Offbeat portrait of the lost past of Central Europe, ruled by the dull but dependable Habsburg dynasty.
That history stretches out for nearly half a millennium, and Penguin Press U.K. editor Winder (Germania, 2010, etc.) pokes into nearly every corner to examine both the stability of what would become the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its inevitable decline in the aftermath of World War I. With characteristic lightheartedness, the author ascribes the dynasty’s longevity to “the ability of the senior male to produce heirs and avoid going mad,” but it did not hurt that the Habsburgs introduced a perfectly functioning if soulless bureaucratic machine of the sort that Habsburg subject Franz Kafka would lend his name to. Winder ranges broadly in space as well as time. As he notes, half of the time it took to research and write his book was spent simply wandering the streets of provincial and national capitals as well as small villages, turning up treasures such as the great imperial cathedral at Speyer, where Rudolf of Habsburg lies buried: “For anyone growing up in England or France and used to Gothic it is very alarming to be surrounded by Romanesque gigantism, particularly when made expressionist by malevolent pools of darkness and weird echoes from shuffling feet.” Winder’s offhand, jokey mannerisms could be precious in lesser hands, but he pulls it off, and his book has plenty of serious turns, as when he ponders the curious rise of nationalism in a country that embraced several quite different nations, from Transylvania to Slovakia to a large stretch of the German-speaking world. That nationalism, of course, eventually produced Adolf Hitler, who may have been inevitable.
“Was it inherent in the destruction of the Habsburg Empire,” Winder wonders in closing, “that Nazism would result?” It’s a meaningful question, one of many that Winder raises in this lucid, often entertaining historical travelogue.