Richard Bassett

Last Days in Old Europe
  • Last Days in Old Europe

  • 'With these vivid, wistful memoirs, he joins the great chroniclers of Europe - the Prousts, Zweigs, Lampedusas, Leigh-Fermors and Bassanis - and shows how some of the things those writers loved persisted as late as 1989.' (Economist)

    In 1979 Richard Bassett set out on a series of adventures and encounters in central Europe which allowed him to savour the last embers of the cosmopolitan old Hapsburg lands and gave him a ringside seat at the fall of another ancien regime, that of communist rule. From Trieste to Prague and Vienna to Warsaw, fading aristocrats, charming gangsters, fractious diplomats and glamorous informants provided him with an unexpected counterpoint to the austerities of life along the Iron Curtain, first as a professional musician and then as a foreign correspondent.

    The book shows us familiar events and places from unusual vantage points: dilapidated mansions and boarding-houses, train carriages and cafes, where the game of espionage between east and west is often set. There are unexpected encounters with Shirley Temple, Fitzroy Maclean, Lech Walesa and the last Empress of Austria. Bassett finds himself at the funeral of King Nicola of Montenegro in Cetinje, plays bridge with the last man alive to have been decorated by the Austrian Emperor Franz-Josef and watches the KGB representative in Prague bestowing the last rites on the Soviet empire in Europe.

    Music and painting, architecture and landscape, food and wine, friendship and history run through the book. The author is lucky, observant and leans romantically towards the values of an older age. He brilliantly conjures the time, the people he meets, and Mitteleuropa in one of the pivotal decades of its history.

After reading Law and the History of Art at Cambridge, Richard Bassett set out for Central Europe and in 1983 became principal horn of the National Slovene Opera House in Ljubljana. In 1985 he was appointed Central European and then Eastern European correspondent for The Times. His previous books include A Guide to Central Europe (1987), Hitler's Spy Chief: The Wilhelm Canaris Mystery (2005) and For God and Kaiser: The Imperial Austrian Army, 1619-1918 (2015). He is a Bye-Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, and Visiting Professor at the Central Europe University of Budapest. He is currently working on a biography of the Empress Maria Theresa.