Friday, August 19, 2016

Reading on WWI

I'm still working (back) through "The War that Ended Peace" (Margaret MacMillan). I didn't quite finish it the first time I read it a couple years ago so I decided to re-read and finish it this time.

One thing that strikes me on this reading is the whole issue of the personalities of the world leaders involved. As many issues as we sometimes have with representative government there are more with hereditary leaders (and I would note that we get what we vote for, but also, we can only vote for those who run, and in some cases recently it's been a case of either "hold my nose and vote" or, in some cases, literally leave that ballot line blank because there's neither one I want. I have a friend who talks about her family having to choose between a white-supremacist and a guy under indictment for embezzlement in one district (they voted for the embezzler....)).

Anyway. As of the 2 decades before WWI, France and Britain had more-or-less representative governments, but Germany (which formed as a modern state about 1870), Austria-Hungary, and especially Russia were still strongly monarchic. (Germany had some representatives, but it seems Wilhelm wasn't too interested in listening to them, and Austria-Hungary had its "Compromise," but it was drowning in red tape - or rather, in the multicolored cords used to tie up files for the different committees/subgroups).

One of the big issues with Austria-Hungary was that it was an empire that probably shouldn't have been; it was composed of too many different populations (Kind of like the old Soviet Union, in a way). Austrians, of course, and also Hungarians, but in addition several other places that are now countries in their own right (the Czech Republic, Slovakia....) and a few ethnic groups that I guess have been subsumed into existing countries now (Ruthenians?)

And this tottering, crumbling empire was ruled over (at least nominally) by an aging Emperor/King (he was called different things in the Austria part and in the Hungary part): Franz Joseph. And Franz Joseph had a number of tragedies in his life: his son and heir killed himself; his brother, who could have been next in line, was killed in Mexico (the ill-fated Maximilian). His wife disliked court protocol and was apparently somewhat vain, and she was assassinated shortly before Franz Joseph's death. And the remaining heir, Franz Ferdinand, was impulsive and had some strong prejudices against some of the ethnic groups that made up the Empire. (And of course, Franz Ferdinand himself was assassinated).

In some things I've read, Franz Ferdinand was presented as "It was unfortunate he was killed as he might have been someone who could have helped prevent war" but I don't know: he seems, from MacMillan's description, to be hot-headed, impulsive, not prone to listen to advisors (If I remember rightly, he's the one who had the "morganatic" marriage: he married "below" himself sufficiently far that his family refused to let her children inherit or have the throne.)

(I admit, one of the things I feel while reading this book is a slight frisson that history is getting ready to drop a big rhyme on us)

I confess based on the account in the book, I feel a bit sorry for the old Emperor. He lost several family members, he seems to have been a quiet person who maybe was a little ill-suited for trying to deal with everything at court and also all the competing interests of such a huge territory. He married, but his wife (who was about 10 years younger than he was) disliked court life. He did have a "relationship" (I'm not sure how far it went but I am assuming) with an actress who actually was more of a confidant than his wife...Elisabeth seems to have tolerated that.

Elisabeth interests me. She apparently grew up "freer" than many aristocratic women, and that's perhaps why she hated the strictures of the court. She's described as "shy," but she was also fairly vain - she dieted obsessively, wore EXTREMELY tight corsets (her death, by stabbing, was slowed, because the tightness of her underpinnings slowed the rate of bleeding. And now I wonder, if they had had modern emergency medicine back then, maybe they would have saved her life....). She was apparently very worried about her appearance and concerned about her looks. (Maybe if ol' Franz Joseph didn't have that actress friend, Elisabeth would have been less worried? I don't know)

This struck me. She was a very attractive woman (and was, in fact, seen as a great beauty at the time). There's a picture of her in the book and I've looked up more online, and yes, by the standards of the day, I see it: today she'd probably be pressured to pluck her eyebrows and people would probably say her face was too round, but yes, I do think she was a beautiful woman.

And it's an amazing thing....she was insecure about her looks. I guess most women, or at least most Western women (where in traditional Western European culture - and US culture is an outgrowth of that) do, because for so very long, that was our main "tool" for getting what we wanted. Certainly among the aristocracy, coming from the "right" family or having a large fortune would enhance your attractiveness, but for many women, the security of a marriage was the best security they could hope for (so they had a roof over their heads and food....)

And that's come down to us in modern times. Even I, as a woman who earns her own bread and who (it could be argued) should not worry about such things - well, I can point out to you exactly how I think my mouth is a little too small and my nose is a little too long, and how I have a "fivehead" instead of a forehead (which is why I still wear bangs in my late 40s), and how my jaw is too heavy....

(And yet, at the same time, I feel secret glee in looking at Elisabeth and going, "I have eyebrows kind of like that....and my face is a similar shape". Women are kind of stupid sometimes, and I say that as a woman.)

But it does seem, with the old monarchical style of government, you get a bad or shallow or immature leader, and you're going to have a bad time, because you can't vote him or her out - probably all the assassinations in the past were the fact that that was the only way that a leader could be "voted out." As troubled as our system is, I think I like it better....

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