The Sleepwalkers

I read Christopher Clark’s 2012 book, The Sleepwalkers, in the Spring earlier this year (here’s a link to Thomas Laqueur’s review in the LRB) and the centenary of the British declaration of war–which is where the book ends its narrative–seems a good day on which to recycle a couple of remarks and post them here.

I thought it was an excellent book, though I was a bit surprised by the title as I made my way through it. The imagery of sleep-walking led me to expect Clark to be arguing that the powers of Europe somehow drifted into a major conflict, without ever quite intending to. But what I was repeatedly struck by were the sheer number of quite extraordinarily belligerent actors that I encountered along the way, and I ended up a bit surprised that continental war didn’t break out much earlier than 1914. My favourite of these was Conrad von Hötzendorf, chief of the Austrian general staff, who in 1913 recommended war against Serbia to his superiors on no fewer than twenty-five occasions.

For general magnificence, though, it is French diplomat Paul Cambon takes the prize:

Underpinning Cambon’s exalted sense of self was the belief–shared by many of the senior ambassadors–that one did not merely represent France, one personified it. Though he was ambassador in London from 1898 until 1920, Cambon spoke not a word of English. During his meetings with [Foreign Secretary] Edward Grey (who spoke no French), he insisted every utterance be translated into French, including easily recognized words such as ‘yes’. He firmly believed–like many members of the French elite–that French was the only language capable of articulating rational thought and he objected to the foundation of French schools in Britain on the eccentric grounds that French people raised in Britain tended to end up mentally retarded.

Clark has now ended up as the new Regius Professor at Cambridge–well done him–which means that whereas a few years ago both the Oxbridge Regius chairs in History were held by people called R. Evans, now they are both held by Australians, with three out of these four straightforward Germanists, and the fourth a scholar of the history of Habsburg Europe.

Ferenc Puskas, RIP

Long before he published his fine book about football in Eastern Europe, Behind the Curtain, Jonathan Wilson was writing for The Voice of the Turtle (currently in hibernation). Here’s his review of Puskas on Puskas: The Life and Times of a Footballing Legend, from 1999.

UPDATE [2.30pm]: I see that Jonathan also supplied something of an obit for tehgraun.

Remember, Remember the Ninth of November

Norm reminds us that yesterday was the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Someone pointed out to me the other day just how many key dates in twentieth century German history fell on November 9 (or, as we might say, the European 9/11). Stupidly, I hadn’t noticed this pattern before:

1918: The abdication of the Kaiser and the proclamation of the Republic.

1923: The failure of the Beer Hall Putsch.

1938: Kristallnacht.

1989: The fall of the Berlin Wall.

It’s a remarkable sequence.

His Foreign Jail Hell

Here’s Denis MacShane, writing in this week’s New Statesman about his brush with the Polish authorities:

“It happened in 1982 when I was picked up by the Polish police after smuggling $10,000 of European trade union funds to the underground Solidarity union. I vaguely remember tearing up and swallowing the address of the contact in Warsaw to whom I had given the cash, but my main memory is of being taken from a prison cell after a few days to meet the diplomat from the British embassy paying me a consular visit. He assured me my case was being reported on the BBC, that a good lawyer had been hired, and that if I looked polite and sorrowful, the court would not impose a jail sentence. To cheer me up he gave me the standard Foreign Office survival kit for politically incorrect Brits banged up in communist prisons. It was a small Harrods carrier bag containing three apples, a tiny jar of Marmite, a packet of Ryvita and two copies of Country Life.

I wonder what you get these days.

The breaking news that matters

From the BBC:

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has won a court case against a news agency which reported allegations that his dark hair is dyed. A court in Hamburg upheld an injunction taken out by Mr Schroeder to prevent the DDP agency repeating the allegations, originally made by an image consultant.

DDP appealed against the injunction, saying it had serious implications for all journalists, who cannot always get their information from first-hand sources.

The news agency says it intends to appeal again against Friday’s ruling.

Serious implications indeed.

High Windows

My interest in people falling out of windows goes back a few years. Here’s a bit I inserted into the 1998 edition of the Let’s Go Eastern Europe guidebook, which I had the pleasure of helping to put together over seven weeks in the Summer of 1997:

High Windows

At decisive moments in European history, unlucky men fall from Prague’s window ledges. The Hussite wars began after Catholic councillors were thrown to the mob from the New Town Hall on Karlovo n�m., July 30, 1419. The Thirty Years’ War devastated Europe, starting when Habsburg officials were tossed from the windows of Prague Castle’s Bohemian Chancellery into a heap of steaming manure, May 23, 1618. These first and second defenestrations echo down the ages, but two more falls this century continue this somewhat macabre tradition. Fifty years ago, March 10, 1948, liberal foreign minister Jan Masaryk fell to his death from the top floor of his ministry just two weeks after the Communist takeover, and murder was always suspected but never proved. And then on February 3, 1997, Bohumil Hrabal, popular author of I Served the King of England and Closely-Observed Trains, fell from the fifth floor of his hospital window and died in his pajamas aged 82. Nothing unusual here – except that two of his books describe people choosing to fall – out of fifth-floor windows.

(Seeing the word “pajamas” in its American spelling irresistibly calls to mind Groucho Marx’s remark from Animal Crackers: “Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas and how he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.)