The political power of a myth

The Habsburgs. Martyn Rady

Anyone who talks about Europe and its history cannot ignore the Habsburgs. I never realized it that way, although I knew most of the facts, events and names. But the English historian Martyn Rady has amazingly managed to explain and illustrate the unique connection between European history and the Habsburg dynasty. Given the scale of European history and of the Habsburg dynasty, it seems an impossible task to realize this in one book. At least not in a responsible and erudite way. But Martyn Rady managed within the range of no more than 444 pages (in Dutch translation). The secret of the blacksmith is that he has not compiled a collection of short biographies with the historical events as a kind of subtitle for each portrait. Nor has he in reverse written history with his many wars and political developments and limited himself to the prominent role some of the Habsburgs personally played in it. Martyn Rady’s goal was to show that from the first traced ancestor Kanzelin (d. 991) and the Habsburg castle (Haviksburg? Hafenburg?) in Aargau in Switzerland, the Habsburgs had the ambition to survive as a nobility, to hold the possessions together with each other and expand through calculating marriages

These aspirations were passed on to the next generations and instilled. In time, they relied on an ideological foundation. The origin was projected back into the mythical past of classical antiquity. Thus, once the Habsburgs were crowned king and emperor, they became successors to the Roman emperors. Hence the title Roman king. This halo gave them a special, almost divine, shine and meaning in the eyes of the world and themselves. This was further confirmed when under Charles V the Habsburg Empire extended to parts of South and Central America, and Asia. An empire where the sun never set, just as in the time of the famous Roman Emperor August. This mythical lineage fulfilled the consciousness of successive generations and princes, seeing themselves as heirs to the Roman Empire and its divine origin. That is why they also remained faithful to the Roman Catholic Church as the one church of Rome and saw to it that this tradition was preserved. The Spanish branch in particular did this rigorously and bloody, see the history of the Republic of the Netherlands that successfully broke away from this Spanish rule. The Austrian Habsburgs were strict or tolerant, usually pragmatic depending on the person of the monarch and the circumstances. The political changes, growing influence of the citizens and the scaling up of the jurisdictions, the increasing bureaucracy –all this illustratively described by Martyn Rady in successive chapters – the Habsburgs survived through what you might call the revolution from above as opposed to the French or American revolutions. Science was given free rein – the princes in Vienna laid the first natural history collections, founded museums of art, a zoo – but everything was controlled and managed from above. Parliaments, land days, printing press, these and other modernizations remained under monarchic control.
Martyn Rady pays special attention to the Baroque architecture, which is so characteristic of the heyday of the Habsburgs and their empire. The paintings in the domes of the churches and palaces seem to make a direct connection between the earth and heaven. The painters and architects did this by using special techniques to trick our human eye. This art was wonderfully in keeping with the myth of the Roman kings who viewed their rule as a reflection of divine authority.

But as often after pride comes the fall, as did the Habsburgs who experienced the decline of their empire and the breakup of the kingdoms and territories over which they had reigned for nearly 1000 years just after the height of their reign. With the Second World War, what was left of the Holy Roman Empire came to an end, and the last remnant, Austria itself, also turned away from the Habsburgs. Their role had been played.
The Habsburgs is a compelling book to the last page. It is certainly not a hagiography or a glossy for romantic followers of the monastry. Martyn Rady writes with respect, but critical and businesslike. Yet also empathetic to place oneself in the self-awareness of a dynasty based on an otherworldly divine myth and its power.

Europe was largely united under Habsburg rule, despite the overwhelmingly many local and regional differences. That sense of belonging together through a dynasty like then or through a shared idea of ​​citizens’ responsibility like in democracy is still alive in Europe. The myth of the divine origin no longer appeals, but the awareness of classical, humanist and Christian values ​​that have been given to us can certainly be and remain a connecting and formative force for Europe and the European Union in de the democracies it unites with its own myth of freedom, equality and brotherhood.

Martin Los
The Habsburgs (c) Martyn Rady Basic Bo0ks 2020
Dutch translation (c) 2020 Uitgevrij Unieboek/Het spectrum bv. Amsterdam

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