- - Thursday, March 13, 2014


By Simon Winder
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30, 551 pages

The bitter, blood-drenched tragedy of Central and Eastern Europe can be summed up in seven simple words: “Too much history, not enough real estate.”

Thousands of hate-filled years, and layer upon layer of different invaders, usually with their own languages and often with conflicting religions, mean that almost every nation-state in modern Europe has a conflicted identity.

Even in stable western European democracies, the old divisions still run deep: a predominantly “English” Great Britain with thousands of alienated Scots, Welsh and Irish citizens; culturally Castilian Spain with separatist Basque and Catalan elements; a Belgium split down the middle between French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemings; an Italy where many prosperous northerners feel closer to their French or Austrian neighbors than to their own southern kinsmen in economically backward Sicily and Calabria.

The list goes on and on — and the further east you go, the worse it gets. Witness the current crisis in Ukraine. Variously ruled, in whole or part, by Poland, Austria and Russia for most of its existence, this ancient land — but newly independent nation-state — is currently undergoing vivisection at the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former Soviet secret policeman with fond memories of the Evil Empire.

Before the cataclysm absurdly called the “War to End All Wars,” much of the Ukraine and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a vast patchwork patrimony of the House of Hapsburg ruling from Vienna.

There is an old Austrian saying that “the Balkans begin at Vienna.” For several centuries, the Hapsburgs brought a measure of order and progress — sometimes brutal, sometimes benevolent — to the sprawling Danubian lands.

At its height, as British author Simon Winder reminds us in “Danubia,” his engaging if occasionally frivolous “Personal History” of Hapsburg Europe, the dynasty “ruled immense tracts of land … at different times owning parts or all of nineteen modern European countries” including Austria, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Serbia and Spain.

Mr. Winder tells his story well, although his excessive reliance on snarky adjectives like “odd,” “loopy,” “demented,” “mad,” “freakish” and “bonkers” make him sound a bit puerile at times.

As the Hapsburg empire lost most of its western territory and influence during the second half of the 19th century with the rise of Bismarck’s Prussian-dominated German Empire, it increasingly looked eastward. On the eve of World War I, despite deep ethnic and nationalist tensions, elderly Emperor Franz Joseph presided over 52.8 million subjects in the second-largest (after Russia) and third most populous (after Russia and Germany) of the great continental powers.

Since the Imperial Census of 1910 recognized 11 different language groups, the parliamentary politics of the Empire were often reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, but educationally, industrially, architecturally, medically, musically, scientifically and artistically, Austria-Hungary was a vital part of European civilization, its heritage still enjoyed today by millions of people who may never set foot in Vienna but appreciate anything from a Hayden requiem, a Mozart opera or a Mahler symphony to modern art, architecture and Freudian psychoanalysis — not to mention Bohemian crystal, Hungarian goulash and Viennese waltzes.

Lost causes have a charm all their own. Precisely because the Hapsburg Empire was destroyed at the end of World War I — as opposed to the Russian and German empires, which quickly morphed into more malignant variations on the great-power theme — it still generates nostalgia for the better parts of its checkered nature.

Notable among them were the emperor’s role as a protector of ethnic and religious minorities and patron of education and the arts, and a sense of imperial — rather than ethnic, religious or linguistic — “belonging.”

This was what gave millions of Hapsburg subjects a sense that they shared something worth having — and since lost — much as Greeks, Gauls, Iberians, Macedonians and others with little else in common prided themselves on being citizens of the Roman Empire at its height.

It makes for a great story, at times inspiring, at times absurd, but always gripping.

Mr. Winder adds a bittersweet note by describing some of the beautiful old cities and towns trailing along the Danube, where stately palaces, cathedrals, town halls, opera houses, plazas and promenades recall a lost world that is worth remembering, if only for the far worse things that filled the vacuum once it was gone.

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, co-authored the memoirs of Robert Stolz (1880-1975), the last of the Viennese waltz and operetta kings.



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