The Temporal Life of States: Central Europe and the Transformation of Modern Sovereignty

In 1882, a young adjunct lecturer at the University of Vienna by the name of Georg Jellinek opened his new book with a provocative observation. All the major theorists of sovereignty, whether Hobbes or Bodin or Rousseau, placed the singularity of sovereignty – the notion of a single, supreme, undivided power – at the core of their definitions. Yet these theories had no way of making sense of Central Europe, where compound states abounded, all characterized by different sorts of amalgamation or disaggregation. Jellinek diagnosed the problem: all these thinkers came from England and France. They abstracted from the experiences of western Europe and presumed them universal norms. Refracted through these ill-fitting frames, polities like his own Austria-Hungary appeared as aberrations or abnormalities, as problems that needed to be solved. But what if the theory – not the state – was to blame? What might happen if one instead theorized from here, if one devised conceptions of sovereignty at home in this more complex world?

The Temporal Life of States uncovers the adventure of finding out. It tells the unruly history of attempts to conceptualize sovereignty in and from this intricately layered, prodigiously diverse corner of the world. It is a story of both high-minded theorists, seeking the hidden key in the most abstract recesses of thought, as well as messy constitutional and international politics, with the very shape of states at stake. In reconstructing an intertwined history of orders of thought and orders of rule, it presents Austria-Hungary as a crucible for modern legal theory as well as modern states themselves. That young lecturer, Georg Jellinek, would become arguably the most famous and influential continental jurist of the fin-de-siècle world; his student, Hans Kelsen, would reshape legal theory globally and into the present day. Over the course of their lifetimes, meanwhile, multinational Austria-Hungary would roll through a series of experimental constitutional orders before being replaced at the end of World War One by a string of nation-states. The dissolution of the Habsburg Empire ruptured both political and legal-philosophical order: in confronting international law with the end of imperial sovereignty and the conundrum of state birth and state death, it set the stage for the coming era of global decolonization.

Drawn from Natasha Wheatley's book manuscript of the same title, this talk shows how the serial remaking and unmaking of empire in Central Europe placed extraordinary pressure on sovereignty’s two central fictions – its singularity and its immortality.

Natasha Wheatley is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Princeton University. She is an historian of modern European and international history with broad interests in legal and intellectual history. She completed her PhD at Columbia in 2016, and prior to joining the Princeton faculty she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Sydney. 

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