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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
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.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?