'Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe': the whole sad story, with affection

With hearty dollops of humor in a unique blend of travel writing, historiography and speculation, Simon Winder remains clear-eyed and witty

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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.

By Simon Winder.
FSG ($30).

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).

Until the 19th century and the inexorable rise of nationalism, the Habsburg Empire was a gaggle of lesser states, even city-states. Mr. Winder profiles each, giving them the distinct character for which they remain known even if they are extinct -- or have moved, like Debrecen, a city in the far east of Hungary that used to be in the middle of that country.

His humor is sly. Here is Mr. Winder's take on folklore, stimulated by a visit to the Ukrainian city of Lviv (where much current political turbulence is centered):

"An obsession with folklore can take many forms, running the gamut from a timid interest in fabrics to the barrel-chested roaring and good fellowship that characterizes the once notorious Girl Fair of Muntele Gaina," he writes. "Folklore tourism has been important ever since the railways were invented, and the tension between 'remoteness' and easy access, between celebrating a unique way of life and polluting it can never be resolved."

Paving the way with laughs, then tying the bow with insight, is Mr. Winder's mode. But that's not to say the author isn't fundamentally serious. He can even be angry.

"The longer I have spent thinking about this book the more horror and disgust I feel for nationalism, which seems something akin to bubonic plague. ... Once the language you used (and the newspapers and books you read) and the religion you grew up with became part of a public sphere, rather than entirely local issue, there was no going back," he writes in a chapter on Franz Joseph's rule.

Time dictates that Mr. Winder end with World War I, the collapse of the Habsburg Empire and, he suggests, the beginning of the modern age. What's poignant about "Danubia" is that Mr. Winder makes you wonder -- as does he -- whether things are better now.

Carlo Wolff is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News.

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