Picador, £18.99 Order at a discount from the The Independent Bookshop

Book review: Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, By Simon Winder

Hidebound and eccentric, the crusty old empire and its mixed folk gave a home to tolerance

If Hitler and Stalin sought to disperse and murder people, the Austro-Habsburg Empire united Serbo-Croats, Greeks, Bulgars and Transylvanians, Jews and non-Jews alike, in the cosmopolitan lands of Middle Europe. The double-headed eagle of Emperor Franz Joseph flew over the Hapsburg capital of Vienna as a symbol of monarchical tolerance, eventually to give way to totalitarian intolerance.

Get this book at a discounted price of £16.99 from The Independent Bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

 

Soviet Central Europe, with its grey, monocultural states, would not have been recognisable to the Habsburg emperor and his walrus-moustached officials. Stalin, by his murderous ideology, put an end to the region's ethnic diversity of Jews, Muslims and Magyars.

No writer articulated more poignantly the lost joys and tolerance of old Europe than Joseph Roth, born in 1894 in the Habsburg crown territory of Galicia. Haunted by the impossibility of being a Jew in a post-Hapsburg world, he took to drink and, in 1939, died in Paris aged 45, penniless. In Danubia, Simon Winder's amusing if exasperatingly long history of Hapsburg Europe, Roth is portrayed as a novelist of "pan-European yearning", whose work ranks alongside Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities as a meditation on the decline of the Austro-Habsburg world. Few today would wish for the Empire's return, says Winder, yet Hitler and Stalin brought in a new world "of viciousness far greater than anything the old German-Hungarian rulers could have dreamed of". Integrated minorities – Jews, Slavs, Gypsies – vanished overnight.

Winder's amalgam of travelogue and personal history follows on from his bestselling account of Germany, Germania, and is similarly infectious in its enthusiasms. In pages of cheerful, slang-dotted prose, Danubia dilates knowledgeably on the Habsburg dynasty as it flourished along the river from its source in Bavarian hills through Austro-Hungary and the Balkans to the Black Sea. Over the book hangs the ghost of the Triestino writer Claudio Magris's 1986 masterpiece Danube, which likewise mingled descriptions of inn-signs and cathedral spires with reflections on Danubian writers and composers.

Catastrophe struck Austro-Habsburg Europe on 28 June 1914, when Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. The equilibrium of Europe was now shattered, and two world wars would not be enough to repair the damage. Like Magris, Winder makes a pilgrimage to the Military History Museum in Vienna, where Ferdinand's blood-stained tunic is on display. Ferdinand's was the "most successful assassination in modern history", not least because it resulted in a vastly expanded Serb-ruled state only "finally dismantled" in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

The Habsburg interest in Italy, consolidated under the 1500-58 reign of Charles V, led to the appropriation of Venice and the Adriatic city's long, drawn-out struggle against Habsburg domination three centuries later. Winder tells the story of the seaport's ill-fated attempt in 1848 to resist its Austrian occupiers and declare an independent Venetian republic. Venice had become the Habsburg trophy city, on no account to be surrendered. The occupying army, led by Marshal Radetzky, pulverised the city with cannon and mortar until it capitulated on 24 August and remained a fiefdom until Italy's unification in 1860-61.

Winder, a Germanophile, is happiest when writing about East-Central Europe. Amid the 1066 And All That humour are lovely descriptions of the Budapest zoo, the spa town of Marienbad and other "ossified feudal niceties". The book is wildly digressive and at times magnificently boring; on the whole, though, Danubia is a hoot and well worth reading.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed