Monday, October 1, 2018

Centenary Shadows

World War One has received (in this country anyway) surprisingly little retrospective coverage in publications over the past four years given all the 100th anniversaries of key events that have followed one after another since 28 June 2014, the anniversary of that fateful shot in Sarajevo. It pales in comparison to the coverage (which I’m old enough to remember) of the 100th anniversaries of Gettysburg and Appomattox. Nonetheless, the major catastrophes of the 20th century were grounded in 1914 and even in the 21st century we continue to live with much of the war’s consequences including in (but not limited to) the Middle East. I imagine we will hear much more come 11 November, the anniversary of the 1918 armistice, but meantime I occasionally opt to get a jump on the crowd by revisiting a relevant book or DVD from one of my shelves when something reminds me of it. There were two such revisits in the past week.

The first was Hotel Imperial (1927), a war film of sorts that was well regarded by most critics at the time and still receives generally good marks today. The movie was directed by Mauritz Stiller and stars Pola Negri, Rudolph Valentino’s squeeze who made a notorious spectacle at his 1926 funeral. Hotel Imperial is curious in that, despite being an American production, it comes off as a propaganda film for Austria-Hungary, a country that didn’t exist in 1927. Part of the explanation is that it did exist in 1917 when Hungarian author Lajos Bíró wrote the original play. Another part is that by the mid-1920s animosity in the US toward the former Central Powers had all but vanished. It is easier to be generous in this way when one is on the winning side. (Vietnam, one may note, is fairly friendly toward US these days.) It had become possible by then to see the perspective of the other side. This was demonstrated even more clearly three years later in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), the superb Hollywood adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel. A third and less obvious part of the explanation at this distance from 1927 is public opinion about the war in the ‘20s. The hysterical jingoism of the war years had given way to a widespread sour conviction that the whole thing had been a colossal mistake, as in fact it was. I’ll return to this last point in a moment.

Anna rescues Almasy again
Plot (some *spoilers*): Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer Paul Almasy (James Hall) is caught behind enemy lines and takes refuge in the Hotel Imperial when Russian forces capture the town. The patriotic Austrian chambermaid Anna (Pola Negri) risks her life by disguising Almasy as a hotel waiter; civilians in occupied areas could be (and were) shot for doing such things. General Juschkiewitsch, the commanding officer of the Russians occupying the town, makes the hotel his headquarters. The aging, obnoxious, and rather corpulent Juschkiewitsch takes a very pushy interest in Anna, stopping just short of force. Anna fends him off even as he plies her with gifts. When Almasy can’t produce his identification papers, however, Anna gets the general to overlook the matter of the “lost” papers by being more…well…friendly. Attractions and jealousies among the hotel staff pose an ongoing risk of exposing Almasy’s disguise as a waiter. A Russian spy comes back through the lines with critical information on Austrian artillery dispositions, but Almasy kills him before he can deliver it to Juschkiewitsch. As the Russians investigate the killing, Anna once again risks her life by giving Almasy an alibi of a nature that enrages Juschkiewitsch, though at least he is not enough of a villain to shoot them over it. Almasy leaves the hotel at night in an attempt to reach Austrian lines with his knowledge about Russian plans. (Juschkiewitsch had been very indiscreet in front of the servant staff.) An Austrian advance, with Almasy back with the cavalry, soon recaptures the town and the hotel. There is a hero’s recognition for Anna – also a romance with Almasy despite he being an aristocrat and she a chambermaid.

There is an unspoken subtext more obvious in 1927 than today: all this patriotic heroism and violence was totally pointless. A couple years after the time frame of the story Austria-Hungary lost the war and broke into pieces. The Russians arguably fared even worse. What was it all for? Even the romance has an unpleasant element of condescension to it. This makes it a worse love story but a better movie.

The second revisit was motivated by a discussion with a friend about (of all things) the 2017 Wonder Woman movie. I commented that the movie keeps many elements from the original 1941-42 comics including the underlying conflict with Ares (yes, that Ares) but reset in time to World War One. The reset presumably was because morally it was a far more ambiguous conflict than the second war, which works better for the tone of the script. However, I added rather snarkily (hey, we all have flaws), that Wonder Woman’s suspicion in the movie that Ludendorff was Ares in disguise was pretty silly: “I’ve read Ludendorff’s memoirs,” I said. “He was a brilliant tactician, a dubious strategist, and an arrogant ass, but he was not Ares.” In truth, though, it was about four decades since I’d read those memoirs. They were still on my shelf, so a revisit seemed in order to see if my opinion would withstand a second look. Short version: it does.

Ludendorff’s Own Story, August 1914 - November 1918 [Meine Kriegserinnerungen, 1914–1918] by Erich von Ludendorff was first published in 1919 when conditions in Germany were chaotic in the aftermath of war. Ludendorff, of course, had been Hindenburg’s right hand man and by the end of the war was operationally in charge of the military effort.

One expects memoirs of this kind to contain spin and self-justification, and those expectations are met here, but it is still an invaluable record of the war from the viewpoint of highest level of the German military. I wouldn’t recommend this as a general history of the war, but if you already have some familiarity with the wider ranging events of the era, the book makes fascinating reading. One surprising aspect of the account is the sense of desperation it reveals, despite the General Staff’s public bluster, from the moment the Schlieffen Plan started to go wrong in 1914, which was almost at once, until the last days of the conflict. It helps explain some of the seemingly reckless gambles including Ludendorff’s final 1918 offensives in the West.

Ludendorff’s bitter invective at the final defeat is directed less at the Allies – he expected no quarter from opposing foreign governments – than at his fellow countrymen whose politics, he believed, prevented a chance at respectable peace terms: “They and the soldiers’ councils worked with zeal, determination, and purpose to destroy everything military… The destruction of the German power, achieved by these Germans, was the most tragic crime the world has witnessed.” This was a widely shared belief that would lead to horrific consequences unforeseen in 1919.

This level of greater bitterness towards one’s fellow citizens than towards foreign enemies is not uncommon: we have some hint of it in our own country in our own day even without having lost a major war. Mostly it is still manifested just as verbal rudeness, and one may hope it remains no more than that. When actual civil wars finally break out they are particularly brutal, which is what makes the escalation of civil strife something to avoid. Thucydides wrote more than 2400 years ago about the outbreak of civil war in Corcyra in 427 BCE between oligarchic and democratic partisans: “The Corcyrans continued to massacre those of their own citizens whom they considered to be their enemies... There was death in every shape and form. And, as usually happens in such situations, people went to every extreme and beyond it…ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.” We aren’t there yet, but I doubt human nature has improved since 427 – or 1919.

I’ve posted the video below before when discussing the First World War, but it’s poignant enough to repeat. It was written by Irving Berlin in 1914 and recorded by Henry Burr that same year, but I’ll use the 1968 Tiny Tim rendition in part for sound clarity and in part for nostalgia – I first heard it sung by Tiny Tim.

Stay Down Here Where You Belong


  1. The video clip you supplied looks like a war between monsters or aliens from another world with everyone in those mask. Tiny Tim is an aberration too. I can't say I admire his music any more today than yesterday, but I can respect his talent in some way. I just went over to Amazon to see if there were any books on him, which there are. Of course I remember him more than anything as being a oddball novelty act on late night talk shows, etc.

    The movie though sounded interesting as does the book. WWII, I think, was more delineated that WWI. I don't believe they touched on much during my history class at school about WWI--or at least to my memory. Since my dad was in WWII though I had an interest in it to various degrees. The other night I saw a movie I'd never heard of called Decision Before Dawn about securing German prisoners in WWII to spy against their homeland. I think they were wanting to know specifically where some tanks were located at to bomb, however, since I watched it off youtube it was a bit hard to hear the dialog, but I got the gist of it. And yeah, it was a good movie.

    1. Tiny Tim was weird to be sure, but he was, as you say, talented - remarkably so.

      The lines in WWII were so clear that if Ming the Merciless were real he would have joined the Axis. WWI was another matter. One can see the point of view of each warring party, but in no case were the concerns and grievances worth the cost of the war. It is a muddle that makes the war fascinating as well as horrific. IMO, the best first hand account from the front line is Robert Graves' well regarded book "Goodbye to All That." Definitely recommended.