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."

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence