DANUBIA: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe. By Simon Winder. FSG. 512 pages. $30.
Simon Winder's "Danubia" has the unmistakable raucousness of British comedy at its silliest, and it frequently meanders in any number of oddball directions, but it certainly leaves the reader with a good grasp of the role the Habsburg family played in the history of Europe.
As Winder points out, for many modern Europeans, the language they speak, the religion they practice, the appearance of their cities and the boundaries of their countries are a result of the "squabbles, vagaries and afterthoughts of Habsburgs whose names are now barely remembered."
Primarily, though, he is in awe of their sheer longevity. Not that he gives them much direct credit for it. Over some 400 years, often by accident, the Habsburgs found themselves ruling territories from the North Sea to the Adriatic, from the Carpathians to Peru, he writes. While more "carnivorous" rivals ended up in the dustbin, the Habsburg held sway by just plodding along.
Geography, Winder contends, determined to a great degree how Habsburg rulers behaved. Unlike France's "thorny borders" and England's seacoast, much of Central Europe was vulnerable to invasion. Each successive emperor, in his own fashion, was obliged "to turn round and round like a dizzy dog defending its drinking bowl," thus explaining the prime importance of the military in the life of the Habsburgs, though how effectively it was wielded was often open to question.
Winder states that "Danubia" is not a dynastic history, but he does take us, in rough chronological order through the story of how the Habsburg empire took shape and changed over the centuries through war, intermarriage and sheer serendipity. He also recounts his travels throughout the region, often to off-the-wall locations: tiny museums, obscure memorials, remote townships, goofy festivals and, perhaps most memorably, a guinea pig village.
Winder portrays himself as someone who can barely contain his enthusiasm over such things and frequently apologizes for the more bizarre side trips. Trust me, he has no need to. He is an extremely interesting fellow and a very good writer. While he may be a little difficult to follow sometimes, the journey is so interesting, exciting and very often laugh-out-loud hilarious, it doesn't matter in the least.
He is a master of language and the vivid word picture. He describes European contact with the new world as a case of "humankind's entire mental experience being hit by a flood of slavery, sugar, gold, silver, genocide, jungles, pirate ships, howler monkeys, Brazil nuts and toucans." With characteristic irreverence, he sums up the arrival of Protestantism in Europe as a time when "the Pope became almost overnight a fat, sinister brute, the figure in a thousand woodcuts, covered in rich vestments and jewels being chased down into hell." Transylvania is "a physical expression of mental breakdown." The preserved skeletons of saints in an ancient abbey have their "skulls resting on lurid pillows, looking oddly like Marlene Dietrich in 'Rancho Notorious.' "
In addition to his apparently bottomless store of quirky facts and figures, Winder seems to know a great deal about almost everything: art, literature and, particularly, music. He describes his doomed attempt to listen to all of Haydn's works as "trying to cram your mouth with a sandwich the size of a dinner table." And, without the music of Bela Bartok, he says, this book would never have been written. Such passion is highly infectious and is one of the many waves that carry us along with him on a truly exuberant ride through centuries of history and hundreds of miles of terrain.
But Winder can be serious, too. While appearing to be all over the place, he gradually, draws us forward through the last years of the empire into the cataclysm of World War I. He is poignant on several questions, particularly the fate of the Jews, whom the Habsburgs, he argues, had actually treated more kindly than the Prussians and Russians.
As nationalism took hold under the Habsburgs, Jews, who Winder calls "the empire's greatest cultural element," appeared increasingly to stand apart.
Theodor Herzl, whose 1896 "The State of the Jews" kicked off the Zionist movement, believed that the empire was "coalescing in a way which would exclude Jews and then kill them." Hitler, according to Winder, was so much an example of the late Habsburg mindset, he effectively "became" Franz Joseph in his insistence that Germans reassert their dominance over "mongrel" races. The metaphor, though a bit of a stretch, nevertheless makes Winder's point.
Simon Winder is the author of the London Sunday Times best-seller "Germania" and much praised, "The Man Who Saved Britain." The mixture of history, travelogue, anecdotes and just plain clowning around in "Danubia" could easily have descended into a mess. It is a tribute to both the author (and, I suspect, his editor) that a mountain of information, seasoned with a shamelessly personal point of view, was corralled into this glorious romp of a book.
Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.