Friday, June 27, 2014

100 years ago today

One hundred years ago today, we lived in a different world.

Colonialism was in full swing. European powers justified it with notions of 'bringing civilization to the savages.'  If a revolt did occur, the colonial powers would brutally but efficiently put it down. The United States had a few small colonies too, spoils of the Spanish-American war, but with 'gunboat diplomacy' the U.S. could claim that Latin American countries were 'independent republics,' while making sure their leaders would run the country to U.S. specifications.

It was an age of optimism.  Just within recent memory, amazing new inventions had changed life forever, or had the potential to do so in the very near future: the telegraph and then the telephone, that allowed instantaneous communication (at least within a continent, though the first transatlantic telegraph cable had been in operation since 1858, allowing messages to be transmitted between North America and Europe within a matter of minutes);  the radio, allowing everything from vital information to entertainment to be instantly transmitted to the masses.  Between the radio and the phonograph, boredom seemed a thing of the past as endless entertainment was but a click of the 'on' switch away. Other recent inventions were still the exclusive domain of the wealthy but might not remain so for long as entrepreneurs looked for ways to make them more affordable: the home telephone, the horseless carriage (automobile) or for the really exciting new invention, the aeroplane.  Advances in science and medicine (especially the discovery of germs and sanitation-- remember that the water closet, or flush toilet, was another invention that was becoming widely available) were improving the health and lifespan of people by leaps and bounds. As for household goods, everything from clothes to tablewares to furniture, what had been handmade for thousands of years was now being spun out by the whir of machines in thousands of \factories (as for the undiluted soot that they belched out and made it necessary to turn on streetlights at noon in places like Pittsburgh, that too was considered a sign of 'progress.')

It was an age of monarchy.  There had been no serious wars in Europe since the days of Bismarck, and most nations were led by kings, kaisers, czars and with a royal lineage that in most cases was intermixed (which many people gave credit for the lack of warfare, thinking that somehow the fact that the fact that Kaiser Wilhelm was the grandson of the recently departed Queen Victoria meant that Germany would never fight England.)  For perhaps the last time in history, monarchs in Europe not only led their nations, but exercised real (though except perhaps for the Czar, not absolute) power over them.

It was an age when the world was explored (so globes, if still drawn without the benefit of aerial photography, were still very accurate) but still held vast stretches of unexplored wilderness; when telescopes were learning much more about neighboring planets but they still held their mystery; so Jules Verne's or Edgar Rice Burroughs' fantasy science fiction still could have been real, because we didn't know otherwise.

One can certainly point fingers at the racism, sexism and self-indulgence of the 'gilded age' which was drawing to a twilight that no one imagined it could be, but in many ways it was a wonderful time to dream, an illusion of a better world completely oblivious of the yawning chasms about to open in the world or of the horror it was about to fall into....

One hundred years ago tomorrow, as the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne was visiting Serbia, a bomb went off. It missed the Archduke in his car, but killed and wounded others who were behind him in the procession.  Later on, the Archduke (a member of the nobility and therefore attempting to be noble) insisted on visiting the hospital where the bombing victims had been taken.  He and his wife Sofia in their car passed in front of another would be assassin, a young Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip.  Unlike the assassin with the bomb, Princip did not miss. He fired two shots, one into the Archduke and one into his wife, and they both killed their target.  And the sun set on the world of the gilded age.
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