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The Habsburgs by Martyn Rady

Book Review by Seminarian Gary Carter

Any attempt to try to cover approximately a thousand years of history in one volume must be a challenge. In the case of Martyn Rady’s The Habsburgs, the challenge has been excellently met. Rady begins with the more humble beginnings of the Habsburgs as one noble family amongst many in the Holy Roman Empire and charts their monumental rise, via a number of interesting and amusing side streets, to the end of the dynasty in the aftermath of the First World War.

Writing significant biographies and analysis on every ruler from the Habsburg dynasty could lead to the work becoming unruly and Rady wisely focuses on the key features of each ruler’s life and impact on history. Whilst the chapters may appear brief, they are certainly full of detail and written in a vivid language that draws the reader further and further into the dynastic intrigue. Rady takes deliberate efforts to avoid the caricatures that can often be trotted out for various Habsburgs (the treatment of Franz Josef is fair and the over-sentimental tropes for the Empress Elisabeth are avoided) but the character assessments should be considered fair and accurate.

One of the interesting touches of the book is the exploration of the cultural and scientific developments that occurred in the Habsburg domains during the period and how the dynasty responded, positively and negatively, to these developments. The Habsburgs is not a book with a sole focus on the political but takes a welcome holistic approach. Particular highlights include Rady’s descriptions of the cultural mission of the Habsburgs whether in the great library of the Hofburg or in the various museums that were established in the Empire with Habsburg assistance.

For those wanting in depth analysis on the military campaigns of the dynasty, this is not for you, but this does not take anything away from the work. The victories and defeats are wonderfully put into the context of the dynastic story, and Rady avoids an assessment of the dynasty that is purely military. Whilst it is possible to have disagreements with some of his assessments of the Habsburgs (and Catholicism as a whole) in the Reformation period, he is rather scholarly regarding Catholicism and the faith of the Habsburgs rather than being either overtly positive or negative. As a result of this fair treatment of the Faith, the assessments of the period as a whole are enriched rather than tarnished with a sectarianism or intellectual snobbery regarding the Catholic religion.

My one criticism of the book is that it does feel rather anti-climatic during the discussion of the dynasty, but it is also fair to say that the dissolution of the Austrian Empire was itself rather anti-climatic (events in Russia and Germany certainly overshadowed those in the Empire). Whilst it must be acknowledged that the author of this review greatly enjoys reading about the Habsburg dynasty, and could be considered biased in favour of the book in that regard, Rady is a wonderful resource to introduce the Habsburg world to the uninitiated and to enlighten the reader about the historical background to the places and the problems of modern Central Europe.

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