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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

collapse of empires

I am now literally marooned here in the Bucharest snow – such heavy snowfalls as have blocked the car exit although I have tried to clear the snow each day. As tends to happen in such situations, I have been losing myself in the past – first with Joseph Roth’s classic The Radeztky March written in 1930 and then with Robert Service’s Trotsky; a Life.

Roth’s book is the first of a trilogy and relates the stories of three generations of the Trotta family, professional Austro-Hungarian soldiers and career bureaucrats of Slovenian origin — from imperial zenith to First World War nadir. For saving him in battle, the Emperor awards Lt. Trotta the Order of Maria Theresa and ennobles him. Elevation to the nobility ultimately leads to the Trotta family’s ruination, paralleling the imperial collapse of Austria–Hungary (1867–1918).
Although he does not assume the airs of a social superior, everyone from the new baron’s old life perceives him as a changed person, as a nobleman. The perceptions and expectations of society eventually compel his reluctant integration in the aristocracy, a class with whom he is temperamentally uncomfortable. The disillusioned Baron Trotta opposes his son’s aspirations to a military career, insisting he prepare to become a government official, the second most respected career in the Austrian Empire; by custom, the German son was expected to obey. The son eventually becomes a district administrator in a Moravian town. As a father, the second Baron Trotta (still ignorant of why his war-hero father thwarted his military ambitions) sends his own son to become a cavalry officer; grandfather’s legend determines grandson’s life. The cavalry officer’s career of the third Baron Trotta comprises postings throughout the empire of Austria-Hungary and a dissipated life of wine, women, song, gambling, and dueling, off-duty pursuits characteristic of the military officer class in peace-time. In the progress of his career, Baron Trotta’s infantry unit suppresses a local uprising against the imperial government; awareness of the aftermath of his professional brutality begins his disillusionment with empire. I found this quotation from the last few pages of the book which covers the retreat from the borderland with Russia -
Most of these orders were to do with the evacuation of villages and town and the treatment of pro-Russian Ukrainians, clerics, and spies. Hasty court-martials in villages passed hasty sentences. Secret informers delivered unverifiable reports on peasants, Orthodox priests, teachers, photographers, officials. There was no time. The army had to retreat swiftly but also punish the traitors swiftly. And while ambulances, baggage columns, field artillery, dragoons, riflemen, and footsoldiers formed abrupt and helpless clusters on the sodden roads, while couriers galloped to and fro, while inhabitants of small towns fled westward in endless throngs, surrounded by white terror, laden with red-and-white featherbeds, grey sacks, brown furniture, and blue kerosene lamps, the shots of hasty executioners carrying out hasty sentences rang from the church squares of hamlets and villages, and the sombre rolls of drums accompanied the monotonous decisions of judges, and the wives of victims lay shrieking for mercy before the mud-caked boots of officers, and red and silver flames burst from huts and barns, stables and haystacks. The Austrian army’s war had begun with court-martials. For days on end genuine and supposed traitors hung from the trees on church squares to terrify the living.
Robert Service's Trotsky (2009) deals with the aftermath of the collapse of both the Austro Hungarian and Russian empires. It's a reasonable read - although the flurry of the revolutionary action did leave me a bit bewildered at time and I felt more space was needed (it's almost 600 pages). The picture painted of the man is not an attractive one - arrogance is the main feature stressed. The book has in fact attracted a fair amount of criticism -  both for factual errors and those of bias - on a professional historian site which one might normally expect to be positive; and also by more political critics here and here.

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