The Blue Raccoon

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

"The Catastrophe of Victory"
Whatever happens to resolve this mess in the short term, it's still a mess.

Troubled skies over the Capitol. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite via the Washington Post.

Regular visitors among the billion-eyed audience know of my persistent fascination with the series of events leading to the outbreak of the First World War. I'm further intrigued, in a speculative fiction/alternative universe way, about how if that conflict could've been mitigated or postponed from its historical track that the world we wake up into every morning would be quite different. At least, the roster of problems would not seem as familiar.

That all aside, I am reading a book now that I wish I'd gotten hold of prior to writing Richmond In Ragtime: Socialists, Suffragists, Sex and Murder. Upon suggestion from Amie, the other day, I went by Chop Suey books which is closing its near-VCU store and consolidating at Carytown, so specials were avaialble. I purchased there for a whopping 10 samolas five books, all dealing with the near and dear topic.

The one I got that I'm devouring just now is Frederic Morton's Thunder At Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914. In this just about note perfect work, Morton uses his novelist's sense of rhythm, pacing and character and writes not a fiction but a suspenseful factual account of the steady tread toward disaster. It's horrifying to watch events unfold, because the reader knows what's coming, and you're unable to reach in and change a particle of the situation.

Anyway, RIR sort of tries to achieve this on a much smaller scale--I have cameos by Eugene Debs, Anna Shaw and President Taft where Morton got Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Hitler, Freud, Viktor Adler and poor Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who is the most sympathetic person in the book. And Vienna, as herself.

One what-if that, as a reader, I found myself rooting for was the death of the elderly Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph, who became desperately ill with pneumonia in the early spring of 1914. Had he died, Franz Ferdinand would've come into power with sweeping reforms -- though court intrigue may have stymied him at the top level, and Gavrilo Prinzip was already in motion to leap from the shadows and kill him.

Enter our old pal German Chief of the Armed Forces Helmuth von Moltke, "Moltke the Younger," who among his other duties was in charge of the care and feeding of the German's war preparations. The "Schlieffen Plan" that had been handed down as the road map for taking out France in a quick campaign of motion and envelopment, wasn't even a good idea on paper. But it was treated as holy writ by the arrogant nervous nelly Moltke.

I'll let Morton take it from here:

"[German Kaiser Wilhelm] called Moltke "der traurige Julius" (sad Julius). High-echelon wags in Berlin claimed that he was not sad, just hurting with bruises form his falls from the saddle. As a source of many a grin, the horsemanship of the Chief of Staff contributed to the lighter side of official life in Berlin. One of his celebrated tumbles had been in front of the equestrian statue of his uncle, the Helmuth von Moltke, the great Field Marshal von Moltke, victor over Napoleon III in the war of 1870.

The comparison afflicted the lesser von Moltke all this life. So did the conflict between his duty, which must be remorseless, and his intelligence, which was considerable. "The next war," he told the Kaiser a few years earlier, "will be a national war. It will not be settled by one decisive battle but will be a long wearisome struggle with an enemy who will not be overcome until his whole national force is broken...a war which will utterly exhaust our own people even if we are victorious." Yet, here he sat, in May 1914, discussing the next war. It was von Moltke's job to map out the catastrophe of victory."

What a phrase! And I find it appropriate in looking at this present undertaking by Congress to correct the national economic crisis. Whatever bill they pass, it won't work, or not for long, and we'll be back again at the well soon enough but perhaps in even a worse predicament.

We have, as the sad Julius observed, a long wearisome struggle ahead of us.

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