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17 March 2017
The Perils of Popular History – Simon Winder, Danubia: a Personal History of Habsburg Europe
"This book, though not without virtues, illustrates the perils of popular history. The book is about the Habsburg past, yet far too often Winder has no convincing grasp of what he is dealing with. It is written in a light, jokey style which sometimes works, sometimes jars. Musil gets a mention, but Kakania and Absurdistan do not. Well, it is a personal account."
Simon Winder, Danubia: a Personal History of Habsburg Europe, Picador, 2013*
This book, though not without virtues, illustrates the perils of popular history. The book is about the Habsburg past, yet far too often Winder has no convincing grasp of what he is dealing with. It is written in a light, jokey style which sometimes works, sometimes jars. Musil gets a mention, but Kakania and Absurdistan do not. Well, it is a personal account.
Still, there are some truly silly statements of a kind that a historian, popular or scholarly, should never indulge in. Here is one: Winder writes referring to Mohács, “In this period, pitched battles in which one side feared it would lose were very rare. … A major battle was an unusual event” (p. 62). Really? So no Battle of Flodden (1513, “The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away”), no Battle of Marignano (1515), no Battle of Pavia (1525)? Where did the author learn his history? There is also a brief account of the siege of Kőszeg (1532), but he seems unaware that the weather was terrible, the Rába was flooded and thus the Ottomans were unable to move their artillery across the river (p. 66). This made it possible to sit out the siege and finally for Jurisics to do a deal with Ibrahim Pasha, to the effect that both sides had won – the Turks could raise the horse-tail standard on the castle walls before withdrawing.
Then, there is his concept of Central Europe, not that Winder thinks that he actually needs one. All the same, there is one there, an implicit one, and it is not flattering – either to the subject or to the author. Here is a list of some of the words he uses whenever he encounters something Central European that he cannot make out: “nuttiness”, “demented”, “mad”, “bonkers”, “delirious”, “patently insane”, “loopy”, “irrational”, “lurid”, “feverish”. Not bad, he must have been busy with his Thesaurus, but at least he did omit “delusional”, for which maybe we should be grateful. The book received mostly positive reviews, with some reservations all the same. Noel Malcolm got it right with his “This is Central European history à la mode de Boris Johnson” (Sunday Telegraph, 12 September 2013). Pas sérieux, in other words.
The trouble lies elsewhere. The book will undoubtedly form the views of its Anglo-Saxon readers – the Hungarian reviews were more mixed – and what they get is a set of stereotypes. In sum, Winder’s Central Europe is an unintelligible muddle, a muddle that is accentuated by his own casual hotchpotch methodology. There is a marked lack of clarity about what exactly he is trying to do, so we have a mixture of genres – popular history, autobiography, fictionalised fact, anecdotes. This last is derived from a very Anglo-Saxon belief that a story is more insightful than analysis. It is not, it focuses on the surface phenomena, leaves it there and fails to understand the why things have happened the way they did, what were the structures that constrained action and so forth.
There are crucial processes that have formed Central Europe and these are absent from Winder’s account. In one word, it was (and is) the disparity of power. The West and the East (Ottomans, Russians) were generally able to impose their will on Central Europe, but were never strong enough to eliminate local sources of power. The outcome is the indeterminacy that we know all too well, Ady’s “ferry- land” pushed back and forth from east to west is as good a metaphor as any. What this means is that from the conventional Western perspective, Central Europe looks like Europe, but – after a brief encounter – will feel odd, wrong (for some), inexplicable or, in the case of Winder, “patently insane”.
Nor does it help that Winder seems unable to understand the deeper content of the processes that he describes. He notes the Counter-Reformation and its impact on Central Europe, but leaves it there, so he misses the ongoing impact of the Baroque thought-style that emphasises the unification of the world into a single text, like a Baroque altar, that is in conflict with Enlightenment rationality. Neither is sufficiently deeply rooted to marginalise the other.
As a good West European of the early 21st century, Winder is thoroughly hostile to nations and nationalism. Well, that is only to be expected. But what he does not see is that nationhood was and is about integrating the entirety of the population into politics, in that sense it is about democracy and that it has a modernising effect. Without nationhood and the national consciousness that Winder so deplores, there would have been no modernity in Central Europe, given that the imperial modernities imposed from outside the region were (and are) resisted. On this argument, Winder is not only unaware of his own contingency, that when he is describing things Central European as “insane” (etc.), he is simply applying his own, current system of values to a different part of the world and seeking normatively to make it look like his own. In the 19th century this was called colonialism.
Unaware of this, he understands at best only half the dilemma of Central Europe, that the nations of the region are committed to their own values, these are only partly those of the West, and are seen by the Western mainstream as a deviancy that must be corrected. Winder, and this is his saving grace, wishes the region well, enjoys what he encounters, sees the surface phenomena and ends up exoticising it. Those who do not care for Central Europe tend to condemn the obdurate determination of the Central Europeans to be accepted on their own terms. Maybe exoticisation is preferable, but it is also patronising, as if to say, there, there, you are quite intriguing really, even if you are “bonkers” (etc.).
Winder does exhibit a certain nostalgic liking for Austria–Hungary, but cannot see the tensions that came with the local demand for local modernity. There is an interesting passage on Pilsen becoming Plzeň (pp. 275 ff), but he cannot see that the outcome of the Czech migration into the city was a clash of the German and Czech modernities, each insisting that theirs was the sole way. Regrettably, there is no mention in the book of the 1905 Moravian compromise, which did point the path towards a way out of the clash through ethnic power-sharing. There were other compromises modelled on this, in the Bukovina and Galicia. The war, of course, made these moot. But the example does show that there were alternatives, ones that could have worked in Central Europe, as they have done elsewhere incidentally, like Finland or the South Tyrol.
Winder’s account of post-Ausgleich Hungary again gets it partly right. The Hungarian elite, following the French precedent (not recognised by Winder), sought to entrench a Magyarised norm in Transleithania, albeit without the French republican ideology; hence it was unlikely to work. But what is missing is the insoluble security problem of the Hungarian elites. They understood that they needed the Austrian connection against Romania and Serbia – this part is there in the book – but not that after the post-1849 repression, they could never fully trust either Vienna or the House of Habsburg. Hence their constant obstinacy over the military budget: after all it was the imperial army that put down Kossuth’s republic, and this was understood, however uneasily, even by the pro-Habsburg elements. This poisoned Hungarian politics throughout the entire period.
So, is the book worth reading? If you are a Westerner who (still) thinks that Budapest and Bucharest are the same place with different spellings, the answer is a tentative yes. If you are a Central European on the other hand, then you may just end up tearing your hair out. (And was the Hungarian edition sponsored by the guild of wig-makers? Hm, a citizen of Absurdistan might just think so.)
* In Hungarian translation: Danubia. Személyes krónika a Habsburgok Európájáról, Park Kiadó, 2015.