Danubia: the Praise of Folly

January 14, 2015

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit central Europe a number of times in my life. But for my most recent adventure, I brought along a copy of Simon Winder’s Danubia, probably the finest companion one could have for such a journey. Here was a book from a writer who really knew the joy of history, and whose curiosity was simply infectious. It is seldom that I read a book and think, “this is a person I’d just love to have a drink with.” Partly because, as long as it already is, Danubia (and the sister volume Germania) left me wanting more.


See? It’s not nearly as intimidating from above… More “park” than “symbol of Catholic oppression”.

My own journeys through the former Habsburg lands have usually begun in Salzburg. Salzburg is an ancient place, having been inhabited by a sequence of fur-clad celts, stomping legionnaires, gesticulating bishops, and goose-stepping nazis. Perhaps the dominant feature most visitors will remember (aside from the impossible hordes of tourists that constantly wash in and out of the old city mostly to visit Mozart’s birthplace), is the massive fortress on top of the mountain around which the city has grown. It dates from 1077, a time when crusading Catholics threw up cathedrals and castles all over the continent to impress the locals and win converts. The fortress, with it’s weeping windows, squat towers, courtyards, and curious inclusion of a marionette theater has stood as a personal symbol of medievalism for as long as I can remember. Of course, today’s fortress has been built, rebuilt, and repurposed so many times, it little resembles the original bailey build by the Archbishop all those years ago. And certainly, it’s usefulness as a defense was never really put to the test until far to late – after all, the fortification is a lot less imposing when seen through bombardier sights at 30,000 feet.

Not far from this bastion, one can find another bookend to the historical experience of the residents of Salzburgerland – the understated war memorial that lists the dead from the first and second world wars. This other history, as recalled by the defeated, is subtle and understated. Millions died in the catastrophic wars that forged modern Europe, and “happy Austria” sat at their heart, the modern nation torn out of the body of the most misunderstood and little-appreciated empire in the world almost as an afterthought. These were traumas that left survivors bewildered and rudderless. No triumphalism accompanied the end of these dynasties, and the rubble would be left as scraps for Americans and Soviets to wrestle over. The chronicle of shifting fortunes, rising personalities, dynastic and institutional politics, social changes, and swinging beliefs that drive such a range of history and experience are fascinating, and as Simon Winder brilliantly demonstrates in his book Danubia, often embrace the strangest and most wonderful aspects of the human condition. It teaches an important lesson about impermanence too. After all, in many ways the great bloodletting that followed the opening of the twentieth century began here, among the diverse peoples of the former Habsburg Empire; the lands of the Danube.

Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe is one part historical survey, one part sociological study, and one part travelogue. It attempts to chronicle something the historical experience of central Europe as encapsulated by her most ill-regarded, but stubbornly successful dynasties: the Habsburgs and their Holy Roman Empire.  This is no small task. As Mr. Winder describes it, “the Empire covered a vast zone of Europe and was for many centuries the key motor of the continent’s history. For anyone going up in a British, French, or American framework the whole thing was an outrage — a wilderness of absurd micro-states, potty valleys run by monks, and ritualistic obscurantism which made nineteenth-century German writers, who were at the heart of reconstructing its history, scarlet with shame.” Yet exploring this framework is what he seeks to do, and Mr. Winder approaches his subject with a wit and with regular nods to its absurdity that can only seek to reinforce his obvious passion for a region that most would happily pass over for the more traditionally “sexy” destinations to the east or west.


The eagle looks both ways in order to make sure no one can sneak up on it.

Mr. Winder begins his book with a whirlwind tour of the region, outlining a brief sketch of the places to be discussed before introducing the reader to Maximilian I, the Habsburg Archduke who secured the imperial title for his family, ensured that the dynasty would eventually (albeit briefly) rule most of Europe and America, and carefully arranged to have all of his teeth knocked out upon his death. In the Austrian town of Innsbruck one can still see his massive cenotaph, complete with the larger-than-life blackened statues of kings (including Clovis and Arthur) and princesses arrayed on both sides as though waiting for the diminutive figure kneeling on top to stand up and lead them off to kill the Swiss. Mr. Winder also points out that, owing to the importance of lineage for ruling families, Maximilian also went to great pains in order to prove his decent from the Trojan prince Hector, hoping to forever silence questions that might arise over legitimacy. His ancestor, Charles VI had previously attempted to assert that the Habsburgs were descended from Noah and the god Saturn, but, “…this sort of enjoyable silliness would no longer wash in the more stringent atmosphere of the late fifteenth century.” Hector seemed a more more plausible choice.

From these origins, Mr. Winder walks us through a dynasty that expanded our understandings of the sciences, encouraged the creation of some of the world’s greatest art and music, defended the Christian world from the Ottoman, and started the First World War. He explores the troubles of nationalism, and how the darkness that suddenly overwhelmed central Europe had always been waiting, and how, almost as if by magic, the whole Empire managed to somehow be enormously productive – at least in subtle, cultural ways. The faces and figures that shaped this now-forgotten world float up to the surface from among a riot of detail and anecdote, and each is explored as much through their foibles as through their accomplishments. And for such a journey, one could not hope for a better guide than this one. He succeeds in making Habsburg and German history comprehensible by pointing to its confusions and contradictions: he makes the story a very human one by gleefully embracing the follies of the Habsburg reign.

But the heart of the book is about identity. The trouble of who these disparate peoples, lumped together under the Habsburgs, actually were, proved to be the greatest and bloodiest question to emerge from the end of the empire. The millions who died in order to keep Bohemia German, or Catholic, or Czech are all gone from us. Their struggles and deeds are so buried under the strain of the myth of modern nationalism, that the cultural life once shared by all seems like a dim and impossible memory, and the grotesque failures of the twentieth century seem all the more tragic. In the end, the solutions proposed to the national question that so preoccupied the German-speaking rulers of central Europe didn’t resolve anything. What remain are the scars carved into the land by the following purges and war.

The things on his cheeks are actually spoilers. Franz Josef tended to bounce off the ground at high speeds.

The things on his cheeks are actually spoilers. Franz Josef tended to bounce off the ground at high speeds. As you can imagine, this led to some popular, but embarrassing drinking games played at the Emperor’s expense.

These days, the churches, towns, and houses don’t really look all that different from one side of the border to the other, you simply wind up with an increasing burden of consonants to account for on road signs. Once you duck into one of those churches, you’ll find the inscriptions are all in latin and equally useless to everyone. There is an obvious parallel between the accomplishments of the Habsburgs and the ambitions of the EU today. The idea of the emperor binding his peoples together failed to keep the peace, and now the world that was is no more. But Danubia reminds us that something of it is still there. The trouble really got started when the various peoples started trying to sort one another out and invent their own stories about Hector, Noah, or Saturn. The often insipid nature of the Habsburgs themselves, with their inbreeding, giant chins, and hipster-shaming facial hair are simply allegories to the folly of that most basic question: how do we know who we are? But as you pass across frontiers once impassible and find yet another creamy yellow government building hidden in another small border town, you can’t help be reminded of the fact that it probably doesn’t matter all that much in the end. And that can be a cheering thought.


Danubia Cover

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