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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

“Thunder at Twilight: Vienna, 1913-1914”, by Frederic Morton

385 pages, Charles Scribner's Sons, ISBN-13: 978-0684191430

Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, Freud, Jung…everyone knows the names, but who were these people and what did they all have in common? How did Vienna link them all? And then there are the names that are not on the tip of one's tongue: Count Leopold von Berchtold, Gavrilo Princip, Trifko Grabez, Nedeljko Cabrinivic. Who in the world were these people and how did their actions lead the world into The Great War (which should perhaps have been more accurately known as von Berchtold's War)? I can think of few other books, save Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station and Andrei Biely's St. Petersburg that so brilliantly captured the spirit of a time, bringing key figures to life and recreating a vibrant sense of being there. In this case the scene is Vienna, on the eve of the Great War. I was captivated from the first word to the last.

And what a cast of characters! Russian revolutionaries – Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky – aristocrats and courtiers of the Habsburg dynasty – foremost among them the Emperor Franz Joseph and the Crown Prince, Franz Ferdinand – future catalyst of WWII – Adolf Hitler – and a host of intellectual and artistic giants – Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, Oskar Kokoschka, Arnold Schönberg. Impressively, the main narrative thread isn't lost in this colorful swirl of personages; in fact, for a reader with even a modest grounding in European history and culture, these numerous fleeting appearances only add to the vibrancy of the tale.

I was swept up immediately by Morton's heady prose (at times, I confess, I found it to dip rather heavily into the symbolic or engage in the overly rhetorical flourish) but still his writing has undeniable evocative power. Here, for instance, is a passage describing the eccentric habit of a struggling artist living in poverty in a Viennese men's home:

…now the brush would drop from his hand. He would push the palette aside. He would rise to his feet. He began to speak, to shout, to orate. With hissing consonants and hall-filling vowels, he launched into a harangue on morality, racial purity, the German mission and Slav treachery, on Jews, Jesuits, and Freemasons. His forelock would toss, his color-stained hands shred the air, his voice rise to an operatic pitch. Then, just as suddenly as he had started, he would stop. He would gather his things together with an imperious clatter, stalk off to his cubicle. And the others would just stare after him.

That, of course, was a sketch of Adolf Hitler.

But what most struck me after reading A Distant Thunder is how well Morton had made clear the causes of World War I. Of course, every school boy knows that the trigger was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand; like me, however, many have undoubtedly wondered just who was this Franz Ferdinand to have set off such a sequence of cataclysmic events. Morton makes the ill-fated Crown Prince the central character of his book and in doing so infuses it with heavy irony, for Franz Ferdinand was, despite all his bluster, a constant advocate of peace, not war. That the Great War was begun ostensibly on his account was the supreme irony.

Morton adroitly renders a sympathetic but unsentimental portrait of Franz Ferdinand, highlighting his problematic relationship with his uncle, the Emperor, and his devotion to his wife Sophie, whom he had married contrary to Habsburg wishes. If there is a tragedy here beyond the insane march to war, it is this story of a prince and the sacrifices he made for his beloved wife, who was continually slighted by a court intent on keeping her down among the "non-royals" in its merciless pecking order.

An amazing and amazingly entertaining book.

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