It was Winston Churchill who in a moment of bleak candour during the depths of the Second World War observed: “Of all the crosses I have to bear none is more onerous than the cross of Lorraine.” He was referring of course to De Gaulle and the truculent Free French, but Simon Winder reminds us that Lorraine, or rather Lotharingia, as he correctly if ponderously calls it, refers to something bigger than that, an area of the continent which our school history books dubbed the “cockpit of Europe”.
Flanders, or the Austrian Netherlands, was for centuries a kind of political and economic joint-stock company owned and administered by the Habsburgs with the full support and investment of the British. The great Anglo-Austrian victories over the French led by Prince Eugene and Marlborough, culminating in Malplaquet in 1709, ensured that France never obtained control over this sensitive area even after the advent of Napoleon.
It was Napoleon’s victory at Marengo in Italy nearly 100 years later which gave the Austrians the chance to tighten their lines of communication and finally liberate themselves from the expense of centuries of governing these distant provinces. Count Thugut, the brilliant Austrian chancellor, adroitly ceded them in return for the much closer Veneto and the Dalmatian empire of the Serenissima.
Thereafter without the Austrians, poor Lorraine became the poisonous bone of contention between the late emerging Germany and France, two states doomed to mutual destruction by their obsession with the mono-national and mono-cultural. Only the multi-confessional, multi-ethnic empire of the Habsburgs had guaranteed the security and prosperity of such a complex part of Europe.
For Winder, however, an acolyte of the Prussophile historian Christopher Clark, the Catholic Habsburgs are never to be taken too seriously. Otto von Habsburg, the last Austrian Crown Prince — who stubbornly refused to meet or cooperate with Hitler, and whose cousins ended up in Dachau — is dismissed as a survivor “clinging on through no virtue of his own”.
Emperor Joseph II, who liberated the Jews of Central Europe with his groundbreaking Patent of Toleration, is described as one of the “great unintentionally comic figures” of the 18th century. The Church, whose monasteries in Lombardy he closed down in an act of clerical vandalism unparalleled since Henry VIII, may have missed the joke too. Joseph himself avoided the temptation towards comedy. His simple wooden coffin boasts a humble inscription: “Here lies the body of one who failed in all he tried to achieve”.
The author, however, finds it difficult to resist caricature and Winder’s contribution to this “school” of history will no doubt be appreciated by a post-Brexit audience anxious to have their stereotypes of these “funny” Europeans confirmed. To be fair, the book is subtitled a “personal history of Europe’s lost country”, and the journey is littered with anecdotes of dazzling if bizarre eclecticism.
Winder knows much about Lorraine but is so keen to not let drop his guard of irreverent humour that we are rarely allowed to penetrate beyond slapstick. And yet, as some of his other writings show, and as his poignant description of Metz railway station in this volume underlines, he is far from incapable of rising above this.