Friday, October 16, 2015

"Danubia," by Simon Winder

I have been reading "Danubia: A personal history of Habsburg Europe," by Simon Winder. It should be added to the collection of great books about the disfunctions of the nation-state in Europe, together with "Danube," by Claudio Magris, and others. Although the problems of overlapping ethnic groups have been specially tragic in Eastern Europe, they are not exclusive of that region. For example, it would be really challenging to exactly define the boundaries of the Catalan nation relative to the Spanish nation (if such nations exist). That is not the only analogy that I find with more familiar territories from reading the book. A permanent criticism here and there in "Danubia" is that historians and social scientists have been ready in many places to dance to the tune of nationalist leaders when tensions have been acute, without much concern about the collateral damage (which has been huge). Does that sound familiar? Tim Judah reviewed this book nicely in The Guardian, including some criticisms. Here are a couple of paragraphs of this review:
After the revolutions of 1848, he argues, "much as the new regimes tried to pretend otherwise, everything became about national identity". Groups were in competition for "authority, autonomy and economic control". It is impossible, he says, not to feel a "sense of dread about the gap between the excitement of 1848 and the degree to which we now know it was firing the gun that would initiate many of Europe's most terrible events".
No one would want to go back to the aristocratic and feudal world of those decades, Winder contends, but still he is clear about the odd process by which the Habsburgs began to be regarded as the liberals who had successfully juggled competing nationalities, while after 1918 came the "small and dirty cages of the new nation states".

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