Simon Winder, Danubia (2014)
You might think that a book subtitled “a personal history of Habsburg Europe” would be quite distant from our current preoccupations, would be dusty, nostalgic and quaint, irrelevant to the challenges we face today. You would be wrong.
This is a chronicle of the last few hundred years of the eastern part of the ancient Holy Roman Empire, which was ruled by the Habsburg family, generally located along the Danube river, and morphed into Austria-Hungary before its demise in the twentieth century. Over the entire length of that long period now hangs the shadow of the train wreck that was the Great War of 1914-1919. What happened there? How can we understand it, and how prevent it from happening again?
Those questions are not distant or irrelevant. They are ever more pressing, as the powers of division and conflict rise again, as tyrants and oppressed people struggle once more. As I read, I was repeatedly struck by the way things have not changed all that much at all, and at the same time how hard it seems to be for us to process the way things really have changed fundamentally. Will we ever learn?
Winder writes in a jokey, conversational style that could cause one to dismiss him as lightweight and not serious enough for such a big topic. Whether you find it engaging or irritating is probably a matter of personal taste. This is not an academic study, nor does it claim to be. It is a personal rambling through some personal pleasures and preoccupations, and should be judged as such. I would not take it as my only source of information, but as a starting point and an occasional source of laughter or jolt of recognition, it’s not bad.
For example, here is Winder’s description of Franz Ferdinand (whose assassination set off the Great War):
Of course we will never know if he would have been a “good” Emperor. It may well be that he had just waited too long and that whatever qualities he might have possessed had long curdled, lost in a maze of ritual, uniforms, masses, and — above all — hunting. His shooting skills made him legendary, belonging to that disgusting and depressing era when even the aristocratic hunting expedition became married to modern military technology, unbalancing the entire relationship of hunter and hunted, so that shooting partridges became like a proto-version of playing Space Invaders.
Academic it may not be, but it is vivid and memorable. Along with a vaguely chronological overview of the Habsburg rulers, who were a largely unattractive lot with occasional amusing eccentricities, we get interpolated commentary about Winder’s obsessions with things such as zoo architecture, folkloric villages, the music of Haydn, and much more. It’s like rambling through a historical museum with a talkative, witty, and easily distractible friend.
I did not ever really understand what happened in the time leading up to the war. It was such a tangle of nationalisms and bad diplomacy and self-aggrandizement that I could not wrap my head around it. But I did get this: nationalism is a dead end. Although Habsburg rule may have been terrible, the empire at least provided its diverse population with some room to move and interact and create, while after the empire fell, people were imprisoned in the narrow, dirty cells of their new nations. And of course, with a lot of people and entire ethnic/religious groups exiled, killed, or soon to be killed. We have to find a better way than this.
This is the kind of book I don’t like to read as an e-book (which is what I did). I would rather have the whole book before me so I can refer to former sections, look at maps and lists of rulers with confusingly similar names, and mark favorite passages. So if you do read it, I recommend paper.
If I can get my hands on a physical copy I might read it again, and I’d like to read Winder’s earlier book, Germania. Have you read anything by Simon Winder? Would you like to? Or is his personal take on European history not to your taste?