Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook and my stop on the blog tour for The Germans and Europe by Peter Millar and published by Arcadia Books.
About the book
Based on a lifetime living in and reporting on Germany and Central Europe, award-winning journalist and author Peter Millar tackles the fascinating and complex story of the people at the heart of our continent.
Focussing on nine cities (only six of which are in the Germany of today) he takes us on a zigzag ride back through time via the fall of the Berlin Wall through the horrors of two world wars, the patchwork states of the Middle Ages, to the splendour of Charlemagne and the fall of Rome, with sideswipes at everything on the way, from Henry VIII to the Spanish Empire.
Included are mini portraits of aspects of German culture from sex and money to food and drink. Not just a book about Germany but about Europe as a whole and how we got where we are today, and where we might be tomorrow.
About the Author
Peter Millar is an award-winning British journalist, author and translator, and has been a correspondent for Reuters, Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph. He was named Foreign Correspondent of the Year for his reporting on the dying stages of the Cold War, his account of which – 1989: The Berlin Wall, My Part in its Downfall – was named ‘best read’ by The Economist. An inveterate wanderer since his youth, Peter Millar grew up in Northern Ireland and studied at Magdalen College, Oxford. Before and during his university years, he hitchhiked and travelled by train throughout most of Europe, including behind the Iron Curtain to Moscow and Leningrad, as well as hitchhiking barefoot from Dubrovnik to Belfast after being robbed in the former Yugoslavia. He has had his eyelashes frozen in the coldest inhabited place on Earth – Oymyakon, eastern Siberia, where temperatures reach minus 71ºC, was fried at 48ºC in Turkmenistan, dipped his toes in the Mississippi, the Mekong and the Nile, the Dniepr and the Danube, the Rhine and the Rhone, the Seine and the Spree. He crisscrossed the USA by rail for his book All Gone To Look for America and rattled down the spine of Cuba for Slow Train to Guantanamo. He has lived and worked in Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow, attended the funerals of two Soviet leaders, been blessed six times by Pope John Paul II (which would have his staunch Protestant ancestors spinning in their graves), and he has survived multiple visits to the Munich Oktoberfest and the enduring agony of supporting Charlton Athletic. Peter speaks French, German, Russian and Spanish, and is married with two grown-up sons. He splits his time between Oxfordshire and London, and anywhere else that will have him.
I have an Extract to share with you today:
How one family nearly took over the world and lost Germany as a result
The Last Empress
One dark, wet, dreary afternoon in the spring of 1989, as the world we had known for more than four decades was begin- ning to fall apart, I attended a funeral in the heart of Vienna that marked the final death rattle of an even earlier epoch and was in its own way every bit as historic as the events about to rock Europe.
The funeral service was attended by 8,000, a further 20,000 braved the frightful weather to line the Vienna streets, and in the days beforehand some 200,000 had filed past the coffin. The mourners included princes of Belgium, Monaco, Morocco and Jordan.
The deceased was an old lady of 96, a widow for most of her long life, who had lived for many years in the clement climate of the Portuguese island of Madeira. Born to a Portuguese mother and an Italian father, she had been christened Zita Maria delle Grazie Adelgonda Micaela Raffaela Gabriela Giuseppina Antonia Luisa Agnese. The 17th child of the Duke of Parma, already dispossessed of his dukedom during the unification of Italy, she would grow up to become Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary and of Bohemia, Dalmatia and Croatia, Grand Duchess of Cracow and Tuscany, and at least nominally, Queen of Jerusalem, before losing the man she loved, who had bestowed the titles on her.
Her future had seemed less imperial and ultimately less tragic, if grand enough, on her marriage to the Archduke Karl of Austria in 1911. It was only with the assassination of his uncle, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, that her husband became heir to the vast but crumbling Habsburg empire. In 1916, when the old emperor Franz Josef died, Karl inherited his multiple thrones. But in the midst of a war that was already going the wrong way he only managed one coronation ceremony, as King of Hungary, photographed for posterity with his wife at his side and their three-year-old, blond, curly-haired son Otto dressed in ermine between them. Two years later, the empire was no more; the imperial family, including their eight children, became refugees overnight, first in Switzerland before finding their way to Madeira in 1921. Karl died a year later, after contracting bronchitis while out buying toys for his children.
The weather on the day of the old empress’s funeral was foul, yet spectacularly suited to the macabre theatre of the event. During the service itself I sat in a hotel overlooking the Stephansdom, Vienna’s great 14th-century Gothic cathedral, with its soaring spire and extraordinary blue, white, yellow and green zigzag-tiled roof slick with rain. Water flowed like Hollywood tears down the mosaic of the Habsburg dynasty’s double-headed eagles as the amplified voices from inside the cathedral sang the 1854 version of the old imperial anthem: Gott erhalte, Gott beschütze unser’n Kaiser, unser Land (God save, God protect our emperor, our country). The melody, originally composed by Joseph Haydn in 1797 in honour of Emperor Franz II and used until 1918, confused more than a few of the watching press, given that since 1922 it has been that of the German national anthem, still known to the unenlightened as Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles, a song originally dedicated not to global superiority but to the basic idea of having any sort of country called ‘Germany’ rather than more than a hundred tiny stateless.
In the cobbled streets round about, standing stiffly to attention in the pouring rain, were troops of armed men. Their weapons were muskets, halberds and swords, their headgear drooping feathered hats, the antiquated uniform of members of the Burschenschaften, semi-paramilitary organisations with their origins in university societies, a romantic Germanic equivalent of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club or American fraternity boys. Alongside them lined up groups of hunting society members in knee britches with broad-brimmed hats and capes – unexpectedly practical given the weather.
It seemed to a cynical journalist’s eye as if anyone with a fancy dress costume in the back of their wardrobe and a feasible excuse for carrying a weapon in public had got them out and come to stand guard in the rain in honour of an old lady and a lost world. Some wore the black-and-yellow colours of the old empire, lapels embroidered with the letters ‘KuK’ (Kaiserlich und Königlich – ‘imperial and royal’, for the Habsburg dual monarchs were emperors of Austria but kings in Hungary). Others wore the colours of neighbouring Bavaria, and more than a few those of Austria’s long-lost province of South Tyrol, handed by Britain and France to Italy in 1918 as a reward for switching sides in a betrayal of its former ally.
As the mourners emerged from the cathedral and lined up behind the hearse I had the surreal impression of watching a cross between Disney’s 1937 cartoon Snow White and a 1970s Hammer Horror Film. I was all too aware that, in accordance with her wishes and family tradition, the empress’s heart had already been cut out of her corpse and interred at a monastery in Switzerland next to that of her husband. The procession moved slowly over the rain-soaked cobbles towards the ancient family crypt beneath the Kapuzinerkirche, Church of the Capuchin Friars, the body carried in a black hearse, the same carriage that had carried the body of Emperor Franz Josef in 1916, pulled by black horses with black plumes on their heads. All of a sudden, the iron-rimmed wheels slipped. Behind the glass windows, the coffin slid backwards. For one moment of exquisite tragi-comic horror I feared it would hurtle out, hit the chief mourner, Otto, the curly-haired toddler, by then an old man of 79, and crash onto the cobbles spilling the ex-empress’s mortal remains onto the slick stones of Vienna.
It was, after all, April Fool’s Day.
But the horses were up to the occasion, and found their footing. Zita – or at least most of her – was interred in the tomb of her husband’s ancestors. It was a strange but somehow fitting farewell to an old world order. Just a few months later her elderly son, Otto, a member of the European Parliament for a German constituency, would mark the beginning of the end of a new version of the old European order, hosting a ‘Pan-European Picnic’ at the frontier between Austria and Hungary. To mark a moment of nostalgia, and a symbol of rapprochement between two small nations that had once jointly ruled a huge empire, but had for decades been on opposite sides of an Iron Curtain, the frontier was opened. The opportunity was immediately seized by hundreds of East Germans holidaying in their repressive government’s supposedly loyal Communist ally to flee to the west, the beginning of a flood that would end with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.
My full review of the book is to follow in January
Don’t forget to visit the other blogs on the blog tour
Buy this at your local independent bookshop. If you’re not sure where your nearest is then you can find one here
My thanks to Amber Choudhary and Midas PR for the copy of the book to read.