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[Memoir]

The Seductive Catastrophe

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Why the world went to war in 1914

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.

Looking back on the experience, I shouldn’t have been too surprised. After all, this was 2013, the year after Hurricane Sandy. I’d witnessed how an onslaught of nature could collapse many a steely striver into a needy mortal — hurl him into a dependence on communal sympathies he had never before sought or practiced. The very act of sharing an emergency had created an inspiriting shelter.

And amid such musings, I began to catch a spooky noise. Across the span of ten decades echoed hundreds of thousands of “hurrah”s hailing the advent of a wonderful great war. In German, in English, in Russian, and in French they all welcomed the first fusillades. History knows no sound more grotesque.

But peculiar, too, was my free association summoning it. True, I was in Vienna, the city that had issued the explosive ultimatum. But why relate the prelude to a mass slaughter four years long and continents wide to the aftereffects of a brief, local, only potentially lethal squall?

It took a while to tease out the connection. Only gradually did I realize that what made a testy retro intellectual like me such fast friends with a twenty-first-century e-geek was also what had made strangers hug in the prewar days of 1914, had set people — the countless conscriptables who would have to dig the trenches in which to bleed and die — dancing in the streets from St. Petersburg to Berlin to London. In vain did Nicky and Willy (the diminutives with which Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany signed their last-minute cables) beseech each other to slow down their mobilizations. In vain were the panicked démarches of high diplomacy. The world’s leaders were moved by a populace fused into a forward phalanx, were shaken by a tidal wave of militancy jubilantly united.

On May Day 1914, the laboring masses had marched down Vienna’s Ringstraße shouting for an end to starvation wages and wretched working conditions. By August 1 the masses were back on the same boulevard, strutting this time to the applause of their bosses as they shouted in exuberant harmony, “Alle Serben müssen sterben!” (All Serbs must die!). The Socialists in Berlin’s Reichstag readily voted for huge war appropriations, while in Potsdam an enormous crowd turned giddily nonpartisan converged on the palace, cheering so loudly and so deeply into the night that the lord chamberlain, appearing on the balcony, had to request quiet “so that His Majesty can attend undisturbed to the challenges of leadership.”

France was on the eve of election strife, yet in Paris thousands recruited from all political factions came together on Place de la Concorde. Arms on one another’s shoulders, they sang the “Marseillaise” as they watched the kaiser’s effigy go up in flames. And in London’s House of Commons, an acrid debate on Irish home rule was suddenly supplanted by the exhilarating proclamation of Britain’s resolve to brave the monster Hun.

One of the few in high councils who tried to understand the causes of this war phenomenon was the last foreign minister of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, Count Ottokar von Czernin. In his postwar memoir, he looked beyond the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the consequent confrontation between the great powers. “The obvious beginnings of this European tension,” he wrote, “date back several years.”

“Several generations” would have been more accurate. The madness of July 1914 was like the acute phase of a chronic illness that had afflicted Europe increasingly since the start of the Industrial Revolution. “Progress” had revved up manufacturing efficiency while with equal vigor rending the social fabric. Millions had been torn from their hearths, from their folkways, from the haven of their communal bearings. Deprived of organic roots, they split into precarious, wary atoms. Each atom had only its own strength for support, and only strength stronger than that of all others can promise security. As such an atom I am ambitious and (whether I admit it to myself or not) I am apprehensive. I must claw my way to the very top, since true assurances, respect, dignity, pride are nowhere else.

“He had a good dream,” says Willy Loman’s son of his father in Death of a Salesman. “It’s the only dream you can have — to come out number-one man.” Only with the world at his feet can number one toast his triumph at ease.

Seething in tenements or on guard in gated glitter, each atom must stay mobilized in offense or defense. Yet at the same time each atom — that is, each vying shard — longs for close company that will complete it.

This is the onerous ambivalence Western individualism has imposed on modern man. Anthropologists define us as a social species. I am a fragment that grows whole only by being near your breathing warmth, your smile, your touch. But I must operate in a society that has devolved into an arena. In this gladiatorial climate I can’t help tensing at your approach. Better keep my hand on the holster.

Back in the nineteenth century, America’s foremost evangelist of individualism felt that each person must be a soldier on red alert: “Our culture,” wrote Emerson,

must not omit the arming of the man. Let him hear in season, that he is born into the state of war . . . Towards all this external evil, the man within the breast assumes a warlike attitude, and affirms his ability to cope single-handed with the infinite army of enemies.

Emerson’s contemporaries in England, then the sturdiest, mightiest, stablest exemplar of the “advanced” West, felt no different. They also registered the trigger-ready angst jittering around them:

[T]his strange disease of modern life,
With its sick hurry, its divided aims,
Its heads o’ertax’d, its palsied hearts, was rife —
Fly hence, our contact fear!

Presaging jetting Walt and Fred, these lines were written by Matthew Arnold, England’s inspector of schools. Meanwhile, the queen’s own poet laureate, William Wordsworth, lamented:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! . . .
For this, for every thing, we are out of tune . . .

By the teens of the next century, life had gotten even more bitterly dissonant. In 1913 Germany’s most popular almanac contained a poem by Alfred Walter Heymel titled “Eine Sehnsucht aus der Zeit” (A Longing in Our Times):

In the wealth of peace we feel the deadliest dread.
We are bereft of prowess, mission or direction,
And long and cry for war.

A cry for an exterior conflict that would relieve the internecine malaise troubling the land. A cry for the thrill of an all-encompassing, collaborative purpose. This cry was answered on June 28, 1914. Two shots in Sarajevo loosed a war whose tempestuous collectivity jolted men back into tune with one another the way turbulence had jolted frosty Walt and Fred into warm comradeship.

The assassination of the archduke precipitated a therapeutic crisis. Within each camp it roused a festive and gregarious valor; it provided each with a blazing imperative and a sacred mission. Thanks to a common enemy people could revive a commonality long lost, could rush forward arm in arm, could regain the village intimacy once enjoyed, by defending — together! — the imperiled nation.

“For the first time in thirty years I feel myself to be an Austrian,” Sigmund Freud wrote to a friend in July 1914, “and feel like giving this not very hopeful Empire another chance.” On both sides of the fray, war turned trenchant talents into enthusiastic dupes, intoxicating Apollinaire, Debussy, Kokoschka, Mann, Rilke, Schoenberg, Wittgenstein, Zweig.

War offered the British poet Rupert Brooke the chance to savor life’s preciousness again. Before July 1914 he saw

a world grown old and cold and weary . . .
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

As a battle-bound soldier, however, just prior to his death, in 1915, he sang of England’s

sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

The zestiest solidarity has turned out to be solidarity against. Jeopardy by war has proved superior to jeopardy by nature. From this perspective, nature is not a serviceable demon. I cannot conceive of it as being monolithically malign. The elements that briefly threatened Walt and Fred are natural processes. After their plane landed in Vienna, a gentle breeze off the Danube veiled the memory of the vicious winds high up. The imprint of the threat faded, and with it the bond it had bred.

A bond forged against an enemy country, on the other hand, is much firmer. I can blame that country for my own invidious appetites — the person-versus-person aggression I had to hone against you and you had to hone against me to prevail in the daily domestic melee. Cleansed of that taint, you and I can blend into we. Now we can fight the good fight in glowing, loving unison against them.

But the goodness of the fight must be validated by the nefariousness of them. And that’s no problem for one so adept at wickedness as Western man. He is a seasoned victim as well as a seasoned inflicter of evil. He has fashioned Satan in his image. The more satanic a war is in scale and venom, the keener is our Judeo-Christian instinct to wage it. In August 1914 hundreds of thousands of soldiers fixed bayonets to their rifles with an excitement as old as the Book of Revelation. And only one generation after the war that started then — the war that would end all wars, the war that would make the world safe for the paradise of democracy — a mere twenty-one years after the end of that futile apocalypse, humanity engaged once more in a global massacre. And still the seductiveness of armageddon pulsed on. As in one of the most popular songs of World War II:

There’ll be blue birds over
The white cliffs of Dover,
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.
There’ll be love and laughter
And peace ever after,
Tomorrow, when the world is free.

A biblical faith abides here, thinly secularized — a confidence that the cosmic agon will be rewarded with cosmic bliss. That this belief persisted into the Second World War is remarkable when one considers the aftermath of the First: Hemingway’s Lost Generation floundering through Eliot’s Wasteland, past the hysterics of the Jazz Age and into the Great Depression. And still the willingness survived to undergo a new ordeal for the sake of love and laughter to follow ever after.

True, Hitler was a genuine ogre; he warranted a crusade. But his most diabolical gift lay in activating the Mein Kampf syndrome latent outside as well as inside Germany. The thousand-year Reich was the Teutonic version of the millennium beckoning from the far side of the messianic duel. It beckons to warriors of all stripes across the occident’s political spectrum. Hear the Communist “Internationale”:

Arise, ye workers from your slumbers,
Arise, ye prisoners of want.
For reason in revolt now thunders,
And at last ends the age of cant! . . .
So comrades, come rally,
And the last fight let us face.
The Internationale
Unites the human race.

These words glow with the hope that our frail and embattled solitude will find deliverance in merging with fellow fighters to form a lasting, lustrous universal concord. It is a vision that, grandiosely perverted, springs from a basic and humble human source: the yearning for connectedness. Though stifled by the pressures, obligations, and exigencies of self-aggrandizement, that yearning keeps coursing through our blood. No matter how often it is thwarted, it keeps exciting new expectancies.

Some can be affectingly modest. Take Walt and Fred, parting at the Vienna airport. They exchanged telephone numbers, email addresses, hotel contacts. Both really thought they’d have those drinks together. They’d have such fun, raising glasses to the wind devil that had made them buddies. Absolutely they would. Very soon they would. As soon as their schedules allowed, they would.

’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.

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August 2014