The myth of a united Europe a century ago: the rise of Ludwig Von Bruck, founder of the Austrian Lloyd navigation company and lynchpin in the economic, cultural and social growth of the regions around the Upper Adriatic
The sea throws back shimmering golden reflections, millions of rustling ears in a field on fire.
This is the second afternoon in a row that Ludwig spends, one minute sitting, the next lying on a pier down in the port, next to a red-hot iron mooring bollard. His forehead and shirtless chest are pearled with sweat, his Nordic skin reddened but not satisfied by its exposure to the full, unequivocally Mediterranean sun.
He’s trying to read an edition of Herder that his father, a bookbinder from the Rhineland, has made for him as a good luck token for his adventure. The prose is inherently knotty, and the reading made all the more tricky by the glaring whiteness of pages in the sunlight. But with his eyelids reduced to the narrowest slit, Ludwig stubbornly reads on.
Herder’s history of philosophy is like an electric shock; and Ludwig realises this even though he’s very young. Or perhaps precisely because he is so young he can feel the irresistible, dark charm of the pages. The fascination that comes with the words of prophets announcing an impending storm; when they are announcing the truth.
Ludwig reads about the Roman Empire, destroyed by its inability to hold together the different nations that made it up; punished for having repressed them, for having underestimated the strength of their development and not having understood that their cause was invincible. Superior, even holy, because it coincided with the idea of freedom.
Freedom and nationhood, merged together in a single myth, in a single poem. Herder, thinks Ludwig sarcastically, is perhaps the only contemporary thinker of our time. The only one to have developed a convincing idea on the direction taken by history here and now, in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and who understands what is driving it’s engine of progress.
Stretching, he rises to his feet. The stopover in Triest will last until the flow of volunteers into his band of freedom fighters dries up. Ten days, perhaps a few more, split between the pier and ‘This too a Philosophy of History’, hand-stitched for him by his father. Then, God willing, he would have given his help to Greek rebellion. After centuries of anxious barbarism, Greece is calling to arms her spiritual children, scattered around the world. A nation to liberate, far away across a glittering sea in his mind’s eye.
Hiding behind a load of carob beans, Ludwig gets rid of his trousers and dives into the water.
But the Greek project was not to God’s liking, it would seem. The political refugees returning from there (some as stowaways, some, the lucky ones on rafts, that, nine times out of ten, get smashed on some Dalmatian reef) tell of indiscriminate massacres, cynical agreements between the powers and idealists sent to the slaughterhouse.
The last batch of volunteers fails to materialise and so Ludwig does not leave but decides to stay on in Triest and thus becomes ‘von Bruck’.
Since then there’s been no nation to free – but a lot of prose and poetry. He is immediately employed by an insurance agency, a sector then undergoing very strong expansion. The boy is up to the job, alert and self-confident. Ten years later and he is already the director of that agency. Ten years later still and he’s the main organizer and founder of the Austrian insurance company Lloyd, as well as the chairman of its board of directors. Another ten years pass and Lloyd has turned into one of the most powerful trade and navigation companies in Europe, going from three ships initially to twenty and each day transporting tons of people, goods and mail throughout the Mediterranean, from Greece to Egypt and Turkey, expanding to open agencies in Calcutta, Bombay, Ceylon, Singapore and Canton.
Now, Lloyd is the most significant economic hub of the Hapsburg monarchy. From within, its managers develop the idea of a ‘natural’ link between the Middle East and the area of central Europe through the agency of Lloyd, via Triest.
On May 12th 1847, in what had now become his city, von Bruck delivers a speech at the tenth anniversary of the company’s foundation before the annual general meeting of the shareholders. The central concepts are ‘pragmatism’, ‘confidence’ and ‘progress’.
It has not always gone so smoothly. During the first two years of commercial activity debts are about to destroy his plaything and the company only saved thanks to the generous help of the state.
A reluctant intervention, which indicates an overall relationship between the government of Vienna and Lloyd which is more than a little stormy and radically contradictory.
The whole of the Hapsburg monarchy’s foreign economic and trade policy is frozen in the framework developed by Metternich in the 1820s to restore an order which had been shocked by the meteor Napoleon. It is a policy which states that it is based on the principle of balance within Europe, but in reality pursues nothing more than the existing status quo.
Vienna, the pivot of this Continental iceberg, stays on its feet thanks to the Austrian props in place in the West: in northern Italy – Lombardy and the Veneto. Liberalism and nationalism are genuine threats and ‘blasphemies’ that the palace of ice looks on as potentially fatal.
Perhaps because he had read Herder, perhaps because as a romantic boy he believed passionately in his message, von Bruck realizes that his ‘child’, his company of the restoration has no future; that beneath the surface of the continent huge forces are about to be unleashed, spurred on by liberal and nationalist ‘blasphemies.’ And those who are orchestrating these forces in Italy and Germany are merely dust-devils, flashpoints for a potentially far more destructive hurricane directed at European peace and the survival of the monarchy.
Von Bruck knows that wheels as large as these, once in motion, crush everything in their path. Of course, one should not go along with these ideas. What you must do is run ahead of them and channel them into a vision that is equally, if not more, grandiose and ambitious. How clever.
Vienna must understand that, for her, the West is now a lost cause, that Lombardy and the Veneto are lost, and that it is imperative that she look to the East, ridding herself of her Metternich straitjacket and riding the wave of capitalism and free trade. To do this she already has a branch that knows how to take up the weapon of trade as well being able to look eastward. Lloyd.
And if in Vienna immobility reigns, then one must go there and shake things up. If the centre does not respond, the periphery will occupy it and become the centre in its turn. If the State reacts confusedly, with projects at odds with your own, take the State in hand and bend it to your will.
In 1849 von Bruck was appointed Minister for Trade.
Early in July 1847, Richard Cobden, leader of the British liberals, is visiting Triest. An official banquet is organised in his honour. And of course, the master of ceremonies can only be von Bruck himself.
With a phlegmatic calm, but conscious of having the eyes of the government fixed upon him, von Bruck delivers a speech in favor of free trade and prudent only in its form.
Immediately after he finishes speaking he gives the floor to Francesco Dall’Ongaro, a young and fairly successful playwright in Venice and along the coast who harbours nationalist ideas and sympathies. He hopes that Italy will join a commercial league, a prelude to policy of aggregation that would include Triest. Von Bruck stops him halfway through his speech. He rises to his feet and thunders: “We are cosmopolitan, we have nothing to do with Italian nationality or German for that matter! Our nation is Triest.”
Total confusion breaks out and the diners are is now split into two parties. A punch-up is only narrowly avoided. A shocked Richard Cobden acts as peacemaker.
Speaking out that day in a nervous atmosphere that encourages open challenges is von Bruck. But also Ludwig.
To von Bruck one must not touch Triest. In the architecture of his plan, breaking the territorial continuity between the city and Central Europe is like removing the card, without which the whole castle will tumble down.
But within him he remains Ludwig, the boy who wanted to leave for Greece in the name of the freedom of nations. Why ‘Yes!’ to Greece, why ‘Yes!’ to Germany but ‘Yes, but only in part, without Triest’? Is Triest not predominantly an Italian city ethnically? Is it not that powerhouse of Italians that has pushed him to learn the local dialect and sign himself â€œCarlo Lodovicoâ€ in his private papers?
The inconsistency is obvious. Thence comes the perfect twist, the intellectual kidney-punch that makes him cry out: “Triest is a nation”. To preserve in its autonomy, like all the others.
A city-nation itself, with, in addition, a very special role.
The point is that the European markets are expanding, fuelled by a solid and demanding middle class. There are increasingly wide mouths needing to be filled with raw materials from the East, and the channel between these two worlds is the sea that, by its very name, lies in the middle: the Mediterranean. With a port that works as an exchange valve: Triest.
For von Bruck the middle class, divided vertically by nationality, resting in fact on a shared horizontal plane, which is that of its consumption and daily requirements.
He looks beyond this, he looks ahead.
In addition to any national peculiarities, he sees a society of producers and consumers united in the same needs, but not only this – even sharing the same values and lifestyle, in the fundamentals of a material and spiritual civilization. He looks forward, because it seems clear that the physical and cultural environment in which this civilization expresses itself is in power, and, God willing, right across the continent.
The vision of von Bruck, in a word, a united Europe.
And the only hope that the Viennese Empire has to escape the fate of Rome is to drive civil and economic growth in its component nations to its maximum. Certainly not by ignoring them or setting one against the other, but by harmonising them in a pragmatic goal – associating them with a future of shared development.
Only in this way, will Austria remain the centre of a peaceful and confederate Europe, that Ludwig von Bruck has always called: Mitteleuropa.
But the project was only to God’s liking a century later. Perhaps… x
Author of this story: Patrick Karlsen
He is a PhD student of contemporary history at the University of Triest researching on the relationship between the Italian Communist Party and the border of the northern Adriatic. An essayist and poet, he writes for many regional and national titles in Italy.