Friday, September 03, 2010

Thunder At Twilight

I recently completed reading Frederic Morton’s “Thunder At Twilight: Vienna 1913-1914”, a loosely-styled examination of the city of Vienna and its inhabitants—famous or otherwise—during the eighteen-month period prior to the great conflagration that was to begin in the late summer of 1914.

I lived and studied in Vienna for a year in 2001 and 2002, and I very much enjoyed my time there.

Vienna is a beautiful city, filled with historic buildings, imposing churches, stately palaces and excellent museums. It is a very clean city, with more overt charm than any other Central European city except Munich. Restaurants are excellent, culture is abundant, the eye is filled with beauty and interest in all directions at all times of year. Vienna is a tourist’s delight.

The Viennese are, on the whole, a very civilized people. Upper-class persons are unrelentingly civilized and gracious, although middle-class and lower-class persons often demonstrate a distinct roughness.

Austrians are among the best-educated persons in Europe.

The standard of living in Austria is among the highest in Europe.

And yet I was happy when my year in Vienna had come to its conclusion.

Outsiders often note something uncomfortable beneath the surface of Vienna, and the cause of this discomfort is difficult to identify and difficult to define.

Some ascribe the inherent pettiness of the Viennese themselves as the source of discomfort. Others claim that the city has not yet learned to adapt to loss of empire and that it continues, incongruously, to adopt imperial attitudes (although the loss of empire occurred almost a century ago). Yet others identify the vastly different bloodlines that run through the Viennese—a mixture of Nordic, Germanic and Magyar—and point out that the Viennese typically and genuinely see themselves as one part minor nobility, one part gypsy, and one part country yokel, a very irritating mixture.

Myself, I believe it was the innate Viennese preference for the importance of façade over substance that made me happy to leave the city. I have returned to Vienna only once over the last eight years, and that only for a very, very short visit (I had explored the city so exhaustively while I lived there, missing nothing of note, that return visits are not a priority for me).

The subtext of Morton’s “Thunder At Twilight”, too, was that the Vienna of 1913 and 1914 was a city bearing a glamorous surface beneath which was to be found rot and decay—and corruption.

Morton begins his tale of the great city by describing a typical Viennese social event held on the evening of January 13, 1913: a great Bankruptcy Ball, sponsored by the city’s bank employees. The Bankruptcy Ball paid tribute to the dire economic pressures then facing The Austro-Hungarian Empire—as well as provided the Viennese with an excuse for ignoring those pressures for at least one evening.

Using The Bankruptcy Ball as his embarkation point, Morton proceeds to describe how Vienna’s glittering façade was belied by foundations that were visibly crumbling. The latter stages of The Austro-Hungarian Empire saw massive numbers of immigrants move into the capital city, and those immigrants remained largely unassimilated (and a source of significant social and political disruption). The middle class was having trouble making ends meet. Government spending had grown to the point at which the private economy could no longer sustain itself—and could no longer sustain the heavy tax burden. A worried and disenfranchised merchant class watched with alarm as the economies of Germany, Russia and Italy, each in turn, began to surpass the stagnant if not dwindling economy of Austria and its client states.

The decay in Vienna was most prominently on display in the city’s buildings: new construction featured cheap materials and workmanship of haphazard if not shoddy quality—but street facades were invariably heavily decorated, and bore an undue portion of a building’s total cost. This phenomenon may be viewed today in the city’s office buildings, apartment buildings and townhouses that were built shortly before World War I and managed to survive World War II. In Vienna, one often encounters a turn-of-the-century building featuring an attractive, even elegant, exterior and entranceway, only to step across a threshold and enter an interior literally falling apart.

Governmental presence was everywhere in Vienna. The Habsburgs had always employed a giant state bureaucracy, but in the latter stages of The Austro-Hungarian Empire the scale of this bureaucracy became unthinkable. The state employed a vast network of secret police agents to spy on its citizens (and this secret police maintained detailed records on each inhabitant). A significant portion of the populace was directly employed—or pensioned—by the government, a maneuver seen as necessary to guarantee the loyalty of the citizens to the Habsburg monarchy.

The empire maintained one of the largest standing armies on the globe. Ill-equipped and ill-trained, the army devoted an extraordinary portion of its resources to elaborate (and preposterous) uniforms—as well as to equipage. It was the most out-of-date army among the great powers, no match for the armies of France or Germany (or even Russia, whose own army was also conspicuously out-of-date).

A land power, The Austro-Hungarian Empire nevertheless maintained a significant navy—and even built four dreadnoughts in order to attempt to keep up with Germany and Britain in the naval arms race of the early 20th Century.

Astride this decaying empire stood an aging Emperor, Franz Josef, sovereign since 1848. As a young monarch, Franc Josef had—unwisely—waged war against Italy and Prussia. Abandoning foreign adventures of necessity once the German states united in 1870, Franz Josef spent the final 46 years of his life affixing his signature to imperial decrees, a duty that—quite literally—occupied his entire workday.

An external event was sure to cause this house of cards to collapse, and that external event proved to be World War I.

Sitting upon the precipice of war, Austria was not prepared once the disastrous military conflict actually arrived in 1914. Its army proved no match for the army of Russia, which quickly routed the Austrians in the East (and the German Army had to be called in to bail out the troops of Franz Josef). For the remainder of the war, Austria and its armed forces served merely as a tool of The German High Command, which called all shots during the final four years of the conflict.

The twilight months of the great imperial city on the banks of The Danube are recalled as a golden period by many, but Morton, rightly, will have none of such nonsense. He portrays Vienna as an aging, decaying city in an empire in decline, with social tensions on the rise, political leadership lacking, and economic forces beginning to render the city irrelevant on the European stage. On the verge of anarchy, Vienna was nearing an implosion point—albeit it remained a city populated with some very interesting people.

Morton catalogs the many artists, musicians and writers practicing their skills in the Vienna of the immediate pre-war period, but his focus is on those persons who embodied—or came to embody—the political ideologies and political movements of the post-war decades. Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky were only a few of such persons living in or passing through the Vienna of 1913 and 1914. Many were to assume political prominence after World War I, and Morton discusses them all, and in great detail. Indeed, Morton traces their time in Vienna with perhaps too much emphasis, in the process almost suggesting that it was the city of Vienna itself that was the cause of their revolutionary fervor.

The burden of the fall of The Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the descent of Vienna from imperial capital to charming but provincial backwater, rests largely on the shoulders of two men: Franz Josef; and General Conrad Von Hotzendorff, Chief Of Staff of The Austrian Army. Morton correctly identifies these two most powerful of Austrians—one the head of state and the other the head of the armed forces—as the figures most responsible for the collapse of the Habsburg dynasty.

The reign of Franz Josef has always puzzled scholars. The first two decades of his monarchy were characterized by a series of disastrous foreign policy blunders; the last five decades of his monarchy were characterized by Austria continually ceding power and influence to a rising Germany, and to such an extent that Austria had become little more than a vassal state by the time war broke out in 1914.

And yet, unaccountably, Franz Josef was enormously popular within The Austro-Hungarian Empire throughout the latter half of his reign. The populace developed and tenaciously held a unique affection for him, which in part was probably due to his longevity (his rule was longer than that of Queen Victoria). Some historians assert that Franz Josef’s personal popularity was the only thread that held together the many nationalities of The Austro-Hungarian Empire in its final years, a claim equally hard to confirm or refute. And yet his reign was coincident with the steepest decline in power and prestige of the Habsburg dynasty in its 800-year history. The centuries-long dynasty, long a bulwark of European power and statesmanship, survived his 1916 death by only two years.

Hotzendorff is another figure difficult to peg. Considered by many (including his enemies) to be a military genius, Hotzendorff was a master at devising ingenious battle plans—and utterly incompetent when it came to executing those very same plans in the field. As a military leader, Hotzendorff was perhaps the biggest loser of World War I—he lost more battles, and was responsible for the deaths of more of his own soldiers, than any other World War I general.

Hotzendorff, of course, blamed his losses in the East on Alfred Redl, the former Austrian Chief Of Counter-Intelligence. While head of counter-intelligence, Redl had sold to Russia most of Austria’s state secrets, including its detailed battle plans in the event of military action in The Balkans. The treachery of Redl, a homosexual blackmailed into espionage by the Russians in 1901, was discovered in 1913—but Austria nevertheless failed to draft new battle plans, an incomprehensible blunder that was to have grave repercussions the following year, when Austria was thwarted again and again by a Russian army familiar with every detail of Austria’s campaign strategy.

Franz Josef, Hotzendorff, Redl: Morton hits them all, and hard—and all three are fully deserving of his dismissive treatment. It is especially welcome to see Franz Josef take some hard knocks, as Central European historians are too misty-eyed to write coldly and candidly about the shortcomings of this most misunderstood and most over-estimated of monarchs. To this very day, the Viennese retain an inexplicable affection for Franz Josef, an affection completely at odds with the reality of his record and legacy.

Morton is a native Viennese, born in the city in 1924. His family emigrated from Austria to the United States after the Anschluss. Morton has been an American citizen for almost 70 years, working first as a journalist and later as an author of books on various topics from Central European history.

Native Viennese tend to view their city through romantic, rose-colored glasses, but Morton does not share that common tendency. He sees the Vienna of the early 20th Century as a cauldron ready to boil over and scorch everyone in sight.

The cauldron of Vienna did not boil at the outbreak of war. Instead, the cauldron simmered during the war years. The populations of German-speaking lands were remarkably well-behaved from 1914 through 1918, suffering deprivations with stoicism and offering their governments broad-based loyalty and support.

That changed as soon as the war was over. Revolutions broke out immediately throughout Germany and Austria. The Houses Of Habsburg, Hohenzollern, Wittelsbach: all fell at war’s end. Germany lunged from crisis to crisis from 1918 until 1933, when Hitler was named Chancellor and restored order by imposing totalitarianism. Austria remained in a state of virtual civil war from 1918 until 1938’s Anschluss, when Hitler did for Austria what he already had done for Germany.

Morton spent the first decade-and-a-half of his life living in a Vienna torn by civil strife and dissent. He and his family were forced to leave Austria once an anti-Semitic government was officially installed. It is no wonder that he takes such a dispassionate, arm’s-length view of his native city.

And yet Morton is not clear-eyed about everything in “Thunder At Twilight”.

One of the central characters in Morton’s book is The Archduke Ferdinand. Morton bears the same inexplicable fondness for The Archduke Ferdinand as most Viennese reserve for Franz Josef. Indeed, Morton sees The Archduke Ferdinand as the potential savior of the Habsburg dynasty, a savior that Franz Josef drove to ruin.

It is undisputed that Ferdinand agitated for modernization and reform throughout The Austro-Hungarian Empire—and it is undisputed that Franz Josef knocked him down at every turn.

Ferdinand wanted to modernize the army, and to reform Parliament, and to loosen ties with Serbia (where he met his end). Ferdinand’s recommendations, on the whole, were quite sensible—yet they hardly represented a fundamental change in the way the empire was ruled or administered. There is nothing in the historical record to suggest that The Austro-Hungarian Empire might have met a different fate had Ferdinand’s lobbying for incremental change met with approval from Franz Josef.

The magnitude of attempted change represented by Ferdinand was a small one, and unlikely to alter the sweeping forces of history already set into motion by previous decades of neglect and ineptitude within the empire.

In any case, Austria may have been fortunate to have been relieved of the possibility of Ferdinand succeeding Franz Josef.

During his lifetime, Ferdinand was known, within royal circles throughout the continent, as the most bloodthirsty hunter of animals in Europe. Ferdinand was known to kill up to a thousand animals a day in the forests of Central and Eastern Europe, calling upon the efforts of dozens of gamekeepers to assist him in his blood sport. Even by the standards of the day, people were appalled and sickened by his lust to kill animals on such a vast scale. On one level, Ferdinand was pure brute.

Morton concludes his volume with Ferdinand’s assassination at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Morton provides an undeniably dramatic, gripping, and even moving telling of the event that was shortly to cause an entire continent to lurch toward war.

However, more than one bullet may have been bitten that day.

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