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Archive for the ‘Martyn Rady’ Category

Late last year, I picked up The Habsburgs by Martyn Rady, found it entirely absorbing and enjoyable, and then said absolutely nothing about it.  But the delight I had reading it hasn’t faded so, more than eight months after finishing it, let me enthuse about it (and give thanks that I took such detailed notes while reading).

Rady has a written a wonderful, accessible introduction to an unwieldy dynasty.  Covering almost a thousand years, he follows the Habsburgs from their roots in Switzerland through to the collapse of the by-then Vienna-based empire in 1918, racing through the centuries with colourful anecdotes and his own strong opinions. 

My grandfather was born in Austria-Hungary under its final ruler.  My grandmother, a few years later in the same region, was born into a democracy that her father and his friends had dreamed and worked towards for years.  To say that family attitudes towards the empire were – and are – complicated is an understatement.  It’s a common story for many Central and Eastern European countries.  Repression allowed for tolerance, peace was bought with violence, power was rewarded with a strange, resentful type of love.  The empire tempered tensions between nations and ethnic groups but left them simmering.  Whatever loyalty there was to Vienna did not extend to the other peoples of the empire, which led to a rather messy last century.

But the story begins long before the glory days of the Habsburg Empire – before they led the Holy Roman Empire, before they ruled Spain and had rich territories spanning the globe, before Maria Theresia wielded enlightened absolutism and used her children as pawns for dynastic marriages.  It begins modestly in Switzerland, with a noble family consolidating and expanding its power and getting some very lucky breaks along the way.  As we pass through each generation, Rady does an excellent job contextualizing their achievements and advancements in relation to others.  The key to success – especially in the early years – seems to be staying alive.  Much easier to consolidate power when rival families simply peter out.

Predictably, things are most exciting once the Habsburgs reach the heights of their extraordinary power.  Rady details their foibles (many) but also their contributions: how their patronage contributed to great advancements in scientific knowledge and in the creation of timeless art. 

Eras of excess also make for the best anecdotes.  There was something ridiculously noteworthy in most chapters (the Habsburg reputation for madness while simplistic is definitely not unfounded – there are some true wackos in that family tree) but I especially enjoyed a few that had nothing to do with the family itself.  For instance, to highlight the waning power of the Catholic church during the 16th Century, Rady shares this gem:

…in the Tyrol discipline collapsed, with the nuns of Sonnenburg drinking and dining in the local taverns and riding out at night to the homes of noblemen.  Even so, the Sonnenburg convent was rated by visiting clergy at the time as ‘not as bad as others’.

And even amidst the other excesses of the 17th Century, the appearance during “the largest cavalry charge in history” of these Poles during the Battle for Vienna must have struck the opposing Ottomans as unnecessarily dramatic:

At the head of eighteen-thousand horsemen rode [King John] Sobieski’s Polish lancers, from whose armour projected wings made of eagle and ostrich feathers that keened in the wind.

What an entrance that must have been!

Rady is unintimidated by his subjects and is free with his criticisms, especially by the time we reach the 19th century.  I’m not convinced they are always fair but they are undoubtedly well-researched and well articulated.  Even when I don’t agree with Rady, I’m intrigued by his opinions and the way he positions things.  But I feel slightly less generous when I consider that this might be the only book that some people read about the Habsburgs.  Rady is particularly harsh towards Franz Josef, with his love of bureaucracy of protocol, and unforgiving of him for losing Lombardy, Venice and the German Confederation in less than 20 years.  This is one point where I would have appreciated Rady contextualizing more as the nationalist sentiment among Germans and Italians at this time surely was a stronger force than a young ruler’s inexperience. 

For all the criticisms of the Habsburgs, for all the resentments of their rule and complexities of their empire, Rady’s conclusion, as he considers the last century without them, is one I cannot argue with:

Over more than nine centuries the Habsburgs produced simpletons and visionaries, dabblers in magic and freemasonry, fanatics in religion, rulers committed to the welfare of their peoples, patrons of art and champions of science, and builders of great palaces and churches.  Some Habsburgs were dedicated to peace, while others embarked upon fruitless wars.  Even so, as the politics of Central Europe continues to sour, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that…a Habsburg would have done no worse.

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