The Middle Kingdoms: A New History of Central Europe by Martyn Rady - review by Tim Blanning

Tim Blanning

Emperors, Mystics & Tomcats

The Middle Kingdoms: A New History of Central Europe

By

Allen Lane 640pp £35
 

‘But where is it? I don’t know how to find it.’ Friedrich Schiller was asking about the location of Germany, though he might just as well have been asking about ‘Central Europe’. In the further reading section at the end of this book, Martyn Rady points out that there are innumerable national histories of different countries, but almost none dealing with his chosen subject as a whole. The best he can come up with are two books on ‘East Central Europe’, and both of those are confined to specific periods – one to the Middle Ages, the other to the interwar years. He is certainly aware of the problem, candidly allowing that Central Europe can be ‘characterized by what it is not’ and that ‘political boundaries change, and with every alteration the idea of Central Europe changed too’. 

The boundaries used here are certainly fluid, changing shape constantly, like amoebae viewed through a microscope. Sometimes they spread all the way west to the North Sea, east to the Black Sea, north to the Baltic and south to the Adriatic. At other times they appear to shrink to embrace ‘only’ the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg monarchy. But if Frisia and Transylvania ‘could not be much further apart or physically more different’, what is the common denominator? It is a question that is not – and cannot be – answered satisfactorily. Although Rady does his best to persuade us that the Cheshire Cat is always present, he rather gives the game away by the insistent repetition of the phrases ‘Central European’ and ‘Central Europe’, as in ‘King Ernest Augustus was typical of Central European rulers’ or ‘rulers across Central Europe built palaces’, to pick two examples at random. A thoroughly nasty piece of work, King Ernest Augustus was, alas, typical of rulers well beyond Central Europe, however defined, and palaces were built everywhere.

Rady makes a gallant attempt in the conclusion to list the region’s unique characteristics, including the ubiquity of assemblies, the prevalence of empires and ‘the incongruity of state and nation’. Just listing these things, however, is a reminder that they were far from being unique to the region. The one

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