576 pages, Picador, ISBN-13: 978-1250062024
Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe by Simon Winder is an extremely erudite, funny, entertaining but highly informed and informative guide to what was once the sprawling domains of the House of Habsburg, an empire full of figures both great and small, both kind and vainglorious, both worth noting and worth leaving to the faulty memory of past history. The book as a whole deals with vast swaths of Eastern Europe that were hitherto unknown or scarcely perceived by me, and the style of the whole is fun and original or, depending on your point of view, English and idiosyncratic. Though there may be some difficulty with place names and the geography in general – the maps are scattered in a peculiar fashion which does nothing to aid in the enjoyment of the book – the insights into the localities and their inhabitants more than made up for the occasional confusion, although I can imagine some readers will not appreciate the sudden changes in focus from a panoramic view of the grand stage of European History to a minute discussion of urbanization’s effect on Nationalism in the late 19th Century or to a description of a guinea pig village in a zoo in Budapest.
Danubia didn’t exactly inspire me to strap on a backpack and follow Winder’s esoteric route through Eastern Europe (especially the places he describes, many of which have been devastated by a never ending series of sieges and conflicts from the 14th Century to the present); they are nevertheless fascinating to visit via an armchair, forcing the reader as it does to use their mind to find the links (which I assure you exist); sadly, is not a mental exercise that I feel has much urgency nor resonance for the average contemporary reader. Through it all Winder interweaves his historical journey through these disparate lands with very real and modern-day excursions to various places that figure in his story, trying to make sense of an empire that resists easy categorization: were the Habsburg realms a bulwark against sectional and ethnic hatreds that, in the wake of its demise, fully flowered in the century after? Or was it a patchwork of barely-functioning (and barely tolerant of one another) neighbors who tried and failed to enact a dynastic legacy in a land brutally resistant to them? Winder tries his best, but even he has to admit that a lot of history’s “what-ifs” when applied to the Habsburgs and their peoples are just that.