The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire
For half a millennium, the Habsburgs were at the heart of western history. Their long, lugubrious faces and watery blue eyes stared out of myriad portraits, seemingly unchanged from generation to generation. They were a race apart, inhabitants of a world detached from the real and the tangible. For a Habsburg, there was no limit to possibility: Maximilian I could dream of being both Pope and Holy Roman Emperor; Ferdinand II could imagine turning back the tide of Protestantism, and cheerfully risk drowning Europe in blood to achieve that miracle; and Francis I would fashion a cosy Biedermeier world, in which all children had rosy cheeks and all milkmaids were pretty and demure. Like saints - or madmen - they denied reality and constucted the world as they wanted it to be.
The Habsburgs were a diverse, disparate, often warring tribe, but ultimately all fell under the controlling discipline of their chief. They suffered catastrophe, sudden death and moral and political failure that would have destroyed other royal houses, but though they no longer rule, they remain an important and influential family; and they believe they may be called upon to rule again.
For generations, the Habsburgs have resisted the interrogation of history, but in this book, covering the whole sweep of Habsburg history from the Middle Ages to the present, Andrew Wheatcroft utilizes a new approach. There is less about the lands and peoples that were ruled, and more about the rulers themselves, both as individuals and collectively. Andrew Wheatcroft uses the techniques of the archaeologist, scraping through the strata of past lives to rediscover the Habsburgs' own scale of values, their concerns, theirtotems and their fetishes. He explores how and why the Habsburgs have survived and how they are now moving confidently towards a new century, as ever imbued with their own curious and convoluted version of eternal life. This marvellous new work, the product of twenty years' study and research, defines the true nature of a unique Imperial dynasty.
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Part of the problem I had with this book stems from my own failings, not those of the author. The book is obviously meant for a specialist audience who are at minimum familiar with the more recent activities of the Habsburgs family (at minimum, the suicide of one member in the 19th century and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand leading to the start of WWI, which are apparently so familiar and obvious they 'need to discussion'). The author does mention that these topics are covered elsewhere, in greater detail, and gives references, but in my opinion that doesn't obviate the need for even a brief and cursory summary of these events. This can be particularly seen in the amount of detail and analysis given to the events of the 13th-18th centuries, compared to the breathless sprint through the 19th and 20th century in a fraction of the pages. But despite that, the book does trace the early history of the family and their broad-strokes thought processes quite well. The author gives examples of how the family attempted to portray themselves and how this interstitched with their political, international, and local influence and how it offset their relatively weak military power. It's an impressive work, one that certainly demonstrates the influence and importance of the family over the course of over 600 years.
Another failing, again addressed by the author, is the failure to include pictures of the paintings, statues, engravings and other works discussed in the text. Though I appreciate the author's need to reduce the cost of the volume, if your purpose is to discuss how a prominent royal family portrayed themselves in print and image, including more images would seem to be worth a bit more effort.
Review: The Habsburgs: Embodying EmpireUser Review - Goodreads
In a very readable and entertaining fashion, Andrew Wheatcroft has painted a colorful and deep portrait of one of Europe's great dynasties, not based on the great historical events of their eras and ... Read full review
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