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October Free Chapter - 1914: The Year The World Ended by Paul Ham

October Free Chapter - 1914: The Year The World Ended by Paul Ham

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Few years can justly be said to have transformed the earth: 1914 did.

In July that year, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Britain and France were poised to plunge the world into a war that would kill or wound 37 million people, tear down the fabric of society, uproot ancient political systems and set the course for the bloodiest century in human history.

In the longer run, the events of 1914 set the world on the path toward the Russian Revolution, the Treaty of Versailles, the rise of Nazism and the Cold War.

In 1914: The Year the World Ended, award-winning historian Paul Ham tells the story of the outbreak of the Great War from German, British, French, Austria-Hungarian, Russian and Serbian perspectives.Along the way, he debunks several stubborn myths.

European leaders, for example, did not stumble or ‘sleepwalk' into war, as many suppose. They fully understood that a small conflict in the Balkans – the tinderbox at the heart of the continent – could spark a European war. They well knew what their weapons could do.

Yet they carried on. They accepted – and, in some cases, even seemed to relish – what they saw as an inevitable clash of arms. They planned and mapped every station on the path to oblivion. These pied pipers of the apocalypse chose war in the full knowledge that millions would follow, and die, on their orders.

1914: The Year the World Ended seeks to answer the most vexing question of the 20th century: Why did European governments decide to condemn the best part of a generation of young men to the trenches and four years of slaughter, during which 8.5 million would die?
Few years can justly be said to have transformed the earth: 1914 did.

In July that year, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Britain and France were poised to plunge the world into a war that would kill or wound 37 million people, tear down the fabric of society, uproot ancient political systems and set the course for the bloodiest century in human history.

In the longer run, the events of 1914 set the world on the path toward the Russian Revolution, the Treaty of Versailles, the rise of Nazism and the Cold War.

In 1914: The Year the World Ended, award-winning historian Paul Ham tells the story of the outbreak of the Great War from German, British, French, Austria-Hungarian, Russian and Serbian perspectives.Along the way, he debunks several stubborn myths.

European leaders, for example, did not stumble or ‘sleepwalk' into war, as many suppose. They fully understood that a small conflict in the Balkans – the tinderbox at the heart of the continent – could spark a European war. They well knew what their weapons could do.

Yet they carried on. They accepted – and, in some cases, even seemed to relish – what they saw as an inevitable clash of arms. They planned and mapped every station on the path to oblivion. These pied pipers of the apocalypse chose war in the full knowledge that millions would follow, and die, on their orders.

1914: The Year the World Ended seeks to answer the most vexing question of the 20th century: Why did European governments decide to condemn the best part of a generation of young men to the trenches and four years of slaughter, during which 8.5 million would die?

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Published by: RandomHouseAU on Oct 08, 2013
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Copyright © Paul Ham 2013. All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Copyright © Paul Ham 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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NIJINSKY’S FAUN
The extraordinary thing was the way in which everyone took it for granted that this oozing, bulging wealth of the English upper and upper-middle classes would last forever, and was part of the order of things . . . Before the war the worship of money was entirely unreflecting and untroubled by any pang of conscience. The goodness of money was as unmistakable as the goodness of health or beauty, and a glittering car, a title, or a horde of servants was mixed up in people’s minds with the idea of actual moral virtue.
George Orwell, ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’

Only by understanding the past may we free ourselves from its tyranny.


They were a louche, happy tribe, the Edwardian rich. They satiated themselves in the literature, art and finery of everything that went by the name of ‘modern’ during that period known to posterity as La Belle Époque, La Fin de Siècle and the Gilded Age. Artists, musicians and revolutionaries were thought to have flourished in what nobody knew would be the last years of a relatively peaceful
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Copyright © Paul Ham 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

19 14 : T H E Y E A R T H E W O R L D E N D E D

era, between the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 and the summer of 1914. For many, it was a time of great prosperity and an efflorescence of artistic and scientific talent redounding to the genius of the cultural heart of the civilised world: Paris. And it was a time of upheaval. ‘The world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years,’ wrote the young French poet Charles Péguy in 1913.1 (He would soon die on the Western Front.) Some things had not changed: chiefly, the way most men and women thought. For most people, the conservative triumvirate of God, King and Country remained firmly in place in the 1890s and 1900s. The decadent values of the Belle Époque had not overturned half a century of Victorian values. In the 1900s, old-fashioned conservatism, and respect for tradition, were making strident returns, mainly among the young. In European schools and universities, French and German students were reacting against the dilettantism and indulgence of their parents’ Bohemian generation, and rallying to the standards of the old world: patriotic, Christian and authoritarian.2 The conservative mainstream stoutly resisted democratic reforms such as votes for women, better working conditions, social welfare and universal healthcare. In this sense, the radicalism on display had barely impinged on the actual polity of the pre-war world. By the turn of the century, Australia and New Zealand were the only Western countries to have extended the vote to women, and Germany under Bismarck was the only European country to have introduced a recognisable welfare state and universal male suffrage. The essential conflict of the era, observed George Orwell, ‘was between the tradition of 19th century asceticism and the actual existing luxury and snobbery of the pre-1914 age’.3 Victorian values did not simply disappear with the passing of Queen Victoria. She died in 1901, in the arms of her beloved grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Her death touched all of Europe, for Victoria was the royal matriarch of three empires, closely linked through royal blood: Britain, Germany and Russia. Tsar
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N ijinsky ’ s F aun

Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II and King Edward VII were cousins. The reign of Edward, Victoria’s dissolute son, lent a decadent veneer to an era that clung to her train long after her death. When she died, many shared the feelings of the novelist Henry James:
I mourn the safe, motherly old middle class queen who held the nation warm under the folds of her big, hideous, Scotch-plaid shawl . . . I felt her death far more than I should have expected. She was a sustaining symbol and the wild waters are upon us now.4

Or they felt as George Orwell did. Looking back on his pre-war childhood, he wrote in 1947:
There never was, in the history of the world, a time when the sheer vulgar fatness of wealth, without any kind of aristocratic elegance to redeem it, was so obtrusive as in those years before 1914. It was the age when crazy millionaires in curly top-hats and lavender waistcoats gave champagne parties in rococo house boats on the Thames, the age of diabolo and hobble skirts, the age of the ‘knut’ in his grey bowler and cutaway coat, the age of The Merry Widow, Saki’s novels, Peter Pan and Where the Rainbow Ends, the age when people talked about chocs and cigs and ripping and topping and heavenly, when they went for divvy weekends at Brighton and had scrumptious teas at the Troc. From the whole decade before 1914 there seems to breathe forth a smell of the more vulgar, un-grown-up kind of luxury, a smell of brilliantine and creme-de-menthe and soft-centred chocolates – an atmosphere, as it were, of eating everlasting strawberry ices on green lawns to the tune of the Eton boating song. The extraordinary thing was the way in which everyone took it for granted that this oozing, bulging wealth of the English upper and upper-middle classes would last forever, and was part of the order of things . . . Before the war the worship of money was
3

Copyright © Paul Ham 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

19 14 : T H E Y E A R T H E W O R L D E N D E D

entirely unreflecting and untroubled by any pang of conscience. The goodness of money was as unmistakable as the goodness of health or beauty, and a glittering car, a title, or a horde of servants was mixed up in people’s minds with the idea of actual moral virtue.5

Behind this social gossamer were the iron laws of laissez-faire economics, which prevailed through to 1914 and were worshipped as if they existed in an objective reality beyond the reach of mankind’s ability to amend them. Those blessed by unfettered capitalism – the rich – were good, successful and somehow wholesome. All who were damned by it – the poor – were dirty, sinful and somehow deserving of their plight. A family may prosper one moment and be ruined the next. Charity remained the chief form of welfare. Government intervention was frowned upon, and deemed helpless before the ‘natural law’ of the invisible hand: trade cycles, price fluctuations and unemployment. If the apostles of the Gladstonian era were right in principle – that a free market engendered individual liberty and a higher standard of living more efficaciously than any other economic ‘system’ – the practice required moderation and amendment, for an unrestrained free market plainly had not delivered the services needed to sustain a civilised society. The gospels of complete market freedom, which perversely gave rise to its opposite – crushing monopoly and government favouritism – went virtually unchallenged before 1914, and were not fundamentally altered until 1930.6


Henry James’s wild waters of modernism were thought to have threatened the conservative values underlying the nineteenth century’s asceticism and idolatry of money. We do not use the term ‘conservative’ here in a narrow, party political sense. We mean the forces of preservation of the existing economic and social system. The radical ideals of the fin de siècle – sensual, liberal, democratic – were supposed to have transformed the world, a world the artists and writers
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Copyright © Paul Ham 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

N ijinsky ’ s F aun

readily absorbed and reflected. In the visual arts, the ‘impressionists’ were said to have broken down reactionary ways of seeing, and challenged the very foundation of a squalid and unjust reality . . . at least, to the few who were looking. On 29 April 1874, six artists – Pissarro, Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Degas and Guillaumin – held ‘L’exposition du boulevard des Capucines: Les impressionnistes’, the first major exhibition of the new movement. It appeared three years after the end of the Franco-Prussian War, which devastated France’s impression of itself as a great power. The six artists had signed a petition refusing to show their work at the official Paris salon. The establishment scorned or were simply indifferent to the show, revealing a glimpse of the true spirit of the age. The critic Jules Castagnary sneered:
The common view [of these artists] as a collective force within our disintegrating age is their determination not to aim for perfection . . . Once the impression is captured, they declare their role finished. Starting from idealization, they will arrive at that degree of unbridled romanticism where nature has become a mere excuse for dreaming, and where the imagination has become powerless to formulate anything except personal subjective fantasies, with no echo in general reason, because they are without control or any possible verification in reality.7

Another critic, Albert Wolff, merely scoffed, ‘They take canvas, paint and brushes, fling something at random and hope for the best . . .’8 This majority verdict barely changed in the ensuing years. In the decade before 1914, relatively few people gave a damn what Picasso painted, or whether he painted at all. You’d be hard-pressed to find an auction room full of business tycoons cuddling up to a Gauguin or a Pissarro. Van Gogh committed suicide, penniless and mad. Rigid conservative opinion did not turn doe-eyed at the sight of Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre (1905) and surrender to the Fauvist vision. The symbolists, the Nabi, the cubists, the futurists were
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Copyright © Paul Ham 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

19 14 : T H E Y E A R T H E W O R L D E N D E D

fringe dwellers, their exhibitions barely noticed. Taut, old-world convention would not understand Cézanne’s ‘way of seeing’, or fathom his purpose – to conjure the nature of things in paint – until decades after his death (in 1906). The faintly ridiculous traditional artist William Bouguereau received a better reception, in the sense of a higher price, in the late 1890s and early 1900s. His paintings of ‘ample buttocks on angelic maidens’ were still hugely popular to mainstream, conservative taste in America and Europe.9 He died in 1905, one of many artists for whom ‘the visible world existed’, concluded a perceptive obituary.10


Modernist literature, too, was similarly ignored, or pilloried, before the war. Politicians censored or banned books deemed ‘subversive’. Writers were outlawed or prosecuted if they dared to criticise the government. The establishment attacked the great French writer Émile Zola for his article J’Accuse, which appeared on the front page of L’Aurore on 13 January 1898. His powerful defence of the Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus, who had been unjustly imprisoned, divided French society between the Dreyfusard socialist/republican groups and the anti-Dreyfusard conservative establishment, who believed that the reputation of the army, ‘the defender of the security and greatness of France . . . immune from criticism’, had been gravely sullied.11 For defending an innocent man, Zola was found guilty of libel and fled to England to avoid prison. Whether the French novelist Proust found the time he’d lost did not interest most people, and his pre-war classic, In Search of Lost Time, which he started in 1905, was not fully published until after the war. If Proust had discovered ‘a new conception of time’, of the unlived memory, the transformative power of his masterpiece seems clear only in hindsight. At the time, the great majority of people seemed to be looking forward, not backward. Doomed by the same reactionary forces, but for different reasons, was the brilliant Irish playwright and wit Oscar Wilde, who personified the fin de siècle.
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Copyright © Paul Ham 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

N ijinsky ’ s F aun

Sentenced to years of hard labour for sodomy, he died in 1900 at the age of 46, broken on the wheel of English hypocrisy and intolerance. Modern dance similarly enraged or upset the reactionary guardians of public morality. The British and German Governments sought to outlaw the tango and the turkey trot, then sweeping the music halls and clubs of London, Paris and Berlin. The Kaiser forbade German officers from dancing the new steps.12 Isadora Duncan’s beautiful Dionysian movements were condemned as pornographic. Then along came Nijinsky’s faun. Diaghilev and Nijinsky represented the highest form of artistic expression in dance. For this, many forgave or ignored their alleged bisexuality. But Debussy’s ballet L’Apres-midi d’un faune, staged by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris in 1912, and choreographed and danced by Nijinsky, caused outrage when it opened. Bacchic impressions the great dancer had seen on a Grecian vase in the Louvre had inspired his conception of the ballet. It disgusted the old guard, for whom the little satyr posed a threat to public morality. Gaston Calmette, editor of the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, spiked a favourable review of the ballet and informed his readers that it ‘was neither a pretty pastoral nor a work of profound meaning. We are shown a lecherous faun, whose movements are filthy and bestial in their eroticism, and whose gestures are as crude as they are indecent.’13 The scandal acquired a political dimension. Le Figaro was accused of attacking the Ballets Russes because the paper opposed the military alliance between France and Russia. The ballet ‘represented an opening to smear all things Russian’.14 The Russian ambassador became involved, French politicians signed petitions and the French president and prime minister set up a commission of inquiry. The ballet’s alleged obscenity drew the Paris police to the second night. The faun seems emblematic now of a last little prance of beauty, slightly pathetic in the context, perhaps, before the curtain came down on the Belle Époque.


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Copyright © Paul Ham 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

19 14 : T H E Y E A R T H E W O R L D E N D E D

In sum, society’s great reactionary midriff – the white-collar bourgeoisie and the conservative working class – largely ignored, or rubbished, the progressive forces in their midst. If they thought about it at all, the establishment regarded modernism as frivolous and decadent, and not the prophecy of a world on the verge of fragmentation. The Belle Époque, in their eyes, appealed merely to aristocratic dandies, bohemian perverts and political radicals (socialists, anarchists, etc.). If reality was fragmenting, as the artists and writers suggested, if truth and perception were the same thing, and the perceiver existed in a realm of impressions, fleeting, sensual and unkempt, if traditional certainties were giving way to forces of democratic upheaval and the splintering of political autocracy, who was looking? To the conservatives who noticed, the modernist ‘impression’ of a world on the brink of collapse and rebirth was plainly nonsense. In their eyes, the world manifestly was not breaking up. Their world was hardening into a steel block, a skyscraper, a dreadnought, an assembly line. Their images were forged in a smelter (rather like Adolf von Menzel’s 1875 painting The Forge). Their future envisaged the rise of nation states and global empires, and the preservation of order, class and hierarchy. In this sense, littering the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with bohemian influences that supposedly captured a popular mood is profoundly misleading. The great lights of modernity dazzle with hindsight but shone on precious few at the time. The prewar artists articulated a new consciousness that eluded the old order. Not until years later, after a world war had devastated Europe, would the bourgeoisie concede the point in the only way they knew how: by putting a price tag on the sublime and appropriating it as their own. In 1870–1914, however, the democratic ideals of a more humane and tolerant world, expressed in art and literature, were to be throttled, ignored or postponed.


The war would blow it all away. Old world, patriarchal forces would
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N ijinsky ’ s F aun

smash apart the Belle Époque, an incidental casualty of a war fought to preserve God, King and Country. If radical ideas had disturbed the moral order a little too much, then their party was over. The irritated conservative rump had lost patience with the tawdry course of fashionable civilisation. The Old Certainties would not be mocked and trampled underfoot. Europe’s monarchies and the hierarchical systems they symbolised must be fought for, preserved, avenged. That is not to suggest the provocations of a few bohemians drove the world to war. Rather, that the revolutionary political forces of social reform, which underlay these artistic movements, threatened to overturn the established systems. In a perverse kind of way, Nijinsky’s ‘disgusting faun’ and all it represented added to the chorus of voices prophesying war. One can readily imagine the enraged forces of reaction training their cannons, symbolically at least, on the dancer’s ‘filth’. The governments and ruling elites of the reactionary states of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia, and, to a lesser extent, the relatively liberal France and Britain, had this psychology in common: revolted by the dilettantism of the times, but genuinely afraid of the social reforms behind it, they ennobled the rush to arms as a moral response to a revolutionary era. The tired expression ‘What we need is a good war’ was common enough: ‘a good war’ that would sustain the conservative certainties – or, in the view of the Italian futurists and fringe groups, a ‘cleansing war’ that would do away with everything old and start anew. Yet surely, as every schoolchild knows, the Great War was fought over tangible issues such as colonies, economic hegemony, nationalism, Alsace-Lorraine, Franz Ferdinand’s death and naval supremacy? The list of ‘rational’ causes and triggers seems inexhaustible. And they all have validity, as we shall see. Yet, taken together, or alone, these ‘causes’ do not seem to get us closer to understanding why millions of young men had to die, over four years of slaughter. In this light, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia were fighting to protect their royal dynasties and autocratic systems of government. If that meant war, as a socially binding, preservative force,
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Copyright © Paul Ham 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

19 14 : T H E Y E A R T H E W O R L D E N D E D

then so be it. The prevailing order would never surrender its privileges without a fight. The world as they knew it was under serious political and social threat. The war offered a grand opportunity to ignore proper domestic reforms and bind the people against a common foe. This varied in degree and direction. Russia’s Tsarist regime, sitting on a cauldron of revolutionary pressures, welcomed the war as a way of unifying the country and suppressing dissent. Austria-Hungary’s old empire was falling apart, and hastened the outbreak of war in order to restore its power and self-respect. Germany demanded a global empire to buttress its rising European power. The Central and East European regimes were answerable to a kaiser, emperor or tsar and the systems they represented. When Germany declared war, it was the Kaiser in person who was at war, as the spiritual embodiment of the nation. The German, AustroHungarian and Russian Governments repeatedly defended the war as the only way to save the prevailing system and defend the monarch. France, if sharing the least responsibility for the war, nonetheless unleashed a wave of vengeful patriotism in the 1900s, which tended in that direction. Only Asquith’s Liberal Party made a serious attempt at social reform before 1914, then postponed most of it until after the war and succumbed to conservative demands. It is worth stressing that the people most responsible for driving the world to war tended to be the political elite in alliance with the press, not the financiers and businessmen, or ‘capitalists’, most of whom consistently opposed it. None wished to see the destruction of their markets and the source of capital. In this sense, the champions of liberalism and social reform were powerless to resist the rush to arms. They temporarily surrendered their principles, as we shall see. The liberal, democratic values they espoused, expressed in art and literature and progressive politics, were saplings in the path of a hurricane. If liberals ‘applauded novelty at random simply to show their contempt for the people in the boxes’, as Jean Cocteau observed, they ignored a terrible truth.15 It
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Copyright © Paul Ham 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

N ijinsky ’ s F aun

was the privileged few up in the boxes, not the Social Democrats in the stalls, who would plunge the world into chaos. The eminent, bewhiskered men in plumed hats, their chests heavy with medals, the top-hatted, white-tied elite, with their bejewelled wives at their sides peering down their lorgnettes on the rabble below . . . they would decide how and when Europe descended into hell. And in time these pied pipers of the apocalypse – kings, reactionary politicians, generals and media bosses – would send millions of their nation’s students, shopkeepers, workers and sons of the landed gentry to the trenches without giving a fig for Zola, cubism or Nijinsky’s faun. And millions would follow.

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