the state regularly invoked such a draconian law. A major basis for state vigilance was the turmoil of the 1848 revolutions, and the Austrian criminal code of 1852 which laid down the criteria for prosecuting traitors. While assassins were natural targets, more intriguing are the laws which criminalized those who wanted to overthrow the government or to break off state territory. This resulted in major treason trials of socialists and anarchists, but also of Serb and Czech nationalists by the twentieth century.

Using material in ten European languages, the project views treason as a new touchstone for measuring the political and social stability of the Habsburg Monarchy. For treason prosecutions highlight the regime’s major security concerns, as well its elastic approach to the rule of law and constitutional government. The result is both a novel contribution to our understanding of how Austria-Hungary was governed, and a case study in the overall history of treason. While treason is often seen as an anachronistic phenomenon, in fact we find many continuities with present-day interpretations of how state security should be policed.

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