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Danubia: A Personal History of Hapsburg Europe    by Simon Winder order for
by Simon Winder
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2015 (2014)
Hardcover, Softcover, e-Book
* *   Reviewed by Bob Walch

If you have travelled to Austria, especially Vienna, it is all but impossible to not grasp the fact that the Habsburgs were, at one time, the most powerful family on the Continent. From the end of the Middle Ages to the First World War, the Hapsburgs were key players in the struggles for European power and dominance.

In Danubia: A Personal History of Hapsburg Europe, Simon Winder offers an overview of the centuries of Hapsburg rule and, in some instances, misrule. In fact, the inability of some of the family members to provide inspiring or adequate leadership is as much of this story as the successes.

'It is quite striking how baffled or inadequate many of the Emperors were, and yet an almost uncountable heap of would-be carnivorous rivals ended up in the dustbin while the Hapsburgs just kept plodding along,' writes Winder.

The wheels began to wobble with the family's defeat by Napoleon but with personal holdings that were the second largest after Russia, the Hapsburg Empire kept going another century until the final defeat as one of the vanquished Central Powers after World War I. As far as this narrative goes, the author takes it to 1918 when different parts of the Empire went their separate ways.

In the introduction Winder is quick to assure his reader that this 549 page book is not 'a dynastic family history' nor is it an 'attempt at an exhaustive guide to Central Europe'. On the other hand, the reader will find some interesting tidbits that the various rulers did as well as material that the author finds personally fascinating.

Winder states that 'some emperors are simply more alluring than others'; hence, he devotes more space to them than to coloring in 'all the duds'. I guess we should be grateful for that decision!

For example, the reader will learn that from about the 1630s on the successors to Ferdinand III were buried in Vienna. The remains were spread around the city with the bodies resting in the Capuchin Church Crypt constructed on New Market Square, the hearts in small containers in the Augustinian Church next to the Hofburg Palace and the labeled pickled intestines hidden away in copper canisters under St. Stephen's Cathedral.

There are also delightful detours that take the reader to the marvelous Budapest Zoo and discuss Bela Bartok's music. Because the borders were in continual flux, there are five maps included with the text to assist the reader in sorting out how national boundaries changed and countries came and went over time.

By no means is this a quick read and there are spots that you may wish to skip over. But, all things considered, Danubia is probably the most readable volume available currently about the Habsburg Empire and its rise and fall.

The author's sense of humor is a godsend plus you'll certainly have a better understanding of European history after plowing through this book. So, give it a try, but probably reading it in small doses would be a good idea!

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