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A charmingly personal history of Hapsburg Europe, as lively as it is informative, by the author of Germania For centuries much of Europe and the Holy Roman Empire was in the royal hands of the very peculiar Habsburg family. An unstable mixture of wizards, obsessives, melancholics, bores, musicians and warriors, they saw off—through luck, guile and sheer mulishness—any numb A charmingly personal history of Hapsburg Europe, as lively as it is informative, by the author of Germania For centuries much of Europe and the Holy Roman Empire was in the royal hands of the very peculiar Habsburg family. An unstable mixture of wizards, obsessives, melancholics, bores, musicians and warriors, they saw off—through luck, guile and sheer mulishness—any number of rivals, until finally packing up in 1918. From their principal lairs along the Danube they ruled most of Central Europe and Germany and interfered everywhere—indeed the history of Europe hardly makes sense without the House of Hapsburg. Danubia, Simon Winder's hilarious new book, plunges the reader into a maelstrom of alchemy, royalty, skeletons, jewels, bear-moats, unfortunate marriages and a guinea-pig village. Full of music, piracy, religion and fighting, it is the history of a strange dynasty, and the people they ruled, who spoke many different languages, lived in a vast range of landscapes, believed in rival gods and often showed a marked ingratitude towards their oddball ruler in Vienna. Readers who discovered Simon Winder's storytelling genius and infectious curiosity in Germania will be delighted by the eccentric and fascinating tale of the Habsburgs and their world.


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A charmingly personal history of Hapsburg Europe, as lively as it is informative, by the author of Germania For centuries much of Europe and the Holy Roman Empire was in the royal hands of the very peculiar Habsburg family. An unstable mixture of wizards, obsessives, melancholics, bores, musicians and warriors, they saw off—through luck, guile and sheer mulishness—any numb A charmingly personal history of Hapsburg Europe, as lively as it is informative, by the author of Germania For centuries much of Europe and the Holy Roman Empire was in the royal hands of the very peculiar Habsburg family. An unstable mixture of wizards, obsessives, melancholics, bores, musicians and warriors, they saw off—through luck, guile and sheer mulishness—any number of rivals, until finally packing up in 1918. From their principal lairs along the Danube they ruled most of Central Europe and Germany and interfered everywhere—indeed the history of Europe hardly makes sense without the House of Hapsburg. Danubia, Simon Winder's hilarious new book, plunges the reader into a maelstrom of alchemy, royalty, skeletons, jewels, bear-moats, unfortunate marriages and a guinea-pig village. Full of music, piracy, religion and fighting, it is the history of a strange dynasty, and the people they ruled, who spoke many different languages, lived in a vast range of landscapes, believed in rival gods and often showed a marked ingratitude towards their oddball ruler in Vienna. Readers who discovered Simon Winder's storytelling genius and infectious curiosity in Germania will be delighted by the eccentric and fascinating tale of the Habsburgs and their world.

30 review for Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe

  1. 4 out of 5

    Warwick

    Half an hour's drive north of me, following the path of the River Reuss, is the little hamlet of Habsburg. The first time I saw it on a roadsign, I assumed it was a coincidence, since the House of Habsburg is something I would generally associate with the bustling metropolises of Austria and Hungary, not a damp cowfield in the back end of the Aargau. But sure enough, this turns out to be where the whole gargantuan dynasty acquired its name. The ‘castle’ here was built in the 1020s, when castle te Half an hour's drive north of me, following the path of the River Reuss, is the little hamlet of Habsburg. The first time I saw it on a roadsign, I assumed it was a coincidence, since the House of Habsburg is something I would generally associate with the bustling metropolises of Austria and Hungary, not a damp cowfield in the back end of the Aargau. But sure enough, this turns out to be where the whole gargantuan dynasty acquired its name. The ‘castle’ here was built in the 1020s, when castle technology was still pretty basic – it's really just a biggish drafty house with a little donjon tower attached, perched on a drab hillock. A minor count called Radbot built it, dubbing it, rather aspirationally, Habsburg or ‘Hawk Castle’. From the top of its low tower, you can pick your way around the splotches of pigeon poo (and indeed around the pigeons themselves), and peer hesitantly out of the embrasure – towards Vienna. It seems an inauspicious beginning for what would become the most powerful family in continental history, and indeed I only mention it here because even Simon Winder, in this mad, exuberant, generous history of Habsburg Europe, chooses not to begin until four centuries later, when one of them first became Holy Roman Emperor. It's one of many things that Winder cheerfully skips over, as he makes a great show of the sheer unmanageable scale of his subject – he is not averse to rattling off comments like the following: Incidentally, it is generally around here that anybody writing about the Habsburg Empire is obliged to have a section on people like the Empress Elisabeth and her son Crown Prince Rudolf, but really if these people are of interest you should probably just look them up on Wikipedia, which has excellent entries. With even a smidgen less authority this would all seem dreadfully flippant, but fortunately it is soon obvious that Winder's knowledge, and his grasp of the material, is much greater than he's letting on. The mock-dilettantism is just one aspect of a fantastically engaging and discriminating narrative style, a style that sometimes seems to owe as much to Douglas Adams as it does to AJP Taylor or John Julius Norwich. The result feels rather like talking to a great historian in the bar after their lecture. This was one of those books that had me throwing up my hands with a renewed sense of how little I know: every chapter, every page, revealed enormous new vistas of my own ignorance. It was particularly galling since I've travelled a fair bit in the Balkans and other parts of ‘eastern Europe’ (an unsatisfatory phrase, as this book makes plain), and had quietly prided myself on knowing something of the area's history and culture. But in fact what was totally obscure to me was the extent to which this region had been connected to the west; the extent to which cities such as Lviv, Debrecen or Cluj were (in Winder's words) ‘part of a culture rooted in mainstream European values’, indeed a culture that was thought of as being at the heart of Europe's identity and character until really the twentieth century. Though Winder is careful to stress again and again the problems and contradictions in the Empire, it is hard not to be a little swept up in the sheer romance of a single entity that stretched from Bregenz on the shores of Lake Constance all the way to Braşov in the middle of what's now Romania, from Kraków or Prague in the north down to Trieste, Sarajevo, and the Croatian coast. In the context of the tumultuous convulsions that this region experienced over the last five hundred years, the Habsburgs themselves emerge as a rather baffling constant: always rather distant, sometimes downright inconsequential. Many are scarcely distinguishable – a tangle of Ferdinands and Leopolds – though some have attained a kind of legendary status, such as Rudolf II, who was obsessed with the occult and who had a lion and a tiger wandering round Prague Castle. And most of them were afflicted by various abnormalities that resulted from the generations of in-breeding – notably the famous ‘Habsburg jaw’, which makes a family tree of the Habsburgs look like a series of Jay Lenos in fancy dress; it affected one of the Leopolds so badly that his mouth would fill with water every time it rained. Winder keeps you distracted with bear-moats and lunatics while sneaking in a huge amount of geopolitical history under the radar. And approaching European history from this direction gave me a very new, and sometimes quite revelatory, angle on things like the Reformation, the Thirty Years War, or the revolutions of 1848. This is especially the case towards the end of the book as the First World War looms into view. From a British perspective, 1914–1918 is vaguely thought of as having been about fighting Germany, along with a few of their allies; this is all very well, but it does mean that the killing of some pooh-bah named after a post-punk indie band in an obscure part of Yugoslavia seems like an inexplicable reason for a global conflict. Here, though, coming at it through the morass of Imperial nationalisms and separatist movements, I felt things slotting into place in a completely novel way. It's perhaps surprising that a book this chunky – upwards of five hundred pages, before you hit the bibliography – ends up feeling so selective, but such is the result of Winder's faux-snap decisions about what is and is not of interest: he succeeds in building a powerful cumulative argument. This has to do with the fact of the Empire's being a ‘chaos of nationalities’, where ‘the very idea of “nation” was an unresolvable nightmare’. Instances of quite how contingent Central Europe is, in linguistic or political terms, are everywhere. Béla Bartók can stand for innumerable other examples: generally thought of as a ‘Hungarian’ composer, almost none of the places that formed him lie within the borders of the modern Hungarian state. He was born in Nagyszentmiklós (now the Romanian town of Sânnicolau Mare), then moved to Nagyszőllős (now the Ukrainian town of Vynohravdiv), then to Nagyvárad (now the Romanian city of Oradea), and then to Pozsony (now the Slovakian capital Bratislava). Indeed Bratislava itself only acquired its name in 1918, plucked more or less out of thin air by Slovak nationalists squinting heavily at some old manuscripts – before that, it had only ever had German and Hungarian names (Preßburg and Pozsony). Similar examples are piled up, until the overall sense is of an entire gigantic region whose multilingual, multiethnic nature has been obscured only by successive (and recent) waves of expulsions and massacres. The point is not a fluffy one of the necessity of getting on with each other (though certainly Winder comes to have an extremely negative view of nationalism, comparing it at one point to bubonic plague); no, the point is just that the borders and divisions of Central Europe are characterised by their near-total arbitrariness, with most of the modern nation-states having only the most cursory historical justification once the poetic myth-making has been set aside. I found this very moving, for reasons that are difficult to explain – or, perhaps, that are too obvious to go into. Winder enriches his story with just the right amount of personal anecdotes about his travels around the region – it never feels like someone talking through their holiday photos armed with a stack of museum pamphlets, which is the danger with this kind of project. And his constant references to the music and literature mean you will come away with a healthy further reading list. It was a pleasant surprise, reaching the end, to find a note saying that an underlying inspiration had been Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which is perhaps the single book that impresses me more than any other. Danubia is not at that level, but the comparison – which hadn't occured to me while I was reading – helped me understand why I liked this so much. Though it's not perfect, it has a similar ability to uncover a wealth of fascinating detail, and also manages to draw a plausible, cumulative thread out of such an overwhelming historical and geographic scope. I thought it was fantastic, and every farmhouse in the Aargau should have a copy.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Manray9

    Simon Winder's Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe was sometimes fascinating and sometimes tedious. His look into the long history of the Habsburg realms is insightful, but not well-told. Winder delved into many of the interesting and often amusing aspects of Habsburg political, military, artistic and dynastic history while maintaining a parallel travelogue characterized by feeble attempts at humor and the use of sophomoric vocabulary. Sometimes it seemed as if I was reading a teenage Simon Winder's Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe was sometimes fascinating and sometimes tedious. His look into the long history of the Habsburg realms is insightful, but not well-told. Winder delved into many of the interesting and often amusing aspects of Habsburg political, military, artistic and dynastic history while maintaining a parallel travelogue characterized by feeble attempts at humor and the use of sophomoric vocabulary. Sometimes it seemed as if I was reading a teenager's tweets. Perhaps he didn't care to be taken too seriously, and writing: “Driving through dozy Hobbitons on the hilly border...,” referring to Joanne of Arc (yes, Joanne) as “available-looking,” and describing Eleanor of Portugal “as a sort of cream-of-the-crop supercatch” guarantees he won't. Winder also disclosed a peculiar obsession with fatty foods (you'll have to read it). To his credit, Winder exploded misconceptions about ethnicity, national territories, and cultural and historical heritage. Much of what is now considered cultural reality or historical fact in central and eastern Europe is simply untrue and derived from 19th and early 20th century nationalist rationalizations, irredentist agitation, and mythology. These misconceptions contributed to the millions of dead and displaced people who suffered in recurrent ethnic cleansing up through the present day. Today's borders in central and eastern Europe hold little historical legitimacy. They are just as arbitrary as any drawn by a Habsburg prince. I noted two odd shortcomings. Winder's book presented numerous rich and perceptive evaluations of great architectural monuments, scenic locations and famous objets d'art, but curiously the book contained no photographs of the places, people, portraits, or statues described. Also Winder frequently remarked on the “Habsburg jaw,” it's unsightliness, and its relation to the family's reproductive difficulties. He never explained the nature or cause of the condition. It is a mandibular prognathism exacerbated by inbreeding. I looked it up. Awarding an overall rating to Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe was not easy. It was captivating, yet frequently off-putting. Comprehensive, but too cute. The effort itself is just worthy of Three Stars.

  3. 4 out of 5

    WarpDrive

    Part of my heritage/ancestry is Austrian/Bavarian, with my grandfather's German name being forcefully "Italianized" during Fascism; on the other hand, my grandmother experienced being treated by the Italian Fascists first (and by the Nazis later) like a second-class citizen simply because of her Slovenian origins. The irony is that her Slav origins did not spare her (and my grandfather's) experience of being deprived of their house on the Istrian littoral near Trieste (a city that belonged to th Part of my heritage/ancestry is Austrian/Bavarian, with my grandfather's German name being forcefully "Italianized" during Fascism; on the other hand, my grandmother experienced being treated by the Italian Fascists first (and by the Nazis later) like a second-class citizen simply because of her Slovenian origins. The irony is that her Slav origins did not spare her (and my grandfather's) experience of being deprived of their house on the Istrian littoral near Trieste (a city that belonged to the Habsurgs since 1382, and that was nearly killed by the incompetence and corruption of the Italian authorities when Italy got possession of it after the Austrian Empire dissolved), a house which was stolen by the Yugoslavian authorities soon after the end of WWII, as my grandparents were, officially speaking, Italian citizens. I also vividly remember that my maternal grandfather always had a portrait of Emperor Francis Joseph I of Austria in his study - he never recognized the Italian government, not for a second. On the other hand, my (fully Italian) paternal grandfather fought in WWI against the very Hapsburg Empire which my maternal grandfather so much identified himself with. Quite a multifaceted and interesting situation, where talking about international politics might have easily triggered some sensitivities :-) As a result of this, it is clear why the experience of the dissolution of the Hapsburg empire, and its cultural legacy, is something that I feel of great personal interest. I also deeply share the great distaste that the author himself feels towards all forms of stupid nationalism that so deeply affected Eastern Europe and the Balkans after the dissolution of the Ottoman and Hapsburg Empires, when much of Europe disintegrated into separate, mutually hostile, ethnic-based nation-states with scant regard (if not open persecution) of ethnic and/or linguistic minorities. Intellectual simpletons like Donald Trump should really read books like this one, in order to get a better appreciation and understanding of how damaging ideas of nationalism can prove to be. Before his stupid "America first" slogan for the intellectually challenged, there were in Europe very similar messages of "Hungary first", "Serbia First", "Germany First", "Austria First", "Romania First" ect. with the result that, in a sense, they all ended up last - with ancient German towns with no Germans, ancient Polish towns with no Polish people, with ancient Hungarian towns with no Hungarians, with Jewish village with no Jews, and with entire "mixed" areas (such as Galicia) whose richness and variety of their historical multilingual and multicultural legacy were virtually annihilated. A process that, sadly, continued with the bloodshed and ethnic cleansing associated with the dissolution of Yugoslavia not long ago. Anyone caught in the overlaps suffered terrible consequences in 1918, 1945 as well as in the 90's. I must therefore say that this book may have resonated with me on a much deeper level than what might have happened with the average casual reader who might not have such personal links to this fascinating, complex, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, contradictory, atypical empire that covered significant parts of central and eastern Europe for several centuries, and that played a critical role at several fundamental junctures in modern European history, starting with the Ottoman sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683, down to the Napoleonic wars, concluding with the apparently irreconcilable tensions in the Balkans and the fateful assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that triggered the catastrophe of WWI. Having said that, I think that this book is a really insightful, informative, riveting and highly original description of the birth, evolution and final dissolution of the power of the great European family of the Hapsburg, a family that held the monopoly of the title of Holy Roman Emperor for several centuries, with an overwhelming influence in most of the German-speaking lands until 1866, when the baton of the supremacy over the "German world" passed to the rapidly expanding military power of Bismarck Prussia. Without the clever and forceful policies of Bismarck, and with a different outcome to the Battle of Königgrätz in 1866, modern Germany might well have had quite a different shape and evolution to what actually happened. The history of the Hapsburg is described starting from Frederick III (1452-1493), through to the formidable Maria Theresa of Austria, to Franz II (who switched from being Holy Roman Emperor to Emperor of Austria, after Napoleon abolished the old Holy Roman Empire), to Franz Joseph and finally the ineffective and last emperor Karl I. The tone of the book is informal (and it takes a little while to get used to it), and the approach quite original and rich with personal details of the personality of the individual Emperors, as well as with many descriptions of several localities of historical interest; but the potential reader should not be mislead into assuming this book is a shallow exercise in popular history: on the contrary, the book is accurate, interesting, informative, highly personal, and of good academic value. The author has done serious research and has personally traveled around much of the lands that used to be part of the Austrian Empire, and he is clearly invested, emotionally and intellectually, into this subject. The only potential issue is that the author occasionally assumes a prior good knowledge of the history of modern Central/Eastern Europe, which not all readers might necessarily have. A very enjoyable reading, a book from which I learned many interesting facts and that I highly recommend to anybody with an interest in the history of modern central and eastern Europe. 4.5 stars (rounded up to 5).

  4. 5 out of 5

    Lyn Elliott

    It took me quite a while to get used to Winder's freewheeling style and indeed found it so irritating that I abandoned it 14% of the way through to head for more illuminating territory - Claudio Magris, Joseph Roth and back to Norman Davies' histories and Patrick Leigh Fermor. But some days later, in the absence of any other convenient book, I picked up my kindle again and found myself in a section that was both illuminating and more carefully written and have now finished it. Danubia has filled It took me quite a while to get used to Winder's freewheeling style and indeed found it so irritating that I abandoned it 14% of the way through to head for more illuminating territory - Claudio Magris, Joseph Roth and back to Norman Davies' histories and Patrick Leigh Fermor. But some days later, in the absence of any other convenient book, I picked up my kindle again and found myself in a section that was both illuminating and more carefully written and have now finished it. Danubia has filled in great gaps in my knowledge of central and Eastern Europe, the shifting power balances within Europe over centuries and the endless conflicts between the three great empires that intersected in these regions - the Holy Roman Empire/Austro-Hungarian (Hapsburg), Ottoman and Russian. In each of these empires, one religion was dominant (Catholic Christian, Muslim and Orthodox Christian respectively) and other religions were tolerated to varying degrees at different stage. Religion wasn't always a cause for war, but it was a mighty divider in European politics for centuries following the Reformation, with the Hapsburg rulers in Austria and Spain the ferocious drivers of the Catholic counter-Reformation and its accompanying vicious persecution of Protestants and Jews. Winder points out that the populations of great swathes of Eastern Europe have been massacred and replaced many times, especially in the centuries of battle between Ottoman and Hapsburg, and people from different origins would trickle in to resettle from Romania, Germany, Slav countries, living next to each other, speaking different languages and worshipping differently. As the great empires weakened in the nineteenth century, local nationalisms arose, based on language,. religion and ethnicity, building intolerance between different groups and creating new sources of conflict. Territorial settlements after World War 1 carved up the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires into a multitude of small states in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Poor Poland has been divided and redivided again and again. Galicia has disappeared into Ukraine, with an entirely new population since World War II. And so on. Much of the subject matter is so grim, that Winder's light style makes it possible to go on without giving up in despair. I'm glad I persisted. And next I will read Germania, knowing full well that it will be similarly light, selective and personal, and quite happy with that. I'll learn from it too.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Tamara

    Just ok. I'm very easy to please with a passing reference to some eccentric bit of history, like microscopic kingdoms ruled by nuns or weird buildings or people with odd names, so this book had a head start with me. That said, It never did seem to find a good middle ground between telling some of the drier political and military history and merrily skipping away from it in favour of the funny stuff. Chapters and chapters did go on abouut successions or military campaigns, but with a carefully cu Just ok. I'm very easy to please with a passing reference to some eccentric bit of history, like microscopic kingdoms ruled by nuns or weird buildings or people with odd names, so this book had a head start with me. That said, It never did seem to find a good middle ground between telling some of the drier political and military history and merrily skipping away from it in favour of the funny stuff. Chapters and chapters did go on abouut successions or military campaigns, but with a carefully cultivated air of sheepish embarrassment that rather wore itself out, and on the other hand still didn't really deliver enough information for it to be interesting. Or to make any sense. Winder also largely shied away from the really salacious personal gossipy stuff about various demented Habsburgs, which seems a bit of a shame. Come on, that's really all we can salvage out of the awful idea that was thousands of years of aristocracy. What does work pretty well is the cultural stuff, particularly art and music, and the book did add a few writers to my mental tbr pile. Winder's joy at encountering and describing various strange and disturbing paintings, statues, victory columns, overegged gazebos and that sort of thing is pretty infectious.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jeannette Nikolova

    Also available on the WondrousBooks blog. " During my first ever trip to Vienna this year, I spotted Danubia in the airport bookstore and despite my best efforts, I couldn't stop myself and bought it. In fact, unbeknownst to me, Danubia was exactly the thing I had been looking for. After several trips around Central Europe, I decided that my historical knowledge of the region was rather limited to the bits of history that related somehow to Bulgaria in any given time period. Sure, I knew of the Also available on the WondrousBooks blog. " During my first ever trip to Vienna this year, I spotted Danubia in the airport bookstore and despite my best efforts, I couldn't stop myself and bought it. In fact, unbeknownst to me, Danubia was exactly the thing I had been looking for. After several trips around Central Europe, I decided that my historical knowledge of the region was rather limited to the bits of history that related somehow to Bulgaria in any given time period. Sure, I knew of the existence of the Habsburgs, but my knowledge was by no means deep. I was interested, however, and I started thinking about buying a book that goes into the history of the region. Danubia is the perfect read for someone who wants to learn a bit more, but is perhaps not passionate enough, or doesn't have enough time to do a more thorough research. In other words, it's the perfect abridged version of a big chunk of European history where it relates to the Habsburg Empire. On the minus side, the author sometimes got carried away in rather far-fetched allegory or entangled in topics which might mean a lot more to a die-hard fan than they do to the casual reader of Danubia. Lengthy musings on specific composers, for example, left me sometimes baffled, unfamiliar as I was with their music save for a few selected pieces. Everything else in the book, though, was just right. I found the amount of detail just enough to keep me interested, but not lead to confusion (except for the lot of Habsburg rulers with repetitive names, but that, alas, cannot be changed). Also perfectly balanced with the politics and political details, were the small fun facts of the personal history of the rulers. For example, I had noticed the Habsburg chin, in passing, but I had never noticed the trend of the Habsburg chin, or thought about the naming of it, or even more so, how it lead to the existence of that particular chin. Another thing that I quite liked about the book was the attention the author paid to the less famous, nowadays, yet historically important cities of the Habsburg Empire. Cities in today's Romania, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine and so on, that were once the scenes of great battles, political conflicts, religious drama, etc. I love Romania, for example, but I knew very little about the political situation that once existed in cities like Cluj-Napoca, or the fact that once they were not Romanian cities at all. Similarly, I live in Poland, and I knew that Lvov was once an important Polish city, but I didn't quite realize how important indeed. Or that, for example, the nearby city of Gliwice was not a Polish city at all, but was in fact the German city of Gleiwitz, until the Poles of Lvov were forced to relocate there, and the Germans of Gleiwitz to go even further west. If you, like me, are incapable of delving further into the historical world of a certain family, dynasty, specific region or time period, Danubia is perfect for you! It will give you just the right amount of information and definitely make your world a little wider.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Becky

    I should start this by saying that I adored Germania.... also that I, like Simon Winder, have a strange fascination with Central Europe. It is thanks to this fascination that I was lucky enough to spend a couple of years living in the wonderful city of Vienna, and that I have made several visits to other central European cities such as Prague, Brno, Bratislava Kutna Hora etc.... I've also been lucky enough to ski in the Tyrol.... all in all you could say that I am smitten with the region, and th I should start this by saying that I adored Germania.... also that I, like Simon Winder, have a strange fascination with Central Europe. It is thanks to this fascination that I was lucky enough to spend a couple of years living in the wonderful city of Vienna, and that I have made several visits to other central European cities such as Prague, Brno, Bratislava Kutna Hora etc.... I've also been lucky enough to ski in the Tyrol.... all in all you could say that I am smitten with the region, and that I do know a reasonable amount about the crazy customs and histories of at least some of it. Danubia is then, pretty much the book for me. Danubia is a slightly loopy history of the huge area that came under Hapsburg rule, this includes the Spanish realm at least until the split during the counter reformation; and thanks to the vast area that fell into the sphere of 'Holy Roman Empire' it is a history of the Europe that falls between the French and Russian borders. There is so much that could be covered, and to be honest Winder really does seem to touch on just about everything. We have mummies and relics, escaped lions and free roaming tigers, battles and assassinations. Everything is here. As with Germania the whole book is brought together with an eye for the ridiculous little details and with a dry wit that is similar in style to Bill Bryson; in fact I am now thinking that a travel show involving the two authors exploring some of the kookier aspects of europe sounds like an amazing plan. Yes there are things missing, the topic is so enormous that it would be impossible for there not to be ommissions. Some of these could prove controversial, Winder makes no bones about cutting the whole history of Empress Sissi and of the Mayerling incident for example, however the items that are left out are so generally well known that their loss is of little consequence. Overall this is a wonderful, funny and fascinating book packed full of little gems.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Left Coast Justin

    In my review of this author's earlier book 'Germania,' I referred to him as "the irrepressible Simon Winder". In the first chapter of 'Danubia,' we find this pearl: There is a particularly hysteria-edged frieze in the Western Bohemia Museum in Plzen by V. Saff, carved in 1900, imagining the ancient Czechs in a forest, torturing and killing their enemies, tying them to trees, strangling them. In the usual proto-Art-Nouveau style, the sculptor follows through on an ethnographic hunch that surprisin In my review of this author's earlier book 'Germania,' I referred to him as "the irrepressible Simon Winder". In the first chapter of 'Danubia,' we find this pearl: There is a particularly hysteria-edged frieze in the Western Bohemia Museum in Plzen by V. Saff, carved in 1900, imagining the ancient Czechs in a forest, torturing and killing their enemies, tying them to trees, strangling them. In the usual proto-Art-Nouveau style, the sculptor follows through on an ethnographic hunch that surprising numbers of the tribal womenfolk would be in their late teens and free of clothing. The sadism of the carving is oddly reckless and preserves the nationalist mania of its period: urging the Czechs to stop sitting around reading newspapers and sipping herbal liqueurs and instead to embrace the burly virtues of their forebears. In practice we do not of course have any sense at all of what these ancient Czechs were like and Saff may not be entirely wrong about their savagery: although occasions on which women with amazing breasts swung around a severed human head by its top-knot were probably infrequent. Or later, referring to a castle in the Italian Alps: ...This new bilingualism has had a bizarre effect on the castle. In Italian it is called Castel Roncolo, which implies a pretty turfed courtyard with maidens in gauzy outfits skipping about to tambourines and lutes with weedy youths in coloured tights looking on. In German it is called Schloss Runkelstein, which implies a brandy-deranged old soldier-baron with a purple face and leg-iron lurching around darkened dank corridors, beating a servant to death with his crutch. Seeing the two names everywhere side by side is deeply confusing, like having one eye always out of focus. Or try to top this: I once read a truly harrowing account by marine scientists of an attack by a pod of killer whales on a blue whale. The attackers repeatedly smashed into the side of the whale, twisting off great lumps of blubber to get at its internal organs. The whale swam grimly along, gradually falling apart like a cheap home-assembly sofa-bed, with stuff trailing everywhere and randomly exposed angled bits of rib. Reading this really made me think that, having given up whaling, humans should now start intervening actively to make the oceans less awful -- perhaps by dropping enormous blocks of buoyed-up, nutritious tofu as an alternative for the killer whales to enjoy. Oh no -- you think -- he is typing rubbish about tofu to put off confirmation of the awful truth: that he is about to foist on us the feared Hapsburg monarchy sea-mammal analogy. Why bother typing a review? If these three excerpts don't make you want to read this, then you probably won't enjoy the book. But if you found these amusing then dive on in.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Huw Evans

    Have you ever bought something (in my case usually computer software) thinking it would solve a particular problem only to find that it doesn't answer your original question but leaves you asking even more? This is one such book. If you are looking for a historical timeline of the Hapsburg Empire it is best not bought. It is, however, completely fascinating and captivating. It is also intelligent and very well written. The easily available information on the writer is sparse. He has taken the tim Have you ever bought something (in my case usually computer software) thinking it would solve a particular problem only to find that it doesn't answer your original question but leaves you asking even more? This is one such book. If you are looking for a historical timeline of the Hapsburg Empire it is best not bought. It is, however, completely fascinating and captivating. It is also intelligent and very well written. The easily available information on the writer is sparse. He has taken the time to explore both the history of the Hapsburg family but the geography and ethnicity as well. In a parallel universe the Hapsburgs would have taken over the world operating brilliantly both sides of the Atlantic (the unfortunate Maximillian I of Mexico was a Hapsburg whose territory included Texas) and we would be speaking German or Spanish. Fortunately the level of inbreeding (everybody was cousin, uncle, aunt or a combination of the three) made their brain function decrease as their chin size increased. In fact their overall passivity and ability to make the wrong decisions at the right times made the Hapsburgs demise inevitable. One has to ask how they survived as nominal rulers of vast tract of land for as long as they did. Winder has used the individual emperors as telegraph poles from which to hang a series of short vignettes which depict some of the events of the reign but also the impact that their decision making had on the geography. Loosely affiliated states were regularly repopulated after the effects of warfare or infection changing the ethnic mix of the area. A mutual suspicion of any ethnic minority (which one in particular varied depending on where you were) allowed for overall geopolitical stability until the end of the First World War when the entire area was artificially rearranged after the Treaty of Versailles. The overall feeling in this book is one of wasted opportunities over long centuries. The inherent belief in the sacred duty of Emperor created a long line of essentially passive characters to whom world events just happened. In the overall drive to keep the Empire at peace individual states were allowed latitudes that created the drive to make individual nations. By the time the nineteenth century ended every linguistic minority was agitating for self government based on (often highly perverted) historical precedents. This partially explains how Serbian nationalism led to the assassination in Sarajevo but, even by then, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was on its knees. This is a really enjoyable book to read; intelligent, funny, whimsical and perceptive. I can only hope that its prequel, Germania, is equally good because I have already bought it.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Kirstie

    The language in this book is reminiscent of a what a tour guide sounds like guiding you around a historical site: they attempt to hold your attention with loud and crazy sentence structure, they jump around a ton in the historical timeline, and they only offer dumbed-down history. I couldn't even get through the first chapter The language in this book is reminiscent of a what a tour guide sounds like guiding you around a historical site: they attempt to hold your attention with loud and crazy sentence structure, they jump around a ton in the historical timeline, and they only offer dumbed-down history. I couldn't even get through the first chapter

  11. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    This was fantastic. Winder is an extremely erudite and fun personality to stalk through the history of Central Europe with. It was such a pleasure to tag along with his asides and enthusiasm that I was almost blind-sided how quickly the whole thing moved. I also have to mention how thought-provoking his depiction of the end of the Habsburg Empire was. The unforeseeable viciousness of national consciousness and the complete destruction of the civilization that had existed before. Great stuff.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Lindz

    I blame Wes Anderson for this obsession. As soon as I sat down and the Russian Doll opening of 'Grand Budapest Hotel' was presented before me, I wan transfixed, it was the most pink ornate cake like looking movie I had ever seen. Usually with Wes Anderson I get a little board half way after the gimmick has run it's course. But I loved it all, Ralph Fiennes (I sleep with all my friends, hands off my lobby boy), Zero, Jude Law's character, Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody's hair, the lift operator (I h I blame Wes Anderson for this obsession. As soon as I sat down and the Russian Doll opening of 'Grand Budapest Hotel' was presented before me, I wan transfixed, it was the most pink ornate cake like looking movie I had ever seen. Usually with Wes Anderson I get a little board half way after the gimmick has run it's course. But I loved it all, Ralph Fiennes (I sleep with all my friends, hands off my lobby boy), Zero, Jude Law's character, Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody's hair, the lift operator (I have spent way to much time on the Grand Budapest) but more importantly I loved the sentimental nostalgia of it all, the story and tone just appealed to every part of me. So, to bring it back to books, when based on the writings of Stefan Zweig, purchases were made and 'World of Yesterday' was read and a descent into a rabbit hole of everything Central and Eastern Europe I was dropped, every book I am buying these days is in translation and most likely a book from Pushkin Press, and it is awesome. It is turning into quite the obsession. My boyfriend asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I answered Poland. Anyway, to the actual the book I am reviewing. I liked it. I liked it because it is about the Hamburgs and Central Europe. The book on it's own is kind of a mess, with Winder turning charm into waffle at times. But this isn't exactly a history more a reaction to history, hence a personal history of Habsburg Europe. I was never going to say no to wondering around Austria, Hungry and Romania, it is a whimsical escape and Winder can be very thoughtful and funny at times about the nature of such a chaotic empire, nationalism, art and his own obsession with the area. Of course this has just deepened the rabbit hole, and a history of the thirty year war, Rebecca West and Claudio Magris have been purchased. And any recommendations on the Ottomans or Prague magicians would be appreciated.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Julia Zee

    I admit this may not be the best of all possible history books--its quirky digressions even annoyed me a little at first--but by the end I was totally convinced. Not that everything in the book is incontestable, but that Winder has eased the reader in his own highly eclectic way from the beginnings of political unification through the peak of empire to the catastrophe of the empire's irrelevance when faced with 20th-century nationalisms, all the while maintaining a sense of continuity. Most inte I admit this may not be the best of all possible history books--its quirky digressions even annoyed me a little at first--but by the end I was totally convinced. Not that everything in the book is incontestable, but that Winder has eased the reader in his own highly eclectic way from the beginnings of political unification through the peak of empire to the catastrophe of the empire's irrelevance when faced with 20th-century nationalisms, all the while maintaining a sense of continuity. Most interestingly, he shows how our last, bloody century was itself centuries in the making, with all the trappings of state managing to outbluff growing interethnic hatreds even as it sometimes exacerbated them. The tone of the book changes--rather jovial when evoking all those Maximilians, Leopolds and Rudolfs, and increasingly serious, censorious and elegeiac as Europe's worst, most murderous disasters loom into view. (Although he may be overly cynical about modern nations--I certainly hope his pessimism is unwarranted.)

  14. 5 out of 5

    Alex Sarll

    "Rather than defeat the reader with a family tree which would look like an illustration of the vein and arteries of the human body drawn by a poorly infomed maniac..." Personal history in the modern mode can often be little more than some bumptious prick skipping over the good bits so as to wedge in some more Relatable Content and Personal Journey, but Winder pitches it wonderfully, somewhere between a more woke version of the old gentleman scholar, a historian mate getting drunk and expressing "Rather than defeat the reader with a family tree which would look like an illustration of the vein and arteries of the human body drawn by a poorly infomed maniac..." Personal history in the modern mode can often be little more than some bumptious prick skipping over the good bits so as to wedge in some more Relatable Content and Personal Journey, but Winder pitches it wonderfully, somewhere between a more woke version of the old gentleman scholar, a historian mate getting drunk and expressing their professional opinion with unprofessional vigour, and a slightly less mournful Lemony Snicket; there's definitely a pinch of Sellars & Yeatman in the mix too, not least when (always a good litmus test for a history) he summarises the Italian Wars as "completely pointless". But this is not a book built on cheap laughs, and not just because some of the laughs are very abstruse ones. He's set himself no small task in taking on the Habsburgs; one ridiculous, inbred dynasty, alternately bonkers and incredibly boring, would be topic enough even before you include their sprawling dominions, the many fractious peoples within them, and the European history shaped around them. Winder is at pains to point out that political constructs like Savoy, or indeed the Holy Roman Empire itself, which may now seem like silly gimcrack affairs, in fact endured for far longer than Germany or Italy has thus far been a united nation in anything like their modern forms. He has a negative capability too often lacking of late (though it's curious to speculate how this 2013 book might be different had it been written later, its entreaties against the dangers of resurgent nationalism now so much more urgent), able at once to adore Mitteleuropa as a neverland of sleepy settlements and charming landscapes, and to mourn it as a bitterly contested landscape soaked in centuries of blood over the most futile of squabbles. He's a master of the bait and switch, as on the "famously soporific" War of the Austrian Succession – where his brief summary then goes on to point out the many ways in which, had it gone slightly differently, world history from that point might have gone entirely otherwise. He can turn effortlessly from giggling at General Paris von Spankau's name, or a Jesuit pretending to be a ghost, Scooby-Doo caretaker style, to the sheer scale and regularity of the devastation, or the thankless lives as brood-mares and dynastic tokens lived by many Habsburg women – sometimes holding the mood for a moment somewhere between the two, as with his savagely satirical reading of a particular guinea pig village. He tries as much as possible to bring alive for the reader the mindsets of the everyday people in the Empire, as well as their ridiculous rulers, while admitting that much of the experience must remain forever irretrievable, no matter how hard we guard against the fallacies of hindsight (I was particularly taken with his names for two of these, Christmas Pantomime Syndrome and Pilgrim's Progress Syndrome). And while this is by no means an area on which I'm any kind of expert, nor did I spot any of the inaccuracies which can bedevil so much popular history*. Of course, the one bit of the story we all know is how it ends, and the ghastly sequel - though even here there were details new to me - and the closer one draws to that, the more one comes to share Winder's frustrated fondness for a regime which, sclerotic, nonsensical and intermittently plain deranged as it was, was definitely preferable to what followed. *One previous reader of my copy felt minded to make precisely one annotation, on page 270, objecting quite strongly to the notion of mules having descendants. But a) their sterility is much exaggerated and b) in any case, can't subsequent mules in the same role and location be considered adoptive scions of a sort anyway?

  15. 5 out of 5

    Robert Morris

    This book is a delight. It's billed as a "Personal History" of Habsburg Europe. The personal nature of the narrative makes it a bit more breezy, and allows Winder to skip over bits he doesn't feel like covering. The Author might claim that it is not serious history, but his treatment does a marvelous job of covering two aspects that would not have come across as well in a more traditional treatment. Nationalism, which he describes as similar to the bubonic plague, Destroyed the 500 year old Habs This book is a delight. It's billed as a "Personal History" of Habsburg Europe. The personal nature of the narrative makes it a bit more breezy, and allows Winder to skip over bits he doesn't feel like covering. The Author might claim that it is not serious history, but his treatment does a marvelous job of covering two aspects that would not have come across as well in a more traditional treatment. Nationalism, which he describes as similar to the bubonic plague, Destroyed the 500 year old Habsburg empire. He uses the stories of just a few cities to describe the way that demographics, education, and the politics of the empire worked to create the "national problem" on the ground. By leaving out the exhaustive detail of more traditional accounts, he manages to tell the story more clearly. It certainly added to my understanding. Every history that attempts to tell a story that crosses the gap of industrialization and mass literacy has problems. Our sense of what happened, or at least what we know happened before 1800 or so is much more focused on the doings of Kings, emperors and land-owning families. As we approach modern times, the mass public becomes more powerful and leaves a better record of its concerns. Most histories do one of these well. It is hard to get the two different types of story into a single narrative. Most histories treat one or the other as an after-thought. Not this one. Winder's "personal" approach does a very effective job of conveying the whole sweep of Habsburg history, from wacky emperors to the general public's nationalist yearnings. Quite an accomplishment. If you are at all interested in Central Europe or general European history it is definitely worth a read.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Aisling

    Speaking of a little Alpine town which had changed hands several times, Winder writes: "This new bilingualism has had a bizarre effect on the castle. In Italian it is called Castel Roncolo, which implies a pretty turfed courtyard with maidens in gauzy outfits skipping about to tambourines and lutes with weedy youths in coloured tights looking on. In German it is called Schloss Runkelstein, which implies a brandy-deranged old soldier-baron with a purple face and leg-iron lurching around darkened Speaking of a little Alpine town which had changed hands several times, Winder writes: "This new bilingualism has had a bizarre effect on the castle. In Italian it is called Castel Roncolo, which implies a pretty turfed courtyard with maidens in gauzy outfits skipping about to tambourines and lutes with weedy youths in coloured tights looking on. In German it is called Schloss Runkelstein, which implies a brandy-deranged old soldier-baron with a purple face and leg-iron lurching around darkened dank corridors, beating a servant to death with his crutch. Seeing the two names everywhere side by side is deeply confusing like having one eye always out of focus." Or another time writing about Spilberk fortress in Brno, he notes: "This odd place contains the mummified corpses of monks, laid out in rows, their heads resting on bricks, dressed in their habits and holding crucifixes, the whole place having an air of a deeply unsuccessful hospital." Just two examples of a self confessed "personal history of Hapsburg Europe" by Simon Winder. I have never, in my several hundred book reviews on Goodreads, taken the time to type out a quote but here it seems important; if you laughed, as I did, then you will LOVE this book. If you find it shocking and not serious enough, this is not the book for you. Winder's research and scope are beyond compare. Had a I read this book in high school, I might have seen the appeal of studying history. This was a thoroughly, highly entertaining and informative book. Five stars is not even close to what it deserves.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Marks54

    This reads like a travel guide written by a history professor. The focus in on Europe drained by the Danube river. The historical range covered in the book is on the order of a thousand years although there is more on the later Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg, and European political history up through the world wars - mostly WW1. Simon Winder writes in an easy and personal style and still manages to tie together hundreds of people and places so that one can place them in broader timelines. He se This reads like a travel guide written by a history professor. The focus in on Europe drained by the Danube river. The historical range covered in the book is on the order of a thousand years although there is more on the later Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg, and European political history up through the world wars - mostly WW1. Simon Winder writes in an easy and personal style and still manages to tie together hundreds of people and places so that one can place them in broader timelines. He seems to have forgotten more than most avid readers of European history know and the resulting book is filled with intriguing story lines, references to art and music to catch on visits, a building and architecture tour that seems fairly up to date, and lots and lots of cool trivia. The Hapsburgs come across as a bit strange and even goofy as dynasties go, Winder seems to have some residual affection for when they ran the show in Central Europe. This is because once they left the scene, they was nothing to hold the huge diversity of their realm together and linguistic nationalism was left to itself on stage to sort things out. That is what matters go bloody and continued bloody up through the 1990s and beyond. In his last chapters, Winder discusses how the various ethnic and religious divisions in the population of the Hapsburg lands were sorted out over the course of the first half of the 20th century. A focus point is Lviv, now in Ukraine, which had been under varied overlords after the Hapsburg, with dire results for those not part of the new dominant population. For an interesting comparison, readers could look at “East-West Street” by Philippe Sands, a 2016 book which focused on this city in the context of tracking down traces of long dead Jewish families destroyed there during the Hololcaust. I read another of his books on Central Europe (Lotharingia) and this is of the same quality. Since I cannot travel to Europe right now (and likely for a while given rising cases) I can at least read about it and get ready to visit once conditions improve. This book will be helpful in doing so.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Sebastien

    So I read this book as part of a reading challenge - I had to find a book about Austria. I thought this book would be appropriate (and it was). Although it can't really be said that this book is about Austria per se, it is a worthy read. This book is really about the contradictory state that was the Habsburg Empire/Holy Roman Empire/Austro-Hungarian Empire. Simon Winder presents a refreshing style of history writing. It doesn't come across as overly academic, although it must be said that Winder So I read this book as part of a reading challenge - I had to find a book about Austria. I thought this book would be appropriate (and it was). Although it can't really be said that this book is about Austria per se, it is a worthy read. This book is really about the contradictory state that was the Habsburg Empire/Holy Roman Empire/Austro-Hungarian Empire. Simon Winder presents a refreshing style of history writing. It doesn't come across as overly academic, although it must be said that Winder comes across as slightly insane (in a good way) at times. He has a sense of humour, and a history book with humour in it is a precious rarity. An example: "Presumably the court humanists, rather than rolling their eyes and making farting noises with their cheeks, must have smiled at the Emperor’s perspicacity, bowed deeply and returned to their library to start all over again." He is certainly passionate about Central Europe and its culture, arts, and music, and it is made apparent in his often baroque writing style when describing composers, paintings, and other usually ignored and atypical historical fare. I found myself constantly stopping and googling the things he was writing about, which was at first quite entertaining, and later, an irritating burden. I resigned myself to taking notes and promising myself I'd look into these interesting tidbits later (which realistically, I won't). There were times where I was completely entranced by this book, and others where I couldn't bear to continue reading, but I believe that the incredible amount of relevant (and often funny) information in this book as well as the astronomical effort Winder put into it merits 5 stars. And it only took me three and a half months to read.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Hester

    I never really thought much about Central Europe. It seemed fusty; it was where much of the Holocaust occurred; and my parents were interested in it. I read about Latin countries and I learned romance languages. My only interests in the Hapsburg empire were waltzing and Viennese coffee. Then the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival's focus on Hungary made me think I may have been missing out. Since I knew almost nothing about the Habsburg empire, this book gave me a good overview of Habsburg histo I never really thought much about Central Europe. It seemed fusty; it was where much of the Holocaust occurred; and my parents were interested in it. I read about Latin countries and I learned romance languages. My only interests in the Hapsburg empire were waltzing and Viennese coffee. Then the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival's focus on Hungary made me think I may have been missing out. Since I knew almost nothing about the Habsburg empire, this book gave me a good overview of Habsburg history, as well as a selection of cultural highlights. The author had several theses that made me think. Several of his arguments imply that what happened in Eastern Europe presaged the European experience in the Americas. He wonders if plagues decimated the Central European countryside, leading to seemingly unoccupied land. Habsburg encounters with Ottoman slavery and war practices may have influenced Spanish colonialism. His evidence made me very interested in the history of slavery in Europe. He spends a significant amount of time documenting how European nationalism is based on a misunderstanding of European history. People try to claim how their "race" has ancient claims on their land. He shows how Eastern Europe was repeatedly emptied out and resettled, making many of these claims meaningless. Right now, the current cultural moment believes in authenticity. I finished the book wondering if American cultural festivals are just as "authentic" as much of what is presented in Europe. Lastly, he states that our current image of pre-war Vienna would have surprised American and British contemporaries. Vienna was viewed as stuffy and a cultural backwater. Anglo-saxon countries ignored the Empire. For the first third of the book, I loved the author's informal style. After a while, it began to feel a bit self-indulgent. I think an editor could have focused the book a bit more clearly. Winder spends a lot of time talking about the various ethnicities of Eastern Europe, and he spends time on cities that became a part of Ukraine, but he does not mention Ukrainians. I would have removed some of the disparaging comparisons with Asia. I also feel that some of the author's arguments were unsupported. For example, was the Austro-Hungarian empire really militarily unprepared for WWI, or was it undermined by well-placed Russian spies? Was Franz Josef really as narrow-minded and dull as the author implies, or was he aware that any public comment or action could take on a life of its own? On the other hand, the digressions could be fascinating. I loved reading about the Uskoks about how they supposed used their victims blood in their bread. No wonder people were willing to believe what happened to Simonino. After a while, I used this book more as a compendium of cultural recommendations. Towns to dream about, operas to listen to. I am inspired enough that I hope to check out the Spranger exhibit at the Met.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Irina

    I have very mixed feelings about this book. First of all, as someone who gets their bachelor's degree in history next year, I was baffled because of the scarcity of references and footnotes, the first hint of a serious historical research, and as a Transylvanian Romanian some things regarding this region and my ancestors seemed... off. But then I looked at the title and I realised it's a personal history, it's not meant to be a scientific research. The author tries to be as respectful as possibl I have very mixed feelings about this book. First of all, as someone who gets their bachelor's degree in history next year, I was baffled because of the scarcity of references and footnotes, the first hint of a serious historical research, and as a Transylvanian Romanian some things regarding this region and my ancestors seemed... off. But then I looked at the title and I realised it's a personal history, it's not meant to be a scientific research. The author tries to be as respectful as possible to the many ethnic groups in the empire, I appreciated the fact that he tried not to use the anglicised version of the names and toponyms, a rare feat. Also, finally, someone who write about the Habsburgs and almost completely ignores empress Elisabeth (most books about the dynasty devote way too much space for her, in my humble opinion a waste of paper as they repeat the same old facts and myths). Long story short, it was a highly enjoyable read, even the chapters about the early dynasts got me in stitches and I personally don't particularly find the Middle Ages interesting, though I don't recommend taking it too literarily.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Carol

    While Danubia continued to confuse my goal of developing a consistent foreign policy worldview, like consuming too much Hungarian liqueur, it was worth it. Winder is a wonderful companion through history, warning you ahead of time if he has to bore you for the sake of the story and letting you see all his charming obsessions. He refers to the book as a personal history not to be cheeky but because he has visited the settings of the various Hapsburg rulers and touch points that he discusses. Wind While Danubia continued to confuse my goal of developing a consistent foreign policy worldview, like consuming too much Hungarian liqueur, it was worth it. Winder is a wonderful companion through history, warning you ahead of time if he has to bore you for the sake of the story and letting you see all his charming obsessions. He refers to the book as a personal history not to be cheeky but because he has visited the settings of the various Hapsburg rulers and touch points that he discusses. Winder's wind through the history of Central Europe allowed me to finally understand what was behind the catastrophic dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s -- and I lived through it. But Winder may argue that it is precisely because I was there that I could not see the basic story arc. In fact, it takes time -- sadly, often too much -- to get how futile much of the motivations of history are. So enjoy the castles, the red-roofed villages tucked into valleys, the music, and the personalities. And hope that we will do better next time.

  22. 5 out of 5

    John

    I have been looking for a good book that would explain the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a historical phenomenon. When downloading this audiobook from the library, I hadn't realized that it covered the entire Habsburg family Dynasty, so that the first half of the book features the Holy Roman Empire. At first, I thought that may be an issue, but I didn't know much about that either, so all was good. I'm going to deal with the only negative aspect in that the book was very, very long. I had to put it I have been looking for a good book that would explain the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a historical phenomenon. When downloading this audiobook from the library, I hadn't realized that it covered the entire Habsburg family Dynasty, so that the first half of the book features the Holy Roman Empire. At first, I thought that may be an issue, but I didn't know much about that either, so all was good. I'm going to deal with the only negative aspect in that the book was very, very long. I had to put it down and listen at different times, so didn't always catch the thread of the previous discussion. That aside, I truly appreciated the author's sense of humor, both self-deprecation as well as the foibles of the monarchs. He does a great job bringing to life the component regions of the empire. I found it truly engaging travel narrative of the places he's visited, with the audio narration carrying the author's intended tone for me. Definitely recommended.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Graychin

    While reading Simon Winder’s Danubia I was visited by the ghost of Rebecca West, author of that tremendous doorstop of a historical travelogue Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. The apparition never spoke to me but I looked up from my book now and then to see her nod affirmatively or shake her head. I assume Winder has read West, since his own historical travelogue covers some of the same territory and many of the same events and people, but he never mentions her. It may be that he’s afraid of her, and While reading Simon Winder’s Danubia I was visited by the ghost of Rebecca West, author of that tremendous doorstop of a historical travelogue Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. The apparition never spoke to me but I looked up from my book now and then to see her nod affirmatively or shake her head. I assume Winder has read West, since his own historical travelogue covers some of the same territory and many of the same events and people, but he never mentions her. It may be that he’s afraid of her, and I wouldn’t blame him. West is intimidating, even if she doesn’t visit you from beyond the grave. When reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (which, honestly, I’ve never quite finished), I’m reminded on almost every one of her 1,000 pages that I will never be such a good writer, never have her gift for observation or a mind so nimble and comprehensive. But even if he lacks West’s genius and depth, Winder’s book is delightful to a high degree, and all the more so for being proudly unacademic and digressive. His tour of Habsburgiana double bills as a trivia-bingo history of the Holy Roman Empire and, subsequently, the Austro-Hungarian empire. He’s less interested in the grand sweep of history than in the personalities and eccentric minutiae of it – for example, the fact that Rudolf II kept a pet cassowary at his alchemist-plagued court in Prague. Winder’s longish book is also improved by the fact that he's very funny. The comic interludes typically involve anecdotes from his own visits to Habsburg historical sites. I had to read several of these aloud to my wife. There’s a good one about the “Guinea Pig Village” at the Budapest Zoo, and another about Winder's frequent disappointment at Baroque depictions of the Labors of Hercules. More quotable here, however, and a fair introduction to Winder’s tone, is his reflection on the new German/Italian tourist signage at an old fortress in the Tyrol: “This new bilingualism has had a bizarre effect on the castle. In Italian it is called Castel Roncolo, which implies a pretty, turfed courtyard with maidens in gauzy outfits skipping about to tambourines and lutes with weedy youths in colored tights looking on. In German it is called Schloss Runkelstein, which implies a brandy-deranged old soldier-baron with a purple face and leg-iron lurching around darkened dank corridors, beating a servant to death with his crutch."

  24. 4 out of 5

    DeAnna Knippling

    A charming overview of the madness that was central Europe, to the end of World War I. This is amusingly written, with personal observations that are both witty and poingant at times. I always mentally complain about overview books like this while I'm reading them: why couldn't the author zoom in whan I wanted them to? But of course it's impossible. Well written. Recommended for anyone who cares to read nonfiction. A charming overview of the madness that was central Europe, to the end of World War I. This is amusingly written, with personal observations that are both witty and poingant at times. I always mentally complain about overview books like this while I'm reading them: why couldn't the author zoom in whan I wanted them to? But of course it's impossible. Well written. Recommended for anyone who cares to read nonfiction.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Gareth Evans

    I guess like most Britons my view of European history is orientated very much toward the west unless there are major historical incidents (1917 etc). What Winder's book shows is that there is much more to Eurpoe than this. Indeed the very centre of Europe is much further East and it is a very different world. One of invasion, war, ethnic tensions and mass migrations. The dynastic history of the Haspburgs can by a little dry, too many similarly named emporers without a great deal of interest in t I guess like most Britons my view of European history is orientated very much toward the west unless there are major historical incidents (1917 etc). What Winder's book shows is that there is much more to Eurpoe than this. Indeed the very centre of Europe is much further East and it is a very different world. One of invasion, war, ethnic tensions and mass migrations. The dynastic history of the Haspburgs can by a little dry, too many similarly named emporers without a great deal of interest in themselves. Winder keeps things interesting by not taking a direct chronological view (although the book does progress chronologically) but by exploring the interesting facets of the empire. Winder has written a book that is hugely entertaining, whilst at the same time having profound things to say about nationality (and how killer whales attack their prey). The book is also part travelogue, but not at the expense of maintaining the historical narrative. This is at the lighter end of popular history, but it's a book that wears its knowledge lightly. First class entertainment throughout.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Cass

    Gave it 2 stars because I technically didn't finish the book, and assume there may be information in the other half of it. Otherwise, this reads like the History of the Habsburgs as told by Steven Moffat. The author is way too full of his own personal sense of wit, which seems to be the only thing holding together a story that jumps from time period to time period like it has ADD. Coupled with the fact that the author seems to have a tremendous disdain for every member of the dynasty, I wonder w Gave it 2 stars because I technically didn't finish the book, and assume there may be information in the other half of it. Otherwise, this reads like the History of the Habsburgs as told by Steven Moffat. The author is way too full of his own personal sense of wit, which seems to be the only thing holding together a story that jumps from time period to time period like it has ADD. Coupled with the fact that the author seems to have a tremendous disdain for every member of the dynasty, I wonder why he wrote the book at all, and how on earth it ended up as well known as it is.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Mallory

    A mildly humorous history of the Habsburg dynasty, alternating anecdotes of random oddities of the sort that are bound to pile up in a family that was so prominent for such a long time with a deadly serious examination of what the Habsburgs actually meant to Europe. I would definitely recommend this book if you're interested in the parts of Central and Eastern Europe once ruled by the dynasty. And I really want to see the Budapest Guinea Pig Village. A mildly humorous history of the Habsburg dynasty, alternating anecdotes of random oddities of the sort that are bound to pile up in a family that was so prominent for such a long time with a deadly serious examination of what the Habsburgs actually meant to Europe. I would definitely recommend this book if you're interested in the parts of Central and Eastern Europe once ruled by the dynasty. And I really want to see the Budapest Guinea Pig Village.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Peter Kavanagh

    A funny and deeply humane history of the Hapsburg Empire. Engaging and absorbing, this book is a must read for anybody interested in the empire or considering travel in the region. Incidentally, I really enjoyed tracking down and listening to the music referenced in the book.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Ivan Stoner

    Two stars is maybe a little harsh because Danubia isn't a bad book. Some people might really get a lot from it. But I can't say I'll be looking for more from Winder. This is a sort of meandering walk through early modern eastern Europe, sometimes tracking Winder's actual travels, sometimes just talking through courses of events, selected seemingly at random, that happen to grab his interest. In some ways this is an effective presentation because the Habsburgs are just so freaking weird, so they Two stars is maybe a little harsh because Danubia isn't a bad book. Some people might really get a lot from it. But I can't say I'll be looking for more from Winder. This is a sort of meandering walk through early modern eastern Europe, sometimes tracking Winder's actual travels, sometimes just talking through courses of events, selected seemingly at random, that happen to grab his interest. In some ways this is an effective presentation because the Habsburgs are just so freaking weird, so they invite anecdotes about their manifold weirdnesses. Imagine if Bill Bryson decided to write a history of the Habsburgs. Now imagine that he was just as arch, but was more of a humor striver than an actual talent, and not as effective at actually conveying information. I will say this, Winder gets the award for consistent use of the most goofily unhelpful metaphors I've ever read, which itself is kind of entertaining. The sort of thing where you're left wondering what the hell is going on with the metaphor and stop thinking about the actual subject. This isn't a specific example of that, but it gives you a flavor: "In an extraordinary scene, Rudolph [II, Holy Roman Emperor] once hunted deer around the park with cheetahs -- an image almost infantily exotic -- as he and his followers orchestrated this no doubt mutually baffling encounter between fearsome, if chilly, African megafauna and some appalled Bohemian ungulates." The scene is crazy enough, why does Winder describe it twice, just using bigger words the second time? There's a lot of stuff like this. Fantastic cover though!

  30. 5 out of 5

    Monty Milne

    I loved this, though he is a writer whose style some will hate. Usually I too would hate something so discursive, especially in a history book, and I don’t like chumminess or informality in almost any context (pompous arse that I am). Winder addresses the reader like an old friend, and can often be so discursive that he veers completely off topic and starts meandering down the unlikeliest of avenues. What saves this, for me, from being annoying is that he actually is an old friend (well, it’s tr I loved this, though he is a writer whose style some will hate. Usually I too would hate something so discursive, especially in a history book, and I don’t like chumminess or informality in almost any context (pompous arse that I am). Winder addresses the reader like an old friend, and can often be so discursive that he veers completely off topic and starts meandering down the unlikeliest of avenues. What saves this, for me, from being annoying is that he actually is an old friend (well, it’s true I haven’t seen him for many years, but we were contemporaries at Oxford). I recall with great pleasure the conversations we had, which glow in my memory like the sipping of fine champagne (though it is highly likely he doesn’t remember me at all). Let me assure prospective readers of Danubia that most will find the pleasure of reading it a close second to the pleasure of conversing with the author in person. What also saves the discursiveness from being annoying is the pleasing (but lightly worn) erudition, the wide sympathies, the delight in the quirky and the obscure, and the humour. All of this is to my taste. A recent review in the Spectator of Winder’s new book “Lotharingia” noted that the reviewer “is more than happy to listen to whatever Winder is prepared to tell him”. I agree.

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