So, lately I’ve been reading a lot of books about Austria, and there has been a certain amount of trial and error involved. I am not at the point where I can read history books in German (I’m only kind of at the point where I can read fairy tales in German, which will be another post entirely!), so I am choosing from books available in English, with no real rhyme or reason to the choice of subject matter. I just want to know more about Austria, and since I know relatively little, any starting place seems as good as any other.
So, with that explanation of my “research methodology,” I’d like to talk about Andrew Wheatcroft’s The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire.
The book spans from the year 1020 to 1995 in less than 300 pages, which feels like an accomplishment in itself. But what makes it distinct from the many, many other books about the Habsburgs is Wheatcroft’s approach. He writes about “the Habsburgs as an entity, considering ‘the dynasty’ in much the same shorthand way that we do ‘the Church'” (“Introduction to the Penguin Edition”). That is to say, he looks at images and documents to consider how the Habsburgs viewed themselves and presented themselves to the world.
A great example is the portrait of Maximilian, in which (Wheatcroft notes) “nothing…is what it seems.” The painting features family members who were dead, who had not met, who lived in different countries. But “the subject is dynasty, with Maximilian at the head of the domus Austriae, with his posterity” (pg. 92). By examining portraits like this, Wheatcroft reveals the ways the Habsburgs constructed their own image and iconography.
The book is a mishmash of art history and cultural anthropology, but in the form of an accessible historical narrative. It’s history the way you hope it will be written, with lots of good details and characters. Not that the Habsburgs need help with this–can we talk about Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, who proclaimed himself “Emperor of Mexico”? His last words, in 1867, mind you, were Viva Mejico, viva la independencia! (pg. 286).
I am sure there are many more thorough looks at the (long) history of the Habsburgs as rulers in Austria and Spain, but for me, this book was a great way to start, because it chooses the big picture, the concept of “the Habsburgs” over the details of their dynasty. For my purposes, it was fantastic.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the first chapter of the book, describing the medieval battle of Sempach, and the hodgepodge group who, in 1386, formed the first supporters of Habsburg dominion: “In battle those crests would form a rainbow menagerie, of eagles, boars, lions, bulls, bears, hawks, and falcons, eagles, and other more fanciful beasts, like griffins, unicorns, and basilisks. All would come jerkily to life, like some gigantic puppet-play, standing out above the pall of dust kicked up by the hooves of the rider’s horses” (4).
Andrew Wheatcroft’s The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire, follows that “rainbow menagerie” through the centuries as it develops into the tightly controlled imagery of the longest ruling dynasty in Europe.