Two-Faced and Too Fascist?

Article excerpt

Byline: Simon Heffer

The Austrians - A Thousand Year Odyssey by Gordon Brook-Shepherd (HarperCollins, [pounds sterling]25).

MENTION Austria to the average Briton and a series of images immediately appears: skiing, mountains, Johann Strauss, the Danube, Vienna, chocolate.

And, as they do, most of us will reflect on how little else we know about this prosperous country that has, for the past year, been one of our fellow members of the European Union.

For some there are older, darker memories. Hitler, of course, was an Austrian, born at Braunau on the German border. His mission of a union of these two Germanic peoples, completing the construction of a Teuton nation begun by Bismarck in the mid-19th century, was to have horrific consequences. In the war that followed Hitler's rise, the Austrians played their part gruesomely, not least in the concentration camps, acquiring a record for militant anti-Semitism which has still not been expunged.

But before that it was Austrian pique and diplomatic stupidity that started the Great War - the one that was supposed to be, but regrettably was not, `the war to end all wars'. The foolish decision in 1908 by elderly Emperor Franz Josef to rule directly the provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina - which the Kingdom of Serbia also coveted - led in turn to the fatal shot, fired at Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 by a Serbian nationalist, which precipitated the conflict.

In this excellent book, Gordon Brook-Shepherd, a distinguished oberver of, and commentator on, Austrian affairs for half a century, tells these important historical tales as part of a continuum stretching from 996, when something recognisable as `Austria' first appears on the map, to the present day. Most of his book, though, concentrates on the past 150 years, and especially on the period that saw the great Hapsburg empire brought to its knees by one war and Austria soiled by its participation in the next.

Having described the conquests, marriages and alliances that constructed the huge empire to start with - it covered territory from what is now Poland down to what is now Italy, and over into the Balkans and the Ukraine including the Kingdom of Hungary - the author shows in a compelling fashion, with great narrative verve, how everything started to crumble towards the end of Franz Josef's 68-year reign. …