Reflections: Where Is Austerlitz?

Konrad Lawson
Monday 20 October 2014

213307074_ba92925c22_z This is the first what will be many more substantive posts to come on the research and reflections of institute faculty and postgraduate students on matters related to transnational, global, and spatial history. Our first posting is by Dr. Tomasz Kamusella, our historian of central and east European history.

Who has not heard of the Battle of Austerlitz? In this ‘battle of the three emperors,’ in 1805, Napoleon humbled the Russian Tsar and the Austrian Emperor (who then also headed the still existing Holy Roman Empire). The victory was concluded by the Treaty of Pressburg, signed by France and the Austrian Empire, thus establishing ‘peace and amity’ between the two polities.

But where is Austerlitz or Pressburg?; the latter name also spelled ‘Presbourg’ in French and ‘Preβburg’ in German.

Many of my students and colleagues immediately associate the battle’s name with the Gare d’Austerlitz, or the eponymous railway station in Paris. But they are quick to add that this station, built in 1840, probably was only named after the famous battlefield. Good thinking. More rarely, someone would identify this battle with the Dutch town of Austerlitz, near Zeist in the Province of Utrecht. But going ad fonts quickly yields the information that this Dutch Austerlitz was founded only in 1806 by King Louis Napoleon Bonaparte of Holland, and named so in honor of his brother, Emperor Napoleon’s, victory at Austerlitz. Further settlements bearing the battle’s name you can visit in the US states of New York and Kentucky, founded there in 1818 and 1884, respectively.

The timeline of the Napoleonic Wars, dotted with epic stand-offs, is well known, down to the very positions of the troops in every major battle. Clerks following each army did a good job of recording the events for posterity in praise of the victor and to condemn the defeated. Propaganda and spin-doctoring, dubbed as ‘news,’ have been with us since the beginnings of the modern age.

After a moment of vacillation, a student or colleague tends to propose that Austerlitz must be a town somewhere in Austria, usually forgetting that today’s Austria is a mere tiny corner of the former Austrian Empire that used to extend from Milano (today in Italy) to Lemberg, now Lviv in western Ukraine. A quick check on the map falsifies this hunch in no time. Austerlitz as a town almost never features on maps in historical atlases, because it was and still is too small to be sensibly and legibly included on the political map of Europe.

When you drive across Moravia in the eastern half of the Czech Republic, on the highway D1, about 15 kilometers north of the Moravian capital of Brno (nowadays, the second largest Czech city and the seat of the Czech Supreme Court), you will not fail to notice the gigantic cannon that invites visitors to Slavkov u Brna, near which the Napoleonic battle took place when this town was officially known in German as Austerlitz. Its Slavic (Czech, Moravian) name was Slavkov, but this Slavic form resurfaced in official documents only after 1882, when Moravian (Slavic) became coofficial with German in Austria-Hungary’s Crownland of Moravia.

Rather small even today, with the population of 6,200, nevertheless Slavkov u Brna, as the original Austerlitz, continues to be the largest of all the Austerlitzes in the world.

What then about Pressburg? Following the Sixteenth-century partition of the Kingdom of Hungary, when the Ottomans seized most of this realm, including its historical capital of Buda, the Hungarian capital was moved northward to Pressburg. In Slavic, the city was known as Preszporek or Prešporok, while Hungarian-speakers dubbed it Pozsony. After the founding of Austria-Hungary in 1867, Pressburg was officially renamed Pozsony. It was already a provincial backwater again, because in 1783 the Hungarian capital had been moved back to Buda (that following the 1873 union with Pest became the well-known city of Budapest). Unfortunately, History with the capital ‘H’ caught up with Pozsony / Pressburg / Prešporok in 1919, when the Czech troops overran Upper Hungary, making it into Slovakia within the boundaries of Czechoslovakia. The city was renamed ‘Bratislava,’ and elevated to the status of the Slovak capital. It enjoys this distinction to this day.

What is a moral of this story? Perhaps it is that the researcher of the past should take care to avoid the pitfall of anachronism by remembering well that not only borders change but languages, too. Furthermore, both are less durable than actual towns and geographical features named and renamed in a variety of languages and encircled by the snakes of shifting frontiers.

The story is not over yet. Two years ago, after boarding an airplane at Endinburgh Airport, midair, I was surprised by the pilot’s announcement that the flight was bound for Rock-Law, a city of which I had never heard. I nervously checked my ticket; it said that we should be flying to Wrocław in Poland, not this Rock-Law. But soon it transpired that ‘Rock-Law’ was a free-style anglicization of the pronunciation of the city’s name, because the pilot failed to check up how it is really pronounced. Try saying /vroh-tswah-f/ to the delight of your Polish-speaking friends. They also make an effort not to pronounce Brighton in the Polish way that would result in /brick htohn/.

CC licensed image ‘Stones‘ commemorating the Battle of Austerlitz by Jesse.

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