Friday, September 14, 2018

Obsession, hubris and downfall: Austria-Hungary and the Great War

Folly and Malice: The Hapsburg Empire, the Balkans, and the Start of World War One by John Zametica
Shepheard-Walwyn, London, 2017

The centenary of the Great War has occasioned many historical retrospectives of the event that fundamentally changed the world, with not a few historians attempting to retroactively reshape the narrative to suit the current political and ideological climate.

Simply put, the 21st-century revisionists are seeking to project the blame for the war onto their once and future favorite bogeymen, Russia - and Serbia, on whose behalf Nicholas II entered the war - going so far as describing the 1903 May Coup as the root cause of all ills that befell European empires in 1914-18.

I've referred to this phenomenon before, and written not a few essays about WW1 myself, before work diverted my time and resources from further dwelling on the matter. The short answer is that the above-referenced argument is entirely bogus. For the long answer, I urge you all to read an exhaustively researched tome by John Zametica, "Folly and Malice."

And I do mean exhaustively: of the book's 766 pages, over 100 are taken up by endnotes and bibliographical references. The hardcover edition is a doorstop, no getting around it. My running criticism of Serbian historians is that they tend to produce hefty academic volumes, suitable for scholars and university libraries but at best impractical for the masses - leaving them at the mercy of fake pulp "histories" penned by the ilk of Noel Malcolm instead. Yet to level the same criticism of Zametica's book would be both folly and malice; he had to go into great detail in order to not only rebut the modern mainstream "scholarship," but also show the extent to which Austria-Hungary and its obsession with the Serbs are at the root of the Great War.

The title itself pays homage to a quote from Anton Mayr-Harting's 1988 tome "Der Untergang: Österreich-Ungarn, 1848-1922" (Downfall: Austria-Hungary, 1848-1922), which actually clocks in at a whopping 932 pages and as far as I can tell is only available in German. Zametica's bibliography includes many German sources, as well as English, French and Serbian (or Serbo-Croatian, if you prefer), to paint a comprehensive picture of relations between Vienna and Belgrade that led to the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the subsequent declaration of war.

Rather than the centenary revisionist narrative blaming post-1903 Serbia for supposedly provoking Austria-Hungary, in the 18 chapters of 'Folly and Malice' Zametica walks us through the Hapsburg monarchy's crisis of identity and existence that led Vienna to regard Serbia as an existential threat.

Zametica looks not just at the Viennese court, but at the politics behind the occupation and annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Austrian-backed Croat nationalism seen as a counterweight to the allure of a free Serbia, the Austro-German relations that led Vienna to believe it had a carte blanche in the Balkans, and the "red herring" of blaming the June 28 Sarajevo assassination on the Serbian secret society "Black Hand" - among other things. It would be doing his volume an immense injustice to try and distill those chapters here.

If you consider yourself a scholar of history, or if your heritage goes back to these troubled lands, or if you merely wish to learn more about a region systematically and deliberately misrepresented for the past century, this book is for you. And while Zametica did not set out to create a parable about the madness of empires, the clear takeaway from 'Folly and Malice' is that obsession with a perceived adversary can quickly turn into self-fulfilling prophecy, and that the war seen as the only way to salvation can instead become the instrument of one's demise.