Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Density of History

The Armageddon Waltz?
(Image from New York Times)

A few weeks ago, Frederic Morton -- author of Thunder of Twilight: Vienna 1913-1914 -- wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times that somewhat interested me. Titled "The Armageddon Waltz," it took a slice of time from Vienna in 1913, glorious capital of a ramshackle Austro-Hungarian Empire beset with economic problems, troubled from political ideologies, threatened through religious dissonance, wracked by ethnic discord, and headed for Europe's Great War:
"Austria," said Karl Kraus, who was Habsburg Austria's H. L. Mencken, "is the laboratory for the apocalypse." What would he say about America today?
Morton, apparently, sees a parallel. I'm not one to prophesy about the future -- not seriously, anyway -- but the parallel to America seems forced. After all, Vienna only celebrated with a Bankruptcy Ball, whereas America has an actual bankruptcy. No, what intrigued me instead was this paragraph:
Vienna was incubating in its own streets some of the century's prime virtuosos of violence. One of them was active close to the imperial palace, Schloss Schönbrunn, where the emperor had received his heir. An elegant building on Schönbrunner Schlossstrasse housed young Josef Stalin, dispatched by Lenin to explore the empire's explosive nationalities situation. It was during Stalin's weeks in Vienna that he initiated his lethal feud with young Leon Trotsky, who, a few streetcar stops away, was publishing the original Pravda. All this while on the other side of town young Adolf Hitler was seething obscurely, painting postcards for a living. What those three did the day after the Bankruptcy Ball history does not record. We do know that the Austrian Parliament voted against appropriating money for the housing bill. We also know that the emperor turned down the archduke's plea for negotiation rather than confrontation with Serbia. Franz Ferdinand walked out of the palace defeated -- to die 16 months later of a Serb nationalist's bullet, igniting World War I.
Except for the archduke, these men -- Stalin, Trotsky, Hitler, and Gavrilo Princip -- were then but nobodies, yet went on to make history in the way that it is too often made. Our world is thick with such discontented individuals, and we live in this thicket that becomes history.

Look around you. Perhaps a Mohamed Atta seethes obscurely in the next cubicle, intent on crashing the gates of history.

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