At first glance Central European history of the Middle Ages and the Early-Modern Period is genuinely confusing. Dominated by the Holy Roman Empire, which Swedish historian Harald Gustafsson has called “an entity that floated around the map of Central Europe for a thousand years,” Central Europe seemed to be eternally embroiled in constantly changing alliances and counter-alliances, caught up in a yarn so tightly wound it’s difficult to know from which end to start pulling.
But behind all this chaos there is logic. The key to understanding that logic lies with the dynasty that dominated Central European and Iberian (and at length, North and South American) history for centuries.
The dynasty known as the Habsburgs.
The Habsburgs rose to prominence during the Middle Ages. From obscure origins in what is today Switzerland, this noble family grew to amass unfathomable amounts of power, land, and wealth. So successful were they that by the sixteenth century and the establishment of the Spanish Empire in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific, they ruled most of the known world.
However, what comes up must inevitably come down. In hindsight, it is possible to pin point Charles V’s breaking up of the Habsburg European lands into a Spanish branch and an Austrian branch as the start of the dynasty’s slow decline. But it wasn’t until 1918 the Habsburgs finally lost their hold on power when the Austrian-Hungarian Empire became one of the imperial casualties of the havoc wreaked by World War I.
All of this is chronicled in Martyn Rady’s meticulously researched book The Habsburgs (Basic Books, 2020). As Professor of Central European History at University College London and with several books about the Habsburgs and Central European history already to his name, Rady knows his stuff as he tells the history of Central Europe in detail. Wars are fought, political schemes play out, and borders are redrawn according to the whims of autocratic rulers.
But among all these intricate, detailed historical events, one thing is missing, namely the Habsburgs themselves. Yes, Habsburg rulers appear on the page, and their actions are relayed, but it never goes beyond a general telling of Central European history. Rather, the information provided here is a summary of the history of an ignored part of Europe that finally is being thought of again. The Habsburgs are featured because they happened to have been in power.
The Habsburgs are fascinating in their own right because the very strategies that placed them in power also destroyed them.
The Habsburgs rose to power through the use of marriage alliances as a political tool, but the book does not delve into this with any depth. The fact that the Habsburgs took this strategy too far, which resulted in inbreeding, which in turn resulted in difficulties to produce heirs, physical and mental disabilities, and bodily deformities, such as the infamous Habsburg jaw, is mentioned in passing. The many family feuds–some of them deadly, all of them dysfunctional and toxic–are glossed over as well. Their shrewd manipulation of their public image known as the Habsburg mystique, useful during the time when rulers were meant to be distant from the people they ruled but alienating when demands for democracy in Europe grew, is confusingly handled.
Martyn Rady’s The Habsburgs is a deeply researched and meticulously told summary of Central European history. Despite the fact that the Habsburgs become bit players in their own history, the book is a welcome contribution to the ongoing historical reunification of Europe.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
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