By Martyn Rady
Allen Lane, 416pp/£20.80
If you are a young Habsburg in school and the topic of the Habsburg family arises – as it quite often does, believe me – the history teacher will look at you and say something like: “But obviously, Mr Habsburg, you would know that.” The entire class swivels around and looks at you. You blush furiously. And more often than not, you don’t know.
No, we Habsburgs are not born with an innate knowledge of our family history, and apart from some trivia handed down from generations, we have to work our way into our family history like most other people. Often friends on Twitter ask me: “Is there a good book I should read if I want to learn about your family?” Which brings me to Martyn Rady’s brand spanking new The Habsburgs: The Rise and Fall of a World Power.
I am not a historian, so I won’t comment on Rady’s historical judgments (well, except one or two). But I do have a keen personal interest in this new history – from the family’s humble beginnings as counts in the area of Switzerland/south-west Germany to the empire’s expansion throughout Europe and finally its end following the First World War. To cut to the chase: this is an authoritative, ambitious and grand book. To tell the story of a family that has been intertwined with European history for roughly a thousand years; to deal with a cast of characters including hundreds of emperors and empresses, archdukes and archduchesses; to pack in the labyrinthine developments in all the countries the Habsburgs ruled (or interacted with) over the centuries; and, most of all, to do so in a way that Joe Average (or a Habsburg youngling) understands it all and doesn’t lose interest – that is quite a task. Martin Rady rises to it, spinning an immensely readable tale – as appealing as his earlier, snappy 100-pager The Habsburg Empire: A Very Short Introduction.
Over and over I found myself understanding for the first time complex passages of our family history – such as the dramatic times of Reformation and Counter-Reformation – and how individual family members reacted to them. And it brings into focus Habsburgs who had previously been obscure to me, like Rudolf the Founder, Ferdinand II and Leopold I.
I am extremely thankful to this book for shining light on the first centuries of the Habsburgs, of which I only had the haziest idea. Rady is great at spinning a complicated story and making it seem clear and easy. He also sprinkles the narrative with fascinating and often gruesome details. For instance, I knew that Rudolf von Habsburg, our first contribution to the Holy Roman Empire in 1273, cheated in the battle of Dürnkrut when beating the unruly Ottokar of Bohemia. But I wasn’t aware that he exposed his enemy’s conserved body in Vienna for half a year to make sure no “fake Ottokar” could lay claim to being him. Rady also gives you a useful key for understanding our success story: “the Fortinbras Effect”. That is, the Habsburg was often simply the last one standing when all others had died out.
His emphasis is on the last 300 years, and sometimes I wish he had delved further into the first centuries. By the mid-point of the book we are already in the 17th century.
So is this The Book To Read about the Habsburg family? I would answer with a strong “yes”, but would add three “buts”.
The first is the Catholic faith. Rady doesn’t seem to be very comfortable with it, which sometimes makes the almost universally pious Catholic Habsburgs seem slightly weird. For example, he alludes to Emperor Maximilian, who on his deathbed ordered his corpse to be shorn, flayed and his teeth broken – and to let it be displayed like that. He claims this is the emperor’s “touch for the grand gesture”. I have stood before the painting of Maximilian’s disfigured corpse (see above), and I disagree. It was a gesture of deep piety destined to make others think about their mortality and remember that an emperor is “only a sinful man”.
There are other moments in the book, especially before we get to the 18th century, where discussion of the faith – which has always been at the core of the Habsburg identity – is conspicuous by its absence.
A second thing. While reading, I never quite felt that I was getting to know any of the individual Habsburgs on a more personal level. By default, a chronology like Rady’s must concentrate on the big developments, the machinations of empire, constitutions and diets in different countries. You get an initial glimpse at several family members – but you might not get “close” to them. With some characters, they are reduced to one or two, often quirky, character traits. I’d have liked to meet the “real family” more: children growing up, marriages, the ordinary shared life of families. You more often hear about illegitimate children, affairs and syphilis.
Finally, I strongly disagree with the rather dismissive description of today’s Habsburg family that Rady gives in his conclusion. The supposed mix of It girls, former talk-show hosts, shady businessmen and ambassadors for “distasteful governments” is not the Habsburg family I know. I would like to tell Rady about the dozens and dozens of family members who as UN employees, priests, historians, health workers, family fathers and mothers and those in countless other professions (yes, also as ambassadors) are living out the core values that the house of Habsburg has always stood for: good relations between peoples; family and faith; and peace.
With these three caveats, Rady’s is definitely The Book to Read about the Habsburgs.
As a postscript, I have a humorous message for Rady from a young Habsburg. “HOW DARE YOU?” my son asks. “In the paragraph about Napoleon’s March on Vienna, how dare you skip directly to the battle of Wagram – and somehow drop the battle of Aspern under the table? This was the first time Napoleon was beaten in a land battle – and by a Habsburg, the incomparable Archduke Karl!”
Eduard Habsburg is the Hungarian Ambassador to the Holy See
Picture: Emperor Maximilian’s death portrait
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