My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I like to read epics. When I was younger, these were multivolume fantasy novels a la Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. More recently, when I find myself wanting a grand, sweeping narrative I tend to turn to history. There are plenty of epics here, rises and flourishing and falls, and at the end of whatever I’ve chosen I’ve learned a bit more about the shape of the larger epic we’re all still moving within.
In a historical epic, you want a good balance between detail and scope, something you don’t tackle for in-depth analysis but rather for a broad outline and a good, accurate story. In this genre I’d classify successful pieces like Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Norwich’s (abridged) History of Byzantium as well as Keegan’s The First World War. Part of the appeal of reading works like these is that there’s no exam at the end; you can read a story that doesn’t have any direct bearing on your research of academic discipline. This gives just a bit more freedom to let the narrative wash over you, to get caught up in it like a good novel and enjoy it for the way the historians tell their tale.
My latest historical epic was an English translation of a French historian’s Rise and Fall of the Habsburg Monarchy, and it didn’t quite hit that perfect balance. We had recently spent some time in Gorizia and Trieste, so we had touched a small corner of this history. The Habsburgs, ruling house of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for centuries, offer a sort of bridge between the regalia and imperial splendor of the late Middle Ages and the rise of nationalism and modernity into the 1900s. They were a shaping force in central Europe for hundreds of years, with an empire that united Austria and Hungary along with lands now including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, parts of Poland, and into the Balkans and Italy. It also united dozens of linguistic groups and cultures and provided a buffer between the Ottoman Empire and the rest of Europe. It was in its height and glory that its capital, Vienna, became the cultural jewel from which things like the Vienna Circle and the work of Wittgenstein sprang. And yet its growing instability with the rise of nationalism helped trigger the First World War, during which the entire edifice crumbled abruptly.
Certainly a lot to cover in a single-volume treatment, and plenty of epic scope.
What we have in this volume though is a bit more crunchy, a lot more political history than one might want. We get loads of data about populations in Hungary, Austria, and Transylvania over the centuries, the development of agricultural production, economic details, and an in-depth examination of the political structure of these three kingdoms. Tapié spends a good deal of time highlighting the mechanics of how the three primary sections of the empire were united and stayed that way. He also focuses on art, architecture, and music of the empire over its development. For Tapié, as likely for the citizens of the empire, the monarchy was equivalent to the political union of these kingdoms, and vice versa.
The characters of the various Habsburg monarchs don’t make much impression on the pages as individuals. They come and go and are remembered for their policies, with only a few like Maria Theresa or Francis Joseph making a mark as human characters in the narrative. They seem there primarily to fill specific roles, sometimes roles that only seem given in retrospect, such as the assassinated heir presumptive the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, whose death at the hands of Serbian radicals set off the dominoes of the World War.
For an attempt at understanding wide swaths of the history of Europe, as well as the patchwork of languages and ethnicities that were bound up for a time together and now have become the various states of central Europe, this is a hefty journey. It doesn’t simply give you the exciting portions, and Tapié’s discussion of wars in particular become confusing morasses of names and places. Rather, it’s a study in the politics of empire– not people but institutions– and how unity was maintained among diversity for hundreds of years.