Tag Archives: history book reviews

Reading History: “The Habsburgs: To Rule the World” (by Martyn Rady)

I’ve always found myself fascinated with the Habsburgs. As one of the most powerful and prominent (as well as long-lived) dynasties in Europe, their dynastic fortunes played an outsize role in the fortunes of Europe as a whole and, as the centuries progressed, they came to play an increasingly important role in both the stability and the eventual disintegration of Central and Eastern Europe. So, when I saw that there Martyn Rady’s new book on the dynasty, I leapt at the chance to read it.

Rady provides a detailed account of Habsburg fortunes, from the founding of the dynasty until its monarchical demise in the aftermath of the First World War. While certainly the titanic figures feature largely in his narrative–figures such as Charles V (who sparred with Martin Luther), Maria Theresa, and Franz Joseph–he also pays attention to the lesser-known figures, such as Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. We see the ebb and flow of their power as they have to contend with the fundamentally unstable nature of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as the numerous conflicts, both religious and political, that roiled Europe, ranging from the Protestant Reformation to the rise of nationalism.

While the book is, naturally, primarily about the political fortunes of the dynasty–particularly its Austrian branch–it also delves into the complicated relationship between the Spanish branch of the family and their eastern cousins, as well as various other European powers. The French often figure largely, particularly Louis XIV and Napoleon, the latter of whom would inflict one of the most crushing defeats the dynasty would endure. The Habsburgs also frequently found themselves in conflict with their own nobles, as well as the Ottoman Empire. Through it all, however, they aspired to be the guarantors of stability and peace–and as purveyors of the legacy of the Roman Empire–and, if they didn’t always succeed in those endeavors, Rady makes the case that they should be respected for at least attempting to do so.

In addition to being rulers of vast domains, the Habsburgs were also voracious collectors of knowledge and devout defenders of the Catholic faith, and Rady does an excellent job of providing a big-picture view of the culture in the Habsburg domains. They truly saw themselves as a dynasty destined to rule the world, and from the 15th to the 19th Centuries, that no doubt appeared to be true. Even though the Protestant Reformation rocked their domains–and severely curtailed their power–they still managed somehow to be bastions of Catholicism. Likewise, the Habsburg commitment to knowledge and order provided a fertile environment for both art and science to flourish.

Rady also demonstrates the extent to which the Habsburg monarchs also provided a foundation upon which Eastern Europe could base itself. As strange and contradictory and unwieldy as their domains ultimately became–most evident in the clunky appellation “Austro-Hungarian Empire” to define their domains during the 18th and 19th Centuries–it was largely due to their influence that the region remained as fundamentally stable as it did. Ultimately, of course, even such an august dynasty couldn’t withstand the forces of history and the rising tide of German nationalism, and so they became embroiled in Prussia’s ambitions. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the spark that would consume the dynasty and lead to the disintegration of its fortunes.

In the aftermath of World War I, the Habsburgs lost almost all of their political clout. However, as Rady points out, its most prominent member, Otto, actually became a prominent figure in the drive to achieve unity and peace in Europe. One can’t help but wonder what might have happened if he’d succeeded to the throne.

All in all, I quite enjoyed Rady’s book. He has a keen eye for historical detail, and while at times it’s rather easy to get lost in the bewildering sea of names and dates and places, Rady does usually keep you grounded in the main narrative. It’s clear that he admires the Habsburgs as an ambitious but deeply flawed dynasty that often became victims of their own success. For those who want to get a richer and deeper understanding of a European dynasty so famous that they’ve become almost mythological, Rady’s book is highly recommended.

Reading History: “The First Congress” (Fergus M. Bordewich)

Some popular historians have a knack for writing works that are both erudite and eminently enjoyable.  While the latter is certainly not a criterion that should be emphasized too much, it certainly does make reading their works easier.  Such is certainly the case with The First Congress, by Fergus M. Bordewich.  With wit, erudition, and just plain good writing, Bordewich brings this pivotal period in American governmental history to life.

Bordewich paints these characters with a marvelously detailed brush, showing us the ins and outs of these men (and they were exclusively men) who sought to forge a government out of the tumult and failure of the Articles of Confederation.  While he focuses, with good reason, on Washington and Madison, whom he sees as crucial to the forging of the early American government, there are many others who gain some attention.  He draws particular attention to William Maclay and Robert Morris, the two senators from Pennsylvania.  These two men could not have been more different, yet Bordewich allows us to understand their idiosyncrasies and the values that motivated them to undertake the mammoth effort to craft a unified government.

Alexander Hamilton and John Adams also both make substantial appearances in the book.  Hamilton is painted (justifiably) as a brilliant mind and an integral part of the formation of the infant nation’s financial infrastructure.  Unfortunately, Adams does not emerge in a very flattering light, and Bordewich seems to (at times, anyway) go out of his way to highlight his inadequacy as the president of the Senate.

As Bordewich points out, two of the fundamental decisions facing the First Congress were the formation of the national bank and the decision on where to establish the national capital.  Of course, neither of these were easily decided, and both necessitated a great deal of negotiation among the various parties.  It is rather startling to think that the U.S. capital might have ended up somewhere in Pennsylvania (there was, for a time, a sizable that wanted it located on the banks of the Susquehanna), and while the national bank did not last (it was eventually demolished by Andrew Jackson), without it the United States government would probably have foundered on the banks of insolvency.

There are some particularly eyeopening revelations in this book, including the fact the Bill of Rights, that most vaunted and celebrated part of the Constitution, was actually not high in the list of priorities for this first Congress.  Indeed, as Bordewich argues, it was only through the resourcefulness and skill of Madison that we gained the amendments that remain so fundamental to our way(s) of thinking of ourselves as a nation and as a culture.

The two greatest casualties of the First Congress, Bordewich suggests (though he does not go into a great deal of detail) were the fates of African Americans and Native Americans.  While the question of slavery was punted to future generations–a decision that would have grave consequences for the future of the nation–Native Americans were also rather thrown under the bus in these early days by the members of Congress.  While this particular aspect does not get as much attention in this book as it probably deserves,  Bordewich does deserve praise for bringing it into focus at all.

All of this is delivered in a lively and engaging style.  Bordewich, like so many of our great popular historians, writes with clarity and precision.  In particular, his command of verbs lends a vivacity and immediacy to the proceedings, so that we as readers feel as if we are there in those early days, dealing with the harsh winter conditions or the blistering summers, the devastating (and often deadly) outbreaks of influenza, and the myriad other inconveniences that comprised daily life in late 18th Century America.  Fortunately, Bordewich leavens this with his own sharp analysis and piercing interpretation of historical events.

Overall, Bordewich paints a compelling and eminently readable portrait of the First Congress.  Furthermore, his chronicle gives hope that, even in these incredibly divided and partisan times, there is still hope that Congress can somehow overcome its own worse nature, work through the bickering, and finally manage to accomplish something(s) for the greater, common good.  I only hope that that’s not just wishful thinking.

My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this wonderful book.

And, finally, here’s to my 200th post on this blog.  Let’s hope for 200 more!