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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.