The Guardian just ran a roundup of “The top 10 books about Austria-Hungary,” by the Stanford- and Berkeley-schooled historian Sean McMeekin. “I first visited Vienna 20 years ago,” runs his introduction to the list. “I came away with an enduring fascination with the strange, lost world of Austria-Hungary.”
Well, as someone who lives in Budapest among the remains of that strange, lost world, and regularly visits its other survivals in Vienna, Croatia, etc, and who studied under one of McMeekin’s picks, Norman Stone, here is my alternative top 10 list. This list is not about academic history, but about the fictional and other works that give the best flavor of that lost multinational superpower of 52 million people, and its residue.
1. Twilight of the Habsburgs: The Life and Times of Emperor Francis Joseph, by Alan Palmer. A thoughtful and detailed study of the one man, and dynasty, that held it all together. Lacking a little at times in detail on the Habsburg empire’s farther-flung dominions, but recommended reading all the same.
2. The Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth. An often poignant family history of a short-lived military and noble family on the eve of Austro-Hungary’s collapse, by the writer who reinvented himself as almost the official elegist of the Dual Monarchy.
5. The Rebels, by Sándor Márai. The inside story of how it was to fight for Austria-Hungary in the First World War from the Home Front point of view, by a Hungarian modernist master still too little read and appreciated in English.
6. The Good Soldier Švejk, by Jaroslav Hašek. Austria-Hungarian politics, religion, society, and military experience hilariously dissected from the Czech perspective by a card-carrying anarchist and Red Army soldier.
7. Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half Truths: Selected Aphorisms, by Karl Kraus. The briefest introduction to the ferocious, dazzling polemics, social critiques and imaginative flourishes of one of the modern era’s most brilliant writers and Austria-Hungary’s fiercest, most loyal critic.
8. Song of the Departed: Selected Poems of Georg Trakl, by Georg Trakl and Robert Firmage. Hallucinatory, apocalyptic verse by the quintessential Expressionist poet and doomed prophet of historical and metaphysical catastrophe.
9. Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. A delightful, elegaic tour across the hinterlands of Hungary and Romania after the Habsburg collapse, encompassing the history and the lingering aristocratic society of the region.
10. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West. Rebecca West’s viciously anti-Habsburg but unfailingly insightful post-war account of Austria-Hungary’s South Slav underbelly, where the fatal blow fell on the Empire in 1914.