Every reviewer should declare his/her interests in a topic before typing the first word of the review. So here we go. Firstly my husband and his entire family were Czech. Secondly I regularly lecture on both “Habsburg Art and Architecture” and “Vienna’s Jewish History”. It is my working hypothesis is that there will never be a more scholarly, more artistic, more literate or more musical community than there was in Vienna between 1880-1933.
So I was a bit concerned to read Simon Winder saying that the Empire was “the plural, archaic, polyglot Europe once supervised in a dizzying blend of ineptitude, viciousness and occasional benignity by the Habsburg family”. The only ruler that Winder showed respect for was Emperor Rudolf II, my long time favourite among the Habsburgs. Rudolf II moved his court from Vienna to Prague on becoming emperor in 1583, and made it a great centre of research and alchemy. He maintained scientists (especially astronomers and alchemists), goldsmiths, antiquarians, historians, artists and exotic beasts on the royal payroll.
The rest of the Habsburg rulers were unhealthy (probably as a result of ruling males marrying their nieces to keep the blood line pure), constantly involved in military campaigns, constantly worrying about rivals within the family, brutal to animals and probably to humans as well, obsessed with religion and concerned with magic.
Emperor Franz Josef 1879
The empire that had started in lands along the Danube expanded ambitiously across Germany, Central Europe and points east. Strategically locating Vienna as the centre of the empire, the faithfully Christian Habsburgs had many enemies. Their biggest ongoing worry were the Muslims in the Ottoman Empire. And the Russians. And the French under Napoleon. But even within the Habsburg Empire, the Catholics clashed violently with their Protestant citizens during the 17th century Thirty Years War. It was all horrific.
Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe is a big book. Happily once we get to 1848, the year of revolutions all over Europe, the book becomes much more balanced and, I think, more interesting. The 53 million people under Habsburg rule spoke German, Hungarian, Moravian, Polish, Yiddish, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Slovakian, Romanian, Serbian, Ukrainian and some Italian. They were Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox and Muslims. And yes, I am certain they all disliked the Habsburgs.
But I am not sure if Winder explained how the later Habsburgs came to be regarded as the liberals who had successfully managed many nationalities, with cultural tolerance and support. After 1848 schools and universities thrived, theatres and concert halls opened, musicians and painters became internationally famous, quality newspapers and books were published, coffee culture blossomed, architecture became gorgeous and decorative artists created masterpieces. For decades citizens believed that Emperor Franz Joseph was the most principled, liberal and culturally supportive leader anywhere.
Of course empires come and empires go. And we can say that by the early 20th century, the once-indomitable Habsburg Empire was already fading. But when Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s met with Mr Princip in 1914, the unexpected death that launched WW1 did not, by itself, predict the Habsburgs’ imminent end.
It was only in 1916 that three events happened: a] World War I raged on catastrophically, b] the national independence movements within the Habsburg Empire were succeeding and c] Emperor Franz Joseph died, after a reign of almost 70 years. By 1918 the new Emperor Karl abdicated and new nation states were established in the former Habsburg territories. Few people seem to have bemoaned its passing.
What does a personal history mean? A focus on the author’s ancestors? A record of the author’s travels throughout the lands of the old empire? A less rigorous documentation of proper historical sources? Winder’s book is a mixture of formal history, travelogue and informal personal comments. I do not like chatty history and would not ask students to buy Danubia as their formal text book. But Winder covers the subject so comprehensively that I hope students cherry-pick chapters for colourful background material.
Simon Winder's book, Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, was published by Picador in 2013