Top Family

The Habsburg Empire 1790-1918

by C.A. Macartney
Macmillan, 864 pp., $14.95

Ferdinand of Austria
Ferdinand of Austria; drawing by David Levine

What makes history tick? Historians have backed religion, nationalism, class consciousness, and all the sociological rigmaroles from aggressiveness to curiosity. The strongest motive force in history is the one most often over-looked. It is family attachment and ambition. Men who would not strive for themselves do so for their families—meaning not merely their wives and children, which might be sensible, but generations yet unborn. Men not normally trusting rely on their brothers and cousins, as Napoleon based his empire on the Bonapartes and Northcliffe his on the Harmsworths. It seems that keeping the family going is what most of history is about, from the humblest peasant handing on his farm, to the greatest ruler handing on his Empire. Affection has little to do with it. Few fathers love their children, let alone their grandchildren. It must, I suppose, be a form of prolonging one’s existence after death. People imagine that there is a tiny spark of themselves in their offspring and find consolation, as Banquo did, in a line of descent stretching out to the crack of doom. A strange fancy, but, as they say in Lancashire, there’s nowt so queer as folk.

At any rate families push history along and provide inexhaustible material for historians. In England it is Dukes and such. No one would bother about the Dukes of Portland if there had been only one. A long row of them counts as a substantial contribution to history. Then there are the Dukes of Bedford, justified only because they produced Bloomsbury and Bertrand Russell. But they get an independent place in history simply by going on and on. The United States do not run to Dukes, and historians there make do with dynasties of financiers or steel magnates, even numbering them in dynastic fashion. But the moral is the same. Family creates an interest in persons who are uninteresting in themselves.

Literature reinforces the moral. Many a dreary work of fiction has been sustained by its claim to be the history of a family. Even the New Testament starts with a genealogical tree. The Buddenbrooks would not have established Thomas Mann’s literary merits, great though these were, if there had been only one of them. The story of the Forsytes has no literary merit except for those who cannot read English. But once presented as the saga of a family, and its financial, to say nothing of its broadcasting, merits were secure. The Forsyte Saga is a bestseller even in Soviet Russia.

Pre-eminent in political history have been the Dynasties who give their names to long stretches of the past. In English schools history still means the Tudors and Stuarts. The Plantagenets lasted something over three centuries. The Bourbons clocked up two centuries somewhat interrupted by the guillotine. One Dynasty outstripped all others. The Habsburgs had a record beyond challenge. For over four centuries they were the top…

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