January 29, 2013


Christopher Clark quotes this fragment from Stefan Zweig. I thought it worth sharing

the wind in the trees, the twittering of the birds and the music floating across the park were at the same time part of my consciousness. I could clearly hear the melodies without being distracted, for the ear is so adaptable that a continuous noise, a roaring street, a rushing stream are quickly assimilated into one's awareness only an unexpected pause in the rhythm makes us prick our ears. [...] Suddenly the music stopped in the middle of a bar. I didn't know what piece they had played. I just sensed that the music had suddenly stopped. Instinctively I looked up from my book. The crowd, too, which was strolling through the trees in a single flowing mass, seemed to change; it, too, paused abruptly in its motion to and fro. Something must have happened.
The something was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria. Zweig's writing is so interesting- at once it combines an observation about 1914, how ordinary life was. One can almost imagine the crinolined crowds passing in front of the park, through the boulevards of 19th Century Vienna and then the 20th Century with all its horror arrived. At the same time Zweig says something important about memory and history: we remember change, the continuous strand of music is something we are acculturated too- we remember disruption not stillness. History as Gibbon put it was the record of the crimes, follies etc of human kind- I think Zweig gives us a reason here for Gibbon's statement: crime not kindness is a disturbance.

January 28, 2013

The future and the first world war

There isn't much that's more dangerous in diplomacy than assumptions about the future. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the arguments for the hardline position was that if the Russians are going to be around forever, it might be better to have a nuclear war now when America will win and the losses will be limited, rather than later when both great powers can unleash infinite destruction on each other. The same is true in the First World War. One of the motivating things in any war is the attitudes with which the parties enter the war. In the First War, that's most evident in the attitudes of Britain and France towards Serbia and Austria Hungary. Put bleakly the British and the French saw the plucky Serbs as the instigators of a new wave of nationalist and democratic history- in their imagination, they dressed the Serbs, as Byron had dressed the Greeks almost a hundred years before, with all the clothes of European liberty. Whereas they saw the Austrian monarchy as a doomed experiment that had run out of time, an empire and a power in decline. Neither of these impressions were particularly correct: Serbia was economically primitive, had low levels of education and an irredentist movement that destabilised the state. Austria on the other hand was stable, and to the eyes of many 21st century observers looks much more progressive than its nationalist neighbours.

The complacency of that judgement helped steer the Entente powers into a much more assertive Balkan policy, may have contributed to the origins of the war itself. It all stemmed from a basic teleology- that history was aiming in a particular direction. Of course history has no necessary direction: and the complacency of current understanding can swiftly become the obvious error the next generation despises.