Saturday, June 28, 2014
The End of the World
Today is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort, the Duchess of Hohenberg, the first domino that fell leading to the chaos of the First World War.
Living as we do in the world formed not only by that convulsion, but by another twenty-five years later, it is very difficult for us to comprehend the shattering effect of that first war,the "war to end all wars."
We can experience the war only at second hand, through the literature of those who fought in it, or observed and knew those who had. (Carolyn R.C. Wilson's conspectus of much of the best literature regarding the war and its effects is helpful, and a fine piece of work for an honor's thesis.) David Cannadine created a serious and sustained piece of social and economic history that shows the effect of what he bluntly terms "Armageddon" for the old order in just one county, Great Britain.
The war ended four empires, and put the survivor, the British Empire, that it was living on borrowed time. The age of traditional hereditary monarchs was shattered, with the survivors figureheads or oddities. The Victorian Era, with its hubris, its optimism, its repression, its faith in technology and reason, its pride and complacency--at long last ended.
We live in a world that is a direct descendant of the post-World War I temperament, made even more jaded by the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War and the decades since. We lack the certitude that the Victorians and their children, the Edwardians, had. In many ways, that is an unalloyed good.
And yet--there is a reason we keep returning to the pre-War world, a reason a why we visit its at once crueler and more optimistic shores. In the 1920s, it took Coué's autosuggestion to believe that "Day by day, in every way, I'm getting better and better." The Victorian ethos knew it to be true. No self-hypnosis was needed.