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Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg…

Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe (original 2013; edition 2014)

by Simon Winder (Author)

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Title:Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe
Authors:Simon Winder (Author)
Info:Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2014), 577 pages
Collections:Your library

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Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe by Simon Winder (2013)



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All those Philips and Ferdinands and Franzes.

Winder’s idiosyncratic account of the rise and fall of the Habsburg Dynasty is great good fun, wry, informal, erudite. By a combination of accident, luck and ruthlessness, the Habsburgs held sway in Central Europe from the Middle Ages to WWI. They were at center stage for the creation of a Spanish empire in the Americas, the Italian wars that ended the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the expansion of the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent that was finally checked at the Battle of Lepanto, the Thirty Years War, Napoleon’s destruction of the Holy Roman Empire, the Revolutions of 1848 and the Balkan Wars. All these events look and feel different when considered from the Habsburg (and Winder’s) perspective.

Winder doesn’t really spend a lot of time on the battles and high politics that a more conventional history might emphasize; he is more interested in the eccentric, odd and peculiar bits that enliven our view of the past. Through a tour of castles, chapels, crypts, fortresses, hunting lodges, armories and provincial museums in obscure villages we encounter mummies, bear moats, devil-dolls, bezoars and glyptics. The Habsburgs put great stock in the cultic power of imperial heirlooms (a unicorn horn, the Holy Grail) and regalia (red samite gloves, gold scabbards, an imperial mantle decorated in Arabic script) and ceremony. We hear of the dodo acquired by Rudolph II from the Fuggers’ warehouse of exotic beasts in Antwerp; the ‘demented enthusiasms’ of Athanasius Kircher (a tower built to reach the moon would require 374,731,250,000,000 bricks); the supernova witnessed by Tycho Brahe in Prague in 1604; Ludwig Viktor, the transvestite uncle of Franz Ferdinand who outlived the Dynasty. The Habsburgs were patrons of great painters and composers—Titian, Bosch, Rubens, Arcimboldo; Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven—and some ‘engagingly semi-competent’ ones as well. Maximilian I’s advantage over all subsequent Holy Roman Emperors, according to Winder, was that his portrait was painted by Dürer.

Winder uses the ‘teetering plausibility’ of a basilisk preserved in a glass jar at the Vienna Museum of Natural History (actually a ray from some far-away port, cut, folded and sewn to form legs, wings and horns) to make a keen point about how difficult it is for humans of the present to really make sense of humans from the past. Not for Winder the pop-historian fallacy that they were just like us! The scientific and magical preoccupations of medieval and early modern Europe were ‘drawn from intellectual streams so rich, various and contradictory,’ writes Winder, that we can read and study and ponder but never fully grasp the assumptions and motivations that shaped their mental worlds. Winder is constantly making us aware that the history of Central Europe and the Habsburgs means something different to us than it did to the people who lived through it.

At the end of WWI, patches of the Austrian Tyrol were handed over to Italy. Outside the town of Bolzano, in a region dominated by German-speakers, Winder comes across a castle—

In Italian it is called Castel Roncolo, which implies maidens in gauzy outfits skipping about to tambourines and lutes with weedy youths in coloured tights looking on. In German it is called Schloß Runkelstein, which implies a brandy-deranged old soldier-baron with a purple face and leg-iron lurching around darkened dank corridors, beating a servant to death with his crutch. Seeing the two names everywhere side by side is deeply confusing, like having one eye always out of focus. ( )
  HectorSwell | Jul 1, 2019 |
Half an hour's drive north of me, following the path of the River Reuss, is the little hamlet of Habsburg. The first time I saw it on a roadsign, I assumed it was a coincidence, since the House of Habsburg is something I would generally associate with the bustling metropolises of Austria and Hungary, not a damp cowfield in the back end of the Aargau. But sure enough, this turns out to be where the whole gargantuan dynasty acquired its name.

The ‘castle’ here was built in the 1020s, when castle technology was still pretty basic – it's really just a biggish drafty house with a little donjon tower attached, perched on a drab hillock. A minor count called Radbot built it, dubbing it, rather aspirationally, Habsburg or ‘Hawk Castle’. From the top of its low tower, you can pick your way around the splotches of pigeon poo (and indeed around the pigeons themselves), and peer hesitantly out of the embrasure – towards Vienna.

It seems an inauspicious beginning for what would become the most powerful family in continental history, and indeed I only mention it here because even Simon Winder, in this mad, exuberant, generous history of Habsburg Europe, chooses not to begin until four centuries later, when one of them first became Holy Roman Emperor. It's one of many things that Winder cheerfully skips over, as he makes a great show of the sheer unmanageable scale of his subject – he is not averse to rattling off comments like the following:

Incidentally, it is generally around here that anybody writing about the Habsburg Empire is obliged to have a section on people like the Empress Elisabeth and her son Crown Prince Rudolf, but really if these people are of interest you should probably just look them up on Wikipedia, which has excellent entries.

With even a smidgen less authority this would all seem dreadfully flippant, but fortunately it is soon obvious that Winder's knowledge, and his grasp of the material, is much greater than he's letting on. The mock-dilettantism is just one aspect of a fantastically engaging and discriminating narrative style, a style that sometimes seems to owe as much to Douglas Adams as it does to AJP Taylor or John Julius Norwich. The result feels rather like talking to a great historian in the bar after their lecture.

This was one of those books that had me throwing up my hands with a renewed sense of how little I know: every chapter, every page, revealed enormous new vistas of my own ignorance. It was particularly galling since I've travelled a fair bit in the Balkans and other parts of ‘eastern Europe’ (an unsatisfactory phrase, as this book makes plain), and had quietly prided myself on knowing something of the area's history and culture. But in fact what was totally obscure to me was the extent to which this region had been connected to the west; the extent to which cities such as Lviv, Debrecen or Cluj were (in Winder's words) ‘part of a culture rooted in mainstream European values’, indeed a culture that was thought of as being at the heart of Europe's identity and character until really the twentieth century.

Though Winder is careful to stress again and again the problems and contradictions in the Empire, it is hard not to be a little swept up in the sheer romance of a single entity that stretched from Bregenz on the shores of Lake Constance all the way to Braşov in the middle of what's now Romania, from Kraków or Prague in the north down to Trieste, Sarajevo, and the Croatian coast. In the context of the tumultuous convulsions that this region experienced over the last five hundred years, the Habsburgs themselves emerge as a rather baffling constant: always rather distant, sometimes downright inconsequential.

Many are scarcely distinguishable – a tangle of Ferdinands and Leopolds – though some have attained a kind of legendary status, such as Rudolf II, who was obsessed with the occult and who had a lion and a tiger wandering round Prague Castle. And most of them were afflicted by various abnormalities that resulted from the generations of in-breeding – notably the famous ‘Habsburg jaw’, which makes a family tree of the Habsburgs look like a series of Jay Lenos in fancy dress; it affected one of the Leopolds so badly that his mouth would fill with water every time it rained.

Winder keeps you distracted with bear-moats and lunatics while sneaking in a huge amount of geopolitical history under the radar. And approaching European history from this direction gave me a very new, and sometimes quite revelatory, angle on things like the Reformation, the Thirty Years War, or the revolutions of 1848. This is especially the case towards the end of the book as the First World War looms into view. From a British perspective, 1914–1918 is vaguely thought of as having been about fighting Germany, along with a few of their allies; this is all very well, but it does mean that the killing of some pooh-bah named after a post-punk indie band in an obscure part of Yugoslavia seems like an inexplicable reason for a global conflict. Here, though, coming at it through the morass of Imperial nationalisms and separatist movements, I felt things slotting into place in a completely novel way.

It's perhaps surprising that a book this chunky – upwards of five hundred pages, before you hit the bibliography – ends up feeling so selective, but such is the result of Winder's faux-snap decisions about what is and is not of interest: he succeeds in building a powerful cumulative argument. This has to do with the fact of the Empire's being a ‘chaos of nationalities’, where ‘the very idea of “nation” was an unresolvable nightmare’.

Instances of quite how contingent Central Europe is, in linguistic or political terms, are everywhere. Béla Bartók can stand for innumerable other examples: generally thought of as a ‘Hungarian’ composer, almost none of the places that formed him lie within the borders of the modern Hungarian state. He was born in Nagyszentmiklós (now the Romanian town of Sânnicolau Mare), then moved to Nagyszőllős (now the Ukrainian town of Vynohravdiv), then to Nagyvárad (now the Romanian city of Oradea), and then to Pozsony (now the Slovakian capital Bratislava). Indeed Bratislava itself only acquired its name in 1918, plucked more or less out of thin air by Slovak nationalists squinting heavily at some old manuscripts – before that, it had only ever had German and Hungarian names (Preßburg and Pozsony).

Similar examples are piled up, until the overall sense is of an entire gigantic region whose multilingual, multiethnic nature has been obscured only by successive (and recent) waves of expulsions and massacres. The point is not a fluffy one of the necessity of getting on with each other (though certainly Winder comes to have an extremely negative view of nationalism, comparing it at one point to bubonic plague); no, the point is just that the borders and divisions of Central Europe are characterised by their near-total arbitrariness, with most of the modern nation-states having only the most cursory historical justification once the poetic myth-making has been set aside.

I found this very moving, for reasons that are difficult to explain – or, perhaps, that are too obvious to go into. Winder enriches his story with just the right amount of personal anecdotes about his travels around the region – it never feels like someone talking through their holiday photos armed with a stack of museum pamphlets, which is the danger with this kind of project. And his constant references to the music and literature mean you will come away with a healthy further reading list.

It was a pleasant surprise, reaching the end, to find a note saying that an underlying inspiration had been Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which is perhaps the single book that impresses me more than any other. Danubia is not at that level, but the comparison – which hadn't occured to me while I was reading – helped me understand why I liked this so much. Though it's not perfect, it has a similar ability to uncover a wealth of fascinating detail, and also manages to draw a plausible, cumulative thread out of such an overwhelming historical and geographic scope. I thought it was fantastic, and every farmhouse in the Aargau should have a copy. ( )
2 vote Widsith | Feb 12, 2019 |
This is a decidedly quirky history of the Habsburg holdings, one with references to heavy metal bands as well as the Habsburgs' famous facial features. Winder spices up his text with odd details like the collecting predisposition of the Habsburg emperors and skips over a number of rulers and even more battles and dates, but conveys a good deal of information about the rise and fall of the Habsburgs and their empires. As the title indicates, he focuses on Central Europe but does not neglect the Spanish Habsburgs. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and goot a better grasp of Central and Eastern European history from Winder. ( )
1 vote nmele | Sep 28, 2015 |
There are not many books that I read twice; life is short, there are so many books to read, and my attention span does not get longer over the years. Simon Winder’s “Danubia” is however well worth the sacrifice. It is a richly layered non-historians’ history of the Hapsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire over which they presided for 300 years or more. Although it does roughly follow a chronology, the reader is not aware of the usual historiographical sequence of kings, wars and battles. The author deliberately eschews this approach, and focuses instead on the personalities of various Hapsburgs and – even more – on the personalities of the many places in the vast lands that they controlled. His descriptions of places of which you have never heard – many because they have changed their nationality and names so many times – slide effortlessly in and out, from a narrow focus on an obscure objet in a dusty display cabinet, or a long forgotten coat of arms on the wall, to a broad perspective of the town or its locality during centuries of war, the annihilation of populations, the movements of people, and the changing of national identities and languages. The many places that the author knows so well – from their minutiae to their macroscopica – have transformed a latent interest in Hapsburg Europe, into one which now has me actively planning road trips in Bohemia, the Tyrol, Serbia, Hungary, Romania, and Transylvania. Prior to reading this book, I was as likely to ever be making any of these trips as I was to read the book a second time. Winder’s knowledge of both the history and the lands is equaled only by his broad and deep historical sensibility, and his wonderful sense of humor. Apart from its many other delights, this book made me frequently laugh out loud – even the second time around. I don’t exclude the possibility of a third round. ( )
  maimonedes | Jul 22, 2015 |
5201. Danubia A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, by Simon Winder (read 26 Sep 2014) This book, by an Englishman born in 1963, is an account of the Habsburgs from the 13th century, when Rudolf of Habsburg was elected Emperor, down to the 20th century when the Empire disappeared after the Great War. The author has spent a lot of time going through cities and museums in the area which was once Austria-Hungary, and discussed much besides Habsburgs, such as pages on music including an encomium to Bela Bartok. Some of the discussion is boring but there are keen insights and humor in his knowledgeable exposition of events over the centuries, including often humorous insights. His summary of the events in the 20th century is fast-paced and I thought pretty accurate, ( )
1 vote Schmerguls | Sep 26, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374175292, Hardcover)

A charmingly personal history of Hapsburg Europe, as lively as it is informative, by the author of Germania

For centuries much of Europe was in the hands of the very peculiar Habsburg family. An unstable mixture of wizards, obsessives, melancholics, bores, musicians and warriors, they saw off—through luck, guile and sheer mulishness—any number of rivals, until finally packing up in 1918. From their principal lairs along the Danube they ruled most of Central Europe and Germany and interfered everywhere—indeed the history of Europe hardly makes sense without them.

Simon Winder’s hilarious new book, plunges the reader into a maelstrom of alchemy, skeletons, jewels, bear-moats, unfortunate marriages and a guinea-pig village. Full of music, piracy, religion and fighting, it is the history of a strange dynasty, and the people they ruled, who spoke many different languages, lived in a vast range of landscapes, believed in rival gods and often showed a marked ingratitude towards their oddball ruler in Vienna. Readers who discovered Simon Winder’s storytelling genius and infectious curiosity in Germania will be delighted by the eccentric and fascinating tale of the Habsburgs and their world.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:04:37 -0400)

The Habsburg Empire was a ramshackle, lumbering old giant centered in the Danube Valley that held a central place in European politics from the Middle Ages to the end of WW I, ruled by the dominant dynasty of Europe for four centuries, the Habsburg family. Winder set out to wander through the lands that used to constitute the empire, describing and reflecting on what he sees now, particularly in terms of the appearance of villages, towns, and cities, and what he knows through his research as to how things used to look when the Habsburgs held sway.… (more)

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