The quincy fruits are also large – always, according to grandmother wisdom here, a sign of a tough winter to come. Couldn’t get much tougher than the last one which saw our neighbour’s house snowed in during March – but we’re taking no chances and therefore padded today the central heating pipes with special care. Monday we will have the specialist up to do a bit of tweaking. Thus are the seasons marked on this southern border of Transylvania!
I’m stuck in a bit of a time warp at the moment – Chris Clark’s book on the origins of the First World War - TheSleepwalkers - made me realise how little I know about the world which created the killing fields of the 20th Century. I therefore reread Simon Winder’s Germania which I had found a bit indigestible at the first read - but which makes a bit more sense this time around. And, coincidentally, Winder published last week Danubia – a personal history of Hapsburg Empire which has attracted this useful review -
Why do we know so little about the Habsburg empire, given that it is the prime formative influence on modern Europe? Its pomp gave us the art, music, literature and pageantry of our high culture; its relationship with the Ottoman East and burgeoning European protestantism drew our religious and our political maps; its collapse fomented the nationalisms that shaped the 20th century across Europe.
A popular abbreviation on the internet is ‘tl; dr’. It stands for ‘too long; didn’t read.’ There’s space for another one that would come in especially helpful for the Habsburg empire: ‘tc; du’ — ‘too complicated; didn’t understand’. It’s much easier to teach schoolchildren about Our Island Story, or the first world war, or the nastiness of Nazis, because at least superficially these are containable subjects. There are baddies (Nazis), there are decisive battles (Waterloo), there are comprehensible treaties (Versailles) and there are what look like reasons for things to happen (railway timetables).
The Habsburg empire, on the other hand, has none of these consolations. Most of the places involved are now called something else, and the empire was cobbled together out of any number of rebellious, feuding or indifferent duchies, grand-duchies, principalities, margravates, palatinates and what have you. ......
One of the main things the empire did was to prevent the Ottomans from overrunning Europe. Its ups and downs often have to do with whether the Ottomans were busy gnawing at its bum or had their attention distracted for a few decades elsewhere. Like most of the things the Habsburgs did — Winder gently but seriously emphasises that to think of the empire as a rational, centralising authority is completely to miss the point — these distractions were often subcontracted........
This is almost an anti-history. Winder approaches his dementingly enormous subject more in the spirit of an amused and irreverent tourist, as his subtitle suggests: as much travel writer as historian. ‘The more we read about the past,’ he marvels at one point, ‘the more completely odd it appears.’
Danubia is framed by the author’s peregrinations around the Mitteleuropean sprawl of the vanished empire — from the dismal flatlands bordering the Danube to tiny towns in Transylvania. He visits dusty old museums (in one he finds a flap of human skin) and decaying fortresses. He observes endless suits of armour, eats stomach-churning omelettes, stumbles on a children’s rock festival in a town in Serbia and sighs frequently for love of the town of Brno.Yet one of the sly contradictions here is that an exceptional amount of reading and travel lies behind the showily teen-agerish dismissal of this monarch or that treaty. Winder plainly knows his way around the empire: he’s not only more knowledgeable than he makes out about military history; he’s also well-read and clever about art and music. Sometimes the winsomeness is trying. A down side of approaching history as a tourist is that, by definition, you never quite inhabit the period. There’s a sort of chronological orientalism to all this pointing and laughing. But at the same time it is very funny.
Danubia promises to be a very useful complement to the doorstopper of a book about the Habsburg Empire which arrived for me yesterday CA Macartney’s 1968 The Habsburg Empire 1790-1918. This promises to be a real resource to help deal with my ignorance of this part of the world.