Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe

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From the end of the Middle Ages to the First World War, Europe was dominated by one family: the Habsburgs. Their unprecedented rule is the focus of Simon Winder’s vivid third book, Danubia.

Winder’s approach is friendly, witty, personal; this is a narrative that, while erudite and well researched, prefers to be discursive and...

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Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe

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From the end of the Middle Ages to the First World War, Europe was dominated by one family: the Habsburgs. Their unprecedented rule is the focus of Simon Winder’s vivid third book, Danubia.

Winder’s approach is friendly, witty, personal; this is a narrative that, while erudite and well researched, prefers to be discursive and anecdotal. In his survey of the centuries of often incompetent Habsburg rule which have continued to shape the fate of Central Europe, Winder does not shy away from the horrors, railing against the effects of nationalism, recounting the violence that was often part of life. But this is a history dominated above all by Winder’s energy and curiosity. Eminently readable and thrillingly informative, Danubia is a treat that readers will be eager to dip into.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Andrew Wheatcroft
[Winder's] tales are spellbinding because he does not just sit in an archive or a library, but takes the reader out into the real world…A "personal history" is necessarily unpredictable and idiosyncratic…and anyone who wants a solid, middle-of-the-road trudge through the Hapsburg lands might pass on this book. That would be a major mistake. Behind the pantomime flummery there is an acute and agile intellect at work, allowing Winder to move effortlessly from the Big Picture…to pointillist detail…Winder is the best-read cicerone imaginable. He never stops talking and rarely pauses for breath. Even then, however, you want to tell him: Forget about breathing and just go on talking.
Publishers Weekly
The Habsburgs, Europe’s most durable, powerful dynastic family, held sway from the late Middle Ages till the end of WWI, ruling lands that now comprise 19 modern countries. Penguin UK editor Winder offers a meandering combination of history, travelogue, and personal digressions to follow his previous work Germania. He begins with flighty, indecisive, mid–15th-century dynasty founder Frederick III and moves mostly chronologically down the line. Maximilian I, Dürer’s patron and an intellectual man of action, stretched Habsburg holdings “from the Danube to the North Sea.” Grandson of Maximilian as well as Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, the canny yet overburdened Charles V opposed the Protestant Reformation, successfully aided in the Italian Wars against France, and nearly ruled all of Europe in the 16th century. Maria Theresa, the sole female sovereign, kept the Habsburg lands intact in the 18th century, had 16 children, and successfully ruled for 40 years. Her son Joseph II liberated the serfs and the Jews, carved up Poland with Russia, and helped repel the Ottomans. In the face of Napoleon, “feeble” Franz II’s self-elevation as hereditary Emperor of Austria gave the family another 114 years of power. Overall, Winder’s longwinded and self-indulgent rhapsody is knowledgeable and perceptive, but he lets his wit overwhelm the narrative. Illus. (Feb.)
Kirkus Reviews
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.
From the Publisher

"Thorough and funny . . . Rich with anecdotes and enthusiastic appreciation."—The New Yorker

"[Winder] never stops talking and rarely pauses for breath. Even then, however, you want to tell him: Forget about breathing and just go on talking. Danubia is a long book, yet this reader would not mind if it were longer still."—Andrew Wheatcroft, The New York Times Book Review

"An engaging, often funny catalog of one man’s eccentric enthusiasm for a country that he has come to love—somewhat to his own surprise . . . Winder is an entertaining writer, and an erudite one.”—Ian Brunskill, The Wall Street Journal

“A delightfully personal and engaging book . . . Winder’s knowledge is as encyclopedic as his enthusiasm is childlike.”—Roger K. Miller, The Denver Post

“In a rollicking book that is part travelogue and part history, Winder takes up the unwieldy topic of the Habsburgs. The sprawling family empire ruled much of Europe for more than centuries, owing to a combination of 'cunning, dimness, luck, and brilliance.' From the Middle Ages until the end of the First World War, Winder writes, 'there was hardly a twist in Europe’s history to which they did not contribute.' Winder, whose best-seller Germania took a similar approach to German history, explores the story of the dynasty and the lasting imprint of its reign by travelling the expanse of its former empire and giving a lively account of his research. He is thorough and funny, and the book is rich with anecdotes and enthusiastic appreciation, and it includes a broad survey of the artifacts and landscapes that tell the story of the family that laid the foundation of modern Europe.”—Andrea Denhoed, Page-Turner, The New Yorker online

“Making five centuries of Habsburg history fun seems like a tall order, but Winder pulls it off. He entertains because he is entertained . . . With unrelenting wit—sometimes smirking but also self-mocking—he traces the Habsburgs’ fortunes . . . What gives the text verve is Winder’s ability to interweave the eccentric details of the Habsburgs themselves with an absorbing cultural history, driven by his exuberant passion for the lives and music of great composers and textured by his skillful physical descriptions of forgotten corners of the realm.”Foreign Affairs

“As with his previous work Germania, Winder describes this account as a ‘personal history’, allowing him space for whimsy, for a great deal of Haydn, for careful analysis of paintings and the freedom to favour certain emperors because they were interesting people rather than political heavyweights. It all makes for an excellent, rich and amusing read.”—Roger Boyes, The Times (UK)

“Winder is a puppishly enthusiastic companion: funny, erudite, frequently irritating, always more in control of his material than he pretends to be, and never for a moment boring . . . Danubia is a moving book, and also a sensuous one: we feel the weight of imperial coins, hear and smell the ‘medals and spurs clinking and everything awash in expensive gentleman’s fragrances’ as emperors and regiments meet at formal occasions. Winder says he researched it largely on foot, seeking out museums and castles, and listened to all 106 Haydn symphonies just to get in the mood . . . Miniaturist in its eye for detail, grand in its scope, it skips beats and keeps our attention all the way.”—Sarah Bakewell, The Financial Times

"Winder's amalgam of travelogue and personal history follows on from his bestselling account of Germany, Germania, and is similarly infectious in its enthusiasms. In pages of cheerful, slang-dotted prose, Danubia dilates knowledgeably on the Habsburg dynasty as it flourished along the river from its source in Bavarian hills through Austro-Hungary and the Balkans to the Black Sea . . . Danubia is a hoot and well worth reading."—Ian Thomson, The Independent (UK)

“[Winder’s] personalized, almost you-are-there view of history results in an arresting combination of anecdote and scholarly examination, where the interests of serious armchair travelers and devoted students of European history meet.”—Brad Hooper, Booklist

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374175290
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 1/21/2014
  • Pages: 576
  • Sales rank: 297,272
  • Product dimensions: 7.60 (w) x 11.70 (h) x 2.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Simon Winder is the author of two books: the Sunday Times (London) Top Ten Bestseller Germania and the highly praised The Man Who Saved Britain. He works in publishing and lives in Wandsworth Town, London.

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Table of Contents



Place names // The Habsburg family

Chapter One…17
Tombs, trees and a swamp // Wandering peoples // The hawk’s fortress // ‘Look behind you!’ // Cultic sites // The elected Caesars

Chapter Two…51
The heir of Hector // The great wizard // Gnomes on horseback // Juana’s children // Help from the Fuggers // The disaster

Chapter Three…87
‘Mille regretz’ // ‘The strangest thing that ever happened’ // The armour of heroes // Europe under siege // The pirates’ nest // A real bear-moat

Chapter Four…117
The other Europe // Bezoars and nightclub hostesses // Hunting with cheetahs // The seven fortresses

Chapter Five…147
A surprise visit from a fl ying hut // ‘His divine name will be inscribed in the stars’ // Death in Eger // Burial rites and fox-clubbing // The devil-doll // How to build the Tower of Babel

Chapter Six…177
Genetic terrors // The struggle for mastery in Europe // A new frontier // Zeremonialprotokoll // Bad news if you are a cockatrice // Private pleasures

Chapter Seven…209
Jesus vs. Neptune // The first will // Devotional interiors // The second will // Zips and Piasts

Chapter Eight…243
The great crisis // Austria wears trousers // The Gloriette // The war on Christmas cribs // Illustrious corpses // Carving up the world

Chapter Nine…277
‘Sunrise’ // An interlude of rational thoughtfulness // Defeat by Napoleon, part one // Defeat by Napoleon, part two // Things somehow get even worse // An intimate family wedding // Back to nature

Chapter Ten…313
A warning to legitimists // Problems with loyal subjects // Un vero quarantotto // Mountain people

Chapter Eleven…343
The Temple to Glorious Disaster // New Habsburg empires // The stupid giant // Funtime of the nations // The deal // An expensive sip of water

Chapter Twelve…375
Mapping out the future // The lure of the Orient // Refusals // Village of the damned // On the move // The Führer

Chapter Thirteen…411
The sheep and the melons // Elves, caryatids, lots of allegorical girls // Monuments to a vanished past // Young Poland

Chapter Fourteen…439
‘The fat churchy one’ // Night music // Transylvanian rocketry // Psychopathologies of everyday life // The end begins

Chapter Fifteen…471
The curse of military contingency // Sarajevo // The Przemysl catastrophe . Last train to Wilsonville // A pastry shell // The price of defeat // Triumphs of indifference

Map of Modern Central Europe…514


1. The splitting of Charles V’s inheritance…xvi
2. The Habsburg Empire, 1815…xviii
3. The Dual Monarchy…xx
4. The United States of Austria…444
5. Modern Central Europe…514

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