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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices