This year commemorates the 100th anniversary of the First World War that killed millions and devastated Europe. There are many books on the origins and the consequences, including a second more destructive war a few decades latter.
Among the most recent books is The War that ended Peace by Margaret McMillan*, an historian of the University of Oxford. The title seems to dwell on the fact that “Europe had seen no major war for decades before 1914”, only limited conflicts in Asia, Africa and distant regions.
The first chapter has a vivid description of the Paris Exposition of 1900 that was visited by more than 50 million visitors. The French declared the Exhibition as “a symbol of harmony and peace”.
The Introduction, as a stark contrast describe the destruction of Louvain in Belgium, once a “prosperous and peaceful“ gothic town with a famous university founded in1425 with a library that hosted 200,000 unique books. In 1914 the town was destroyed and burned. The author mentions that “like much Belgium, Louvain has the misfortune to be on the route of the German invasion to France..”
The book brilliantly narrates the events that led to the war, the small conflicts and tension between that superpowers and their different allies through the aftermath of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, the spark that brought Europe to a war which ended the European empires and caused the worst chaos, death and misery to millions of people, including civilians, children and woman.
Among the fiction books that depict the human side of the beginning of a peaceful 20th Century and the horrible war, Joseph Roth offers two masterpieces, “The Radetzky March (1932) and its sequel The Emperor’s Tomb (1934). In the introduction of the first one, Nadine Gordimer mentions how Roth let us “see the deterioration of a society, an empire, in which disparate nationalities have been forced into political unity by an overriding authority and its symbol: the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the personality of Emperor Franz Joseph.”
“The Radetzky March is the story of a prominent family that was granted the highest ranks of the nobility for an heroic act of a soldier that saved the life of the young Emperor Franz Joseph in a battle. It described the life of the youngest member of the Trotta family and how the Empire was collapsing under the oldest emperor in the world. “All around him, Death was circling, circling and mowing”. The huge power of the Hapsburgs was dying, “shattered on the ultimate bottom of the universe, splintering into several tiny solar balls that had to shine as independent stars on independent nations.”**
Some analysts see a parallel to the conflicts between China and Japan for some minor unimportant islands comparing these with what happened in the pre-war Europe 100 years ago.
I think it is a good timing to remember the First World War and its horrors reading Margaret McMillan’s history book as well as Joseph Roth’s brilliant novels.