“Shall I weep if a Poland fall? Shall I shriek if a Hungary fail?” -Tennyson
Robert Kee: 1939: In the Shadow of War; Little, Brown; Boston.
Gordon Brook-Shepherd: Archduke of Sarajevo; Little, Brown; Boston.
Neither Robert Kee nor Gordon Brook-Shepherd has written a masterpiece. Both men cover well trodden fields of research: one, the events of l939 that Winston Churchill aptly called “the Second Thirty-Years War”; and the other the life and poli tics of Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian archduke whose murder at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, helped trigger the First World War. Both authors are English journalists who are trying to reach an educated but largely nonacademic public. While Kee’s prose is lean and straightforward, Brook-Shepherd’s is intended for those who enjoy Victorian novels.
There is, however, a real difference between the two authors. While Kee holds persistently to received liberal assumptions, Brook-Shepherd has a more independent mind. Kee believes there was nothing unexpected about the outbreak of the Second World War; thus his stated interest in showing how the average Englishman or Frenchman was overwhelmed by events in 1939 is never more than a put-on. Kee depicts Europe, and even Asia, as encircled by a growing fascist menace. The fall of Madrid to General Franco in March 1939 is treated as a victory for Hitler’s Spanish henchmen, as a sign-one which the democracies chose to ignore—of fascism’s continuing growth. For the intellectual left the anticommunist right is always monolithic, while the communist bloc never is. Besides, Franco was not a Spanish Hitler, or even another Mussolini, but a traditionalist military leader who derailed the Spanish Falange and jailed its leaders. He repaid Nazi Germany for its military support by sending fascist toughs to die for Hitler on the Eastern front. During the Second World War Franco refused to allow the Germans the use of Spanish bases and was far more restrained about trade with the Axis than socialist Sweden, one of Hitler’s major suppliers of iron.
Kee also exaggerates the solidarity of the Axis power in 1939. Except for an appetite for land on the cheap, it is hard to see what ties bound anti European Japan to Hitler’s greater Aryan empire. Fighting against Hitler in 1939 would not have entailed a corresponding war against the Japanese occupiers of Manchuria. The Western powers could (and should) have dealt with Nazi Germany decisively, before their vulnerability led the Japanese to seize decaying Europe an empires in Asia. Even later, greater American flexibility in negotiating with the Japanese might have spared us a war on two fronts that began for us in 1941 with a postponable conflict against a marginal Asian enemy.
Brook-Shepherd provides a sadder, less cut-and-dried picture of the past. He writes sympathetically of the Hapsburg family (having numbered several of its members as personal friends), but makes no attempt to hide the structural defects of their multinational state. His subject, Franz Ferdinand, upon becoming heir apparent to the throne of his uncle Franz Josef, began to plan a reconstruction of the entire Austro -Hungarian Empire. Franz Ferdinand believed that the distribution of political power between Austro-Germans and Hungarians that had taken place (under a joint crown) in 1867 should be changed to accommodate his future Slavic subjects. He advocated more political autonomy for the Czechs, Serbs, Croats, Poles, and other Slavs living in the Empire. The Hungarian gentry and middle class, together with German nationalists in Austria, opposed his plans. Whatever the political and other obstacles to his projected tripartite empire may have been, Franz Ferdinand was farsighted in proposing it. Even if the plan had been only gradually implemented, perhaps start ing first with the Czechs, politically the best organized and most educated Slavic minority, the effect would have been to dissipate Slavic opposition to Hapsburg rule. In retrospect, it may also be apparent that the Hungarians, who refused to share with other nationalities what they themselves had won, were inexcusably small-minded. Yet, in dealing with the Hungarians and their Anglophile, largely Protes tant leaders, Franz Ferdinand resembled the Radical Republicans after the Civil War, who mixed sympathy for Negro freedmen with a violent hatred for Southern whites. The archduke liked Slavs and hated Hungarians: in his case the first sentiment may have resulted from the second. The Hungarian Diet had objected to his morganatic marriage to his commoner wife Sophie. The Hungarians tried to use the awkward marriage to weaken further royal control over them, and pro tested the morganatic union even retroactively. They raised doubts whether someone whose children would not be eligible to succeed him would be a fitting Hungarian king. The Hungarians’ abrasiveness contributed to the dislike that Franz Ferdinand came to feel for them. The Hungarians who sensed this antipathy grew even more estranged from the archduke and his family. When the assassination occurred at Sarajevo, few, if any, Hungarians mourned. When the Austrian government dis cussed plans for taking action againstSerbia, which had aided the terrorist responsible for the murder, the Protestant Prime Minister of Hungary, Count Tisza, resisted. Tisza wished to keep his countrymen out of a war that would be fought on behalf of a German Catholic dynasty, and in revenge for the slaying of Hungary’s avowed enemy. Hungarians were heard to complain that winning a war against Serbia would be for them even worse than losing one. A victorious, Austro-Hungarian Empire would annex more Serbs, and thus there would be increased pressure to give the Slavs in the Empire political equality with the Hungarians and Austro Germans. Brook-Shepherd is fully aware of the complexity of historical causation and avoids the stereotyping characteristic of more conventional studies of the period. He challenges the view of the Hungarians as a purely reactionary obstacle to a political reform of the Empire. The Hungarians opposed the Slavs and even the Hapsburgs in the name of what the late 19th century considered progressive forces. They were liberal nationalists who admired the English Parliament and were humane in their treatment of religious minorities. Like their national hero, Kossuth, the Hungarians considered the Slavs to be culturally backward and under the control of superstitious, sometimes pro-Hapsburg priests. Un fortunately, the Hungarians helped undermine the only political structure which brought decent government to Central Europe—and which allowed them as a nation of about 12 million to function as a great power.
Brook-Shepherd senses other iro nies, too. The Austro-Hungarian government, which sought protection against Russian expansion into the Balkans, turned for support to Imperial Germany. The English government of Lord Grey, in reacting to the increased military power of Germany, turned to France for help and to France’s ally since 1894, Tsarist Russia. Though Austria-Hungary and England were both taking defensive stances and had once been staunch allies, the two countries were on opposite sides in 19l4, as the result of their attempts to protect themselves against what each one perceived to be the major threat to European stability: Russia, in the case of Austria, and Germany, in the case of England. Brook-Shepherd shows how the desire for peace, or protection from a foreign adversary, pushed the two sides toward war. A final irony is that the leader who might have done most to avoid the crisis of 1914 was the one whose death set off the war. By reestablishing the English Hapsburg special relationship of earlier times, Franz Ferdinand attempted to undo the rigid alliances into which the great powers had backed themselves. To ward this end he used his personal friendship with King George V, while trying to mediate Anglo-German differences. He planned to reform his own empire so that discontented nationalities would not contribute to either internal discord or international tensions. His fateful journey through the streets of Sarajevo, that took place despite ominous warnings, resulted in destruction to himself and his work. cc
Image Credit: Rumors of War