Simon Winder says right at the beginning “I could devote much of my life to thinking about the [Holy Roman] Empire but if, like many people, you rightly find the whole business boring then this section will flush out whether or not you might be more cheerily employed reading something else.” before launching into a few pages describing the slightly mad practical political processes nominally underpinning the Holy Roman Empire. Don’t be put off, even if you have never (who has?) thought of the Holy Roman Empire ever before – this is an appealing and clever history of a fascinating time.
The rest of Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe (Picador) records and celebrates the more than slightly mad Habsburg dynasty who ruled much of middle Europe from their Danube-centric stamping grounds for over 400 years. That they did so was not due to careful and diligent rule, foresight, clever decision-making or even commonsense – mostly it was due to accident, neglect, distraction, luck and nobody else having quite enough money or gumption to take them on in any meaningful way. Winder glories in their eccentricities, enjoys their lighter foibles, calls them on their myriad unpleasantnesses, doesn’t make too much fun of the inbreeding that resulted in the famous Habsburg jaw and wonders at the whole creaking edifice of the Empire.
Winder notes that although words like ‘Empire’ and ‘Imperial’ “will immediately summon up visions of highly organised evil from Star Wars…it is important to remember… that the human Empire was a few notches down from its space-based rival in efficiency, motivation, and wickedness.” This is politics by mistake and whim, rather than grand plan, and Winder captures it all accurately and accessibly, his delight with the extraordinary people and peculiar events is infectious and he is often very funny too – this is a personal history because he is writing about what he finds fascinating, as he did in the also very good Germania. He makes a good case for the oxymoronic Habsburg state of chaotic stability and the internecine rages of all the competing statelets, principalities, margraves and duchies laying quite a lot of the ground for the turbulence and horrors of the twentieth century.