The Hapsburgs: A European Family History. Cinevision.
Reviewed by Charles Ingrao
Published on HABSBURG (October, 1999)
<p> Like the Habsburgs themselves, this four-part film series has an involved, international heritage. Its genesis was in <cite>Die Habsburger</cite>, a coffee table book produced by Brigitte Vacha and authored by historians Walther Pohl and Karl Vocelka for Verlag Styria in 1992. Styria then negotiated an arrangement with Oesterreichische Rundfunk (ORF), which collaborated in turn with a British production company. The film's English pedigree is evident in the misspelled family name, the narrator's BBC accent, and numerous interviews with popular writer Frederic Morton, whose animated, nasal voice made me yearn for cameos by T.C.W. Blanning, Roy Bridge, R.J.W. Evans, Alan Sked, Ernst Wangermann and the many other eminent Habsburg scholars with whom Great Britain is blessed. <p> Like the book, the four, 53-minute films have very nice visuals, including color portraits and maps which have been taken straight from the Styria volume, as well as several artfully executed montages. The narration is well-written and frequently powerful and eloquent. Devotees of the dynasty's senior branch will be pleased by the attention given Charles V and Philip II. Not surprisingly, the producers also exhibit a fondness for theatrical license. They never miss a chance to convey human interest stories along with serious history; hence the considerable attention paid to Marie Antoinette, Empress Elizabeth, Mexico's "Emperor" Maximilian, Archduke Rudolph, the Mayerling tragedy and, yes, Sigmund Freud. Still pictures are occasionally supplemented by dramatic reenactments. The photogenic Bohemian crown is showcased a century before it was actually crafted, and the strains of Bach are employed while the narrator is discussing the triumphs of the Counter-Reformation and Habsburg Baroque. <p> Theatrical license is one thing, factual inaccuracy is something else. For the most part, the narration presents information clearly, accurately, and with a certain amount of nuance. Nevertheless, a plethora of factual errors suggest that the script writer(s) either misread the Styria volume's generally reliable text or supplemented it with less scholarly sources. Nor are the maps that appear in the Styria volume -- and reappear in the film -- particularly accurate. <p> I. The Dream of Empire [Emperors Rudolph through Ferdinand I] <p> This segment pays due respect to the ruthlessly aggressive Rudolph, before quickly shifting to Frederick III (without mentioning Albert's election in 1438) and then dwelling at great length on Maximilian, Charles V, and the future Ferdinand I's role in recreating a truly Austrian Habsburg dynastic entity. I found fewer mistakes in this section, either because it was crafted more carefully or, more likely, because I know less about the medieval and Renaissance Habsburgs. Surely more knowledgeable scholars will be equally surprised to learn that Henry VIII was a religious "reformer" before Martin Luther and that Charles V was defeated at the battle of Muehlberg (1547). Nor would contemporary scholars necessarily find the facile reference to "genocide" appropriate for those passages that recall Protestant Europe's ready acceptance of the Black Legend. <p> II. Cross and Crescent [Emperors Maximilian II through Charles VI] <p> Unfortunately, this section's lovely visuals of Baroque art and architecture are littered with numerous errata. No, Christian Europe had not successfully excluded the Turks from the Balkans prior to the battle of Lepanto. Nor did Spain cease to be a world power with the defeat of the Armada in 1588. The aftermath of White Mountain did not lead to the eradication of Bohemia's indigenous nobility, as claimed by generations of nationalistic Czech historians. Wallenstein's fall stemmed less from Ferdinand II's jealousy than from pressure applied by his German vassals, while recent scholarship shows that the general's "murder" was ordered only after a sober judicial proceeding had exposed high treason. Finally, the peace of Westphalia did not bestow "sovereignty" on the imperial princes. The script also exaggerates the young Prince Eugene's role in reconquering Hungary at the expense of Louis William ("Tuerkenlouis") of Baden and a host of other German princely commanders. The accompanying map is equally gracious in awarding Bosnia to the monarchy two centuries before its time. The script writer is less generous in blaming Louis XIV for "seizing" Spain, rather than inheriting it, and disregards the Sun King's repeated attempts to split the proceeds, first through two partition treaties with William of Orange, then through direct appeal to Leopold I. This oversight is then compounded by a misreading of the text of the Styria volume (p. 248) that misrepresents Leopold as being motivated in his quest by the balance of power. <p> III. The Jewel in the Crown [Maria Theresa through the Congress of Vienna] <p> Important military developments come up short in this segment, which exaggerates Hungary's contribution to the War of the Austrian Succession and ignores the outbreak and course of the Seven Years' War (in which the neutral Dutch are identified as Prussia's ally). The almost uniformly positive coverage of Maria Theresa and Joseph II is, however, thorough and generally well-done. The script does a good job of explaining how Frederick the Great's military successes ushered in a century of Austro-Prussian "dualism," that balance of power within the Holy Roman empire which doomed the thousand-year Reich first to impotence and then to extinction. It also offers a nice bonus vignette of Leopold II's reign as Tuscan grand duke, only to dismiss his brief reign as emperor in a single sentence, omitting any reference to the frightful international crisis that he inherited from his brother. The maps continue to provide comic relief, leaving out the dynasty's Italian dominions in 1740 and all of Hungary in 1772. The segment then introduces the viewer to the turbulent generation of the French Revolution, which it correctly traces to a French financial crisis that it wrongly attributes to the royal couple's expensive tastes. A whirlwind of well-executed chronology takes us to them at the guillotine (in two parts), to Francis II in the act of becoming Francis I, to Archduke Charles on the battlefield, and Metternich at the Congress of Vienna, where he is injudiciously credited with raising France to the status of a "superpower." <p> IV. Between Empire and Nation [Biedermeyer through dissolution] <p> The film's last segment completes Francis' reign with a welcome discourse on his tangles with the liberal Archduke Johann, but skips over the reign of the imperial idiot Ferdinand with unwelcome haste. What it does best is a thorough and intelligent profile of Francis Joseph and the patrimony that he led toward the abyss. Together with the inevitable coverage of revolutions in 1848, defeats in 1859 and 1866, and dissolution in 1918, are the triumphs of technology and industrialization, of cosmopolitan Vienna's Ringstrasse, 1873 world's fair, and creative geniuses, and of the sustained, "second" industrial revolution that created considerable prosperity by the end of the century; even the Dual Compromise of 1867 is represented as a sensible, workable solution to the monarchy's nationalities problem, despite the evident failure of liberalism. The narration ends with a sympathetic treatment of Charles and Zita, but nary a word about their exiled progeny. The statistically inclined might take exception to the script's reference to the monarchy's Slavic "majority," much as geographers would object to the misrepresentation of Prussia before 1866 as fully contiguous and of Austria-Hungary after 1908 as still in possession of the Sandjak of Novi-Pazar. But these are minor oversights in what is likely the best and most accurate segment of the film. <p> This review has dealt at length with the film's factual errors in order to assist faculty members who might choose to purchase and employ it in their courses. Overall I would suggest that the film's shortcomings are minor enough, given both the instructor's ability to correct its factual errors and most students' inability to absorb the majority of them in the first place. Certainly the visual package should provide an attractive supplement for undergraduate instruction. <p> Note <p> . Walter Pohl, Karl Vocelka, and Brigitte Vacha, <cite>Die Habsburger: Eine Europaeische Familiengeschichte</cite> (Graz: Styria, 1992); subsequent, related publications are Vocelka, <cite>Die Lebenswelt der Habsburger: Kultur- und Mentalitaetsgeschichte einer Familie</cite> (Graz: Verlag Styria, 1997) and Vocelka, <cite>Die Private Welt der Habsburger: Leben und Alltag einer Familie</cite> (Graz: Styria, 1998).
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Charles Ingrao. Review of , The Hapsburgs: A European Family History.
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