So, you will remember Jason Reza Jorjani, the so-called alt-right “intellectual” who loudly pretended not to support Nazism. I read his book, Prometheus and Atlas, and identified not just fringe history themes (including ancient astronaut claims) but an underlying pattern of Nazi and Nazi-adjacent material in it. Now, the New York Times reports on a Swedish student’s encounter with Jorjani when he thought no one was looking. The Swedish student went undercover as a member of the alt-right and caught Jorjani making exactly the kind of statements that I knew that Nazi-loving weasel would make as soon as he thought that he was speaking only to a sympathetic ear:
Mr. Jorjani imagined a near future in which, thanks to liberal complacency over the migration crisis, Europe re-embraces fascism: “We will have a Europe, in 2050, where the bank notes have Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander the Great. And Hitler will be seen like that: like Napoleon, like Alexander, not like some weird monster who is unique in his own category — no, he is just going to be seen as a great European leader.”
As miserable as I found it to read his book, I’m glad I reviewed it for an academic journal (to be published this fall) so that when future students try to do research on Jorjani and the alt-right, it is my opinion they will find.
One of the lesser problems with the alt-right is that their love of all things European, particularly Germanic and Nordic, sort of ruins it for everyone else. I wanted to talk a bit about an interesting historical artifact that I recently purchased, but increasingly to express interest in central European history is to be seen as embracing the alt-right. Look at the way imperial German artifacts have taken on Neo-Nazi associations after Neo-Nazis adopted the WWI-era imperial German naval war ensign (the white flag with the black cross and imperial eagle) as a substitute for forbidden Nazi standards. You’ll see one pinned up on the walls of every Nazi sympathizer, usually right next to their Confederate battle flag.
The good thing, I guess, is that since Hitler really hated his native Austria-Hungary, its symbols haven’t yet taken on rightwing connotations. Plus, it was a little too multicultural for Aryan supremacists.
As I’ve mentioned once or twice, one of my interests is European history, especially the history of the Habsburg Empire. At one time or another all of my ancestors from across Europe lived under Habsburg rule, and I still have my great-uncle’s third grade report card emblazoned with the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s imperial double eagle seal. Austria-Hungary had its troubles as an empire (and a full-on racist Hungarian government in Budapest), but as a cultural force, it held its own against all comers. And one of the things they did better than their rivals, aside from classical music, was design. The imperial eagle is iconic, but the Habsburgs did way more than necessary to make everything from public architecture down to third grade report cards far more beautiful than it needed to be. I suspect imperial officials hoped to create political and social unity through art when politics failed.
Over the years, I’ve collected a number of artifacts with the double-headed eagle, mostly Austrian but a few Russian. Some are contemporary pieces, but quite a few are originals. I have a wooden one carved, probably in Germany, in the nineteenth century, presumably as a tourist piece. I have an original Habsburg military belt buckle emblazoned with the eagle, and some coins from the period. I even have a Romanov-era brass box with a hand-etched imperial eagle surrounded by other heraldic motifs on the sides of the boxes. It’s not an official imperial piece; it seems to have been cobbled together in imitation of an imperial original, presumably by someone who wanted to ape upper-class style.
I used to have many of my eagles on display in my house, but recently it’s become a problem. The Habsburg eagle is a modified form of the Holy Roman Empire’s eagle, and both it and the double eagle of Russia are descendants of the Byzantine double eagle. In 1721 and again in the 1850s, the Russians twice purposely remodeled their Byzantine-style eagle to look more like the more prestigious Austrian version, in hope of appearing more European. So similar are they that many people mistake my Austrian eagles for Russian ones, and this is just another thing that Donald Trump has ruined. My eagles live in my office now until displaying one with two heads loses its political overtones.
Anyway, a few weeks ago I acquired a fascinating piece I found listed on eBay. It was a 37 mm seal stamp featuring the Austrian double eagle and some German text, all in imperial black and gold. I knew nothing about it other than it was warranted to be at least 100 years old. The graphic design was striking, and since it was less than $5, I bought it from a German dealer in seal stamps. According to the company’s website, they run a project where they buy European, primarily German, seal stamps, scan and catalog them for reference, and then sell the originals on eBay. Side note: I am astonished at how quickly the German postal service works. It came in only a couple of days and not the three weeks eBay estimated.
When I received the seal, I was impressed. It looked so sharp and clean that at first, I thought that I had received a reproduction. But, no, it was the original; the paper quality used by the imperial government was just that good. But I still didn’t know what it was or exactly how old it was.
That required some investigative work, and it wasn’t easy because pretty much no one cares about seal stamps, or has done much work to catalog them. As I learned, embossed seal stamps replaced wax seals in the middle nineteenth century as the official way European governments closed envelopes and correspondence to authenticate them. Pretty much every embassy, ministry, and organization had them. Personally, I find these to be much more interesting than postage stamps, which were used by anyone for any old thing. These had a specific purpose and were commissioned for long-forgotten government agencies. Weirdly enough, the value of these seals is not related to the importance of the agency using them. Instead, collectors value those what were issued by embassies and consulates from familiar European capitals rather than those used by central governments. A stamp issued by an embassy in London can sell for three times the price of one used by the office of a head of government or head of state.
Since there was no guide to the development of seal marks or seal stamps, the only information I had was on the stamp itself and similar stamps also offered for sale. The starting point is the German inscription: “Wien: K.u.K. Ministerium des Kaiserlichen und Königlichen Hauses und des Aeussern,” which translates (awkwardly) as the Imperial and Royal Ministry of the Imperial and Royal Palace and the Exterior.” As you can see, there was a variety of stamps from the same agency, and the development of the art style suggested a rough chronological order, assuming that they grew more refined and sophisticated over time. I have the nicest of them, I think.
To date the seal, I knew that the terminus ante quem must be 1915, since in response to World War I, the Austrian eagle received a patriotic makeover that changed the arms on his shield. The terminus post quem must have been 1867, which was the year that the Austrian Empire reorganized into the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. But to do better than that would require more specific information.
That required some quite dull research into the arcana of the Imperial and Royal Ministry of the Imperial and Royal Palace and the Exterior. The awkward name was a clue. Because the Dual Monarchy was made up of a nameless Empire (usually called Austria) and the Kingdom of Hungary, its organs were labeled (before 1867) Imperial-Royal (K.K.) (well, more or less; there are technicalities) and then (after 1876) Imperial and Royal (K. und K.). I won’t bore you with all the details, but its central government contained only three offices: the foreign ministry, the war ministry, and the finance ministry, along with the monarch’s official court. Everything else devolved to the various component parts.
For reasons too complex to get into here, monarchies in the German states combined their royal courts and foreign ministries into joint Ministries of the Palace and Exterior, but in most states the palace aspect had faded away by the late 1800s. In Austria, however, this was not the case, and the foreign minister assumed the position of head of government by dint of also being the titular head of the imperial palace and the Crown Council. I learned from a biography of one of the foreign ministers that from 1867 this ministry was called the Imperial and Royal Ministry of the Imperial Palace and the Exterior, as you can see from some of the older seals above. But in 1895, the Hungarians threw one of their periodic snit fits and received compensation by having the Emperor’s household renamed to include Hungary’s royal adjective. Thus, the awkward name Imperial and Royal Ministry of the Imperial and Royal Palace and the Exterior. You’ll see above that one of the seals features Hungarian writing and alternative spellings where an umlaut has taken the place of the “e” in “Aeussern” and a “z” for the second “s.” I’m assuming, though I don’t know, that this seal is later than mine for those reasons, along with the more modern look of the wider, condensed sans serif typeface, which is well on its way to becoming Helvetica, and the less frilly eagle, who appears more stylized. I know that the ministry was still using my seal’s spelling as late as 1905, when they published volumes under that name, though the umlaut had started to be used around 1904, albeit with the double-s, and I found an example of the change of spelling to “Äuszern” from 1914 in official documents and 1907 in the popular press. It seems to be related to changes to the Österreichische Kanzleisprache (Austrian chancellery-speak), the archaic government language of the monarchy, to bring it into closer alignment with usage in the German Empire, which was then Austria’s closest ally.
So, I’d say my seal dates from between 1895 and 1905, or perhaps slightly later. I’m sure someone who knows more about this than I could narrow down the date of my seal even further, especially if one had access to imperial documents to see the dates when each seal was in use. The bottom line, though, is that understanding a historical artifact requires understanding its context, not just the object itself.
I made my seal into a vector graphic, and it would probably make for a cool element to use on t-shirts, office supplies, and other merchandise, but so far it looks like it is prohibitively expensive to have such things custom printed at anything resembling quality, or there are really large minimum orders that make it rather ridiculous if I am not running a store to sell them.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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