Review of “Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe” by Simon Winder

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.

Hapsburg Empire 1914

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.”)

Christoph Amberger’s portrait of the Emperor Charles V

Christoph Amberger’s portrait of the Emperor Charles V

Rating: 4/5

Paperback copy purchased in Vienna published by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2013

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