ThinkBooks: Histories of the Habsburgs, Germany & the causes of WWI

ThinkBooks: Histories of the Habsburgs, Germany & the causes of WWI

by Alan Sked
article from Monday 21, December, 2020

FOR THOSE who don’t read German the last few years have seen the publication of at least three real page-turners on the history of Central Europe. I cannot recommend them highly enough. Not only are they very easy to read but they are profoundly knowledgeable. Those with aspirations to understand modern Europe should devour them. Especially if they want a view of it that is not dominated by France. 

The first is Martyn Rady’s ‘The Habsburgs. The rise and fall of a world power.’ (Allen Lane, 2020). It is probably the best book ever written on the dynasty in any language. It is not a conventional narrative history, still less a history of the peoples and lands the Habsburgs ruled. Rather, it is an analysis of how Habsburg rulers envisaged their roles and so is a mixture of political, intellectual and cultural history. The idiosyncrasies of various rulers are explained as well as their policies. And en route we encounter examinations of the meaning of the baroque, the Enlightenment, and the fin-de-siecle. 

But the ridiculous, if you like, is included as well as the sublime, for Rady does not fail to omit the notorious history of Habsburg interbreeding. The need to find imperial or royal Catholic brides of equal standing proved quite difficult after the Reformation with the result that the Central European and Spanish branches of the family (which split after the reign of Charles V) married into each other. Thus 73 marriages were contracted between them from 1450 to 1750, including four between uncles and nieces, eleven between first cousins, four between first cousins once removed, eight between second cousins, and many between more remote kinship. Each of these, being forbidden by church law, required papal dispensations. 

The inevitable physical and mental consequences included the Habsburg jutting jaw and dropping lower lip enlarged to the point of deformity, epilepsy and stillborn babies. The infant mortality rate among the Spanish Habsburgs between 1527 and 1661 was 80 per cent. Fortunately for the family, however, many rival dynasties died out either from infertility or military defeat allowing the Habsburgs to pick up many of the lands and kingdoms of Central Europe by marriage. 

Rady also traces the Habsburgs’ rise and fall as a world power, since with the acquisition of Spain, the dynasty secured a world empire. This expanded under Philip II to include Brazil, Manila, Goa, Macao and Nagasaki. There was even a strip of coastal territory in Angola next to the Kingdom of Kongo. All of these possessions were (often successfully) contested by the Dutch during the Thirty Years War (armies of 30,000 men on each side fought over Kongo and there was also a war over Taiwan) at the end of which the Treaty of Westphalia enforced a comprehensive settlement. 

This world empire came to an end when the Habsburgs lost the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, but Rady continues the story of their overseas activities with a fine account of their navy throughout the nineteenth century through to 1914 and an excellent telling of the various exploits of Habsburg explorers. Finally, he has a superb chapter on the fatal attempt by the Archduke Maximilian to make himself Emperor of Mexico. 

Among the other virtues of Rady’s book is his resistance to recent attempts to play down the role of nationalism within the Monarchy before 1914. However, he goes wrong (his only mistake) in repeating the old tale (recently revived by the Cambridge historian Christopher Clark) that Serbia deliberately started a war in 1914 by assassinating the Archduke Frank Ferdinand and his wife as a result of a conspiracy organised by the secret society, the Black Hand, headed by Colonel Apis, head of Serb military intelligence. 

This widely held view, however, has been comprehensively rebuffed in another wonderful page-turner (albeit 750 pages long) by Serb historian John Zametica, entitled ‘Folly and Malice. The Habsburg Empire, the Balkans and the Start of World War One’ (Shepheard and Waleyn, 2017), which clearly demonstrates from all available evidence, that Serbia did not want a war in 1914, that she had no interest in acquiring Bosnia-Herzegovina, that she distrusted Russia, and that the Black Hand had no part in the assassinations at Sarajevo, which Apis himself tried to stop when he got word of a conspiracy. The Serbian Government for its part knew nothing about the plot and the prime minister certainly sent no message to Vienna to warn the government there. In the end the Austrians, supported by Germany,  started what became a world war on account of a plot hatched not by Serbian nationalists in government but by a group of idiot Bosnian students with supranationalist Yugoslav ideas acting on their own. It is an absolutely fascinating story which many do not apparently want to heed.

The third page-turner which I would heartily recommend is James Hawes ‘The Shortest History of Germany’ (Old Street Publishing, 2017) which covers German history from 500 BC to the present day in 226 brilliant pages. Again, it is not a narrative history but an analysis based on the thesis that the division between East and West Germany is a fundamental fault-line running through the nation’s history from Roman times till the present. This is developed wonderfully and highly persuasively covering all major historical episodes and periods. I know several German experts who read the book compulsively in a couple of days. Once started it is impossible to put down. Hawes is now supposedly writing the ‘shortest history of England’, which I cannot wait to read.  

Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. 




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