Holy Roman Empire, Hapsburgs; Continent: Europe

Danubia: A Personal History of Hapsburg Europe by Simon Winder

  • This book about dead emperors and their squabbling over territory is more fun than it has a right to be.
  • 512 pages including the Conclusion: plenty more detailed notes and bibliography after that.

I’ve waded back into European history with this book, but this time, finally, the focus is on a messy subject in European history: the Hapsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire (which became the Austro-Hungarian Empire). My high school history book offered as the reason for World War I that Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated, and then didn’t even bother with the usual handwaving to get around the more complicated aspects of that story (meaning all of World War I, pretty much).

I’m not alone in my weak knowledge of Central and Eastern Europe. In fact, if I passed out unlabeled maps of Europe to the twenty or so adult Starbucks patrons presently surrounding me, I very much doubt that most of these fairly well-educated Americans could correctly identify Hungary, the Czech Republic, Albania or Romania. They’d have a fighting chance at Poland, probably. I’m not much better, truthfully, so there’s no judgment here. In the U.S., our culture is full of francophiles and anglophiles, but the righthand side of the European map doesn’t hold our attention, and shame on us because, as author SimonWinder demonstrates, we’re missing it.

Danubia offers a means to shore up our understanding of how the Central and Eastern European map evolved without page after headbangingly dull page of which general killed whom to take which city. Winder has made the enlightened decision not to talk about every Hapsburg to ever have a portrait commissioned, just the ones that made a difference in one way or another. He’s also not afraid to render an opinion about which of the Hapsburg rulers were irresponsible or just plain stupid – words he uses himself – and he can support his argument in each case.

Major Theme of Nationalism (and Creepy Foreshadowing of Mid-20th Century Events)

It’s probably not reasonable to think you will absorb some 512 pages of nonfiction in any deep detail, but Winder has one theme he returns to repeatedly. That is, he believes that nationalism, the idea of a dedicated homeland for each culture, is dangerous nonsense. His argument stems from the earliest history of his region of interest. Eastern Europe was largely an unsettled expanse of forests and marshes right up until the Americas turned up on the map. People of all backgrounds drifted in to settle it, much as people arrived in the American West from all walks of life. Slow settlement of the area went on for centuries as all sorts of marginalized or persecuted or simply impoverished people came to the area to start over. I hadn’t realized this aspect of the region’s history: I had just assumed that every Serb or Slovak who wanted to leave and could afford passage on a boat left for the Americas rather than moving around within the European continent. Seems like a ridiculous prejudice on my part now that I admit it here.

The fallout of these centuries of migration and settlement from a variety of ethnicities is that the population of, say, Hungary, is not nearly as homogeneous as you might think. By Winder’s argument, not only is rallying around a national stereotype – food, dress, et ceterea – a fiction, but a dangerous fiction. After all, if you don’t fit the mold for your village because you are Jewish, Serbian or Croatian, then the neighbors can view you as some impurity in the cultural landscape, a problem. For much of Hapsburg history, Central and Eastern European countries fought wars over how to put people where they belonged and how to kick out people who didn’t fit the nationalist vision. German and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (what the Holy Roman Empire evolved into…the path is covered in this book) some smaller countries were mapped right out of existence to group the Slovaks and Croats and whomever else all together.

Lighthearted Writing Style

The spoonful of sugar to help this serious theme go down is Winder’s delicious writing style. In spite of his depth of knowledge, reading his book must be like sharing a cup of tea with him. He offers several good chuckles with his prose, not just a clever turn of phrase here and there, but actually saying bluntly what we readers can only be thinking when he describes an event or individual. He delivers levity to ward off any sense of drudgery to a topic where a lot of names and places need to be remembered.

The one inescapable aspect of this book that will kill it for some readers is that it is long. Winder’s many rambles throughout the region inform this book. So, while his voice offers a less buttoned-up view of the Holy Roman Empire’s history, the tradeoff is that he sometimes rambles in prose, too. He talks about composers, painters, artchitects and other great minds attached to a particular region or era. He’ll also describe present-day scenes which have replaced the historical ones. Often, these side trips on the road to learning about Hapsburg Europe offer worthy insghts. Sometimes they are merely interesting. Sometimes – I won’t lie to you – I just skimmed and kept moving.

Often I recommend a book for a long flight or for vacation reading. This one, however, you should probably plan on nursing along a chapter at a time for a while. Use it as your second book, if you like to read more than one at a time. Don’t mistake the “second book” suggestion as a weak recommendation: it’s well worth reading, but you’ll enjoy it more if you don’t feel like you’re plowing through the volume.

Image: Krumlov, Czech Republic. The Hapsburgs once controlled this part of the Czech countryside, now a picturesque tourist town. Source: Copyright John Jancarik, 1999.

2 thoughts on “Holy Roman Empire, Hapsburgs; Continent: Europe

  1. To be honest, I doubt if I’d even get Poland – and I’m supposedly European! Sounds interesting – like you at school the teachers tended to skim over the over all the happenings in that part of the world. The phrase ‘let’s not get bogged down in the Balkans’ was used more than once…

    • A pretty common school experience, I think. I honeymooned in Prague and the Czech countryside (hence the photo for the post), where the Hapsburg name came up frequently on tours. Reading this book helped me connect the dots, but it is a bit of a commitment. Thanks for the comment!

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