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Twilight of the Habsburgs: The Life and…
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Twilight of the Habsburgs: The Life and Times of Emperor Francis Joseph (1994)

by Alan Palmer

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Kaiser Franz Josef was one of the most significant of monarchs in European history. His long reign over the diverse Habsburg realms in the 19th and early 20th century came at a time when Europe was changing irreversibly. No longer was Europe in a struggle for survival with neighbouring civilizations, it was the greatest moment in European history and Franz Josef was at the heart of one of the Great Powers that controlled it. With the existential threat from the Ottomans receeding, Josef presided over technological, economic, and social progress despite the pressures from expansionist France and the newly emerging nations of Italy and Germany. Alan Palmer's biography tracks Josef's long life from cradle to grave, describing in the right level of detail the conservative administrator who kept his multi-ethnic nation together for over 70 years.

Palmer's biography is authoritative. It leaves out no major area and covers the early years of Josef's development and into power as Josef brings with him the ideals of an earlier age, it covers the politics of dynastic affairs as Josef chooses himself a wife and oversees the marital tribulations of his relatives, the account includes the geopolitics of the day - the ever-changing allegiances between the Great and the new Powers, and it covers the tensions within the Empire that eventually saw it collapse two years after Josef's death.

Within Austria, Franz Josef is remembered as a selfless man who worked extremely hard to do what was best for his people. Given the events in that country over the nearly 100 years since his death it is fashionable to avoid being seen as supporting someone who was an authoritarian leader. Palmer at times falls into this fashionable trap in his biography and where Palmer's own views are forwarded the work seems less strong. In particular, Josef's handling of the Italian question comes under some criticism and there is an allusion that his brother Maximilian was both hard done by and the one who could have reconciled the Habsburg interests in northern Italy with the Risorgimento. There is no evidence that taking a more accomodating line would have done anything to halt the march of irredentism and indeed the collapse of the Empire on ethnic lines after Josef's death suggests his approach brought at least some measure of stability. Equally, Palmer's views on democracy are simply fashionable and Josef's manipulation of Parliamentary structures to ensure stability and continuity should be recognised as genius.

Where Josef can perhaps more fairly be criticised is in his handling of personal relations. Palmer clearly feels for Maximilian who met a violent end in Mexico but as a biography on the life and times of a man, the suicide of his son and heir perhaps merited deeper analysis. Josef's personal relations were clearly difficult - being so in love with a wife so ill-suited to an Imperial role must have been hard when he alone was the sole unifier of the Empire. Josef's drug addict son Rudolf and the Meyerling affair make for romantic tale but the burden of such an event must have weighed heavily on Josef.

Palmer does bring a very thorough and balanced account of Josef's relationship with Katharina Schratt and the story of their comradeship is touching. While Schratt might receive an undue weight of attention from Palmer, it is a series of insights into the man rather than just the actions he took which is enlightening.

The political and military machinations of Josef's many governments are fascinating. The continuing need to balance the claims of Hungarians, Croats, Italians, Czechs, and Germans combined to make Josef's tenure perhaps the most difficult of any of the Great Power leaders. The tensions within SE Europe continue to this day and while they are clearly a legacy of three cultures combining at one spot, Josef's capacity to manage the geopolitics and the day to day administration is an under-admired trait.

It is a shame that Palmer chooses to render the name Franz Josef as Francis Joseph as it jars on every appearance. There are other names and places that are more complex and might have benefited from Anglicisation but having the flow of the narrative interrupted to scan and recognise the correct name of the Emperor takes a lot of getting used to.

Despite some minor quibbles, Twilight of the Habsburgs is a terrific survey of the life and times of the Emperor. A reveared leader, a humble and thoughtful administrator, and a man at the heart of one of the truly Great Powers is given a thorough and enlightening biography by Alan Palmer. It is not exciting populist history, it is an account of the complex and fascinating life of Franz Josef and times in which he participated. ( )
2 vote Malarchy | Jul 8, 2010 |
Thorough biography, both interesting and boring. A lot of Hungarian and Balkan history.
p. 217: "Makart Festzugtag" 27 April 1879
  AnneliM | Jun 11, 2008 |
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To Anna, László, Judit, György and Eszter, in gratitude and affection.
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The summer residence of the Habsburgs lies barely three miles from the centre of Vienna.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0871136651, Paperback)

No ruler in modern times reigned in full sovereignty for as long as Francis Joseph, emperor of Austria and king of Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, and Slavonia. Titular master of central Europe from 1848 until 1916, he was center stage in Europe throughout the dramatic era in which Italy and Germany emerged as united nation states. His personal decisions were vital both to the outcome of the Crimean War and to the onset of World War I, sixty years later. Far more than a biography of a great ruler, Twilight of the Habsburgs is a social, cultural, political, and military history of Europe from the end of the Napoleonic era to the assassination at Sarajevo. "Just the right balance between the story of Francis Joseph's life and the history of his times." -- The New York Times Book Review; "Excellent and absorbing . . . A compelling read." -- Evening Standard (London).

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:27:23 -0400)

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