Danubia and the myth of Mitteleuropa

Before I kick off my latest batch of belated travel  blogs here’s my first book of the year, Simon Winder’s not unrelated Danubia (Amazon | GoodReads | Google Books). Reviews: GuardianNew York Times SpectatorTelegraph.

The Austro-Hungarian empire, at the heart of the alluring concept of Mitteleuropa, is a pyschogeographic gold mine – a “psychic and liminal space between east and west rather than an objective geographic reality, its borders imaginary, drawn and redrawn with each new historical situation” (Chris Haddix), erased almost unnoticed in a world of dichotomies after the Second World War. Writing in the New York Review of Books in 1986 (republished in the 1991 edition of The uses of adversity) Timothy Garton Ash explored its temporary rebirth – and in the early 1990s it briefly looked as if there just might be a middle way.

Simon Winder’s Danubia, the companion piece to his Germania, is a “personal history” of the mosaic of Mitteleuropa, taking political and especially military history as its main framework but seasoned with a host of sidesteps and even dead ends. Not entirely chronological and assuming an amount of prior knowledge on the part of the reader, it’s a long haul to get to my personal main event, typified by 1913 (“when Freud waved cheerily from a tram at Schiele and the Second Vienna School sang a capella to delighted cafe-goers”), but equally it’s a pleasure to bathe in the quirks of the Hapsburgs and their blundering incompetence, a quality they excelled in, and simply enjoy the ride.

On central Europe’s towns:

the standard full kit: electric tramways, an opera house, a whole lot of art nouveau, a bust of Schiller and a comically dreary monument featuring a statue of a lumpy woman with an ivy entwined sword and a palm leaf

On the Hapsburg jaw:

the women in portrait after portrait appear to have a sort of awful pink shoe attached to their lower faces

At the start of his bibliography Winder states that he has deliberately excluded Claudio Magris’ Danube (1986), along with Rebecca West’s Black lamb and grey falcon (1941), reprinted in 2006 with an introduction by of course! Geoff Dyer. Like Winder I find it impossible to avoid the gravitational pull of a growing canon of books and authors, and having dusted off my central European bookshelf am now embarking on Nick Thorpe’s The Danube: a journey upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest (Amazon), ie the wrong way, which looks like a good counterpoint to the rather blokey Danubia.

Also making a case to be read is Nick Hunt’s Walking the woods and the water (Amazon; blog), a 2011/12 retread of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1933 trek from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Nick H highlights even more jolly japes in Paddy’s footsteps, including Travellers’ century, a 2008 TV documentary by Benedict Allan, Blue River, Black Sea (Amazon) by Andrew Eames, who “travelled the length of the Danube by bicycle, boat, and, for some reason, a green plastic bathtub” in 2009, and New York Times‘ journalist Matt Gross, who walked from Vienna to Budapest in 2010. A final PLF related find is this analysis of the literary and historical references in A time of gifts, crying out to be mapped.

For a different perspective see Dimiter Kenarov’s From Black to Black, a literary overview which starts and ends with the significance of the Bulgarian equivalent of R4’s Shipping Forecast:

For nearly fifty years the Danube was a demolished bridge, a liquid roadblock. The wall may have been in Berlin, but the truly impassable one was an invisible dam on the Danube, somewhere between Vienna and Bratislava…Today, to sail along the Danube is to see the new face of Europe, old as it is…The great changes of 1989 might have brought freedom to the people of Eastern Europe, Eames suggests, but it has been the freedom that comes from the sudden bursting of a dam wall, the waters inundating everything on their way downstream.

In an article about Freud’s Vienna as inspiration William Boyd asks: “Why do certain cities haunt the imagination? Not just the city itself but the city in a particular historical period.” He identifies the cause as a place in time you would like to have lived in yourself, but sadly the 1913 narrative was a post-war creation. According to Winder at that time Austria-Hungary “could probably have been summed up as a barracksridden, aristocratic and actively philistine place”, with its music viewed as having a merely museum-like quality (Der Rosenkavalier rather than Mahler’s Ninth), its writing disregarded and its painting and architecture swamped by the Paris art scene.

This society “only really appreciated in the rear view mirror” was preserved in the memoirs of countless exiles and the writings of in particular Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, all soon eclipsed by a fresh wave of horrors. The keepers of the flame of the Hapsburg myth see the Dual Monarchy as a period in which a diversity of nationalities lived together peacefully in a well ordered, ideal fairytale world, compared with the series of “small and dirty cages of the new nation states” created after 1918, a dichotomy which persists into the 21st century.

Highlights from my Mitteleuropa bookshelf:

  • Frederic Morton’s A nervous splendor: Vienna 1888/1889, the year Crown Prince Rudolf shot himself
  • Gregor von Rezzori’s Snows of yesteryear on his childhood in Czernowitz  (“his very name a perfect Hapsburg amalgam”)
  • Bruno Schulz’s The street of crocodiles – Schulz lived in Drohobycz, where “oil deposits created a strange little semi-Americanized enclave of prosperity” near Lviv, and was shot dead in 1942 by a Gestapo officer

Just where is Mitteleuropa? The shifting borders are a thing of endless confusion – this timelapse doesn’t really help. Winder includes a map of how Kaiser Karl’s United States of Austria could have turned out, with names such as Carniola and Galicia which have vanished into history.

Update, 2 May: just back from Sofia, pretty definitely not Mitteleuropa and also not on the Danube, although not a million miles from either, brings us the story of Liberland, a self-declared microstate consisting of a wetland wilderness upstream from the point where the Danube is joined by the Drava, a borderland between Croatia and Serbia. More to be done on this stretch of the river, and also on the Rhine, rather less written about.

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