The more things change…

As I looked at the front page of a recent local paper, featuring yet another account of the lurid sex/murder scandal du jour, I thought of the striking parallels to the situation in France 100 years ago.

By mid-July, 1914 the crisis building in the wake of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination was roiling Berlin, Moscow, London, Vienna, and Sarajevo, but the French remained focused on the murder trial of Henriette Caillaux, second wife of former premiere, Joseph Caillaux. Madame Caillaux was accused of shooting a newspaper editor antagonistic to her husband. The trial was a full blown media circus, the O.J. trial of the day, for then as now, it is much easier to gawk at messy personal lives than messy international conflicts.

Public domain

Public domain

Henriette’s husband, Joseph Caillaux, had lost the previous election to conservatives, and was running for re-election in 1914, insisting that France roll back its aggressive militarism. In addition, as a former accountant, he was convinced that an income tax was essential to run a modern state. The campaign grew vicious. The editor of the conservative paper, Le Figaro, obtained and published a letter Caillaux had written to his first wife, when she was his mistress and married to another man.

Henriette, who cared deeply about her position in society, was terrified at the prospect of publication of letters she and Joseph had exchanged when both were married to others. On the afternoon of March 16, Henriette rode in a chauffeured car to a gun dealer, bought a Browning automatic pistol, and had the dealer take her to a basement firing range to teach her how to use it. She then demanded to see the editor of Le Figaro, with the gun hidden in her muff. She fired six bullets, hit the editor four times and killed him.

At her trial, Henriette claimed she only intended to frighten the man. She closed her eyes, she said, and aimed at the floor, but missed and hit the editor. Her defense team must have been stellar, for as G.J Meyer put it, on July 29, “A chivalrous jury found Madame Caillaux not guilty, and France’s newspapers awoke from their trance to discover that Europe was on the brink of war.”

By July 29, there was probably only one man in Europe who could have averted war. Jean Jaures’ ideas paralleled those of Joseph Caillaux. As a socialist, he was beyond the pale of “repeatable” politics, but I think of him as the Jimmy Carter of his day. Meyer writes, As a leader, a thinker, and simply as a human being, Jaures stood out like a giant in the summer of 1914. Like Caillaux he was widely hated, but only for the most honorable of reasons: he had dedicated his life to the achievement of democracy and genuine peace not only in France but across the continent.”

Jean Jaures, 1904, by Nadar. Public domain.

Jean Jaures, 1904, by Nadar. Public domain.

Jaures was the greatest orator of his time, and clearly saw that a European war would be a disaster with no winners, only losers. In his last newspaper column, published on July 31, he wrote, “The danger is great but not insuperable if we keep our clearness of mind and strength of will.  If we show the heroism of patience as well as the heroism of action.”

That day he went to Brussels to speak to an emergency gathering of socialists, including a delegation from Germany. He and a group of colleagues spoke to Abel Ferry of the French foreign ministry, demanding action to stop Russia from mobilizing. Ferry said it was too late.  “Everything is finished, there is nothing left to do.”  When Jaures protested, Ferry said, “You won’t be able to continue. You will be assassinated on the nearest street corner.”

Two hours later, Jaures and a friend entered a cafe on the Rue Montmartre where an unemployed 29 year old named Raoul Villain recognized him.  Villain, though well educated, was aimless and confused. He had a gun and a plan to travel to Germany to kill the kaiser. Seeing Jaures take a seat with his back to an open window, he changed his mind. A few moments later he fired two shots into Jaures’ head. The next day, France and Germany mobilized and the following day, World War I began.


The first world war was a tragedy that no one wanted to happen. Accounts of the run-up to war read like a Thomas Hardy novel, where the smallest “innocent” action leads to a huge tragedy. More than any other historical event, the first world war haunts me with a sense of evil pervading human affairs. To be sure, in the next war, in the holocaust, evil is more obvious. We can point to a small group of bad men and believe, or at least hope, that we are different from them. That’s not so easy to do with world war I.

None of the heads of state wanted this kind of war, but they consistently made wrong decisions, which pushed the world over the brink. The litany of “if only’s” is haunting as well. If only someone had told the Archduke’s driver of the change of route, the “inciting incident” might not have happened. And what if some dark karma or twist of fate had not brought Raoul Villain to the Rue Monmartre at the same time as Jaures?

History gives a perspective missing from the present moment, but the history of July 1914 poses a fearful question – what sinister future may be coiling behind the scenes while we distract ourselves with this year’s latest scandal?


9 thoughts on “The more things change…

  1. One of those exceptional teachers of times past, in the 8th grade, was Serbian, and he made this aspect of world history come alive. And the book I reference, Meyer’s, “A World Undone,” really fleshes out these ironies. I can’t remember which well known author, when asked of the difference between history and fiction said “Fiction has to make sense.” In general, I think that is true.


  2. I just read on another blog that there is a fresh appraisal of WW1 and the British reaction to the conflict (Douglas Newton The Darkest Days: the truth behind Britain’s rush to war, 1914. It appears to suggest that in London there were many powerful individuals in government and the press, and with connections with French and Russian embassies, who actively campaigned for Britain’s rapid intervention. Britain was apparently engaged in provocative acts before Germany turned on Belgium or there was news of the Balkan War. The Asquith cabinet apparently both misinformed/ failed to inform the neutralist majority in Parliament of actual events. There’s also been a recent look at the pervasively dire influences of the emotionally arrested monarch cousins – King George, Tsar Nicholas and their generally despised cousin Wilhelm: a family feud of hellish outcome.


  3. I have just finished reading yet another excellent book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, called ‘Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder’:

    He argues, and I agree with him, that both in the economy and in foreign policy it is not a question of ‘if’ but of when we have the next black swan event that will touch all our lives for the worse. Instead of creating systems that thrive and get stronger from disorder we have created increasingly fragile systems that will eventually break. Although we can never predict when the system will break we can predict with absolute certainty that one day they will break.


    • Thanks for the link. Very pertinent concept in house-of-cards times, or any time, really. I was reading some Native American Coyote stories recently – another metaphor for what knocks static and outworn structures aside, not always in pleasant ways!


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