The first world war as it relates to my birthday

It’s my birthday this month. I’m not going to tell you how old I will be but suffice it to say that if you’ve read Douglas Adams then my age is the answer to the meaning of life. Despite the fact that I share a date of birth with such luminaries as Henry VIII, Peter Paul Rubens and Mel Brooks (*cough*) my birthday is most definitely NOT an historically happy date. I’ve been thinking this over recently, remembering a vacation in Austria and coming to some conclusions about the impact and effects of total war. I know… Get Me.

Let’s start with the vacation. The first time I travelled abroad with my family, I was 16 years old and we went on holiday to Austria. We were on a coach tour of various places and everyone on the bus apart from myself, my sister and my friend Nicky were like coconut cakes (sweet but dessicated). I remember one such couple who seemed incredibly ancient to me but were probably only in their sixties – they were adorable and loved the fact that there were teenagers on the trip. The man kept telling my mother that I would marry a millionaire. He was certainly gifted with charm if not prescience.

One of the places we visited on our tour was the Kaiservilla. It was the favourite place of Franz Josef I, the emperor of Austria-Hungary. When you’re a Habsburg descendant, this is what your “country cottage” looks like:

Wonder if they have indoor plumbing...

For those of you who may not be familiar with the Habsburgs – they were descendants of the Holy Roman Emperors. In Franz Josef’s time, his branch of the family was responsible for creating the Austro-Hungarian empire which, in addition to Austria and Hungary included the Czech Republic, Slovakia and pretty much all the Balkan states that were eventually amalgamated into Yugoslavia (only to break down again much later). Franz Josef’s reign was incredibly long but also very troubled. Of interest to those of us who wonder where the heck this is going are two things – his son committed suicide and his ’empire’ was fraught with nationalist tension. Crown Prince Rudolf was Franz Josef’s only son. Unfortunately he was also unhappily married. He and his wife did have one child together, a girl, who could not therefore inherit. At the Mayerling hunting lodge, as part of a pact, Rudolf shot his mistress and then himself. This story has subsequently been romanticised and filmed several times. Upon Rudolf’s death Franz Josef’s heir became his nephew, Franz Ferdinand (yeah, like the band). As for nationalism, the Balkan states that were part of Franz Josef’s empire were not only hotbeds of it, but also a source of tension with another of the eastern european imperial states, Russia.

Given that he was ordained by God to rule people, Franz Josef lived a relatively simple life. He spent most of his time at the Kaiservilla, a place he viewed as the closest thing to heaven on earth. He woke up ridiculously early, slept on a military cot, worked in his study and hunted and hiked for exercise. He used the exact same desk for his entire reign:

That desk, right there

I know, now you’re thinking “OMG what on earth does ANY of this have to do with your vacation and your birthday??” Please bear with me while I explain.

In 1914, on my birth date, a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand who, as you may recall, was Franz Josef’s heir. As a result Franz Josef signed, on that desk, a declaration of war against the kingdom of Serbia. Serbia was Russia’s ally so, due to the intricate web of European alliances in place at the time,  this declaration of war sparked a chain reaction which ended up dragging countless peoples into the conflagration we know as the First World War. When I visited the Kaiservilla I flouted well-known museum protocol and touched that desk. I stared at it for a long time thinking over the fact that with one signature at that desk, Franz Josef had dropped a pebble in the pond of history, the ripples from which he could not possibly have foreseen (and in fact did not live to see, as he died in 1916). Millions of deaths, the disintegration of his empire, a century of conflict and violence on a scale never before conceived. And a huge link in the chain of events that led to the birth of the most violent century in human history was an old man signing a document at the desk I was touching, because his nephew and heir had been blown up on my birthday.

Sadly it does not get any happier for my birth date. On the same date in 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed. This was the document that outlined the terms of the negotiated peace between Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Allies. So in a way you could say that the First World War started and ended on my birth date. Except that the Treaty of Versailles didn’t really end anything of course, it just sowed the seeds that would grow into the weeds of further conflict, blooming in the 1930s and 40s as the Second World War, which led to The Cold War,  the spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction and all those proxy little wars like oh, Korea and Vietnam. I’ve always found the connection between my date of birth and the birth of the 20th century to be pretty depressing. However, if you know me then you know I like to try and find the positive in most things. So, let’s find something positive about total war on an unprecedented scale and the deaths of countless millions!

Ok we can’t, but what I think we can do is acknowledge that total war unleashed forces which also resulted in radical societal change. Many of these changes have, depending on your perspective, had a hugely positive impact on millions of people’s lives. For example:

  • The extinction of absolute monarchy. Even constitutional monarchies are far fewer in number than they were at the start of the 20th century.
  • The women’s movement.
  • Organized labour.
  • Break up of empires and the independence of former colonies.
  • The implementation of progressive/social democratic policies (e.g. the National Health Service in the UK)
  • Development of new technologies (e.g. Alan Turing’s work on computing)

The larger the dislocation the greater the potential it creates for fundamental change and sometimes this can be a good thing. We see this concept acted out in our own lives too – terrible things happen and when they do they pull the rug out from under our feet. But after we’ve done our grieving we also get a chance to look around and see what we can make of this new reality we’ve been dealt. Can we create something positive, something lasting? I believe we should at least strive to.

As for my birth date, the 20th century continued to do it absolutely no favours whatsoever. Israel annexed East Jerusalem, a cult in Japan released sarin gas in the subway system and Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear off… But hey, I was born, so that’s a good thing… right? Right?

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4 Comments on “The first world war as it relates to my birthday”

  1. Candy June 4, 2011 at 9:59 am #

    Happy 42nd Birthday to you 😉

    • OMum22 June 6, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

      Candy! You let the cat out of the bag! 🙂

  2. solodialogue June 5, 2011 at 1:31 am #

    Ok – wow. History buff, you say? Lovely that you were able to tour Austria as a teen. To touch that desk knowing the extraordinary significance of what was signed there? That must’ve been a bizarre experience, emotionally. Did you know that The United States Supreme Court, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke barred quota systems in college admissions on your birthday? Or that a beautiful little girl was born on that summer day and she grew up to have two beautiful baby boys of her own? She is brilliant and funny and should enjoy her day. I’m quite sure that she is a bit dyslexic and meant to say that she is turning 24- not 42, as she is much too young and adorable to be the age of the meaning of life – the Universe – and everything… 😉

    • OMum22 June 6, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

      *Laughing* at the Supreme Court case – thanks for that additional piece of trivia, clogging up my brain. You’re so sweet and kind – thanks for stopping by the blog, made my day 🙂

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