Friday, May 24, 2013

A Wedding in Berlin and a Century of War

One hundred years ago today, on May 24, 1913, there was an imperial wedding in Berlin - a wedding to end all weddings both in the grandeur of its celebration and in being truly the last of its kind.
None of the imperial and royal participants in the event knew, of course, that it was the end of that long-lost era of European peace, prosperity, and progress. On the contrary, the wedding was itself a celebration of restored dynastic harmony and peace. For on that May day in that elegant pre-war world, Princess Victoria Louise of Prussia, only daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, was married to Prince Ernest Augustus of Hanover, the small German kingdom annexed by Prussia in 1866. (As a member of the German dynasty that had reigned in Britain since 1714, the Prince of Hanover was also heir to the British title of Duke of Cumberland). The healing of this sad sore in Europe's interrelated royal body politic brought together most of the principal contemporary custodians of Western civilization's symbol systems, among them the three cousins who reigned over Europe's 3 greatest Empires - Britain, Germany, and Russia - and a host of other royals. Europe's 4th Emperor, the Hapsburg Kaiser Franz Joseph (too old to attend in person and perhaps too Catholic for such a Protestant celebration) was represented by his nephew, the doomed reformer Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination by a Serbian terrorist 13 months later would precipitate Europe's almost century-long Civil War. (Prophetically, back in 1888 Otto von Bismark had warned how "some damned foolish thing in the Balkans" could end up triggering a general European war).

The approaching centennial of the beginning of that tragic - and utterly unnecessary - conflict will undoubtedly invite many serious scholarly and other reflections on that war and its disastrous legacy. While traveling this past week, I read (on my new Kindle Fire) Christopher Clark's monumental 697-page analysis of Europe's haphazard run-up to war, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Harper, 2012), which puts particular emphasis on the (still festering) local Balkan national rivalries that actually precipitated that larger conflict.

It has become one of our contemporary commonplaces (an accurate one, for once) to label World War I the start of a European "Civil War." That "Civil War" continued through World War II and the Cold War, ostensibly coming to an end with the fall of Communism, but actually continuing into the 1990s with further brutal warfare where it all started in the Balkans - with once more at the center of it all Serbia, whose aggressive national ambitions had initially lit the fuse that triggered World War I. 

(Although he is not particularly out to assign blame or "guilt" for the war, one of the merits of Clark's detailed historical analysis is to demolish the Anglo-French-Russian myth that Austria's strong reaction to Serbia after the assassination was excessive. Indeed, he characterizes the 1914 Austrian ultimatum to Serbia as being "a great deal milder" than NATO's 1999 ultimatum to Serbia.)

History, it has been said, "promises only change, not progress" (William Pfaff, "The History Beyond History," New York Review of Books, December 6, 2012). Perhaps no century has seen more change than that which has elapsed since that wedding in Berlin. Through it all, the ease with which the elegant, self-confident world which celebrated those Berlin nuptials a century ago threw itself headlong into self-destruction remains a powerful lesson - and warning - about the character and quality of so much of that change.

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