The backbone of Rady’s narrative is a fairly traditional chronological account, sketching the character of rulers and reigns since the end of the 10th century. Some chapters pause the action, leaving high politics to one side to allow time to discuss cultural and social questions, from the Peruvian baroque to an early 18th-century Serbian vampire craze. The effect is that of a well-polished lecture course, offering a digestible narrative of the family’s “rise and fall”, leavened with some material that sets the central political story in its wider context.
By the same token, Rady’s fascinating lapidary chapters should deter us from thinking of the history of the Habsburgs or any other dynasty as straightforwardly linear – from rise to fall, from absolutism to democracy. There was almost always an internal conflict of some sort, between pre-existing institutions and uppity incomers. It is this contestedness rather than the dwarves and the onion domes which lends The Habsburgs its sustained piquancy.
Modern historians are used to associating the Habsburgs merely with a declining role in Central Europe, leading to disaster in the Balkans. Professor Martyn Rady’s new book sees them instead as a “world power”, and he makes a compelling case. This is probably the best book ever written on the Habsburgs in any language, certainly the best I have ever read. It explains the course of their dynastic journey with consistent and impressive intelligence, from their origins in Switzerland until the end of the First World War. Many chapters are almost self-contained, but the book is written as a fluent narrative that highlights the roles of key personalities and events and manages to cover almost every aspect of dynastic experience. At nearly all times the analysis — and there is as much analysis as narrative – is persuasive and often strikingly original, although Rady’s vast learning (who could possibly know more?) is employed lightly and often with a touch of wry humour.
Do the Habsburgs still matter? I think they do. As Rady points out, their vision of a universal monarchy, uniting different peoples, creeds and colours in a single multicultural conglomeration, fell from fashion in the late 19th and 20th centuries, the age of the aggressively independent nation-state. But it is surely no coincidence that the last crown prince of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Otto, spent 20 years as a member of the European Parliament and was a passionate advocate of a united Europe. And as Rady remarks, when you reflect on the history of, say, Hungary since it kicked out the Habsburgs, you can’t help thinking that its people should have stuck with the Devil they knew.
One of the great mysteries of European history is how for the best part of 700 years a family who produced so many complete duffers as the Habsburgs managed to play such a crucial role in world affairs. There was certainly the odd exception to the general rule, and some highly effective women; but it says a lot about a family that once controlled much of the Old and the New Worlds that at the end of this lucid and entertaining history Martyn Rady can offer up Dr Otto von Habsburg, the last ‘pretender’ to the Austrian throne and MEP for the Bavarian conservative CSU party, as the ‘best emperor the Habsburgs never had’.
Rady maintains unerring poise as he steers through the depths and complexities of his material. His erudition seems effortless, he never gets bogged down in detail, his prose is pellucid, and he spices the narrative with delightfully dry asides and telling anecdotes. Who could forget the image of Charles V spending his dotage compulsively fiddling with the mechanisms of clocks to make them tick in unison? Did you know that Princess Stephanie of Belgium invented and patented the hostess trolley? And how intriguing is Anna of the Tyrol, “a kindly woman of exceptional girth… whose skill at the clavichord was matched only by her dedication to penitential self-flagellation.”
In less able hands, a narrative canvas as broad as this would sag and unravel. Not so here. Themes and contexts are crisply delineated. Major developments – in the spheres of culture and ideas, economy and society, diplomacy and war – are seamlessly introduced. And the vast cast of characters is depicted with a mix of insight, sympathy and astringent Gibbonian wit that makes them instantly memorable: figures such as the consort of the Emperor Frederick III, ‘who was renowned both for her beauty and for her ability to drive nails into oak planks with her bare fists’; or King Philip III, who ‘like Shakespeare’ thought land-locked Bohemia had a coast and when it revolted wanted to send the Spanish navy to suppress it; or the reformist Joseph II, who ‘governed in the same way he had sex – energetically and with such unrestraint that he looked forward to periods of abstemiousness in the countryside’; or the dullard Francis II, in thrall to his chief minister, Metternich (‘never less than duplicitous’), who devoted his time to ‘making bird cages, lacquer boxes, and toffee’.
One relishes Rady’s wry asides and little gems of knowledge: that the Brazil football team play to this day in Habsburg colours; that Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, conducted in person at the Congress of Vienna, was atonement for his dedication of the Eroica to Napoleon. In less able hands this complex tale could be mired in convolution, but Rady, a professor of central European history at University College London, is a lucid and elegant writer — historians are advised to follow his model of economy and concision. It is impossible to imagine a more erudite and incisive history of this fascinating, flawed and ultimately tragic dynasty.