(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
One of my favorite trends I have spotted in reading history is when an author skillfully makes an allusion to current events without once making any explicit reference to contemporary circumstances. Or perhaps I am just reading too much into things, but try this quote on for size from the opening chapter of Max Hastings’ book Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War:
‘A Feeling that Events Are in the Air’
1 Change and Decay
One day in 1895, a young British army officer lunched in London with the old statesman Sir William Harcourt. After a conversation in which the guest took, by his own account, none too modest a share, Lt. Winston Churchill-for it was he- asked Harcourt eagerly, ‘What will happen then?’ His host replied with inimitably Victorian complacency: ‘My dear Winston, the experiences of a long life have convinced me that nothing ever happens.’ Sepia-tinted photographs exercise a fascination for modern generations, enhanced by the serenity which long plate exposures imposed upon their subjects. We cherish images of old Europe during the last years before war: aristocrats attired in coronets and ball gowns, white ties and tails; Balkan peasants in pantaloons and fezzes; haughty, doomed royal family groups.
Only a man or woman who chose to be blind to the extraordinary happenings in the world could suppose the early years of the twentieth century an era of tranquility, still less contentment. Rather they hosted a ferment of passions and frustrations, scientific and industrial novelties, irreconcilable political ambitions, which caused many of the era’s principals to recognize that the old order could not hold. To be sure, dukes were still attended by footmen wearing white hair powder; smart households were accustomed to eat dinners of then or twelve courses; on the continent duelling was not quite extinct. But it was plain that these things were coming to an end, that the future would be arbitrated by the will of the masses or those skilled at manipulating it, not by the whims of the traditional ruling caste, even if those who held power strove to postpone the deluge.
Sound vaguely familiar?