In This Review

Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe
Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe
By Simon Winder
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 576 pp.

Making five centuries of Habsburg history fun seems like a tall order, but Winder pulls it off. He entertains because he is entertained. His sprawling history of a dynastic empire that began in the early twelfth century and finally unraveled in 1918 is a personal travelogue; over many journeys, he foraged in both the famous and the obscure historical sites of central and southern Europe, detailing here what they represented in their day. With unrelenting wit -- sometimes smirking but also self-mocking -- he traces the Habsburgs’ fortunes: their ascendance to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire in the fifteenth century; the division of the family into Austrian and Spanish houses in the sixteenth century; and the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s central role in all of modern Europe’s dramas, from the French Revolution to World War I. What gives the text verve is Winder’s ability to interweave the eccentric details of the Habsburgs themselves with an absorbing cultural history, driven by his exuberant passion for the lives and music of great composers and textured by his skillful physical descriptions of forgotten corners of the realm.