Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Springtime for Habsburg Winder Gives Insight into History of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Springtime for Habsburg Winder Gives Insight into History of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Article excerpt

"DANUBIA:

A PERSONAL HISTORY OF HABSBURG EUROPE"

By Simon Winder.

FSG ($30).

If you could lay its maps over each other on see-through paper, you might begin to grasp the historical, geographical and linguistic twists and turns Simon Winder steers the reader through in "Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe."

Mr. Winder's book is an attempt to make sense of what is essentially the story of Europe and points east. Billed as a "personal history of Habsburg Europe," this follow-up to Mr. Winder's "Germania" is a plump, singular work.

With authority and dry humor, Mr. Winder traces the rise and fall of the Habsburgs, a clan of unfortunate jaw, questionable perspective, canniness and ultimately, helplessness. Habsburgs of one strain or another ruled what was known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the 15th to the 20th century. Land-rich but landlocked, they hung on to power administered from along the banks of the Danube River, the backbone of Mr. Winder's project.

"Danubia" is thick with scoundrels, dullards, the occasional wizard -- and great art, architecture and musicians from Haydn to Mr. Winder's spiritual doppelganger, the mysterious Romanian Bela Bartok.

Despite hearty dollops of humor in his unique blend of travel writing, historiography and speculation, Mr. Winder's is a sad story. While he often detours into stimulating counterfactual history, he remains clear-eyed and unsentimental, and never less than affectionate.

Mr. Winder loves Europe. Yet the more he travels it, he suggests, the more fascinated and despairing he becomes.

"The more we read about the past, the more completely odd it appears," Mr. Winder writes in a chapter on the 17th century that focuses on the religious differences that kept the Habsburg empire from coalescing (let's not forget geography, either). …

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