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‘Danubia’ is a quirky exploration of the Habsburg Dynasty

Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe

By Simon Winder

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

560 pages, $30

By Edward Cuddihy


British author Simon Winder mapped out quite a formidable task for himself when he chose to chronicle in one hefty volume the entire 475 years of Europe’s rule by the Habsburg Dynasty. For comparison, the Tudors ruled England for a scant 118 years.

Now that Winder’s completed the task in a book he calls “Danubia,” the reader faces an equally formidable task of sloshing his way through the work.

Don’t be too tough on Winder. The Habsburgs ruled vast portions of Europe from the end of the Middle Ages to the outbreak of World War I. Their emperors and queens, kings, dukes and archdukes, were spread all over the continent in numbers too numerous to enumerate.

Through a combination of guile, cunning, longevity, strong genes and good marriages, the family counted its members on such far-flung thrones as those in Paris, Madrid and what today is Northern Italy and Belgium. But their base was the Danube: Vienna, Budapest and Prague.

In the early years, the family patriarch was crowned Holy Roman emperor by the pope, the bishop of Rome, somewhat of a misnomer considering the Holy Roman Empire never included Rome, and Central Europe never belonged to the pope. Then after the 15th century, the Habsburgs just called the electors together – by then most of them were cousins – and crowned themselves.

To make things even more difficult, the Habsburgs all seemed to have the same names. It reminds this critic of an earlier generation in South Buffalo when everyone was named John, Patrick or Michael. It was worse with girls. They either were Mary Something or Something Marie. So to distinguish from their cousins, they needed nicknames.

For the Habsburgs it was some form of Charles, Frederick or Maximilian, which might become Charles the Bald or Frederick the Nitwit. For the women it was Maria Theresa, Maria Christina or Maria Antonia (the unfortunate Marie Antoinette in French).

Once the family really got rolling, it was decided Habsburgs should only deign to marry other Habsburgs so, for example, Charles II’s mother also was his cousin and his father also was his uncle. We’re not sure how that works, but we’ll take Winder’s word for it.

Winder decided to cut through all this confusion with a combination of dry, urbane English wit, a reliance on the magic of storytelling and a pledge not to take this history thing too seriously.

Winder’s history falls into the category most academic historians disparage. It is a sometimes confounding combination of social history, political history, Winder commentary and a little modern travelogue. It’s a form he chooses to call “personal history.” Although the work includes an extensive bibliography, much of it works as fiction, and it lacks the usual endnotes to give a hint of where this material originated.

The casual reader will either love it for its belly laugh-provoking, tongue-in-cheek running commentary on the insanity of the European continent, or pooh-pooh it as not worth the effort. Even so, this book is intelligent and sometimes erudite, but just as often, Winder flips on the plebian switch with such profound descriptions as: “Nutty,” “total cock-up,” “loopy” or “stuffy nincompoop.”

It is notable that after all this research, Winder doesn’t seem to much like the Habsburgs or their culture. He describes 18th century Vienna as “brocaded people, who have not washed for quite a while, kissing hands.”

•  On Joseph Haydn’s religious music: “Comparative isolation-preserving forms of baroque piety.”

•  On the great Augustinian Church of Vienna: “Very ancient, extremely battered, and rather smelly working church ... where monks and congregations go to liaise with their Maker.”

•  On Hapsburg church art: “An elaborate sequence of crib scenes ... crammed with tiny people,” or better, “the Biblical flight into Egypt ... has all the interest and excitement of a long family car journey on a motorway.”

Winder does like Mozart, but doesn’t spend much time on him. The Rhinelander Beethoven, who spent his greatest creative years in Vienna, hardly gets a mention. And Winder appears to much admire the 18th century Archduchess Maria Theresa, the only woman ever to rule the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, but although he mentions her name 50 or so times, the reader never gets to know her.

He’s just as harsh on the Hapsburg enemies. “Napoleon’s career,” he writes, “will always be in some sense a quite boring enigma.”

Despite what he describes as “my latent Catholic genes,” Winder never misses a chance to snipe at the Habsburg’s Catholicism or its clergy. He describes the 17th century papacy as “almost a revolving door for semi-cadavers, with twelve popes in the saddle.”

And he dismisses the role of the Jesuits in European society with “if some of these highly intelligent men were gathered around a table ... almost everything they said would appear to be nonsense.”

The Hapsburg Empire, like all of Europe, was constantly at war. For the dynasty, the usual enemies were the Ottoman Turks or the Russians, the Magyar from Hungary or the Slavs from Poland.

To break the monotony of never-ending wars (which he duly chronicles but seldom describes in detail), Winder drops in lighthearted vignettes from his family visits to Habsburg cathedrals, fortresses, palaces and museums. He might even reveal what he had for lunch after visiting St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.

Simon Winder, who has authored another highly successful book entitled “Germania,” and who is editor of Penguin Press UK, is a little like everyone’s gregarious uncle, who upon entering the room, takes over the spotlight and beguiles his audience with tales of adventure, spiked with wildly witty personal commentary.

After the first hour – or the first 50 pages – you either can’t wait for the next page to turn, or you wonder if this self-indulgence ever will come to an end.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.