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Sarajevo 1914 / Gaza 2014: The Short Twentieth Century Lingers On

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Posted on Aug 3, 2014

By Lawrence Weschler

  A Palestinian looks for his belongings after a house was destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Saturday. AP/Hatem Ali

Strange the way things line up, the through-lines that suddenly reveal themselves amidst the twists and turns of historical progression.

Last month, in these pages, I was writing about the ways in which Israel’s ongoing treatment of Gaza and the Palestinians cooped up therein (the strangulating siege, the warehoused concentration-camp-like conditions, the regularly recurrent assaults, the lopsided carnage) put me in mind, not so much of the fate of the Jews and gays and Gypsies in Dachau or the Warsaw Ghetto in the years before the Final Solution, or the Afrikaners under the British during the Boer War, or the Sowetans under apartheid, or the Japanese-Americans in their World War II internment camps (all analogies regularly invoked both by me and others), as that faced by the citizens of Sarajevo during the terrible 1,500 days of their siege and bombardment by the Bosnia Serbs from 1992 through 1995. And then furthermore, come to have thought of it, how uncannily the obfuscations and protestations and delusionally heightened sense of grievance regularly expressed by many Israelis (and even more of their American apologists) reminded me of the sorts of “bugs in the software,” the “brain damage,” the raving, raging momentary episodes of slippage I’d so frequently encountered among otherwise quite sensible and civilized Serbians in Belgrade during that same period just after the recent Bosnian War.

Some people liked the analogy, others didn’t, but in the meantime I myself, this past week, have found myself falling clear through that historical parallel and down through the years to that other, or rather that earlier Sarajevo, the site in 1914 of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife by the Serb nationalist fanatic Gavrilo Princip. One hundred years ago June 28, the event set the gears in seemingly inexorable motion toward the launch of actual hostilities exactly one hundred years ago this week as World War I brought a horrendous Niagara-like (Henry James’ image) conclusion to the nearly 100 years of relative peace on the European continent since the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo in June of 1815, and, in turn, launched the harrowing succession of decades that were to follow, dark-blasting so much of the rest of the 20th century.

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More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the way historians over the last few decades have regularly taken to speaking of the Long 19th Century (by which they mean the years from the French Revolution of 1789 through the start of the First World War in 1914) and the Short 20th Century (from 1914 through the remarkable succession of largely nonviolent revolutions that brought about the downfall of communism in 1989). That 1789/1989 rhyme is indeed remarkably uncanny, but no less so the way that so many of the historical processes set in motion in 1914 did indeed seem, finally, to resolve themselves in 1989. The braiding in particular of the rise and fall of the twin totalitarian scourges launched by the catastrophes of that First World War: the way Bolshevism was able to overthrow the ages-old Imperial order in Russia in 1917 as a direct result of the latter’s calamitous failures on the Eastern Front, but also the way that the rise of Nazism proved a direct result (directly predicted at the time) of the way Germany was mistreated in the grievously misguided peace settlements after 1918. How the inevitability of a Second World War was almost baked into the mix at Versailles, one that would come to pit Bolshevik Russia (and her allies) against Nazi Germany, calving off large swaths of Central and Eastern Europe in the peace that followed and subjecting them to Soviet Russian domination for almost another half-century, that is until successive uprisings in that same (as it turned out, indigestible) periphery came to bring about the downfall of communism in Moscow Central itself, thereby reuniting a transformed and now decidedly more pacific Germany at the heart of a decidedly wiser and more tempered United Europe. Problem solved, Short Century closed.

Except that, it seems to me, it’s becoming more and more clear that that standard account leaves something important out, and that the intricate braidings of the so-called Short Century have in fact yet to play themselves through.

Leave aside such peripheral (albeit paradoxically seminal) problems as what to do with those damn Balkans. (Sarajevo! The place it all started.)

Turn instead to what in retrospect may have proved a whole other strand of historical braiding across the Short Century: the question of what to do with Europe’s Jews.

Granted, the taproots of that dilemma wend well back into the Long Century, generally speaking to the upsurge in anti-Semitism occasioned most immediately by the flood-tide of Jewish assimilationism in the wake of the French Revolution, and more specifically to the ways in which that anti-Semitism initially flared most powerfully in France (partly as a result of the French military’s humiliating defeat at the hands of a surging Germany during their mini-war in 1870) with the appalling Dreyfus affair of 1895 and its various unwindings in the years thereafter. That affair (at first, essentially, a German spy scandal at the heart of the French military command) in turn left two lasting legacies, in terms of the history of braidings we are considering here: It badly damaged French military command cohesion and integrity in the decades leading up to 1914, thereby accounting to some degree for the relative incompetence of the French military response to the German invasion in the first months of the coming war; but more to the point, it (along with the rise to power back in his hometown of Vienna of the rabid anti-Semite mayor Karl Luger that same year) inspired Theodor Herzl, an Austrian journalist in Paris to cover the Affair, to publish the following year “Der Judenstaat,” the founding document of Zionism and the entire Zionist movement, with its clarion call for the creation of a national homeland for Europe’s Jews in Palestine.

 


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