Vienna: Empire, Dynasty and Dream – BBC 4


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I appreciate that there’s rather a lot to get through in just three hour-long programmes, but I was only expecting the first programme to go as far as the abdication of Charles V. Instead, it whizzed right through to the Siege of Vienna (the 1683 one!). So that was quite a lot to think about all in one go! Simon Sebag Montefiore’s programmes are always excellent, though: he treats the viewer like an adult, but doesn’t make things too academic for a general audience. He gets the facts across, but he livens things up as well. Plenty of talk about blood and gore, a lot of ironic comments about strange royals, and, of course, he had to mention the fact that the officials who were chucked out of the window in Prague in 1618 landed on a pile of dung. Rather disappointing that we only saw one piece of strudel, though; and not a mention of cake. However, the next episode will be moving on to the 19th century, so I assume we’re going to get Einspanners and Sachertorte then. And maybe a bit more strudel too.

I’m not sure that Simon’s very keen on the Habsburgs, but never mind. Anyway, after a very (and I mean very!) brief mention of Vienna’s pre-Habsburg history, we moved rapidly on to the Habsburgs becoming Dukes of Austria in the late 13th century, and then equally rapidly on to the Privilegium Maius, the brilliant mid-14th century forgery which invented the title of “Archduke” and enabled the Habsburgs to become king-like rulers of Austria, and the founding of Vienna’s university. Then we whizzed forward again, to Frederick III becoming Holy Roman Emperor in 1442.

I wish we’d heard more about the early years. The focus for English historians looking at European events in the 13th and 14th centuries, and the first half of the 15th century, is so much on the conflicts between England and France that everywhere else tends to be overlooked. Anyway, the programme wasn’t meant to be filling in gaps in other sources, so I suppose it can’t really be criticised for that. And so to Maximilian. I’m never sure that Maximilian really liked Vienna. I always get the impression that he preferred Innsbruck. Anyway, Maximilian married Mary of Burgundy, and thus the Habsburgs gained control of the Low Countries.

That part of expanding the Empire was planned. The rest wasn’t. I’m not sure that the programme really got that across. Yes, Philip the Handsome married Juana of Aragon (whom Simon rather annoyingly and incorrectly insisted on referring to as “Juana of Spain”), but no-one expected that that was going to give the Habsburgs control of Aragon and Castile, and the Castilian possessions in the “New World”. It only happened because Ferdinand and Isabella’s other heirs kept dying. The same with Hungary – Anna Jagellon, who was married to Charles V’s brother Ferdinand, wasn’t supposed to be the heir, but her brother died without having any children.

This was the point at which the focus really did switch to Vienna itself, rather than to the Habsburgs in general. The Italian Wars weren’t mentioned at all. The Diet of Worms, the Wars of the Schmalkaldic League, and even the Peace of Augsburg never got mentioned either – there was a brief mention of Martin Luther, but that was about it. That was a very interesting reminder that the focus in England, France, the German states, etc, was at the time, and is now when we think about the 16th century, so much on the Reformation that the march of the Ottomans across the Balkans, into Hungary and, in 1529, to the outskirts of Vienna itself, doesn’t get anything like the amount of attention it deserves.

On to Rudolf II. The fact that he moved the capital to Prague and therefore shouldn’t have got nearly as much attention in a programme about Vienna was conveniently overlooked, so that various stories about his weird goings-on could be mentioned. There were a lot of references to Habsburg inbreeding, which was to cause so many problems for Spain as well as for Austria. Then back to Vienna, and the Thirty Years’ War. I always come at the Thirty Years’ War from a Swedish viewpoint, but, of course, from an Austrian Habsburg viewpoint it was all a great, Catholic, triumph.

Then things went pear-shaped. Surprisingly quickly – only 35 years passed between the Peace of Westphalia and the Siege of Vienna. “Please don’t do the Sobieski thing,” I muttered to the television; but, of course, he did the Sobieski thing. People always do the Sobieski thing. It’s not that I’ve got anything against Sobieski, but it really annoys me how he gets all the credit for defeating the Ottomans, and Eugene of Savoy doesn’t get any. Poor old Eugene! Overshadowed by Sobieski during the Siege of Vienna, and overshadowed by Marlborough during the War of the Spanish Succession. The only time Eugene gets any credit is when talking about the Great Turkish War of the 1680s and 1690s, and no-one ever talks about that!

No coffee. No croissants. No bagels. People usually mention at least one of those when they’re talking about the Siege of Vienna. I think Simon got rather short-changed with this series, because he spent most of his time wandering about and we only once saw him in a coffee house. Someone please provide the man with an Einspanner and a huge piece of cake? He deserves them. He got through a hell of a lot in an hour!  I still think I’d rather that this had gone a bit more slowly, but I suppose there’s a lot more to fit in and only two hours left.  Shame it’s not more!

2 thoughts on “Vienna: Empire, Dynasty and Dream – BBC 4

  1. mrsredboots

    Thanks for reminding me about this – I must watch it on iPlayer as I’d totally forgotten about it.
    That is, as soon as the skating has finished!


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