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

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The Independent Culture

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.

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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.