Saturday, June 25, 2016

Unwarranted luck and short bursts of vigor

I've finished the book Danubia by Simon Winder. It is a history of the Habsburg Dynasty that lead the Austrian Empire and served as the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from 1452 to 1918. The title comes from the Danube River the main river flowing through the empire.

I found the book during my trip to DC at the end of April (didn't start reading it until the end of May). It caught my attention because I studied German history in high school and lived in Germany for two years. In that class I learned about the two great powers in German history, the Hohenzollerns with their capital in Berlin and the Habsburgs in Vienna ruling an area from modern Austria to what is now western Ukraine and southern Poland to northern Serbia.

Winder is not a typical historian. He definitely doesn't just recount events. He talks to the reader and shares stories of his own travels to the various towns and cities in Central Europe. He includes descriptions of artwork that relates to the topic at hand (I didn't sit at the computer as I read and search for images of what he was describing – he could have added either more photos or an index of the art so I could do that now). He does a lot more explaining than recounting. He also has a skeptical view of his subjects, the Emperors. His take on them is most were incompetent or worse. From the introduction (I like his style):
The Habsburg's influence across Europe was overwhelming, but often the 'great events' of the continent's history were generated as much by their uselessness or apparent prostration as by any actual family initiative. Indeed it is quite striking how baffled or inadequate many of the Emperors were, and yet an almost uncountable heap of would-be carnivorous rivals ended up in the dustbin while the Habsburgs just kept plodding along. Through unwarranted luck, short bursts of vigor, and events way outside their control they held on until their defeat by Napoleon. Moving fast, they then cunningly switched the title of Emperor so it referred to what could now be called 'the Habsburg Empire', meaning just the family's personal holdings, itself still the second largest European state after Russia. They kept going for a further, rather battered century, until final catastrophe as one of the defeated Central Powers in the First World War.

Winder cautions us not to look at the grand sweep of history and interpret it to mean what came before as driving toward what we have today. History isn't that purposeful. Since this family stayed in power more than 450 years it could be said, especially in the middle of this time, that this empire was what history was driving towards, the high point, the culmination.

A great deal of this story is about the ethnic strife in Europe. The southeast area of this empire was the battle ground between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans (also Russians to the northeast, Germans to the northwest, and Italians to the south). When one side or the other swept through and captured an area whole towns would be razed with entire populations massacred or sold into slavery. The winning side would have to repopulate the towns – hey, free land and extra privileges, though you'll need to watch for marauding armies. That meant there were German-speaking settlements throughout the area, interspersed with local Silesians, Bohemians, Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, Ruthians, Hungarians, Romanians, Serbians, Croats, and Slovenes, to name a few. Various groups would start an uprising, to be (mostly) put down by the emperor and his army.

The empire existed for so long because it could (mostly) balance these ethnic tensions. It could tell restive groups they were better off under Habsburgs rather than under the Ottomans or Russians. But with the collapse of the empire in 1918 those tensions exploded. Many times in the 20th Century whole towns were dislodged and relocated because they were not of the right ethnicity – if they weren't killed. These tensions only began to die down around 1990 (though with Britain leaving the EU there are signs they aren't gone).

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