Saturday, November 22, 2014

So You Think We Have Problems with Congress.

I'm reading Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers:  How Europe Went to War in 1914, and hoo boy, am I ever learning a lot. First, the 65 pages on Serbian history in the decades before the war were riveting; now I have started the long chapter on the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Empire had two Parliaments. The Budapest Parliament consisted almost entirely of ethnic, Magyar-speaking Hungarians, and the eastern part of the empire had a policy of ruthless suppression of other languages and linguistic minorities. In the western Parliament, which met in Vienna, well, things were different:
Nowhere were the frictions generated by nationalist politics more in evidence than in the [western] parliament, which met from 1883 in a handsome neo-classical building on Vienna's Ringstrasse. In this 516-seat  legislature, the largest in Europe, the familiar spectrum of party-political ideological diversity was cross-cut by national affiliations producing a panoply of splinter groups and grouplets. Among the thirty-odd parties that held mandates after the 1907 elections, for example, were twenty-eight Czech Agrarians, eighteen Young Czechs (Radical nationalism), seventeen Czech Conservatives, seven Old Czechs (moderate nationalists), two Czech-Progressives (Realist tendency), one 'wild' (independent) Czech and nine Czech National Socialists. The Poles, the Germans, the Italians and even the Slovenes and the Ruthenes were similarly divided along ideological lines.
Since there was no official language in [the western region] (by contrast with the Kingdom of Hungary), there was no single official language of parliamentary procedure. German, Czech, Polish, Ruthenian, Croat, Serbian, Slovenian, Italian, Romanian and Russian were all permitted. But no interpreters were provided, and there was no facility for recording or monitoring the content of speeches that were not in German, unless the deputy in question himself chose to supply the house with translated text of his speech. Deputies from even the most insignificant factions could thus block unwelcome initiatives by delivering long speeches in a languages that only a handful of their colleagues understood. Whether they were actually addressing the issues raised by the current motions, or simply reciting long poems in their own national idiom, was difficult to ascertain. The Czechs in particular were renowned for the baroque extravagance of their filibustering. The [Vienna] parliament became a celebrated tourist attraction, especially in winter, when Viennese pleasure-seekers crowded into the heated visitors' galleries. By contrast with the city's theatres and opera houses, a Berlin journalist wrily observed, entry to parliamentary sessions was free.


john_burke100 said...

I read that a few months ago and liked it a lot. I saw one review that suggested Clarke put too much blame on Serbia--I think the reviewer meant to suggest the Pasic government was too feeble to do anything as important as cause a general European war, though the reviewer also acknowledged the same weakness let the sinister Apis and his crew act with impunity. Anyway the last couple of pages of the book, when war has finally broken out, are very powerful.

Henry Holland said...

I've long been fascinated by WWI, not least because it was the collapse of empires:

Austro-Hungarian Emire (aka the Habsburg's) had been around since 1526
Ottoman Empire since 1299 (officially ended in 1922)
Romanov Dynasty in Russia since 1613

The British Empire, which dated from the 1500's, was badly damaged by WWI, it reached it's peak in 1919. France was in very bad shape after 1918, Germany (of which Prussia, which had been around since 1525, were a major part had existed only since 1871) was routed.

It's always blown me away on my trips to England that even in small towns, there was almost always a WWI memorial, but rarely one for WWII.

Thanks to TCM, I recently saw two very good WWI-related films:

Oh, What a Lovely War!, Richard Attenborough's first directorial effort, from 1970. It seems to have every British actor who was anyone in it, including one of my very favorite actors, Michael Redgrave. It's a biting satire and the final scene had me in tears.

Nicholas and Alexandra, about the hapless Tsar Nicholas II. Watch as he drags his family towards the grave! Watch as he cares more about his palace than the fact that his empire is collapsing! As Mick Jagger noted:

I hung around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for change
Killed the Tsar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

This is a terrific overview documentary, narrated by Kenneth Branagh:

This reduces me to tears every single damn time:

Lisa Hirsch said...

Henry, get yourself a copy of this book. It is really great. An oldie, but goodie, Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, is probably up next.

And yes, about the WWI monuments everywhere. Also plaques in churches from the Napoleonic wars. But WWI was just a catastrophe, fought over not very much at all. Clark starts out by saying that WWI seems less remote and more understandable now than it did during the Cold War, and I think he is right about that.

The punitive damages against Germany and what was left of Austria-Hungary were also one of the causes of WWII, to add to your little list.