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Friday, July 11, 2014

Danubia. A Personal History of Habsburg Europe. Simon Winder. Picador (2013)

Engaging and unexpected, Simon Winder meanders through the astonishing history of Central Europe via the Habsburg family and the Empire they collected, managed and finally lost. The sub title is a very accurate pointer to the structure and intent of the book, essentially following a chronological structure, the book follows the highways and byways that Simon Winder finds interesting rather than formally following any more distinct structure or historical thread. This really is a guided tour lead by a very knowledgeable and frequently funny guide who is never short of an opinion or afraid of expressing it.
The dominant themes of the book are, in no particular order, music, architecture, geography, the astonishing luck of the Habsburgs, writers and their works and the appalling and continuing cost of the disintegration of the Empire they improbably assembled and ruled.
One of the very many attractive aspects to this book is the constant focus Simon Winder keeps on the the fact that Habsburg Europe was full of people who bore the burden of history while never being recognised by it. He has a tremendous sympathy for the populations who were constantly trying to simply live and if possible thrive in a constantly rippling and absurd entity. Central Europe was never truly peaceful, there was always some powerful ethnic, religious and political currents combining together to mean that some of the spinning plates on the Empire were under threat all the time. Simon Winder consistently finds the space and time to acknowledge in telling ways the people who were caught and frequently smashed by these currents.
The power and understated importance of geography is given its full due in the book, Central Europe has borders but it does not have barriers,n neither mountains nor seas provided protection from its succeeding range of invaders. The most important of which were the Ottomans, the importance of whom as a stabilizing force was only fully apparent after they stopped being the dominant problem. The nature of the threat they posed, taking whole towns and cities capture, not to keep but as a source of booty and slaves, the immense length of the border and worst of all the time they could take between attacks is made clear.
The story of how the Habsburgs arrived at running the empire and how they remained running it is tragic, hilarious and frankly completely unbelievable if it were not actually true. It passes by any credibility on its way to insane excess, inbreeding and preposterous levels of luck and inertia. Simon Winder does full justice to the deadly serious ridiculousness of the whole process.
As much as people, places built by people are a vital expression of the wishes, desires, plans and dreams of any population. Simon Winder has traveled to an astonishing array of castles, barracks, towns, and used to be somewheres and gives vivid and feeling descriptions of what they are still declaring to the world. This gives a strong physical sense of the ways Central Europe changed, in particular as the historical and current names and locations are given which are little capsules of the eye opening transitions that have taken place across Central Europe.
This is a wonderfully enthusiastic history by someone who wants to share his fascination with the subject, it could easily have descended into a incoherent mess of details and opinions, Simon Winder's discipline and careful control of the material have delivered a luminous and deeply engaging book instead.

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