The First Hours of the War of 1914

(The following is a chapter from Die Welt von gestern, or The World Of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig. It captures perfectly, even in translation — not mine, except for some minor changes — the feel of that time, that evening, the days ahead. By the end of the chapter you can almost smell the gunpowder being made.)
Hier das Kapitel in Originalsprache via Projekt Gutenberg.

“The summer of 1914 would have been memorable for us even without the doom which it spread over the European earth. I had rarely experienced one more luxuriant, more beautiful and, I am tempted to say, more summery. Throughout the days and nights the heavens were a silky blue, the air soft yet not sultry, the meadows fragrant and warm, the forests dark and profuse in their tender green; even today, when I use the word summer, I think involuntarily of those radiant July days which I spent in Baden bei Wien. In order that I might concentrate on my work I had retired for the month of July to this small romantic town where Beethoven loved to spend his summer holidays, planning to pass the remainder of the season with my honoured friend Verhaeren in his little country house in Belgium. In Baden one does not have to leave town to enjoy the country. The lovely, hilly forest insinuates itself between the low Biedermeier houses which have retained the simplicity and the charm of the Beethoven period. At all the cafés and restaurants one sat in the open, and could mingle at pleasure with the light-hearted visitors who strolled about the Kurpark, or slip into a solitary path.
Already in the evening of that twenty-ninth of June, which Catholic Austria celebrates as the feast day of Ss. Peter and Paul, many guests had arrived from Vienna. In light summer dress, gay and carefree, the crowds moved about to the music in the park. The day was mild; a cloudless sky lay over the broad chestnut trees; it was a day made to be happy. The vacation days would soon set in for families, and on this holiday they anticipated the entire summer, with its fresh air, its lush green, and the forgetting of all daily troubles. I was sitting at some distance from the crowd in the park, reading a book — I still remember that it was Merejkovsky’s Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky — and I read with interest and attention. Nevertheless, I was simultaneously aware of the wind in the trees, the twittering of the birds, and the music which wafted toward me from the park. I heard the melodies distinctly without being disturbed by them, for our ear is so capable of adapting itself that a continuous  din, or the noise of a street, or the rippling of a brook adjusts itself to our consciousness,and it is only an unexpected halt in the rhythm that startles us into listening.

“And so it was that I suddenly stopped reading when the music broke off abruptly. I did not know what piece the band was playing. I noticed only that the music had broken off. Instinctively I looked up from my book. The crowd which had strolled through the trees as a single, light, moving mass, also seemed to have undergone a change; it, too, had suddenly come to a halt. Something must have happened. I got up and saw that the musicians had left their pavilion. This too was strange, for the park concert usually lasted for an hour or more. What could have caused this brusque conclusion? Coming closer I noticed that the people had crowded excitedly around the bandstand because of an announcement which had evidently just been put up. It was, as I soon learned, the text of a telegram announcing that His Imperial Majesty, the successor to the crown, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, who had gone to the maneuvers in Bosnia, had fallen victims of a political assassination there.

“More and more people pressed toward the placard; the unexpected news was passed on from one to the other. But to be honest, there was no particular shock or dismay to be sen on their faces, for the heir-apparent was not at all well-liked. From the very earliest days of my youth I can recall another day when the Crown Prince Rudolf, the Emperor’s only son, had been found shot dead in Mayerling. Then the whole city was in a tumult of despair and excitement, tremendous crowds thronged to witness his lying-in-state, the expression of shock and sympathy for the Emperor was overwhelming, that his only son and heir, who had been looked upon as an unusually progressive and humane Hapsburg of whom much was expected, had passed on in the prime of life. But Franz Ferdinand lacked everything that counts for real popularity in Austria; amiability, personal charm and easygoingness. I had often seen him in the theater. There he sat in his box, broad and mighty, with cold, fixed gaze, never casting a single friendly glance towards the audience or encouraging the actors with hearty applause. He was never seen to smile, and no photographs showed him relaxed. He had no sense for music, and no sense of humor, and his wife was equally unfriendly. They both were surrounded by an icy air; one knew that they had no friends, and also that the old Emperor hated him with all his heart because he did not have sufficient tact to hide his impatience to succeed to the throne. My almost premonition that some misfortune would come from this man with his bulldog neck and his cold, staring eyes, was by no means a personal one but was shared by the entire nation; and so the news of his murder aroused no profound sympathy. Two hours later signs of genuine mourning were no longer to be seen. The throngs laughed and chattered and as the evening advanced music was resumed at public resorts. There were many on that day in Austria who secretly sighed with relief that this heir of the aged Emperor had been removed in favor of the much more beloved younger Archduke Karl.

“Of course the newspapers printed lengthy eulogies on the following day, giving fitting expression to their indignation over the assassination. But there was no indication that the event was to be used politically against Serbia. The immediate concern of the Imperial House was quite another one, namely the solemn obsequies. According to his rank as heir-apparent, and especially since he died in the service of the monarchy, his burial place would obviously have been the Capuchin vault, the historic place of interment of the Habsburgs. But Franz Ferdinand had married a Countess Chotek in the face of a long and bitter struggle on the part of the Imperial family. She was a high aristocrat, but according to the secret, ancient family laws of the Habsburgs, she was not considered of equal birth with her husband, and at all the great official functions the archduchess stubbornly clung to their precedence over the wife of the heir-apparent, whose children were not entitled to the succession. The court pride even followed them in death. What? — a Countess Chotek to be buried in the Imperial vault of the Habsburgs? Perish the thought!  A mighty intrigue set in; the archduchess stormed the old Emperor. Whereas official mourning was expected from the populace, within the palace there was a wild cross-play of bitterness and rancour and, as usual, the dead were in the wrong. The masters of ceremony invented the assertion that it had been the express desire of the deceased to be buried in Artstetten, a provincial hole; and with this pseudo-pious excuse, they were able cautiously to evade the public laying-in-state, the funeral cortege and all the disputed questions of precedence that went with it. The coffins of the murdered royalty were quietly taken to Artstetten and interred there. Vienna, whose perpetual fondness of a show was thus deprived of a great opportunity, had already begun to forget the tragic occurrence. After all, the violent death of Queen Elisabeth and of the Crown Prince, and the scandalous flight of all sorts of members of the Imperial house, had long since accustomed Vienna to the thought that the old Emperor would outlive his Tantalidean house in imperturbably solitude. Only a few weeks more and the name and the figure of Franz Ferdinand would have disappeared out of history for all time.

“In less than a week, however, attacks suddenly began to appear in the newspapers, and their constantly mounting crescendo was regulated too consistently for them to have been entirely accidental. The Serbian government was accused to collusion in the assassination, and there were veiled hints that Austria would not permit the murder of its supposedly beloved heir-apparent to go unavenged. One could not escape the impression that some sort of action was being prepared in the newspapers, but no one thought of war. Neither banks nor business houses nor private persons changed their plans. Why should we be concerned with these constant skirmishes with Serbia which, as all knew, arose out of some commercial treaties concerned with the export of Hungarian pork? My bags were packed so that I could go to Verhaeren in Belgium, my work was in full swing, what did the dead Archduke in his catafalque have to do with my life? The summer was beautiful as never before and promised to become even more beautiful — and we all looked out upon the world without a care. I can recall that on my last day in Baden I was walking through the vineyards with a friend, when an old winegrower said to us: ‘We haven’t had such a summer for a long time. If it stays this way, we’ll get better grapes than ever. Folks will remember this summer!’

He did no know, the old man in his blue cooper’s smock, how gruesomely true a word he had spoken.”

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2 Responses to The First Hours of the War of 1914

  1. Pingback: The First Hours of the War of 1914

  2. Karin says:

    Wow, that was beautiful and chilling.

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