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.
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.”
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’.
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.