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By Frederic Morton
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1989
ISBN: ISBN: 0-684-19143-1
385 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 2014


While I read this book with care and do comment on most aspects of it, it wasn’t for the book itself, as the author conceived and wrote it that I read it. Rather, in recent years I have become increasingly interested in World War I and its impact on the world, especially Europe, the U.S. and Russia. Further, I continue to see many similarities of trends of our own time in those early days of the 20th century. I had returned to the writings of John Dos Passos to reread (and comment in my book reviews) on the three volumes of Dos Passos’ The USA Trilogy, the study of Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis and other such works. Earlier I had read Barbara Tuchman’s wonderful history of the first month of the First World War, The Guns of August.

However, those works tended to focus primarily on the war in the west of Europe, so I decided to check out something more about the eastern European war. I have had Frederic Morton’s book in my collection of books relating to Vienna, but had never read it, thus I picked it up in hopes of coming to a better understanding of the war at its beginnings in Eastern Europe.

Given my particular interest, I was using Morton’s book for a purpose it was not conceived and written. Rather, he is writing primarily about Vienna in the lead up to the war, and as the subtitle says, Vienna in 1913 and 1914, actually until Mid-August of 1914. Further, as the title (Thunder at Twilight) suggests, he is focusing on the coming end of the Hapsburg Empire. With the confluence of his aims, and the book he wrote, and what I was coming to the book for, it is not surprising that I didn’t get what I really wanted, and it is perfectly the right of the author to have written what he wanted for his purposes and not for mine, which, as I’ve laid out, were completely different.

I have lived in Austria in 8 different years spread over a 30 year period, each visit separated by some year or two. Most of the time I was teaching in Vienna, but my first Austrian year was in Graz back in 1972-73. Over these years I had built a very substantial library of works on Vienna, and in trying to learn more about World War I in the east of Europe, I decided to finally read this work that was already in my library.

This is a quite a fascinating history. Frederic Morton certainly knows Vienna in great detail. The subtitle is useful: “Thunder and Twilight.” This line of the story is the coming of the end of an old world and Morton focusses on two key years 1913-1914. He develops his tale with two major historical forces in play:

1. The changing times in the western world – developments of new technologies, changing mores, growth of the U.S. and effects of the dramatic industrialization of the past half-century coming to fruition.

2. The movement toward WWI, which would effectively be the end of the ancient Austrian empire.

One of my good friends in Graz, Austria, an avid cyclist, once told me it was humiliating to be a citizen of a nation that was once among the most powerful and important in the history of human history, yet where today one could bicycle across it in a single day.

Morton advances his “understanding” via many very appropriate anecdotes, each informed, and well-written. He doesn’t advance a single thesis, but lets the individual anecdotes, bit and pieces of history, pile up in such a manner that this reader, at least, was both gripped and, in the end, satisfied.

I think I was required to be careful not to get caught up in the gripping dozens and dozens of incidents, but to enjoy them for their power and information, yet keep plodding along trying to see how each little piece fit into the jigsaw puzzle of understanding I was trying to build for myself.

It was as though each of these many “episodes” were pieces in a game of the Japanese board game Go, and I had to build my own connecting stories to surround and capture the object of understanding I was after.


There are several lines of Morton’s story that are much more about Vienna and its status during this period. Not all of them are central to the development of the beginning of World War I, but have other purposes, quite germane to Vienna at this time.

In the first chapter Morton brings us some important players who were living in Vienna in the pre-war period. Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin were living in Vienna, but not together or friendly to one another; nor were any of them very famous or a major leader at that early period. Morton emphasizes the great differences among them, who did know each other, but had little contact during these years.

Lenin studied the Austrian model of government and was having an article prepared by Stalin to pull together this model. Lenin tried to “civilize” Stalin, but it just didn’t work. The two never really got along. When Stalin eventually assumed power after Lenin’s death, he adopted the Austrian model “. . . he dealt with the nationalities problem by giving them only cultural – not political – independence.”

Lenin and Stalin never really got along, and Stalin’s very productive visit to Vienna was only a few months long.

Meanwhile in his Vienna years Trotsky fully embraced the coffee-house culture of Vienna, but in later years he denounced the pseudo-Marxism of many of his previous friends.

In July, 1913 the Second Balkan War started when Serbia declared war on Bulgaria. Turkey, Greece and Rumania quickly entered on the side of Serbia. What Austria did was to support the position of Lenin, as an enemy of the Romanians, hoping they might bring pressure on Russia. This worked and the war quickly ended. At this time of July 1913 Lenin and Trotsky didn’t meet thought both were in Vienna. Morton argues that their dispute with one another mirrored the difficulties between Franz Joseph and Franz Ferdinand. (It’s worth noting that within 4 years Lenin and Trotsky would put aside their own differences and work together on the 1917 Revolution.)

In any case Bulgaria quickly capitulated. 150,000 had been killed in the short war.

Late in 1912 Lenin wrote that he wasn’t worried about Austria and Russia going to war. He was much more worried about quarrels inside Russian groups. He said:

“A war between Austria and Russia would be a very useful thing for the revolution in all of Eastern Europe, but it is not likely that Franz Joseph and (Tsar) Nikolosha will give us that pleasure.”

A second theme that isn’t much concerned with the development of the war was the presence of Hitler in Vienna during this period.

Further, it was in these early days in Vienna that Hitler, in his diaries, indicates he had already arrived at a view that the masses of people wanted a leader to follow who had strong views and demanded obedience. He never operated as a leader in Vienna and left there in May 1913 for Munich, Germany. He had been there for seven years, having come from Linz, Austria where he was born and raised.

When WWI was coming about Austria was drafting young men into their military. Hitler managed to evade the Austrian draft. At Salzburg he was judged:

“Unfit for military or auxiliary service; too weak, incapable of bearing arms.”

A third line of development in Vienna at this time was the warring parties within the psychoanalytical community. This tended to pit Freud, as titular founder and head of the community against both Jung and Adler. The emphasis which Morton takes in these sections is less enlightening about psychoanalysis than it was about the pettiness and territoriality of the warring scholars.

Another constant battle going on within the Hapsburg ruling family is much more germane to the development of the war. It is the conflict between the emperor, Franz Joseph and the heir-apparent, his nephew, Franz Ferdinand.

Ironically Archduke Franz Ferdinand was not at all in favor of military action or war. He feared that any attack on Serbia would bring Russia to Serbia’s defense and deeply threaten Austria. Nonetheless, the Emperor, then in his 65th year of ruling, decided that Franz Ferdinand should be the negotiator with the Serbs.

Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, an avid foe of military action against Serbia, again because of fear of Russian intervention, sought to get support from Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II.

There was always a brooding difficulty between Franz Joseph and Franz Ferdinand. It wasn’t nearly as much a difference of potential views as it was of style or interpersonal relations. Franz Ferdinand was direct, often rude, rather loud and disputatious, and extremely impatient. Franz Joseph was the soul of gentility, politeness and indirectness.

Serbia was seriously challenging Austrian authority, especially with its relationship with Bosnia-Herzegovina and its attacks on the Ottoman Empire and Greece.

Morton spends a good deal of time looking at the period of Carnival in 1913 (shortly after New Year’s to Shrove Tuesday in early spring).

The Hapsburg Austrio-Hungarian Empire was a difficult morass of rules and powers, certainly favoring Vienna. And in the end the

“. . . Emperor could rule and legislate by decree. Usually, he refrained. The option always loomed. The Vienna parliament was a masterpiece of that famous Austrian specialty, latent absolutism.”

Life was dramatically changing in the Vienna of 1913.

“Fin de siècle Vienna had managed to cover the bleakness of workaday life with scrollwork and grace note. But by 1913 life seemed to tolerate less and less of anything but the rawly real.”

. . .

“In the late winter of 1913 Vienna woke up to discover that perhaps its poor were not what they used to be.”

Some in Austria had inside information from Russia that the czar was unlikely to come into any conflict with Austria or Germany since troubles inside Russia would profit from it, weakening his position.

Finally on April 29, 1913 Franz Joseph had ordered Serbia out of Albania. Many were both surprised and delighted when the troops left Albania, thus halting any further conflict at this time.

The beginning of the plot to assassinate Franz Joseph began with 2 Bosnian Slavs, Danilo Ilich (Marxist/anarchist leanings) and 18 year old Gavrilo Princip. Both were bookish radicals. They wanted a Slav State in Bosnia/Serbia and Montenegro.

As the Turkish Empire began to fade in Albania, a part of that empire was left up for grabs. Many nations wanted some piece of Albania for their own purposes. Austria wanted it all. Europe’s central powers had met and made some designations with the bulk of Albania becoming an independent nation. The nation was sort of a fiction of the European powers, but Vienna supported the fiction.

It is interesting that author Morton argues that in 1914 Albania was:

“. . . a terra incognita a remote labyrinthine confusion of ragged chiefdoms.”

I think of the modern Albania of 2014 as not much different.

Gavrilo Princip was a young radical Bosnia student; but supported Serbia against Austria. His friend Nedeljko Cabrinovic was with him. They agreed to kill Franz Ferdinand. This was at a meeting they had on March 27, 1914. Franz Ferdinand was coming in June to Sarajevo.

Princip and Cabrinovich accepted a third conspirator, Trifko Grabez. But they needed more help. Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic – known as Apis (sacred bull of ancient Egypt) was a noted killer. The three young men were trained to shoot by him and how to attack.

Many other factors were going on across the Western World leading toward crisis:

On the eve of WWI most European nations had sizeable numbers of both Socialist and Marxist political parties and elected representatives.

Their international chorus was: “More Bread, Fewer Guns, and No War!”

Germany’s expectation was that if war came Germany could defeat France in six weeks and then turn its full power against Russia.

In 1914 the U.S. was embroiled with Mexico and Great Britain had its difficulties in Ireland as well as the British suffragettes who were on the move. In both France and Russia socialists were making great gains. Thus the Serbian issues were not fully front and center for these other nations.

By June 1914 Kaiser Franz Joseph had recovered his health and despite his age, was again on the throne.

The Serbs read Franz Ferdinand’s moderation as a ploy to get the support of the Serbian people. But the Serbs were not trusting of Franz Ferdinand’s visit.

Franz Ferdinand wasn’t keen on his upcoming Bosnian / Serbian visit, but was very delighted when Franz Joseph agreed that Sophie, his wife, would attend every event with him. They were to be in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, their 14th wedding anniversary.

After the assassination of Franz Ferdinand things quickly escalated. On July 21, just short of a month later, Austria finally sent a formal note to Serbia. Stern conditions were imposed and Serbia was only given four days to reply. A stunned Serbia accepted all demands except one that allowed Austrian police to pursue Serbian subjects on Serbian soil. This demand was placed in the letter precisely because it was likely to be rejected.

Because of this rejection by July 28th Austria was technically at war with Serbia.

For most of the European nations this new verge of war was embraced by the masses. One German poet wrote what was on the minds of millions of Europeans:

“In the wealth of peace we feel the deadliest dread
We are bereft of prowess, mission or direction,
And long and cry for war.”

This crisis had assumed a life of its own for the masses. Each nation was now unified in the patriotism of war. This dominated the masses and leaders alike and it overrode the impasse in most of the countries of battles between the working class and the upper class.

Within a few days most of the countries of Europe had taken their side and declared war on all on the “other” side.

Frederic Morton’s book is certainly worth a read. It is knowledgeable, a mix of lightness and seriousness, solid main-line history and juicy gossip. While the history is serious and informative, there is certainly an impish quality to some of the more gossipy parts of the work. I would recommend it to anyone having an interest in this period of Austrian history, specifically, and for anyone like me, wanting to read more of the events leading up to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and beginning of WWI.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett