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7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 by Frederick Morton

My budding interest in the Habsburgs comes from two friends, one I went to grad school with and writes me about her investigations--also suggesting that we go to Vienna which I'd love to do--and one whose mother was Austrian and is trying to capture that side of her heritage.

Two things really struck me while reading this book:
(1) How little I know of European history outside of the UK and Russia (which I know pretty well) and Germany and France (about which I know something) and Sweden and Norway (about which I learned some doing genealogical research). I have Norman Davies 1135-page Europe: A History and maybe it's time to start reading it.
(2) How little I knew about Archduke Franz Ferdinand whose assassination is commonly believed to have started WWI. I didn't even realize he was the heir to the Habsburg emperor. I think I thought he was an obscure Archduke of no real significance and that fact made the role usually assigned to his assassination particularly pathetic.

I must say here that I grew up a monarchist. Not only did I have all the princess fantasies that my granddaughters now enjoy, but my interests focused pretty squarely on the British royal family way beyond princess fantasies--and later on the Russians. There's no doubt that Queen Elizabeth (the first one, of course) was my hero and role model--vain and sexy but also a scholar and most importantly, a woman who thrived in a man's world. These days my politics are liberal and egalitarian, but that's the real world of today. I'm still fascinated by the royals of the past. I just don't know why I never paid much attention to the Habsburgs before. I even speak German--or did years ago and I don't think it would take much practice to get back to it. I have read some about the Prussian monarchs, but never had much interest.

Morton's book is fascinating because (1) he accepts the judgment that in the late 19th and early 20th century Vienna was splendid, aristocratic, artificial, decadent--the very essence of fin de si√®cle--and narrates the events leading up the the assassination and to the World War in that context and (2) because he doesn't focus exclusively on the major players, but builds a wider picture of the Vienna where Freud, Trotsky, and Hitler lived at the time and he sets the scene with the artists and musicians of the day (among whom were Koskoska and Sch√∂neberg). He also puts the reader in touch with the "people" who had they had our sensibilities would have been establishing Occupy Vienna and Occupy Budapest movements.

Morton's focus on the major characters is grand. Franz Ferdinand who always scowled and wasn't at all popular but who cared about the people in a modern sense and, ironically, wanted to give the Serbs a greater role in the Empire. Emperor Franz Joseph, the longest reigning monarch in Europe, who was in his 80ies and somehow controlled some of the more off-the-wall of his advisors. (It was an age after all when monarchs were beginning to reign but did not rule, but that transition was not complete.) General Conrad, the army chief of staff, whose main goal was to punish Serbia (even though personally he was glad to see Franz Ferdinand gone since he knew the Archduke would dismiss him when he succeeded the Emperor). The  Kaiser (Wilhelm II), characterized beautifully as vain and self-centered and foolish if still  powerful and to be appeased since Germany was Austria's main ally. Ditto, the minor characters from Freud and Hitler to the ministers of Britain and France and Russia whose fate hung in the balance as well. There are a lot of minor characters, many of whom are quite memorable in this book.

Morton sets up the assassination that almost fizzled dramatically, with bathos as he describes Franz Ferdinand (with is interest in the "people" and his championship of Serbs which the assassins did not know of) and his wife (a whole other story is connected with his marriage to an "inappropriate" countess with no royal blood who always had to walk behind him), with the sense of how nearly the plotters failed and how successful they were, at least in the short run, at disguising the involvement of The Black Hand, which financed them from within the Serb government.

This is a popular history but is very well researched and well documented, with notes on each chapter and an extensive biography. Morton is always reaching for rhetorical highs, which I both love and hate. There's no doubt that he's over-dramatic, but it's a dramatic story he's telling and I'm not after all one who insists that history be dry or  boring or unappealing to anyone not an academic historian. I suppose what I don't like is how heavily he depends on rhetorical flourishes and how predictable they become. I searched for an example, but some go on for pages, as when he sets up a set of parallels which end in an ironic "Hurrah!" and go one for pages and pages.

For me it was a great introduction to an era, a family and a place I want to read more about.

1 Comments:

Blogger Nikhil said...

Nice review. I too review history books on my blog: witheredpapyrus.blogspot.com

9/21/2013 08:32:00 AM  

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