I’ve been lent Danubia, by Simon Winder, described as “A personal history of Habsburg Europe”. To be honest, until now, I had only come across the Habsburgs incidentally, when reading or looking into other aspects of European history. Danubia isn’t strictly a “history”, in that it seems to assume you already know the history (and thus it’s prone to gloss over the major historical events themselves), but instead it puts the events and eras that it covers into context (geographically, ethnically, musically, artistically and so on). It also probes, often in a very conversational style, the minds of the individuals involved, particularly (but not limited to) the various Habsburg rulers.
I admit that I really wasn’t knowledgeable about many of the matters that the author describes (EDIT – I’ve previously acknowledged that!) That said, I still gained a lot from reading it. And in instances where I did have a little familiarity with the places described, it took on added fascination. So when mention was made of a place that I have a little knowledge of, such as Belgrade, Krakow or Zakapone, the text took on a much greater significance.
The geographic scope is extensive, ranging at times from the Adriatic, over to what is now Ukraine, north into Poland and at least in the early parts, down to Spain. In terms of time it commences at the end of the end of the Middle Ages and runs through to the end of World War 1. It’s over 500 pages long, and apparently it’s all been researched “on-the-ground” by the author. He actually states that a lot of the research time was spent just walking!
For much of the era, the Ottomons were a constant threat, and I lost track of the number of battles with them. The author describes the frontier between the Habsburg lands and the Ottoman Empires as a “a shifting, frightening reality from the fifteenth century to the end of the eighteenth”. But there were also numerous European wars, culminating of course in World War 1 which spelt the end of the Habsburgs. Early in the era, there were fortified castles and strongholds (one with a bear moat) and numerous marriages between close relatives; the author describes unlikely alliances, uprisings and rebellions (including repression of Protestants and anti-Semitism). Areas became depopulated, people were taken into slavery – these were tough times indeed.
The language is often quirky and conversational, sometimes going off on tangents to describe matters of particular interest to the author. For example, although its descriptions of the numerous issues that gave rise to World War 1 and the conduct of that war are fascinating, it appears to make the assumption that the reader is familiar with many of the actual events. Of course, these are readily available on Wikipedia, but having to refer to another source is rather cumbersome.
Unfortunately, I had to return the book to A. But combined with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s works (here and here) I’m beginning to build up some impressions of the extensive history of this part of the world.