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The Incredible Century

July 2024
3min read

Go back fifty years in time and you are in a world which seems as remote as the age of the dinosaurs, which in some ways it indeed resembles; the age of the imperial dynasties which ruled a great part of Europe, rigid and wholly static anachronisms which had somehow survived into a time whose intense dynamism was altogether too much for them. Confronting the inevitable changes of the modern world, these dynasties could do nothing but try, with desperate incompetence, to repress all change. They thereby brought on, in 1914, an explosion which destroyed them utterly and left the world in a turmoil from which it has not yet emerged.

There were four of those dynasties—Hohenzollerns, Hapsburgs, Romanovs, and Ottomans—and their empires had four hundred million subjects. Two of them, in Russia and in Turkey, were undisguised absolutisms in which the will of the sovereign was the only law; the other two had a thin veneer of parliamentary institutions but were almost equally autocratic in their essential structure. Not only were they incapable of adjusting themselves; they were visibly decaying, and one of the things that made the final explosion so inevitable and so terrible was the fact that the internal tensions of the autocracies crossed the external tensions which racked the whole international order. Even the most enlightened leadership would have been hard pressed to cope with the age of rising nationalism, twentieth-century technologies, and the unsatisfied demands of the common man, who had heard about Democracy. The leadership provided by the dynasties would have been substandard even by the values of Louis XIV. So the world blew up.

Nineteen fourteen: that was the break-off point. It opens the most fateful story of our time, and we are just beginning to see it. Nothing else that has happened to us for a thousand years quite matches this. We are the heirs of a wrecked society, of a broken continuity, of an age that collapsed just when we were most sure of it. Furthermore, the collapse was one of the most horrendous catastrophes in human history, a tragedy so vast that it left the emotions numb and so paved the way for future infamies. Ours is the incredible century. It opened brightly as an era whose institutions, even though they obviously needed an overhaul, at least seemed to be stable; in hardly more than a decade these institutions had come down in utter ruin, and the story would be beyond belief if we did not have the most compelling reasons to know that every word of it is true.

The Fall of the Dynasties, by Edmond Taylor. Doubleday & Co. 421 pp. $6.50.

There is at hand now a good account of the way the disaster came upon us, in Edmond Taylor’s book The Fall of the Dynasties . Mr. Taylor examines the years from 1905 to 1922 and makes a valiant attempt to see how it all happened. What he provides is a chilling analysis of the advent of an earthquake.

His primary thesis is that the decay of the dynastic system made war inevitable. The diplomats who stumbled into war were not really responsible to anybody. The emperors were dictators, but the machinery of government had got too complex for them. Their foreign ministries were self-activating bureaucracies which nobody really controlled; foreign affairs was a sort of chess game played under out-of-date rules by men who did not quite know what game they were playing.

By 1914 a general European war was the one thing above all others which the social and political structure of the Western world could not endure, and yet it was the threat of war which gave the structure its apparent stability. Although a huge armaments race insured that if war came it would be more destructive than anything men had ever heard of, the emperors and the diplomats believed that they could live on the brink of war, using the readiness to make war as the prop which shored up the whole intricate international system. Preparing for the greatest of wars, they still believed that war could be kept limited and localized. At the most they hoped that if a general war did come it would bring the roof down on their enemies rather than on themselves. Unfortunately, when the roof finally came down it fell on everybody.

On August 1, 1914, the German Kaiser signed the papers that began the plunge, and he had a fey moment of insight. Looking up at the generals who surrounded him, he remarked bitterly: “Gentlemen, you will live to regret this.” (He had just received a telegram from the Czar of Russia, who confessed despairingly: “I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure brought upon me and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war.”) A few days later someone asked the German Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, “How did it all happen?” The Chancellor threw up his arms: “Ah, if only one knew.”

The generals had taken over, but the only rule they could follow was the one their profession had taught them—when you get into an all-out war you have to win an all-out victory no matter what it costs. The trouble was that the cost was simply astronomical: so immense that in the end both victors and defeated lost what they were fighting for. The war turned, in Mr. Taylor’s apt remark, into “an accelerating retreat from civilization.” It rolled up the fantastic total of 37,000,000 casualties, of which more than 8,500,000 represented men killed in action or dead of disease, and it destroyed the society the armies thought they were fighting to preserve.

The collapse left the Western world with an intolerable burden. Not only did the empires disappear—and with all their grave faults they at least provided a framework that kept Europe from fragmentation and chaos—but something far more costly had happened to men’s minds, to their way of looking at the world they inhabited. The old certainties had been destroyed. Quite naturally, the ordinary man had lost faith “in the civilian leadership that had been unable to avert the catastrophe of general war, and in the military leadership which seemed incapable of winning it.” The next quarter-century would do very little to restore that faith.

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