On the eve of the German Invasion of Poland, a play was running on its 5th month at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London’s West End. It was called The Dancing Years, the work of the composer Ivor Novello. A musical/operetta in two parts, the first set in Vienna 1914, hearkening back to the Austro-Hungarian cultural life and Hapsburg splendors that had been consumed by the fires of the war just beginning in the musical. The second act shifted to 1938, a Wien where culture reflected a new, but dangerous, idealism which was familiar to the audience from the news from across the channel. Indeed, while a romantic comedy with lavish set pieces and elaborate staging, there was an undeniable whiff of a wistfulness and a dark cloud hanging over the whimsy of the protagonist’s misadventures.
I often think of the Dancing Years when I consider the frail moments of the peace between the catastrophe of the two World Wars. I recall the gilded excellence and the soft tones of the Hapsburg palaces and the beauties of the Arts Nouveau in Vienna and Prague, the sort of elegance that Wes Anderson has deftly reminded us of, yet undermined, in The Grand Budapest Hotel. The broad brush of the past being an elegant country where smartly-dressed people had nice things, before it all got stomped on by mad fools like Hitler. It is often hard to forget the veteran Austrian Corporal, a struggling artist, was too a part of that world. He dwelt in it, with all of its tender imaginings of cultured inhabitants, as did the men who perpetrated the horrors of the next decades and are part and parcel to it just as much as Novello or Fitzgerald. In each generation lies the seeds of its flowering and its undoing. Peace is such a trite thing to acclaim to any era, much as it might be idealized in ballgowns and big-budgets for Downton. Indeed, many then sensed that this time of ‘international’ peace held a fundamental element of discord. Ravel’s slowly unraveling, drunken sounding 1919 work La Valse expressed as much for the Viennese waltzes of Strauss; the ordered world of Europe was coming apart on some level, sometimes as indecipherable as a measure a beat out of time, but slowly growing more audible.
And that was just it.The inter-war years weren’t very peaceful. Germany, Poland, India, Russia, the Baltic, Turkey, Spain, Iraq, Afghanistan, China, Bolivia, Ireland, and the United States all saw organized violence on varying scales. Internal conflicts, civil wars, revolutions, race riots, insurgencies, and violent domestic disturbances hit around the globe. The breakdown and shakeup of the old monarchies and colonial administrations left visible fault lines that the Second World War busted apart, and are the source of divisions that are still bleeding throughout the world.
In Vienna the Schonbrunn Palace is a remnant of an monarchy with antecedents reaching back into the days before the printing press, yet the Austrian inheritance of Galicia, and the identification this western portion of Ukraine with a fundamentally anti-Communist Ukrainian nationalism, still divides today. The far right of Ukraine show the insignia of the Galician Nationalists who fought the newly-established Poles and the Bolsheviks in twenties, and some sport the insignia of the Ukrainian SS Units who fought the Soviets, and were responsible for many mass executions of Poles, Jews, and Russians throughout the bitter Ostkrieg. When the Russian Separatists in Eastern Ukraine cry for Russian protection and anti-Semitic fliers appear, their fears have recognition in events that happened long before most of the men on the barricades were born. This diminishes none of its personal value to people who grew up with Soviet education and the stories of their elders about the horrendous violence of the middle century.
I recently toured the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum, a collection of World War II Polish memorabilia in Knightsbridge. My tour guide was a 91 year old Pole, a lady who was deported to the Russian Steppes in her youth when the Russians seized eastern Poland as the Dancing Years were still in Drury Lane. The impressive lady, a woman of great vigor and unforgettable energy, told stories of horrendous ethnic violence, political marginalization, and the betrayal she felt at the west, from Napoleon’s Vistula Legions to Churchill refusing the Poles a victory parade in 1945. Her nationalism, born of the Polish defeat of the Bolsheviks at the Vistula three years before she was born, was unquenchable, and to her patriotism outranked all other virtues for the youth of Poland, indeed of any nation.
Despite my admiration at this woman and her incredible personal story of survival, moral courage, and her comic abuse of her English son-in-law, I sensed the forces of history that could compel people to bitterly fight and view their world as one of ethnic survival against perpetual threats of extinction. Poland’s misfortune was to be surrounded, the devout 91 year old Catholic told me, by insidious Russians (“they always lie”), alien Turks and Tartars, bloodthirsty Germans, bitter Ukrainians, religion-mad Swedes, and ungrateful Lithuanians, who changed her Polish-named birthplace Vilna to Lithuanian Vilnius and said almost nothing of the famed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in their textbooks. I saw in her the bitter memories that threaten to rekindle Russian-Western rivalries and threaten the stability of global commerce over mostly uninhabited Pacific rocks.
And what of my own Dancing Years? Do you remember the nineties? I thought I did. For me the nineties were about Kriss Kross, Nirvana, Beanie Babies, something about Monica Lewinsky (my parents said they’d tell me later, and I’m still waiting), Princess Di, and that weird thing where we all wore open flannel shirts and wallet chains. Then al Qaeda screwed it all up in 2001 (though honestly I think we were mostly tired of Limp Bizkit by then anyway) and began a decade of Bush-league foreign policy and the slide into financial gotterdamerung. Only recently have I discovered the full extent to which my understanding of ‘peace’ was woefully misplaced. The Rodney King Riots and Newt Gingrich made my school textbooks, but Rwanda and Bosnia did not get more then a few mentions. Most of my textbooks, even through High School, stopped shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union and the victory of Desert Storm. It was profoundly new and seemingly complete. I guess perhaps it was the perceptions of a child, rather rose-tinted by definition, but also an American born in the year 1990.
The peace of post-Soviet world politics, the ‘right side of history’, was in some ways a world much like the 1920’s. On the third and fourth news pages there were wars in obscure places for seemingly obscure reasons involving supposedly irrational hatreds. And our Hitler-boogeyman, Osama, was a very busy boy in the 1990’s after coming out of his own personal World War, the struggle with the Soviets in Afghanistan. What he drew from the carnage on the Basra Road, and the tolerance of the Saudis for the presence of a host of crusading foreigners transformed his world view, just as Adolf saw Germany embroiled in a bitter civil war between communists and reactionary paramilitaries, while resurgent nationalists in Poland and Central Europe embraced institutions of Slavic culture over those of their former ‘German’ Prussian and Austrian rulers. They sought then to impose a vision into this perceived yawning chaos of intellectual and moral decline, and they fell back on ideals and prejudices that had roots in history before the year 1000 AD.
In Hitler’s case, he drew a strain of moral absolutism in ethnic identities of Teutons and Slavs as mutually-antagonistic forces that drove his ideas of national destiny in a Drang nach Osten, and ultimately Panzers into Russia in 1941. Bin Laden sought the establishment of the unity of Islam in the model of the Salafis (the ancestors) and the companions of the Prophet (Peace be Upon Him), established through the imperative of jihad.
It all came back to recent, and not so recent, history and ideals founded well over a generation previous (van Treitschke and Ibn Tammiyah). The currency of these ideas, which seemingly were extinguished when repudiated by the march of progress and democracy in the eyes of the western public, then took on new life in response to profound institutional crisis. Changes in currencies, threats to businesses and local authorities, differences in the way children would be taught to read and write, a very noticeable change in the color of flags and the key of national anthems. These things matter profoundly in times of perceived change, and the ability to limit the impact in our increasingly interconnected world of ‘the wars of others’ no longer bears the delays of the twenties. The West’s years of relative peace and demilitarization in the nineties mirrors in some ways the British in 1918, especially in the far-flung wars of empire’s peripheries in the twenties and thirties; that we long for periods of perceived peace and splendor is evident in our love for VH1 documentaries and costume dramas.
The peace of my youth, replete with the collapse of institutions and the shaky state of global finances that triggered the bitter wars from Sarajevo to Kigali, that leveled Grozny and fractured Afghanistan, is an empire of memory alone. The good fights of Kuwait and Kosovo now seem incomplete or telling of future missteps that would lead to reliance on an ill-understood utility of force. Perhaps everything seems obvious in retrospect, but the lesson I take from this as Syria continues to burn and Ukraine stands poised for a leap into a unknown future, is that perceptions of an age, whether it be as respectable as a portrait of Franz Josef or as shell-pocked as the buildings of Mogadishu, are important, but often deceiving.
While I have argued here that The Dancing Years framed the idea of an age of lost peacetime splendor (both in the play and its performances on the eve of the Second World War), they also seemed to reflect the idea of a peace which was not really there. Even as the elegance abounded and it seemed that notions of authoritarianism were repudiated, the moving currents of weakening institutions were busy creating new chimeras, and the Hydra growing its latent heads. While wars are always bound to be happening somewhere, it does well to bear in mind that the centenary of the First World War should be treated with some caution. If global power competition is bound to recreate July 1914 on a global scale with Sarajevo in Slovyansk or Sarajevo on the Senkaku, then it does to remember that the popular ideas that powered the wars of the twentieth century do have currency, history, and legitimacy.
I am not an advocate of alarmism or historical determinism, nor do I believe we are obligated to carry on the wars of our fathers, but I do recognize that the ebb and flow of generations and priorities have instructive and relevant historical parallels. I thought of a world profoundly at peace at the end of the Cold War, but the world was virulently at war, and these ‘small wars’ across the globe have already had an enormous impact on conventional military rivalries between ‘great powers’, just as they did in 1914 or 1939.
(I am aware that I have fully broken Godwin’s Law, but I feel it is justified in historical context).