Sunday, May 30, 2010

Getting Caught Up In History

I've been reflecting on something in my sister's comment regarding the long-term psychological damage wrought by the death of my great Uncle in the trenches in 1918 (like his namesake, my father's older brother, who would die ten years later after a drunk doctor rammed their car as my grandfather took the family out for a Sunday drive, he became unmentionable; remembered by those few who knew him more for having died than for ever having lived, it is this corpse-like presence in memory that damaged my grandmother and her children far too long). About sixteen years ago, I first read Robert K. Massie's massive history Dreadnought, and got caught up in his sweeping narrative that seemed to argue the Naval rivalry between the British and German Empires was as much personal (in particular, fed by the massive near-psychoses and general inferiority complex of German Emperor Wilhelm II, who was grandson of Queen Victoria and nephew of King Edward) as it was anything.

As I neared the end of the narrative that included the arguments in the British Cabinet in 1911 on the Naval Estimates (Churchill's apt description of the result, in which the Navy argued for a certain number of battle ships, he and other trimmers argued for half that number, and the compromise they ended up with was actually more than the Navy had originally asked for is funny, but also sad), I realized how odd it was, yet important, that this story (at least as related by Massie) caught up much of the western world in its throes. Including my family.

Obviously, there is more going on than the haughtiness of Britain at the apex of her Imperial grandeur, or the German desire to be the great Continental power, overshadowing old rival France. The Kaiser, however, in particular, focused on the necessity of a German navy as a mark of its greatness, almost to the point of obsession; having built this great navy, however, for the most part it sat, unused in Black Sea ports, only once attempting a massive exit in force. The result, the Battle of Jutland, was the greatest Naval engagement of the First World War. Technically a draw, the Germans lost it because they then returned to huddling in their ports, while the British Navy had free reign (except for submarines) on the world's oceans.

This story of an extended family, where relations became complicated by intersecting national loyalties (not to mention the psychological dimension; I cannot stress enough that Kaiser Wilhelm II was crazier than a shit-house rat), swept up not just the children of Queen Victoria and their children, but eventually not just the ruling classes of Europe, but their whole populations as well.

When the Kaiser, going against the advice of both his Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, declared open season on all shipping, including neutral shipping, he forced Wilson's hand. Having already insulted the Americans with the heavy-handed, and thin-brained Zimmerman dispatch, the threat to freedom of commerce with all sides by neutrals dragged Wilson around to seeing that war against the Central Powers might just be a necessity.

All these historical events, always seen from a distance, caught up millions of ordinary citizens in their nets. They always seem to do so. When Everett Shores arrived in France, moved up to the trenches, was promoted to Corporal, and died (most likely from friendly shell fire dropping on advancing American forces), his was one among 20 million deaths during those four and a half years of meaningless, mindless slaughter that achieved the noble goal of enraging the Germans in the person of Adolf Hitler, thus ensuring that within a generation, many more millions would die.

Yet, the intersection of personal and political, the family of Saxe-Coburg and the Shores (and eventually Saffords), when conflict erupted on the plains of Flanders and northeastern France, still astounds me. It would be nice if one of the lessons reading Massie rendered was giving to those practicing statecraft a vision of the way their actions are not just about the great and powerful nations. It is, in the end, the intersections of the lives of millions; the effects of bad decisions, of horrible choices, lost chances, and sheer blind stupidity reach far beyond the immediate moment. As long as my grandmother was alive (she died in 1984, having just turned 95), the long reach of history was still with our family.

Virtual Tin Cup

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