Memoir — From the August 2014 issue

The Seductive Catastrophe

Why the world went to war in 1914

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Can foul weather 35,000 feet in the air bear clues to a calamity below — to the great killing that started almost a century earlier?

I expected no such thing on a flight to Vienna late last year. On my mind was not World War I but the fortyish-year-old cyborg seat-belted at my side. Unaware of anything except pixels, he kept tap-tap-tapping on his laptop keyboard when he wasn’t stroking his iPhone or fingering the remote that flicked channels on the TV screen in front of him. He barely looked up when ordering pinot noir from the flight attendant or when balancing his glass on my side of the common armrest — a trespass I’d have resented less if it had been outright rude rather than simply oblivious.

Frenchmen cheering at the outbreak of World War I, 1914 © Mary Evans Picture Library/Su?ddeutsche Zeitung Photo

Frenchmen cheering at the outbreak of World War I, 1914 © Mary Evans Picture Library/Su?ddeutsche Zeitung Photo

It was astonishing to me that this state-of-the-art boor, of all people, would conjure the fin-de-siècle tensions detonating in 1914. Yet he did, through a chain of events that started with a skirmish about twenty minutes after takeoff.

I wanted to jot down notes I’d been too busy to make earlier for a lecture I was to give in Vienna, and for that purpose I had to consult a book I’d brought along, a rather bulky volume I couldn’t open without reclaiming my rightful portion of the armrest. Therefore I slid the cyborg’s invasive cup back to his portion. Instantly he swept up the glass, curtly sipped, put it down again hard and flush against the frontier, and at last acknowledged my existence with the briefest glower. What followed was the silence of a ceasefire.

The first bump came somewhere over Nova Scotia. From the cyborg it evoked only a scowl at the seat-belt sign lighting up. The second, much more vicious jolt made him hold on to the wineglass with his left hand while he steadied the laptop with his right. Then wham! — an airquake, a wild churning, a brutal bucking, a dizzying roller-coaster plunge. Luggage compartments flew open; overcoats, shoulder bags, packages thudded down; dishes crashed in the plane’s galley; and somebody’s cap scuttled like a rat down the aisle.

“My God!” My neighbor gripped my arm. “You ever been in anything like this?”

“No!” I said. “No, never like this! Jesus! Have you?” We were really crying out “Help!” to each other, begging each other for reassurance. Gone was all frostiness. The warmth of his fingers around my wrist was of astounding comfort, an anchor of hope somehow in a gale of fright. Irrationally, I felt that this touch calmed and smoothed the turbulence almost as quickly as it had begun.

I gave my neighbor my Kleenex pack so he could dry his pinot-soaked sleeve. He retrieved my notebook from under the seat in front of him; I picked up his laptop from under mine. He confessed his nostalgia for my old-fashioned pen-and-paper notes. By the time dinner was served we were Walt and Fred who couldn’t wait to have drinks together down on the ground, a couple in his favorite spot in Vienna, a couple in mine. When we put on our sleep masks somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, we wished each other a fond good night. I actually managed to drop off for more than three hours, a flight feat rare for me. Thanks to those menacing moments early in the flight, I had one of my best crossings in years.

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’s book Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 has just been reissued by Da Capo Press. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Othello’s Son,” appeared in the September 2013 issue.

More from Frederic Morton:

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  • Peter Crane

    Much in this article rings absolutely true — the wave of patriotic nationalism that made sudden comrades of people who had only lately been at each other’s throats — but some of the quotations are inapposite. Granted, Rupert Brooke was fool enough to thank God in 1914 for giving him and other soldiers the chance to go to war, and there were people like him in every country, but the lines from Wordsworth, in the “The World Is Too Much With Us” (1802 or 1803), Matthew Arnold, in “The Scholar-Gipsy” (1853), and Emerson, in the essay “Heroism” (1837), are removed not only in time but also meaning. Wordsworth was decrying the materialism of an age that had lost touch with nature, and Arnold was celebrating a mythical student who had fled contact with modern life to hide in the forests. Emerson was praising not war but the idea of standing up for one’s beliefs, using the example of the abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy, recently murdered by a pro-slavery mob in Alton, Illinois, as he defended his printing press. (A year later, in “War,” Emerson would write that “to sane men at the present day [war] begins to look like an epidemic insanity, breaking out here and there like the cholera or influenza, infecting men’s brains instead of their bowels” – not a bad description, incidentally, of the jubilant throngs in European capitals in the summer of 1914.) But even if these quotations were germane, what relevance would they have to the malaise afflicting Europe 60 years after the last of them was written?

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