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Tales of the Vienna woods

The Austrians, A Thousand Year Odyssey by Gordon Brook-Shepherd, HarperCollins, pounds 25; From Charlemagne to Kurt Waldheim, the history of Austria is a nasty chronicle. By Edward Pearce
First, this is not "A Thousand Year Odyssey.'' We move from Charlemagne to Metternich in 52 pages. The text proper runs from Franz Josef's accession to 1994. But "A Hundred and Forty-Six Year Odyssey'' lacks impact. Don't blame Mr Shepherd. I wrote a book about the quite douce 1992 election, and a hype-intoxicated lady subtitled it, "The fiercest election battle ever fought". Truth, among publishers, is prized only above literacy.

But no publisher wrote this footnote about Franz Ferdinand: "King George and Queen Mary had a private reason for sorrow over the Archduke's death. Only seven months before, in November, 1913, Francis Ferdinand had notched up a great protocol triumph by being invited to Windsor Castle with Sophie for a pheasant shoot. (Renowned sportsman though he was, he found England's equally renowned high pheasants hard to cope with at first.)"

When Shepherd couples that long social cringe with a dedication, "To the memory of 'Nata,' Princess Natalia Hohenlohe-Schillingsfirst, a true Austrian and a much loved friend," frankly, you expect a worse book than this is.

There is indeed quite a lot of Richard Wattis's Foreign Office man from The Prince and the Showgirl walking backwards from a Serene Ducal Highness in this study. But Mr Shepherd tries to be fair. His tendresse for Habsburgs and nobility does not distort a largely melancholy chronicle.

Honest by its deferential lights, the book should only be read in conjunction with Ilse Barea's superb history, Vienna which chronicles working-class Favoriten and Ottakring, as well as the Schoenbrunn.

Even here, disillusion keeps breaking into the Barbara Cartland impulses. Apparently the root cause of the deaths at Mayerling was gonorrhoea. That lower-middle class venereal disease, lacking the grandeur of syphilis, apparently reduced Crown Prince Rudolf to serial pursuit of a suicide partner. It makes one grateful for the Prince of Wales.

A tougher girlfriend, Mitzi Caspar, laughed in Rudolf's face when in 1888 he suggested joint tragedy in the Vienna Woods. But for Mary Vetsera, "a pretty girl of such parvenu background....to go to bed with the heir to the throne was the peak of romance, to go to her death with him was to scale an even higher pinnacle." (Irony and Richard Wattis seem to be battling it out in that sentence).

If he is a snob, Mr Shepherd is a civilised snob. He detests the Nazis, and tries vaguely to be fair to the socialists. But if Franz Schunmeier, the moving spirit and teacher of the workers, doesn't rate a mention among all those Counts, his vision is one-eyed. Again, he shouldn't castigate the socialists' unruliness in parliament in the Twenties without pointing out that they were starting from scratch on a democracy the Habsburgs never let past the Rathaus.

Inspector Bretschneider, in The Good Soldier Schweik, hauls an innkeeper off to jail for saying that the flies had left their marks on the Emperor's portrait, was a good Austrian. So too was Engelbert Dollfuss, who smashed the workers with troops. Here Mr Shepherd is uneasy but exculpatory. A handy, if violent, corrective are the reports of Hugh Gaitskell, who was in the thick of it in the mid-Thirties and was revolted by what he saw.

Shepherd has some sensible heroes, such as Stephen Tisza with his instinct against war in 1914, and Leopold Figl, the genial, post-war Chancellor (from the anti-Nazi minority of Christian Socialists). But good guys are for contrast. Austria is as awful as fascinating - ringed by Slavs, some hating, some joining (and hating other Slavs) - and responding to German mastery with a voyeur's reverence for the ability to smash and conquer. Vienna was a multi-racial society all right, raising anti-semitism to levels unknown in north Germany.

The Church judged and was judged at the Anschluss, when Cardinal Innitzec said: "It is an obvious duty for we Bishops to declare ourselves as Germans for the German Empire, and we expect that all faithful Christians will also know what they owe to their people." As for the Habsburgs, they were the original selfish gene. The Imperial and Royal family judged everything for its Habsburg-friendly qualities. Witness the response of Franz Josef when Karl Luegere was elected Major of Vienna in 1895. The Emperor vetoed him, "persuaded that Lueger was nothing better than a dangerous demogogue." But meeting him after another electoral victory, Franz "soon recognised in the handsome, black-bearded orator precisely the "black-yellow" populist whom the dynasty needed in its capital." Is he a dangerous demagogue for me?

Luegere was a mixed evil. Incorruptible and energetic in social policy, he spouted a crass anti-semitism without belief because that was how you got elected in Vienna. And he was elected every time. There is a horrible Austrian continuity not always served by such insincerity. After 1945, early opinion polls showed 33-40 per cent assent to the proposition that Nazism was a good idea badly carried out. Last year, after 40 years of recovery, 22 per cent voted for the not-quite-not-fascism of Haider. But then Adolf Hitler was also, quite as much as Princess Von Hohenlohe-Schillingsfirst, "a true Austrian."