Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, by Simon Winder, Picador, RRP£18.99, 560 pages

One wonders how the Habsburg family ever came to power, or held on to it. Their most famous members were eccentric, mystical, impractical, sickly and given to bizarre obsessions; they had to fight off rivals, invaders, rebels, even the disastrous genetic effects of their inbreeding. At one point they were almost brought crashing down by their own overgrown chins: the emperor Charles V found it hard to eat in public, while the Spanish king Carlos II could barely speak, besides being mentally infirm. Yet, from their rise in the 13th century, they became the most durable of dynasties, dominating huge areas of central and southern Europe more or less convincingly until 1918.

Any popular historian who tackles such a story needs chutzpah and tenacity, and Simon Winder has both in abundance. After the success of his Germania (2010), a spirited sweep through German history, he now brings us Danubia, which does the same for the Habsburgs and their central European heartland (not their Spanish branch – perhaps there is a Hispania to come). It combines history, travelogue and digressive personal essay. Winder is a puppyishly enthusiastic companion: funny, erudite, frequently irritating, al­ways more in control of his material than he pretends to be, and never for a moment boring.

The great arc of Habsburg success begins with Rudolf I of Germany, King of the Romans in the 13th century, then goes imperial with Frederick III, who graduated to Holy Roman Emperor in 1452. His descendants inherited this title and added more, then worked their way through the great European upheavals: wars in Italy, invasions of Turks, the Thirty Years War, more invasions of Turks, the War of the Austrian Succession, the Napoleonic wars, the 1848 revolutions, the rise of Pan-Slavists and rebel nationalists, and finally the slide into the first world war and the end of it all. Winder avoids lingering on familiar historical events and at one point (the double suicide/murder of Crown Prince Rudolf and Marie Vetsera in 1889) he even sends us off to look it up on Wikipedia. Instead, he concentrates on what he finds interesting, and that proves to be a lot.

He is brief but good on my longtime favourite among the Habsburgs, Rudolf II, who moved his court from Vienna to Prague on becoming emperor in 1583, and made it an extraordinary hub of curiosity and research, some of it bonkers. He kept painters, astronomers, alchemists, goldsmiths, gardeners, antiquarians, historians, a dodo, a cassowary, a lion and a tiger – the latter two allowed to roam freely in the castle corridors. This sounds rather wonderful until one looks into the account books, which detail the sums paid out to families of staff maimed or killed by them.

Such careless cruelty was exhibited by others in the dynasty. When emperors chased herds of deer into deep pools before shooting them, or tossed foxes in blankets before clubbing them to death, Winder asks, what were they trying to prove? All aristocrats hunted, but there was a degree of compulsion about the Habsburgs’ blood-sports, especially in the case of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who killed around 300,000 animals and kept a precise catalogue of their deaths in his logbooks. What a sad coda that makes to Rudolf’s mania for collecting and enumerating the world’s marvels.

By this stage, the Habsburgs were struggling under the weight of their own mystique, and as the 20th century dawned, it was all over bar the shooting. Winder takes us into Franz Ferdinand’s fatal confrontation with Gavrilo Princip – his “floundering final hours, ostrich feathers everywhere, his body bulging in an absurd uniform”, as the archduke sees an unfamiliar end of the gun. His death sets off the first world war, and the war brings the Habsburgs’ final fall, with the last of them, Charles, signing his empire away in November 1918.

Danubia is a moving book, and also a sensuous one: we feel the weight of imperial coins, hear and smell the “medals and spurs clinking and everything awash in expensive gentleman’s fragrances” as emperors and regiments meet at formal occasions. Winder says he researched it largely on foot, seeking out museums and castles, and listened to all 106 Haydn symphonies just to get in the mood. (He drew the line at the 175 works for baryton, a kind of bass viol.) Haydn’s mixture of delicacy and excess appeals to him, and he is a fan of Béla Bartók’s monster collection of exquisite piano studies, Mikrokosmos, for the same reason. Danubia manages a similar blend. Miniaturist in its eye for detail, grand in its scope, it skips beats and keeps our attention all the way.


Sarah Bakewell is author of ‘How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer’ (Vintage)

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