Winter on Fire

In doing a little background viewing as I read The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution, Marci Shore’s 2017 history of Ukraine’s Maidan protests and their aftermath, I came across the Netflix documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, released in 2015 and directed by Evgeny Afineevsky. Unlike Shore’s book, Afineevsky’s film covers only the events of the 2013/2014 winter in Kyiv during the Maidan, but it is nonetheless illuminating. Citizens in Western Ukraine were fighting at first for their right to join the European Union — but later, to align themselves with the human rights and democratic traditions of the West — in the face of Russian-led efforts to keep Ukraine within the Russian sphere of influence. The film, developed from the viewpoint of the protestors, may prove an inspiring example to those who have become cynical about the efficacy of protest against a totalitarian, corrupt government. (That’s already the case in Venezuela.) But in Ukraine, this protest had a high human cost, as the documentary reveals, and even today, four years later, the future of Ukraine, still engaged in a war with Russia in its eastern regions, is far from certain. (And what impressed me was the extent to which Kyiv resembled the great cities of the former Habsburg empire such as Vienna, Budapest, and Prague, rather than Moscow or even Belgrade.) Of just as immediate relevance is the fact that, as Timothy Snyder pointed out in The Road to Unfreedom, Ukraine served as a laboratory for Russia’s disinformation campaign strategies, which they then rolled out for the U.S. election of 2016 — not to mention Paul Manafort’s suspicious ties to the region.

As Shore mentions in the preface to her book, “I hope that the chapters of this book about the war in the Donbas can play some small role in providing a human face to yet another tragedy of the kind Neville Chamberlain described as a ‘quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.'” Winter on Fire certainly does so; it lacks detachment, but not passion; those seeking a more objective view of these events will have to look elsewhere. The film was a 2016 nominee for the Best Documentary Oscar, as well as a nominee for the “Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking” Emmy. You can watch the documentary on Netflix; the trailer is below.

Habsburg, baby, Habsburg

Franz Joseph II.

Readers of this blog know that I’ve never denied my fascination with the Habsburg Empire and especially Vienna. Yesterday a friend of mine sent along a few links that feed this fascination, which is a combination of false nostalgia (the Vienna in which I feel most at home is the pre-WWI Vienna, somewhat before my time) and uneasy admiration (especially since I know how it ended). In the June 21, 2018, issue of the Economist, an essay noted that I’m not the only one fascinated with the era:

The reasons for this burst of enthusiasm are nuanced, even contradictory. This year’s centennial of the end of the first world war, and of the empire’s collapse, is part of the explanation. So is a sense that the anxieties of the late imperial period, years of disorienting change in politics and society, overlap with today’s. “It’s a dangerous time and we need to look very closely at signs from the past,” says Mr Simons. “We do live in worrying times,” agrees Mr Habsburg; “everything is shifting, you have a feeling you are walking in a fog.”

The centenary of the beginning of WWI four years ago led to a variety of reconsiderations of the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the Habsburgs, especially under Emperor Franz Joseph II, the most significant of which was Pieter Judson’s The Habsburg Empire; this revisionist history examined not the reasons for the empire’s collapse but for its surprising successes. A staggeringly polyglot culture (over 15 languages could be heard in its Parliament), the Empire was composed of a dozen or more ethnic groups, from Italians to Ukrainians and Bosnians; a cumbersome bureaucracy under the direction of the aging and increasingly out-of-touch emperor oversaw it all. But until 1914, it was a relatively peaceful empire, and it was only the emerging nationalisms not only of Hungary but also of Serbia and other groups that led to the fatal assassination of Franz Ferdinand (himself a pacifist who believed war would be the end of the empire) in 1914. A sense of dread permeated Vienna and other imperial cities, but this dread led to a flowering of art, philosophy, music and literature defined modernity and our own world.

In 2012, British diplomat Robert Cooper compared the European Union with the Habsburg Empire in this essay for Eurozine, noting:

The Habsburg Monarchy was threatened first by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which brought it physically too close to Russia and in consequence also became politically too dependent on Germany. Long before the Great War it had begun to lose its multi-national character (visible in the use of German as the official language of the Empire). And then it was destroyed by the War itself and by its manifest inability to provide physical protection for its people and political protection for its nations.

These were then awarded self-determination by the victorious nation states. This turned out to be a poisoned gift, since they were left naked in the face of powerful neighbours and their own weak political culture. That they have regained their freedom and re-established democracy within the European Union is their credit, and also that of the EU and of NATO.

And finally, in 2016, Caroline de Gruyter said in this essay for Carnegie Europe, “Most Habsburg emperors loathed warfare, just like the Europeans who, traumatized by two world wars, set up the European Economic Community in the 1950s. The emperors preferred to acquire territories peacefully by marrying off family members all over Europe. And like in the EU, small nations felt relatively safe and protected in the empire: being part of it meant being protected from invasion by bigger neighbors. All nations were granted equal rights under the Crown.”

Of the making of books about the Habsburgs there is no end. Among the most entertaining and lively of the recent crop is the somewhat pre-revisionist Danubia by Simon Winder. The best recent documentary about Vienna itself remains Joseph Leo Koerner’s Vienna: City of Dreams, which first aired on the BBC in 2017. You can watch that below.

Europe and the myth of the nation-state

The crisis of Brexit and the European Union has reached a breaking point in the past few days, even as I was recovering from my recent stay in Paris. For that reason, I offer below the latest episode of Timothy Snyder Speaks, “The European Union,” published a few days ago. In this episode, the historian examines the differences between self-serving myth and clear-eyed history, the collapse of the great European imperial powers in the early twentieth century, and what this means for Europe (and, by extension, Russia and the United States) today. Snyder is a great hand-talker, but he’s a great, informed talker generally, even as he offers sometimes surprising and controversial observations.

You can find the rest of Timothy Snyder Speaks here. And for more on the current crisis in the EU, read Timothy Garton Ash‘s essay for the Guardian, published yesterday, and yesterday’s editorial in the New York Times.

Dispatch from Paris

Only a few days ago I was sitting, drinking a few beers, at the Cafe de l’Avenue at 190 Boulevard Haussmann in Paris. A few doors away, at 102 Boulevard Haussmann, Proust wrote Remembrance of Things Past in a cork-lined apartment, and at his death in 1922 the Boulevard itself had just been completed, construction on the street having been begun 65 years earlier. Just around the corner, in the Parc Monceau, Proust had played with his friends as a schoolboy, as my daughters played there earlier that 2018 morning.

Street life is different from city to city, even when it comes to sound; the cobblestone street of the Boulevard produced a damper timbre than the sharp, dry hiss of rubber tire on asphalt. Similarly, at the cafe, most of the seats were turned outward, towards the street and passers-by. In New York, most sidewalk cafes align their tables so that diners face each other, not the street. But for the advances in automobile design, it was much the same street that Proust would have seen in his last days, on his rare sojourns from his apartment. It was modernity, Paris-style. As in most European cities, if you really wanted to explore more ancient history, you had to turn deeper and deeper into the center. Paris began at the Île de la Cité, where the original Notre Dame Cathedral was built in the tenth century; as Vienna begins not at the Ringstrasse, a 19th-century project, but at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the heart of Vienna’s Innere Stadt, the ground for which was broken in 1137. And as in Paris, modernity radiated outward from there.

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. It can’t be far from your mind if you sit in a Parisian or Viennese cafe today. And there are some parallels too striking to be ironic. An international team of rescue divers was just preparing to rescue eleven boys and their coach trapped in a Thai cave in 2018; in 1906, hundreds of miners were trapped in a mine disaster at Courrières. There, too, an international team of rescuers managed to bring thirteen survivors to the surface 20 days after the explosion, an event memorialized in G.W. Pabst’s 1931 film Kameradschaft. In each instance, men and women of various nationalities banded together in an effort to save the lives of people caught in catastrophic difficulty not of their own making. So it was that I lifted a glass of hope to the children in Thailand from the corner of the Boulevard Haussmann and the Rue de Courcelles.

Dates are the bane of every high school student studying history (those who study history at all any more), but they’re important as more than signposts. They’re also the means by which we measure the passing of time and the extent to the world has changed between the two dates. Only 15 years separated the publication of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht and the beginning of World War I; this is a shorter period than that which separates us from the World Trade Center disaster. Such realizations can send us spiralling, in despair, into a dizzying vortex among past and present and future. It is this vortex from which historians like Anne Applebaum, Timothy Garton Ash and Timothy Snyder try to save us, to make sense of our present from the perspective of a past, the better to plan for a future.

History also permits us to see our own situation with new, informed eyes. The more we know about the past, interestingly, the brighter the details about the present, and the less alienated from our surroundings and our history we become. At the moment I’m reading Christopher Clark’s fine The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. And wondering, too, if we may not be sleepwalking ourselves. Though Clark’s sleepwalkers are diplomats, government leaders and politicians, novelist Hermann Broch defined many of the ordinary people of Germany and Austria as sleepwalkers in his own trilogy that covered nearly the same period (1888 through 1918). As Vladimir was to wonder 30 years later in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? … At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.”

History may be the means by which we wake. To shake myself from my slumber, perhaps I needed Paris — or, better, Europe. As each year goes by, I feel less and less an American, especially recently; this is not the country, I worry, that I was born and raised in, not any more. My daughters love Paris, and though my own constitution finds Central Europe more to my taste, we’re already making plans to go back, even as I hope that the United States awakens to its own situation soon.