BOOK REVIEW: Danubia

Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe
Simon Winder
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Copyright 2013 by the author

Like his earlier Germania, this is not your typical political or military history of a nation. Nor is it a religious or cultural history – even though Winder does discuss those subjects. It’s not even a “People’s History” of the sort that Howard Zinn might have written. Instead, it’s what you might get if a good friend of yours spent months traveling across a large part of Europe, visiting a bunch of odd and out-of-the way sites of historical interest, then decided to weave all the stories of his visits into one fun and interesting narrative.

Winder lets you know almost from the start that the tale is going to be gloomier than the one in Germania, his history of Germany. Here, with the Habsburg Empire (to be later known as the Austrian Empire and then the Austro-Hunugarian Empire), the story is one of a long, slow decline with very few moments of glory. The inbreeding of the royal line had a good deal to do with that; the most noticeable result was the infamous “Habsburg Chin” defect. His ever-present wit and occasional light snark cannot fully hide that. You can only adjust a portrait of the Emperor so much before it loses all resemblance….

There’s an old libel that used to be trotted out whenever France didn’t agree with the geopolitical aims of the United States that made fun of France’s military record. It is noted that France was twice invaded by Germany just within the twentieth century alone, and one of those invasions led to their complete subjugation. What got overlooked in the sarcasm was that in both World Wars, France came out on the winning side.

The Habsburgs, however, really do deserve the dishonor that was given to France. At the end of the sixteenth century, they were the largest and most powerful nation in Europe, with lands from Spain to the Black Sea in their domain. But in the War of the Spanish Succession, they lost, and were forced to give up all their claims to Spain. Later on in the 1700s, they fought wars with the Kingdom of Prussia, and lost the province of Silesia – twice. They joined the coalitions to fight Revolutionary France and then Napoleon, and came out on the losing side every time. Becoming subjugated to Napoleon’s empire, they were dragged in to his invasion of Russia. We know how that turned out. A few decades later, when the Risorgimento came around, the Empire basically forgot to defend its holdings on the Italian peninsula, and lost them all. Very shortly after that, they fought a Seven Weeks War with Prussia. Their commander forgot that you couldn’t just have troops show up at the battlefield – you actually had to do something with them – and they lost the Battle of Königgrätz and wound up losing all their German provinces. The Great War that was sparked by the assassination of their archduke actually went pretty well for them (by the spring of 1918, they had actually achieved all their military goals), but it left them a hollow shell; comparatively minor invasions by Italy and a joint French-Serbian force popped the balloon. The result was the end of the Empire.

Winder, of course, tells the tale in a far more fascinating and witty account. For him, the Empire cruised along largely on inertia, because no one could think of something to replace it with. For all its clanky and wheezing faults, it did manage to keep at least nominal control over a hugely diverse population. And once that control went away, all heck broke loose.

He doesn’t explicitly say it, but it’s clear to me at least that the industrialization of the nineteenth century has a good deal to do with it. When you’re living in your little remote valley, you don’t really identify as part of an ethnic group with your own language and culture; it’s just the way you speak and the way you do things. But when industrial growth makes the cities boom, and railroads allow you to get to them, you suddenly find out that you are Czech or Croatian or Ruthenian, and why is the Empire not respecting you? So in the late 1800s, there’s an explosion of nationalist literature and music in the Empire. That’s good – but what’s not good were the slow, poorly-noticed population migrations that would have been called ethnic cleansing in any other context. As one example, the Polish city of Lwów (Lvov in the non-Polish speaking world) became Lemberg when its province was annexed by the Empire in the Partition of Poland. The Empire let it stay Polish in nature, and it reverted to Lwów after the Empire collapsed and Poland was reestablished. It became part of the Soviet Union after WWII, and is now the city of Lviv in Ukraine. The Polish population is long gone, driven off in the post-WWII border shift.

I can think of the Empire as a jalopy of a car that was assembled from components made by entirely different manufacturers. With a careful driver who doesn’t ask too much of it and keeps it reasonably maintained, it will last a long time. But once you stop being careful and take it for granted, it will tear itself apart.

It’s a good, informative, and entertaining read. Even at over five hundred pages long, it never drags. My only complaint is that it could use more photographs. It would be fun to actually see the places he visits! Winder applied this same style to his recent Lotharingia (2019), a chronicle of the lands between France and Germany that could have been their own country. His passion for the history of Central Europe is obvious. One has to wonder if he will soon turn his attentions to the Italian Peninsula, which, in the popular imagination, seems to have vanished from the face of the earth between the end of the Renaissance and the rise of Mussolini…..

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