This book is not a history of Austria-as the title indicates, it is a history of the Habsburgs, the hereditary rulers of Austria. As I mentioned in my review of Brook-Shepherd's book, "The Austrians" (a book that is complementary to this one, with relatively little overlap), there really isn't a great deal of material available in English on Austrian history-at least not on events taking place before the latter half of the 19th century.
From the traditional historical point of view-that in which history is the chronology recounting of war and changes in power-nothing of significance really happened in Austria that wasn't somehow associated with the Habsburgs. Whether or not this is the case is the subject of a different book-the subject of this one is the Habsburg family itself. Although their presence lasted longer in Austria than anywhere else, this powerful family also ruled the Netherlands, and Spain, and often provided the figurehead for the Holy Roman Empire.
Probably to an extent greater than any other royal house, the Habsburgs had their greatest successes not on the battlefield, but in the bedroom. They married their way to what at one point was the largest empire in the world, encompassing not only the majority of the German-speaking lands, but also the Lowlands, the Iberian peninsula, and the Spanish territories in North and South America, and Asia. Quite a feat for a dynasty that had been chased out of their hereditary home and namesake 300 years earlier by pitchfork-wielding Swiss peasants. The Habsburg story is more concerned with the issues of power than it is with warfare, which often went quite badly for them.
Given a unique and interesting subject, the author takes a somewhat non-traditional approach. As he explains in the preface "More and more I found that the Habsburgs expressed their sense of missions and their objectives obliquely, through a kind of code." Wheatcroft attempts to show how the Habsburgs manipulated symbolism and other communication mechanisms to further their goals and to set themselves apart as the unquestionable lords of Central Europe. I think the author is only partially successful in this, although I found nothing in his approach that seemed unreasonable. Several of the author's explanations have been useful to me in interpreting symbolism that can still be seen today in Austria, such as the designation "K.K" and the gilded presence of the Order of the Golden Fleece on statues and paintings (This was a chivalric order borrowed from the Burgundians when they didn't need it any longer giving the Habsburgs an opportunity to run their own good ole boys club.)
On the negative side, I found the book difficult to read. While the subject matter certainly lends itself to confusion, dealing with an inbred family that unimaginatively reused the same names over and over again, sometimes with different numbers in different contexts for the same ruler, perhaps the author could have used a more straightforward outline. The book tends to spiral a bit, mixing up events taking place at different times in order to make a point about continuity and a repeating pattern of Habsburg behavior. I finally dog-eared the family trees appearing in the Appendix so that I could flip back to them in an attempt to keep all the cousins, nieces, and nephews straight.
This is not a traditional history. While I don't feel that the author necessarily builds totally plausible case for his conception of the Habsburgs as being Europe's premier power of propaganda, I do think that he offers genuine and useful insight. I question the execution more than the concept, which I think has some validity.