Monday, January 13, 2014

Danubia


It always is the same old story. I read a bestseller, the author writes one or more follow-up books, but they are not up to my expectations. This was the case with Umberto Eco who landed a world bestseller in 1980 with The Name of the Rose. In 1988 I found Foucault's Pendulum quite entertaining whereas The Island of the Day Before published in 1994 demanded some effort to reach the last page. In 2000 I had placed high hopes on Eco's fourth book Baudolino, a historical novel, dealing in part with Emperor Frederick Barbarossa's military misadventures in Northern Italy. I "worked" myself through half of the book and then put it aside.

The sequence was somewhat different with Dan Brown. I first read the The Da Vinci Code published in 2003, then I found the story about CERN and the stolen antimatter in Angels & Demons of 2000 somewhat weird. When in 2009 The Lost Symbol had just been published I bought the hard-copy on my way back from Madison to Freiburg at O'Hare Airport, started reading the book on the plane, and eventually got some sleep. Last year my son offered me Brown's latest novel Inferno but then I came across some mediocre reviews and I had other books to read like Danubia. I have not even opened Inferno.

Danubia written by Simon Winder is some sort of a follow up of his bestseller Germania. The fact that Winder had impressed me in 2010 made me jump on his latest "history book". In Danubia the author describes the fate of the Habsburg dynasty from its rise in 1278 to its fall in 1919. Descending from their ancestral Habichtsburg located in the Aargau (today a Swiss canton) around 1230 the Habsburgs acquired the Austrian provinces around Vienna and enlarged their territory on the Upper Rhine in the Alsace and the Breisgau including Freiburg in the 14th century. Later the dynasty extended its reign rather by marriages (Bella gerant alii tu felix Austria nube! Let others wage war, you happy Austria marry!). The Habsburgs supplied German emperors and Spanish kings so that on Charles V's empire the sun never set. The frequent, mostly inter-marriages eventually meant inbred rulers and not only Winder considered it a miracle that the Habsburg dynasty ruled for more than 600 years.

The content of Winder's book Danubia is not as dense as that in his book about Germania. He fills many pages with self-experienced cultural and musical details. I felt like book critic Noel Malcolm who wrote in the Daily Telegraph: There were times, reading this book, when I felt like someone who had been given a gallon bucket of whipped cream and ordered to eat it. But somehow, by the end of the meal, I found that I had absorbed a large quantity of hidden nutrients. I just wished that it hadn’t given me so many hiccups along the way.

Nevertheless having finished the book it became clear to me how much potentiality a multi-cultural society possesses and the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy possessed at the end of the 19th century but how much it was repressed with majorities dominating minority groups. It was the Romanian Aurel Popovici from the German speaking Banat who wrote in 1906: The great origin, language, customs and mentality diversity of different nationalities requires, for the whole Empire of the Habsburgs, a certain state form, which can guarantee that not a single nationality will be threatened, obstructed or offended in its national political life, in its private development, in its national pride, in one word - in its way of feeling and living. Popovici's proposal clearly followed the American example and was aiming to transform the existing Austrian/Hungarian monarchy into the United States of Greater Austria. His map shows the borders between the states defining ethnic groups, nevertheless leaving some minority enclaves at the mercy of majorities.

©Wikipedia
Popovici's idea came much too late and was highly controversial. In particular the Hungarians were bitterly opposed to such a federal construct insisting on their domination of huge Romanian and Slavic territories in Transylvania. Such domination naturally spurred nationalistic sentiments and eventually led to the break-up of the multinational empire after the First World War. Consequently the Peace Treaty of Trianon reduced Austria to its German speaking population leaving, however, the Sudeten at the mercy of the Czechs. Similarly Hungary lost seven tenths of its territory with important Hungarian minorities left living in Romania and bordering Slavic states. The Nazis forced corrections of borders on the Balkans in favor of the allied Hungarians during the Second World War but these were again corrected when after the war the Soviet Union integrated the whole region into the Communist Block. The Communist break-down in 1989 not only opened the Berlin wall but old wounds too. This resulted in genocide and ethnic cleansing particularly in former Yugoslavia that were only stopped by a massive American military intervention. In the meantime the US have pulled out but other NATO troops are still stationed in the region "keeping the peace".

With all what I said at the beginning about bestseller authors continuing writing books I am eagerly looking forward to the one Winder may already be writing: Rhenania, Germany's stream but not its boundary (Der Rhein, Deutschlands Strom, aber nicht Deutschlands Grenze).

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