Men with funny moustaches

It may not have passed you by, but exactly a hundred years ago the nations of Europe were moving swiftly towards war. Here in the United Kingdom there’s been a great deal in the media about it.

Three things have struck me about this centenary; I’m going to deal with the first today.

On the face of it, the first observation is somewhat trivial – but I think it has important implications. It is this: photos of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination began the slide to war, show him dolled up in funny military uniforms and wearing extravagant facial hair – how can we take such a man seriously?

The same is true for the Austro-Hungarian emperor, Franz Joseph; for the Kaiser and all his generals; for the Tzar, and so on. The British and French seem reasonably sane, until they too dress up in their uniforms. Lord Kitchener, whose face stares out of the “Your Country Needs You!” posters, is a case in point.

It all seems part of the jingoistic madness which led to war. I think we should be careful, however.

Take Franz Ferdinand. He is someone I knew very little about until recently – his appearance in history was simply an “event” to me, devoid of much human dimension. If I ever thought of him as a person, I thought of a blinkered buffoon typical of the times.

In fact, he was no buffoon. By all accounts he was an intelligent man who thought about the issues of the day in a remarkably independent way. In many respects was quite liberal in his sentiments. Ironically, had he lived he may well have exerted his considerable influence (which would have been all the greater after he had become Austro-Hungarian emperor in 1916) to move the nations away from the confrontational mode into which they had fallen. He was (according to the reading I’ve been doing) in favour of giving the smaller nations of the empire (Serbs, Croats, Czechs, Slovenes and so on) self rule, and turning the empire into something like a confederation of equal nations, rather than one dominated by the Austrians and Hungarians.

This brought him into sharp conflict with the Hungarian nobles in particular, whom he loathed for their intolerance and inflexibility. Indeed, his policies (which we know he had every intention of enacting once he became emperor) may well have caused ructions within the empire. But since it was this issue above all else which led to the outbreak of World War I, it seems likely that, as emperor, he could have drawn the sting out of much of the poison infecting Europe at that time.

The amusement we get at seeing these men posing like peacocks in their feathered helmets and gorgeous cavalry coats is perhaps a symptom of a peculiarly modern arrogance. I have often been struck by the sense of superiority which some modern historian display when discussing historical figures. In some ways, our generation is less equipped to study the past than any previous one, because our thinking and values have been shaped by influences which other generations did not experience.

We are far less militaristic, less religiously inclined, less male orientated and less tradition minded than any previous generation. That can tend to make us less sympathetic to peoples of the past, the environments which they inhabited and the choices they made. It is something, as historians – and perhaps as human beings too – we should guard against.


Peter Britton