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Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe

Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe

Автором Simon Winder

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Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe

Автором Simon Winder

4.5/5 (9 оценки)
756 pages
11 hours
Jan 21, 2014


A charmingly personal history of Hapsburg Europe, as lively as it is informative, by the author of Germania

For centuries much of Europe and the Holy Roman Empire was in the royal hands of the very peculiar Habsburg family. An unstable mixture of wizards, obsessives, melancholics, bores, musicians and warriors, they saw off—through luck, guile and sheer mulishness—any number of rivals, until finally packing up in 1918. From their principal lairs along the Danube they ruled most of Central Europe and Germany and interfered everywhere—indeed the history of Europe hardly makes sense without the House of Hapsburg.

Simon Winder's hilarious new book, plunges the reader into a maelstrom of alchemy, royalty, skeletons, jewels, bear-moats, unfortunate marriages and a guinea-pig village. Full of music, piracy, religion and fighting, it is the history of a strange dynasty, and the people they ruled, who spoke many different languages, lived in a vast range of landscapes, believed in rival gods and often showed a marked ingratitude towards their oddball ruler in Vienna. Readers who discovered Simon Winder's storytelling genius and infectious curiosity in Germania will be delighted by the eccentric and fascinating tale of the Habsburgs and their world.

Jan 21, 2014

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Simon Winder is the author of the highly praised The Man Who Saved Britain and a trilogy of books about the history of Europe: Germania, Danubia and Lotharingia. He works in publishing and lives in Wandsworth Town.

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Danubia - Simon Winder



Tombs, trees and a swamp » Wandering peoples » The hawk’s fortress » ‘Look behind you!’ » Cultic sites » The elected Caesars

Tombs, trees and a swamp

The southern Hungarian town of Pécs is as good a place as any to start a history of Habsburg Europe. It is hard to believe that it has ever been anything other than a genial provincial town – the unfortunate butt of wider international events, but not a place to initiate anything much. It is the last place heading south before the landscape gets terminally dusty, glum and thinly settled, so it has an oasis or frontier atmosphere and a sense that the cappuccinos are a bit hard-won. The scattering of great, much-mutilated buildings dotted about Pécs have all been repeatedly patched up in the wake of various disasters and the main square’s charisma is much enhanced by the gnarled bulk of an endlessly hacked-about mosque converted unconvincingly into a church when the Turkish rulers surrendered the town’s smoking ruins in 1686.

There is one quite extraordinary survival: a necropolis from when Pécs was a wine colony called Sopianae, capital of the Roman province of Pannonia Valeria. The most famous of these tombs was only uncovered in the late eighteenth century and features a set of frescos of scenes from the Bible. These were painted with the colour and sensibility of a mildly gifted nine-year-old child but rescued from inanity by the pictures’ age and mournful patchiness. There are Adam and Eve, Noah and his Ark, St Peter and St Paul all somehow clinging on – bits falling off here and there – through fourteen hundred years of life underground.

When the necropolis was built in the fourth century Sopianae must have been a fairly anxious place because of the nearness of the very restive Imperial frontier. It was not a strongpoint in any sense and if one of the Danube forts had given way then the news would presumably have reached Sopianae via a terrified horseman galloping only a few yards ahead of large numbers of terrifying horsemen. The people living here were Latinized, Christian Germanic Imperial subjects and had been part of the empire for four centuries. The very term ‘wine colony’ obviously sounds cheerful. There were baths, an aqueduct, a basilica – the usual Roman fittings – and it perhaps had a jaunty Asterix-like atmosphere.

One element in the Pécs necropolis is gripping not because it features pictures or any curious decoration, but because of something it lacks. One tomb, reasonably dated to about AD 400, had been prepared for plastering, but never plastered: somebody had gone to considerable expense to build it for a wealthy relative, but then left it incomplete. This is just speculation, but more than plausibly the tomb was left in this state because this was the year when Sopianae ceased to exist. Everyone involved with commissioning or building that tomb either fled or was killed or enslaved by Hun raiders. The next reference to the town is in a document some half a millennium later and there is not even a single brick that can be dated to after 400. Centuries of rain and soil accumulation buried the tombs.

The annihilation of this part of Roman Europe is the founding background to everything that follows. What would become the southern zone of the Habsburg Empire was for centuries a world without writing, without towns, with only residual, short-distance trade, without Christianity. Some people probably always lived in the ruins of towns because walls provided some security and shelter, but the water-systems and markets that had allowed them to exist disappeared. There was nobody who could repair an aqueduct once it broke so there must have been some final day when the cisterns simply stopped filling. Ephemeral chieftains might use a surviving chunk of a grand building as a backdrop for a semi-realized palace, but nobody knew how to dress stone and therefore nothing new could be built. For centuries the only towns were wooden palisaded structures protected by a ditch. It was against this backdrop that the notional ancestors of Central Europe’s modern nations appeared, wandering in from the east in what must have been pretty ripe-smelling military caravans.

Some clues about the fate of Europe after the Romans left can be found in Bautzen, in south-east Saxony. The town sits in gloomy woods and hills – and indeed is itself so gloomy that the great chasm that dominates it soaks up all colour, making even as lurid a bird as a jay flying into it go oddly monochrome. The chasm is created by the River Spree, a long way yet from its more famous role in Berlin. Even on a map, Bautzen looks an unlucky place – with mountain passes to the south which would tend to channel armies passing west or east into its vicinity. And indeed, in a crowded field, Bautzen must have a fair claim to be the most frequently burnt down place in the region, both on purpose and through accident.

Bautzen is interesting in all kinds of ways. It is part of the area known as Upper Lusatia, once ruled by the Habsburg Emperor (there is still a fetching image of Rudolf II decorating a watchtower) but given to the ruler of Saxony as a thank-you during the Thirty Years War in 1635. At a jumbled linguistic crook in Central Europe’s geography, Upper Lusatia was a partly Germanic, partly Slavic territory which would find itself inside the borders of modern Germany. Because of this most of Upper Lusatia’s inhabitants were sheltered from the massive ethnic cleansing that turned neighbouring Czechoslovakia and Poland monoglot in 1945. This accidentally preserved the old pattern, once common across the entire region, of German-speaking town-dwellers and Slav-speaking country-dwellers, in Upper Lusatia’s case a small group known as the Sorbs. So Bautzen is also Budyšin and the Spree the Sprjewja.

The town’s great value is in its origins – and what it says about the origins of the whole of Central Europe. This is an issue where the stakes could not be higher. Each nationality in Central Europe defines itself by being more echt than any other: as having a unique claim to ownership of the land through some superior martial talent or more powerful culture or, most importantly, from having arrived in a particular valley first. Objectively, the carbon-dating of your language-group’s European debut would seem of interest only to a handful of mouldering antiquaries. But through the labours of these fusty figures, it has become everybody’s concern – and a concern that has led to countless violent deaths.

This hunt for origins became obsessive in the nineteenth century as a literate and aggressive language-nationalism came to dominate Central Europe. Town squares filled up with statues of heroic, shaggy forebears and town halls became oppressively decorated with murals of the same forebears engaged in i) frowningly breasting a hill and looking down on the promised land; ii) engaging in some ceremony with a flag or sword to found a town; and iii) successfully killing everybody who was there already. Schools rang to the sound of children reciting heroic epics. This was at the same time a great efflorescence of European culture and a disaster as the twentieth century played out these early medieval fantasies using modern weapons.

The Bautzen region is so curious because it shows what was at stake in the Dark Ages in which all these nationalities could find their roots. Archaeological studies of Lusatia show that Germanic tribes lived here, comfortably outside the reach of the Roman Empire, from about 400 BC to AD 200, but that for some six centuries after that no humans seem to have lived there at all. It could of course be that these were humans who lived so simply that they no longer left burials, swords, pots, fort outlines or anything – but this seems implausible. For whatever reason there seem to have been very few or no people and the default forest cover which blanketed Europe grew back over earlier settlements, leaving nothing but wolves, bison and giant oxen to roam through the picturesque fog. The situation in Lusatia was extreme, but more broadly the population of much of inland Europe does seem to have collapsed. Barbarian raiders, Huns and others, who terminated Roman towns like Pécs seem to have also killed or driven off those living in the always quite small settlements north of the frontier.

In much of Central Europe trees are now merely a pretty adjunct to human habitation, although some thick cover remains in Bohemia and Slovakia. But the ancient tree cover used to be almost total except on very high, bleak land. If humans failed to cut the trees back then they would quickly return: a small settlement that failed through a bad harvest or through a massacre would vanish, its cleared land picked apart by millions of roots. The need to clear space and fight back the trees remained a major concern well into the Middle Ages, with lords offering land to peasants at a bargain rent if mattocks were needed (to clear tree roots), with the rent shooting up once the land could at last be ploughed. Even such famously grim and empty areas as the Hungarian Great Plain were smothered in trees.

The Germanic tribes which lived in a massive swathe from the North Sea to the Balkans seem to have seized up, retreated, diminished or moved to Britain, both because of attacks by Asian nomads and as a side-effect of the failure of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, as economic links frayed and vanished. A final major horror was the arrival in the mid-sixth century of plague. We have records of its devastating impact on the major towns of the eastern Mediterranean, but it clearly must have swept through trading routes deep into areas with none of the tradition of literacy that would have allowed the victims to record their own demise. There is a parallel with North America, where many tribal groups died of European diseases years before they were even in direct contact with Europeans. I remember a tiny, mournful display in a western Canadian museum, of moccasins and beads from inland Athabascans who all seem to have died, scattered unnoticed throughout the interior valleys. It is easy to imagine something very similar in the European interior, with plague following the thin trade routes up through the Balkans and settlements being destroyed and then their very existence smudged out by the relentless trees. The ease therefore with which small groups of Slavs, Magyars and Vlachs and others infiltrated Central Europe came from its sheer emptiness.

A striking glimpse into this untamed Europe can still be found in the Gemenc Forest in southern Hungary. When most of the Danube was reshaped and made navigable and predictable in the nineteenth century, the oxbows of the Gemenc region were left, both because they are so totally intractable and so they could be used as an archducal hunting ground. Arriving there on a hot summer day, it seemed placid enough. A helpful map on a board outside the forest marked out coloured trails and was neatly decorated with drawings of the forest’s massive deer plus some imperious eagles and an oddly frisking wild boar up on its hind legs like a circus poodle. This schematic and rational exposition was already under threat though because the board was itself covered in dozens of twitching, buzzing beetles – fetchingly, half ultramarine and half copper – which skittered about all over the lettering. The sunlight flaring off the beetles already made things seem a bit peculiar and threatening, but this was nothing compared to the reality of the forest. Within moments the neatly marked paths became almost overwhelmed: human order giving way to nature run mad, a foetid dementia of plant life, with hoots, squeaks and grunts filling the air and everything cloaked in stifling semi-darkness by the old trees. Within minutes I had already come across an immense, completely out-of-control pond, its surface choked in millions of seeds and with frogs mucking about on floating debris. A further pond flooded the path and only a few hundred yards in I had to turn back. This was a riotous deciduous jungle of a kind that seemed more Brazilian than Hungarian. I could suddenly see why centuries of drainage courses, weirs, mattock-wielders, grazing animals, the ceaseless, boring, human patrol-work needed to create our societies, were much more important than mere fleeting political events. In the end I walked for several miles on top of an earth dam next to the forest (the dam itself a colossal response to the oxbows’ periodic convulsive floods) and was rewarded with eagles, a brass-coloured doe of alarming size, a fox skeleton and a cowherd with his cattle and cowdog – but no boars. The lack of these noble animals could not detract from the extraordinary nature of the Gemenc Forest. Here was a small indication of what most river valleys must have been like in an era of very few humans. Just as the Ganges valley, now a burnt-brown treeless plain, used to be a tiger-filled mayhem of flooded, impassable forest, so much of lowland Europe was threatening to people and unusable. Most big European animals evolved for this habitat and would disappear along with it. But it was into a very swampy, tree-clogged and unrenovated world that small bands of warriors and their families began to infiltrate in the eighth century AD.

There is a particularly hysteria-edged frieze in the Western Bohemia Museum in Plzeň by V. Saff, carved in 1900, imagining the arrival of the ancient Czechs in a forest, torturing and killing their enemies, tying them to trees, strangling them. In the usual proto-Art-Nouveau style, the sculptor follows through on an ethnographic hunch that surprising numbers of the tribal womenfolk would be in their late teens and free of clothing. The sadism of the carving is oddly reckless and preserves the nationalist mania of its period: urging the Czechs to stop sitting around reading newspapers and sipping herbal liqueurs and instead to embrace the burly virtues of their forebears. In practice we do not of course have any sense at all of what these ancient Czechs were like and Saff may not be entirely wrong about their savagery: although occasions on which women with amazing breasts swung around a severed human head by its top-knot were probably infrequent.

Romanian nationalists cleverly trumped everybody by claiming descent from the Romans, inhabitants of the old province of Dacia. This messed up all the Slav groups and the Hungarians, who had between them established a fairly clear AD 600–900 arrival date. A feature of several Romanian towns is a copy of the Roman statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by their adopted wolf mother. This bizarre gift was handed out by Mussolini in the early 1920s to suggest none too subtly that his own new empire had a racial ally, a fellow Child of Rome. There will be plenty more of this sort of stuff as the book progresses, but I hope it is already clear to every reader just how freakish and peculiar history’s uses have been in the region.

But as was the case for everybody else, it seems in fact the Romanians arrived from elsewhere – probably from the more Latinized areas south of the Danube, modern Serbia or Croatia, which would explain why so rough and marginal an area of the old Roman Empire as Dacia should have kept its Latin flavour in an otherwise drastically changed region: it didn’t. This unwelcome result should make all the rival nationalist historians throw up their hands in jokey horror, call it quits and have a non-ethnically specific drink together. If the Romanians have a mystic heartland that turns out actually to belong to another country then we may as well all just go home.

To take too strong an interest in this subject is to set out on the high road to madness. The extreme mobility of all these tribes is bewildering and the almost total lack of written records for centuries does not help. The overall picture seems to be a retreat by Germanic tribes into the west and the arrival of Slavic tribes, seemingly from a start-point in what is now eastern Poland, mixed in with further post-Hun invaders from various steppe tribes, from the Avars to the Magyars. Indeed, in a despairing variant, the elites of the original Croats and Serbs may have been speaking an Iranian language, which is the point where I think anybody sensible just gives up. Arrows drawn on maps build up into an astonishing spaghetti of population movement, charted through pot-fragments, house-post remnants and casual, perhaps frivolously made-up comments written down by poorly informed monks living centuries later and far away. The net result of these migrations can clearly be seen today. The ancestors of the Czechs settled in a region protected by a crescent of mountains (the Iron Mountains and the Bohemian Forest Mountains) that happened to shield them from German and Frankish predation. Their fellow Slavs in the north and south, the Saxons and the Carantanians, were destroyed by invading Germans and the survivors converted into German-speaking Christians, bequeathing only the names Saxony and Carinthia. Further east and south the early Moravians, Slovakians, Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgars, Poles, Ruthenes, Croats and Serbs spread out (and in themselves had numerous further subdivisions which have since been erased), generally under Avar

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  • (5/5)
    Half an hour's drive north of me, following the path of the River Reuss, is the little hamlet of Habsburg. The first time I saw it on a roadsign, I assumed it was a coincidence, since the House of Habsburg is something I would generally associate with the bustling metropolises of Austria and Hungary, not a damp cowfield in the back end of the Aargau. But sure enough, this turns out to be where the whole gargantuan dynasty acquired its name.The ‘castle’ here was built in the 1020s, when castle technology was still pretty basic – it's really just a biggish drafty house with a little donjon tower attached, perched on a drab hillock. A minor count called Radbot built it, dubbing it, rather aspirationally, Habsburg or ‘Hawk Castle’. From the top of its low tower, you can pick your way around the splotches of pigeon poo (and indeed around the pigeons themselves), and peer hesitantly out of the embrasure – towards Vienna.It seems an inauspicious beginning for what would become the most powerful family in continental history, and indeed I only mention it here because even Simon Winder, in this mad, exuberant, generous history of Habsburg Europe, chooses not to begin until four centuries later, when one of them first became Holy Roman Emperor. It's one of many things that Winder cheerfully skips over, as he makes a great show of the sheer unmanageable scale of his subject – he is not averse to rattling off comments like the following:Incidentally, it is generally around here that anybody writing about the Habsburg Empire is obliged to have a section on people like the Empress Elisabeth and her son Crown Prince Rudolf, but really if these people are of interest you should probably just look them up on Wikipedia, which has excellent entries.With even a smidgen less authority this would all seem dreadfully flippant, but fortunately it is soon obvious that Winder's knowledge, and his grasp of the material, is much greater than he's letting on. The mock-dilettantism is just one aspect of a fantastically engaging and discriminating narrative style, a style that sometimes seems to owe as much to Douglas Adams as it does to AJP Taylor or John Julius Norwich. The result feels rather like talking to a great historian in the bar after their lecture.This was one of those books that had me throwing up my hands with a renewed sense of how little I know: every chapter, every page, revealed enormous new vistas of my own ignorance. It was particularly galling since I've travelled a fair bit in the Balkans and other parts of ‘eastern Europe’ (an unsatisfactory phrase, as this book makes plain), and had quietly prided myself on knowing something of the area's history and culture. But in fact what was totally obscure to me was the extent to which this region had been connected to the west; the extent to which cities such as Lviv, Debrecen or Cluj were (in Winder's words) ‘part of a culture rooted in mainstream European values’, indeed a culture that was thought of as being at the heart of Europe's identity and character until really the twentieth century.Though Winder is careful to stress again and again the problems and contradictions in the Empire, it is hard not to be a little swept up in the sheer romance of a single entity that stretched from Bregenz on the shores of Lake Constance all the way to Braşov in the middle of what's now Romania, from Kraków or Prague in the north down to Trieste, Sarajevo, and the Croatian coast. In the context of the tumultuous convulsions that this region experienced over the last five hundred years, the Habsburgs themselves emerge as a rather baffling constant: always rather distant, sometimes downright inconsequential.Many are scarcely distinguishable – a tangle of Ferdinands and Leopolds – though some have attained a kind of legendary status, such as Rudolf II, who was obsessed with the occult and who had a lion and a tiger wandering round Prague Castle. And most of them were afflicted by various abnormalities that resulted from the generations of in-breeding – notably the famous ‘Habsburg jaw’, which makes a family tree of the Habsburgs look like a series of Jay Lenos in fancy dress; it affected one of the Leopolds so badly that his mouth would fill with water every time it rained.Winder keeps you distracted with bear-moats and lunatics while sneaking in a huge amount of geopolitical history under the radar. And approaching European history from this direction gave me a very new, and sometimes quite revelatory, angle on things like the Reformation, the Thirty Years War, or the revolutions of 1848. This is especially the case towards the end of the book as the First World War looms into view. From a British perspective, 1914–1918 is vaguely thought of as having been about fighting Germany, along with a few of their allies; this is all very well, but it does mean that the killing of some pooh-bah named after a post-punk indie band in an obscure part of Yugoslavia seems like an inexplicable reason for a global conflict. Here, though, coming at it through the morass of Imperial nationalisms and separatist movements, I felt things slotting into place in a completely novel way.It's perhaps surprising that a book this chunky – upwards of five hundred pages, before you hit the bibliography – ends up feeling so selective, but such is the result of Winder's faux-snap decisions about what is and is not of interest: he succeeds in building a powerful cumulative argument. This has to do with the fact of the Empire's being a ‘chaos of nationalities’, where ‘the very idea of “nation” was an unresolvable nightmare’.Instances of quite how contingent Central Europe is, in linguistic or political terms, are everywhere. Béla Bartók can stand for innumerable other examples: generally thought of as a ‘Hungarian’ composer, almost none of the places that formed him lie within the borders of the modern Hungarian state. He was born in Nagyszentmiklós (now the Romanian town of Sânnicolau Mare), then moved to Nagyszőllős (now the Ukrainian town of Vynohravdiv), then to Nagyvárad (now the Romanian city of Oradea), and then to Pozsony (now the Slovakian capital Bratislava). Indeed Bratislava itself only acquired its name in 1918, plucked more or less out of thin air by Slovak nationalists squinting heavily at some old manuscripts – before that, it had only ever had German and Hungarian names (Preßburg and Pozsony).Similar examples are piled up, until the overall sense is of an entire gigantic region whose multilingual, multiethnic nature has been obscured only by successive (and recent) waves of expulsions and massacres. The point is not a fluffy one of the necessity of getting on with each other (though certainly Winder comes to have an extremely negative view of nationalism, comparing it at one point to bubonic plague); no, the point is just that the borders and divisions of Central Europe are characterised by their near-total arbitrariness, with most of the modern nation-states having only the most cursory historical justification once the poetic myth-making has been set aside.I found this very moving, for reasons that are difficult to explain – or, perhaps, that are too obvious to go into. Winder enriches his story with just the right amount of personal anecdotes about his travels around the region – it never feels like someone talking through their holiday photos armed with a stack of museum pamphlets, which is the danger with this kind of project. And his constant references to the music and literature mean you will come away with a healthy further reading list.It was a pleasant surprise, reaching the end, to find a note saying that an underlying inspiration had been Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which is perhaps the single book that impresses me more than any other. Danubia is not at that level, but the comparison – which hadn't occured to me while I was reading – helped me understand why I liked this so much. Though it's not perfect, it has a similar ability to uncover a wealth of fascinating detail, and also manages to draw a plausible, cumulative thread out of such an overwhelming historical and geographic scope. I thought it was fantastic, and every farmhouse in the Aargau should have a copy.
  • (4/5)
    Very enjoyable- in the end I still might not understand the history of Central Europe other than it was not a very safe place to live much of the time, but highly enjoyable
  • (3/5)
    For centuries vast swathes of central and southern Europe was ruled by a single family, the Habsbergs. They overcame all attempts by rivals to conquer them, until the end of the Great War when the devastation caused by that event was the final straw.

    In this substantial book, Winder tells the history of this odd family, and more importantly the places that they ruled. It is packed full of fascinating stories and strange tales of this eccentric family and their lands. There is way too much to pack into this short review, but it is a fascinating book, written with wit and humour too. Well worth reading.
  • (5/5)
    There are not many books that I read twice; life is short, there are so many books to read, and my attention span does not get longer over the years. Simon Winder’s “Danubia” is however well worth the sacrifice. It is a richly layered non-historians’ history of the Hapsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire over which they presided for 300 years or more. Although it does roughly follow a chronology, the reader is not aware of the usual historiographical sequence of kings, wars and battles. The author deliberately eschews this approach, and focuses instead on the personalities of various Hapsburgs and – even more – on the personalities of the many places in the vast lands that they controlled. His descriptions of places of which you have never heard – many because they have changed their nationality and names so many times – slide effortlessly in and out, from a narrow focus on an obscure objet in a dusty display cabinet, or a long forgotten coat of arms on the wall, to the broad significance of the town or its locality during centuries of war, the annihilation of populations, the movements of people, and the changing of national identities and languages. The many places that the author knows so well – from their minutiae to their macroscopica – have transformed a latent interest in Hapsburg Europe, into one which now has me actively planning road trips in Bohemia, the Tyrol, Serbia, Hungary, Romania, and Transylvania. Prior to reading this book, I was as likely to ever be making any of these trips as I was to read the book a second time. Winder’s knowledge of both the history and the lands is equaled only by his broad and deep historical sensibility, and his wonderful sense of humor. Apart from its many other delights, this book made me frequently laugh out loud – even the second time around. I don’t exclude the possibility of a third round.
  • (4/5)
    This is a decidedly quirky history of the Habsburg holdings, one with references to heavy metal bands as well as the Habsburgs' famous facial features. Winder spices up his text with odd details like the collecting predisposition of the Habsburg emperors and skips over a number of rulers and even more battles and dates, but conveys a good deal of information about the rise and fall of the Habsburgs and their empires. As the title indicates, he focuses on Central Europe but does not neglect the Spanish Habsburgs. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and goot a better grasp of Central and Eastern European history from Winder.
  • (4/5)
    This book, by an Englishman born in 1963, is an account of the Habsburgs from the 13th century, when Rudof of Habsburg was elected Emperor, down to the 2 0th century when the Empire disappeared after the Great War. The author has spent a lot of time going thrugh cities and museums in the area which was once Austria-Hungary, and discussed much besides Hbsburgs, such as pages on music including an encomium to Bela Bartok. Some of the discussion is boring but there are keen insights and humor in his knowledgeable exposition of events over the centuries, including often humorous insights. His summary of the events in the 20th century is fast-paced and I thought pretty accurate,
  • (5/5)
    Entertaining ramble through Bohemia, part history, part travel guide to some of the more obscure parts of the old Austro-Humgarian Empire. It isnt really a history of the Habsburgs, as such, since it devotes much more space to the Bohemian Habsburgs than the Spanish or Low Countries Habsburgs. Heavy emphasis on the bizarre and the sensational makes for a sometimes wacky tour, but its a page-turner and maintains interest to the end. Recommended for lovers of goulash, polacky, sacher torte and other assorted Bohemian treats.
  • (4/5)
    Danubia is a very quirky book - part history, part travelogue - written by a very witty Englishman. It describes the land once ruled by the Habsburg family, who formed governments dominated by Germans and Hungarians, even though the people over whom they presided were a mixture of various and numerous Slavic nationalities (Polish, Croatian, Czech, Slovak, Ruthenian, Slovenian, Galician, Bukovenian, etc.). In addition, the history of the area requires a discussion of the influence of the Serbs, Romanians, Bulgarians, Kosovars, Albanians, and Turks, not to mention the Avars, Huns, and Ostrogoths.Through most of their reign, the Habsburgs each took the title of “Emperor.” Often the "empire" in question referred to the Holy Roman Empire, founded by Charlemagne, but which (in Voltaire’s mot juste) was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the title referred to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In all years, the extent and degree of power exercised by the Emperor differed greatly among various corners of the empire. Winder’s droll observations about the ramshackle “government” operated by the Habsburgs are informative and often downright hilarious. For example, he first describes the results of a “final flourish of Habsburg genetic stupidity” when Emperor Franz I married his first cousin and sired an heir (Ferdinand) who suffered from physical handicaps and could not father children himself. Rather than seek a competent successor to rule, the Emperor insisted on maintaining “legitimism.” Winder states:"Charles X may have been stupid, vengeful and incompetent, but he was the rightful King of France. For Franz I to pass over his son Ferdinand for a more suitable heir would be dangerous as well as virtually republican. So the inflexible and God-fearing Franz insisted on being succeeded by someone effectively incapable of ruling.”Winder withal is often trenchant and original. For example, he notes that in the spring of 1918, every conceivable Habsburg war aim had been met:"…[with their] borders not only secure but all the countries beyond them prostrate. No Russian army could ever invade Hungary again, no Serb army Croatia, no Romanian army Transylvania. All that remained was to stand by and wait for the Germans to defeat the British, French, and Americans and all would be well.”However, even though none of the soon-to-be victorious powers had made any commitment to break up the Empire, its internal ethnic tensions were so great that the Empire simply ceased to exist. The organization of the book is somewhat whimsical. Rather than proceeding in a strictly chronological manner, Winder writes of his peregrinations in the area, and regales the reader with stories associated with each particular location at which he happens to stop. He can be a bit frustrating in that he frequently refers to specific paintings or buildings (with which he seems to assume the reader is familiar) to illustrate a point, but does not furnish the reader with a picture or reproduction that would clarify those illustrations. Nevertheless, I can overlook that flaw because most of the writing is quite sprightly and irreverent — one can almost hear a British accent in his prose. A number of maps are included. Evaluation: It would be hard for anyone to find this playful and entertaining history tedious. Winder gleefully adds snarky commentary to his descriptions of “the very peculiar Habsburg family: an unstable mixture of wizards, obsessives melancholics, bores, musicians and warriors….” As Winder argues, the history of Europe hardly makes any sense without the Habsburgs, so he tries (successfully) to make the process of learning about it as painless as possible. Not only does he inject plenty of humor into the story, but he simplifies the details as much as necessary to spare readers a “pedantic horror show.” (For example, the full title for Philip “The Handsome” was Philip I of Castile, Philip II of Luxemburg, Philip III of Brabant, Philip IV of Burgundy, and so on and so on. Winder just calls him “Philip The Handsome.”)Even if you ordinarily avoid history, this book is pretty fun. Yes, you learn about wars and rebellions, but also about alchemy, bear-moats, hunting with cheetahs, decorative bull skulls, Maria Teresa’s breakfast nook in the zoo, and the complications of the huge jaw characteristic of the inbred Habsburgs. (It was said Charles V could not eat in public because of it, and “the women in portrait after portrait appear to have a sort of awful pink shoe attached to their lower faces.”)(JAB)