The Back Story for Grand Budapest Hotel?

Danubia Maps Out the Hapsburg Empire

Mar. 20, 2014
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Wes Anderson’s latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was inspired by the writings of Viennese essayist Stefan Zweig. But the director might want to point fans of his film to Simon Winder instead. Winder’s latest book, Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe (Farrar, Straus, Giroux) is a Baedeker to the cultural landscape suffusing Anderson’s film—and is much more accessible than Zweig, a difficult writer in translation as well as in German.

Winder, a witty Brit, probably came to his subject along a route similar to Anderson. The last decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, covering large tracts of Central and Eastern Europe, formed an epoch of great and sometimes awful fluorescence. The capital, Vienna, was the New York of its time, the mecca that drew Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimpt, Gustav Mahler and an unknown frustrated artist called Adolf Hitler. The Habsburg family ruled the empire, a dynasty Winder describes as “so multifarious and complex as to be beyond moral judgment, running through the entire gamut of human behavior available.”

Winder announces at the onset that he won’t tire readers with an extensive roster of Habsburg names. There were too many of them over the seven or so centuries of their dominion, and many of the same monarchs were suffixed by different Roman numerals because they simultaneously wore the crowns of different states. To wit, one particular Habsburg was known as Rudolf II in Austria and Rudolf I in Hungary.

Those vibrant last years of the Habsburg empire, a multi-cultural region that tried to become a multi-ethnic state but was torn apart by World War I and the fervent nationalism of its constituent nations, has echoed into the present in memories of acute aesthetic and philosophical accomplishment. As Winder puts it, “given the monsters that were about to emerge from their caves, it is unsurprising that these decades appear now as a sort of Arcadia.”

Winder is amused and appalled at the Habsburgs, a “witty and bonkers” realm that left behind sparkling gems of culture and the golden glow of nostalgia before being swept away by the tides of Nazism and Bolshevism. As suggested by The Grand Budapest Hotel, the fate of millions who lived there is almost too painful to contemplate.



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