I’m a huge fan of audiobooks and have been since the days of cassettes. Audiobooks are great for travel, especially over repetitious routes. I spent last weekend in the bay area to attend some Tibetan teachings, and I’ll be making more trips in the weeks ahead, so I wanted to find something to listen to on the road.
I usually favor action-adventure novels for travel, but this time I chose A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918, by G.J. Meyer.
The opening was so fascinating – history truly can be more fantastic than fiction – that I downloaded the ebook in order to read certain sections in detail.
But why choose such a tragic story for a road trip?
For several reasons. Mostly because the Great War has held a haunting fascination for me since I read All Quiet on the Western Front when I was sixteen (the author, G.J. Meyer said something similar in his introduction). Because of my father’s work, we were living in France when I read the book, and older people at that time remembered the war. Several told us there wasn’t a family in France that didn’t lose a father, or husband, or brother, or son. I remember sitting in old cafes and parks, thinking that everything must have looked the same to the young men in 1914 who would march into a maelstrom no could have imagined, least of all their leaders.
Like the Titanic two years earlier, the first world war was a tragedy we cannot forget because it marked a loss of innocence for the generation it consumed and for every one that came after. As the title of Meyer’s book suggests, a world order was swept away in a horror no one wanted.
“Thirty-four long, sweet summer days separated the morning of June 28, when the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was shot to death, from the evening of August 1, when Russia’s foreign minister, and Germany’s ambassador to Russia fell weeping into each other’s arms and what is rightly called the Great War began.”
An assassination should not have sparked a world war. In that era, assassinations were commonplace. In the years before 1914, presidents of the United States, France, Mexico, Guatemala, and Uruguay were killed, as were Prime Ministers of Russia, Spain, Greece, Bulgaria, Persia, and Egypt. Kings and Queens of Austria, Italy, Serbia, Portugal, and Greece were murdered, and no armies were mustered. This time things spun out of control through a series of errors and misunderstandings that makes one cringe when seen through the lens of history.
“Men with the power to decide the fate of Europe did the things that brought war on and failed to do the things that might have kept the war from happening. They told lies, made mistakes, and missed opportunities. With few if any exceptions they were decent, well-intended men…But little of what they did produced the results they intended.”
Those results reverberate down through the present day. Think of Iraq, a nation of sects and ethnic groups that hate each other, created by European diplomats who understood none of that as they drew the borders. Think of the lesson the world learned from the Armenian genocide – that most of the time, perpetrators can get away with “ethnic cleansing.”
Meyer describes in detail these “decent, well-intended men,” leaders of backward-looking monarchies and empires that were already out of date. Kaiser Wilhelm owned 300 military uniforms but failed to understand how little glory there was in facing machine guns and poison gas. Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria-Hungary, didn’t even like his nephew, the Archduke who was assassinated, but he let his generals persuade him that punishing Serbia might restore some of his nation’s fading glory.
Such accounts go on and on and perhaps are the point of this post. A hundred years ago, political leaders failed to grasp that the world had changed and required new methods and understandings. Today I believe our political leaders have failed to grasp that the world has changed and requires new methods and understandings. I spotted a fine example last Friday, just before I got in the car, in Time Magazine. In her article, “Your Global Economic Mess is Now Being Served,” Rana Foroohar says:
“Not only are the fortunes of the world’s major markets and economies still very much tied together, but the root cause of their problems is the same: dysfunctional politics. There are economic solutions available that could calm markets and help countries avoid the risk of a double dip; what’s lacking is the political will to implement them.”
This take on the world economic situation is eerily similar to Meyer’s description of the political landscape a hundred years ago. Nations are linked together even when they would rather not be, while leaders are lost in the mindsets of the previous century. Nineteenth century poet, Matthew Arnold described the condition like this:
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born
What does one do in such a situation? There aren’t any clear answers, but a few thoughts came to mind as I mulled this stuff over during my trip.
It helps to think that most of our leaders are clueless instead of the villains I sometimes take them to be. The thought reminds me that it’s as much a waste of time to indulge in anger as it is to believe they have any real solutions.
Our current politics and economics are mostly driven by fear. During the run-up to World War I, the Austrian ambassador said, “Fear is a bad counselor.” His words are as true today as they were a hundred years ago. Making decisions based on fear is something I try to avoid, though clearly it’s sometimes difficult. Avoiding most TV news programs is a good place to start.
And finally, there’s something like acting as if this was already the world I want to live in. What that looks like can change from moment to moment. Often it’s a matter of small gestures and courtesies. And yet, if enough people acted in ways that went beyond us and them thinking…
There’s a man named Jean Jaures who did his best to stop the outbreak of World War I. As a pacifist and a socialist, he was loved by some and hated by others, but Meyer says,
“As a leader, a thinker, and simply as a human being, Jaures stood out like a giant in the summer of 1914…he had dedicated his life to the achievement of democracy and genuine peace not only in France but across the continent…Everyone who knew him and has left a record of the experience tells of a sunny, selfless, brilliant personality, bearded and bearlike and utterly careless of his appearance, indifferent to personal success or failure but passionately dedicated to his vision of a better and saner world.”
In Meyer’s opinion, Jaures was the one man in Europe who might have been able to calm the war fever that gripped all of Europe at the end of July. On the afternoon of July 31, 1914, a confused and unemployed 29 year old named Raoul Villain was walking through Montmartre with a gun in his pocket. He was planning to travel to Germany to assassinate the Kaiser, when he saw Jaures and some friends enter a nearby cafe. Ever careless of his own safety, Jaures sat with his back to an open window. Forgetting the Kaiser, Villain fired two bullets into his head. War was declared the next day.
Jaures reminds me of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, two other men whose lives and deaths ask us what kind of world we want to live in. One way or another, our actions answer that question every day.
I know what kind of response I want to give.