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A popular history of central Europe from ancient to modern times provokes reflections on the social origins of war and national bigotry, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

Simon Winder, Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe (Picador 2013), xx, 530pp.

It is already difficult to miss the fact that this year will see the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. David Cameron has announced a £55 million budget for ‘truly national commemorations’ which will put an emphasis on ‘our national spirit’. Right-wing historians like Niall Ferguson have been enlisted to argue that the ordinary soldiers who saw the war as a useless bloodbath or a fight between competing imperial powers got it all wrong. It was, apparently, a necessary struggle for freedom and democracy. Culture Secretary Maria Miller summarised the new revisionist version of the First World War in an interview this June, arguing with a fine disregard for the realities of nineteenth and twentieth-century European history that ‘it was important that there was a war that ensured that Europe could continue to be a set of countries which were strong and could be working together rather than in any other way’.

The jingoist posturing of Cameron and his cronies about the war portrays it almost exclusively as a conflict between Britain and Germany, a sort of Battle of Britain Mark One, with Britain standing alone to defend the free world against the German imperialist menace. There are of course many things wrong with this, but one among the omissions is that of the other great power ranged against Britain, France and Russia: the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The spark which started the First World War was the assassination in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914 of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Empire, by Gavrilo Princip, a young Serb nationalist. Franz Ferdinand was not popular with his subjects-to-be, as shown at the beginning of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, where Švejk’s landlady, trying to explain which Ferdinand it is who has been murdered, exclaims: ‘Oh no, sir, it’s his Imperial Highness … the fat, churchy one.’

In the same way, Austria-Hungary seems rarely to be taken seriously, appearing as ‘genial, backward and ineffectual, in a cake-and-waltzes way’ (p.8), in stark contrast to the Prussian seriousness of Germany under Bismarck and the Kaiser. This sort of exculpation-through-romanticisation appears quite frequently in fiction about the First World War: think of the innumerable novels portraying aristocrats (of a variety of nationalities) in the ‘golden summer’ of 1914. In this case, it pulls off for the Austro-Hungarian Empire the same trick that Gone with the Wind manages for the Confederacy, the feeling that a society with such good manners, polished dancing and frilly dresses might be doomed to defeat by their dour, factory-owning neighbours, but can never really have deserved it. The reality of course was quite different. As Simon Winder explains in this fascinating and engaging book, not only was the Empire in different configurations a serious political power in central Europe for close on five hundred years, it was also the crucible where many of the worst events of the twentieth century were forged.

In 1914, the Empire consisted of what are now Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, with parts of modern Poland, Romania and Italy. However, the continuity of the Empire was less about its geography than it was about its rulers. The Empire, when it came down to it, was always at base the lands that the Habsburg family happened to control. As a result of this, it can be tempting to reduce the history of this large part of central Europe to the history of this one bunch of inbred aristocrats. The story of their rise from their castle, Habichtsburg (the hawk’s fortress) in northern Switzerland, to German Emperors, to control in the sixteenth century of land from the Danube to Gibraltar, is an interesting one, and they are certainly the poster-children for inbreeding. The family was divided in the sixteenth century into an Austrian and a Spanish branch, and their determination to marry their close relatives from the other branch meant that the last Spanish Habsburg, Carlos II, who died in 1701, was descended from the early sixteenth-century Spanish Queen Juana fourteen times over. To Winder’s credit, however, this sort of grotesquerie is not the point of this book. This is history angled not from the perspective of the ruler, but of the ruled. In particular, this includes those who were disinclined to be ruled by the Habsburgs, which was at one time or another pretty much all their subjects. As he sets out in the introduction:

‘Europe is filled with groups of all kinds who refuse to do as they are told, and they should be celebrated a bit more … Generations of Viennese officials would bang their heads on their cherry-wood desktops with fury: why won’t these people just do as they’re told? But theirs was just a sickness generated by too many maps, charts and budget projections. A possible novelty of this book is that it attempts to avoid seeing Vienna as the clearing-house for all right-minded political, religious, social or strategic thinking. A Styrian farmer, Transylvanian serf or Adriatic pirate each saw Vienna in a different way, and that view was not necessarily wrong’ (p.9).

One neglected aspect of central European history which this approach brings out is just how difficult a place to live it has been. Winder gives many examples from various points over the last two millennia. The effects of raids by Huns and others meant that some areas were completely depopulated, such as parts of southern Saxony; ‘no humans seem to have lived there at all’ between 200-800AD. The collapse of Hungarian society under onslaught from the Ottomans in the early sixteenth century is another example. After the Battle of Mohács in 1526 the administration system collapsed, towns were abandoned, and after most of the population were driven off, the irrigation systems on the Great Hungarian Plain were destroyed and it became almost a desert.

The lands on the shifting frontier between the Habsburg lands and the Ottoman Empire were subject to continuing violence for three centuries, from the end of the fifteenth century to the end of the eighteenth. The ever-present threat of small or large-scale war was also there for much of western Europe for much of this period, but on the Military Frontier, ‘the penalties for defeat were extraordinarily high … For troops fighting, say, across Italy the general penalty for losing was to be offered a place in the winner’s army … On the Frontier, to lose meant to become a slave’ (p.105). Belgrade, for example, was re-founded by the Ottomans in 1522 after they had taken the entire population to Istanbul as slaves.

This is not to argue, as some historians have tended to do, that the Ottoman Empire was uniquely cruel or violent: Winder is clear that Ottoman atrocities were mirrored by Habsburg atrocities on the other side of the frontier. The point is that the history of most parts of central Europe has been one of repeated massacre and forced movement of populations in a manner completely different from the history of western Europe. People living in western Europe have of course had a number of unpleasant times in the same period, but in Britain, in France, or in Spain there is considerable continuity despite different rulers and different political systems, so that it is possible to see, for example, the survival of elements of neolithic communal structures in peasant settlements right up until the advent of capitalism. For large parts of central Europe this was not the case, and it is possible to speculate on the effect this had on the ability of communities in these areas to be resilient and maintain solidarities against divisive ruling ideologies.

In the twentieth century, these same places have been through death and depopulation on a scale the Huns might have envied. As Winder reflects on his experiences in travelling in central Europe:

‘Each of these towns are at the same time places filled with the normal life almost everyone aspires to … but they are also places that have been subjected to waves of utter catastrophe, of a kind outsiders such as me cannot begin to understand. The sounds of washing up, dogs, kids and music would have been consistent for all of the last century, but the identity of those making those sounds would have been different’ (p.504).

What he shows here is that these twentieth-century catastrophes were not out of context events but had a direct relationship to the nature of the Empire in the nineteenth century, as the rise of various nationalisms (Hungarian, Romanian, Czech, Serb and so on) within the Empire was coupled with an internal mass movement of people which in many places completely changed the ethnicity most of the inhabitants claimed.

The nationalist mania of the nineteenth and early twentieth century in the Empire was expressed through fights over the languages people were allowed to use in public contexts, and through the forms of place names and other such symbols, but violent imagery was never very far from the surface. A carving from 1900, for example, imagined ‘the ancient Czechs’ arriving in Bohemia and ‘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’ (p.25). This was the context in which Serb nationalists like Gavrilo Princip ‘made their way to Belgrade looking for revenge’ for what they saw as Habsburg denial of their national rights, and in which young Upper Austrians like Adolf Hitler travelled to Vienna to look for work.

Winder is rightly dismissive of the line which sees the people of the Balkans in particular as prisoners their history: ‘One revolting claim that bobbed again up during the implosion of Yugoslavia was that the Balkans were riven by “ancient hatreds”, implying something almost biological and permanent about fighting in the Balkans, with the corollary that there was no point engaging with such irrational bandits’ (p.121). What he supplies instead is an understanding of how the history of the lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire has shaped recent world history.

The rise of the far right in places like Hungary clearly has to be seen in the context of the neoliberalisation of their economies in the post-1989 world. However, the form that this reaction takes – extreme nationalist, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma – is a direct inheritance from the nationalist movements of the nineteenth century against the Habsburgs and the atrocities of the Second World War. The Hungarian far-right Jobbik party made the point this November by putting up a statue to Hungary’s Second World War leader, Admiral Horthy, in a church in Budapest. In the same way, Winder concludes with an indication of how present the twentieth-century and nineteenth-century past is for much of the old Empire. In the 1940s, the Nazis built an enormous flak tower in Heroes’ Square in Vienna, as both a defence against aerial bombardment and a lasting memorial to the glories of the regime. It survived the war and it obviously did not occur to anyone to knock it down afterwards:

‘On every visit since, over some twenty years, I have found myself looking up to see if the Austrians have at last demolished it. But it is still there’ (p.512).

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now. 


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