Last Sunday’s Armistice Day marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, which led to the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian empire of which my grandfather Max was a citizen before he emigrated to the United States in 1914. He left his home in Berezhany, Ternopil, in what is now Ukraine, as a result of the typical Hunka family desire to avoid conflict (as I like to think of it; that sounds better than fleeing military service); with typical Hunka family luck, however, the United States entered the war in 1917, three years after he arrived in New York. I mention this only to suggest that my long-time interest in Central and Eastern Europe has a somewhat personal origin, and though I’ve never been to Ukraine myself, about twenty years ago I spent a year in the region, so I’m always drawn to headlines and literature about these borderlands between Europe and Asia.
It’s also worth noting that as a young, unskilled, and uneducated laborer fleeing the violence in his country, he wouldn’t have been allowed into the United States had Donald Trump anything to say about it.
Karl Kraus, the great Viennese satirist, called the Habsburg Empire of the era an “an experimental station in the destruction of the world,” and the years following his death in 1936 continued to bear him out. It was only following the cessation of hostilities in 1945 that, cognizant of the harrowingly destructive wars they’d suffered over the previous 31 years, Europeans theorized that closer economic and cultural ties like those promised by a European Community may prevent further conflict. Until now, they’ve been right; there have been no European land wars in more than 80 years. At solemn Paris ceremonies marking Armistice Day last Sunday, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel appeared to appreciate that; obviously, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, both of whom managed to show up late, did not.
The nationalistic tendencies among Europe’s nations, and especially within the various communities of the Habsburg Empire, were one of the most important ingredients in the impetus towards the violence of 1914 and the despair that came after. Alas, these tendencies seem to be once again leading to greater conflict, as Anne Applebaum recently reported in this important essay for last month’s Atlantic magazine. Applebaum traces both the personal and the historical implications of this polarizing nationalist tendency, common enough here in the United States as it is in her adopted country of Poland. It is a sobering read in the wake of last week’s Armistice Day festivities; you can find it here. And me? I suppose I’ll be lifting a glass to the memory of the Habsburgs — as ambivalent as their downfall was — at Cafe Katja this afternoon.