- - Thursday, August 21, 2014

THUNDER AT TWILIGHT: VIENNA 1913-1914
By Frederic Morton
Da Capo Press, $16.99, 391 pages, illustrated

This is one of those books that are as interesting for the way they read in perspective as for their intrinsic merits. American novelist Frederic Morton is a native of Vienna and his nonfiction works about it are without peer for their insight into its unique qualities. So it is a gift that this portrait of the city when it played such a pivotal role in setting the world alight should be reissued for the centenary of that crucial time.

Now that the outbreak of World War I with all its terrible consequences is so much on everyone’s mind, Mr. Morton’s centennial afterword serves as a kind of prism for a book written at a time when the Cold War had not yet played out. Events have moved so fast this year that we view his retrospective words through an added prism of just where we stand here and now.

Of course, much of what Mr. Morton wrote a quarter-century ago resonates just as it did then: “The present book deals with the events, ideas, unpredictabilities and inevitabilities surrounding the death of the crown prince, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The bullet that tore into his jugular sounded the initial shot in the most devastating slaughter mankind had known so far. It set off the dynamics leading to World War II. In other words, it galvanized a zeitgeist whose consequences live today in the international news, on the street corner.”

Mr. Morton’s marvelous portraits of Viennese society and life back then, his portraits of royalty, courtiers, politicians and statesmen still sparkle, enlighten and delight, as do those of its artists and intellectuals, from Freud and Wittgenstein to Kafka and Kokoschka. No one can summon up the particular atmosphere of the city and its environs more intuitively and engagingly than Mr. Morton.

It isn’t just Viennese he writes about. We all know that Hitler was busy failing as an artist then, and Mr. Morton gives us a memorable portrait of how this loser was developing in a Viennese flophouse the oratorical skills and deadly charisma that would lay the glorious once-imperial city at his feet. Who knew that Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin were all there in those prewar years, that Vienna played its fateful role in enabling those three to make Russia over in their dreadful images?

Mr. Morton vividly evokes those two years, culminating in the final days before the outbreak of World War I, when Vienna was the fateful fulcrum of Europe, and what happened there was pitching the continent and eventually much of the world into the inferno.

If Vienna has never managed to recapture that central position on the world stage or its other glory days as capital of one of Europe’s great empires, it is by no means marginal today. It is still considered by some to be the center of spying in this second decade of the 21st century. It has also for some time been the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency and of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Imperial Vienna’s legacy goes far beyond nostalgic Strauss waltzes and Sacher torte. In some mysterious way, the Austro-Hungarian Empire seems to have resurrected itself as the European Union. If it had not been recently released from four-power occupation and marginalized as a neutral nation back when the organization was created, its central location might have made it an ideal capital.

Brussels has managed to replicate its bureaucratic hegemony as it struggles to oversee and override conflicting ethnic, political and economic imperatives. Franz Kafka, probably the greatest writer the empire ever saw, drew on its hydra-headed monstrous bureaucracy to summon up what was then a fantastic, futuristic, yet reality-based nightmare. I think he would have experienced the shock of instant recognition in Brussels’ administrative castles with their rules and regulations governing almost every aspect of continental life and European courts overriding national rights and customs.

Like its forebear, the EU seeks to keep the lid on a bubbling caldron. Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of Ferdinand, blew off the lid with one shot. What rough beast stalks Europe today, waiting to strike a similarly devastating blow?

Which brings us back to Mr. Morton’s centennial afterword, already so overtaken by events as to be dated in the months since he wrote it. “Everything has changed.” How could the world have danced for joy at the prospect of a cleansing, purifying war when even its leaders had shied away from its prospect? That is a question that has perplexed the last few generations of writers and scholars, and here yet we find ourselves, exactly 100 years since those heady days, facing a suddenly alarming prospect.

We are once again caught up in those entangling alliances that brought about war, but this time it is our leaders who are snapping and snarling at each other, seemingly heedless of consequences. The populace today is placid and complacent rather than wary, as we — and our political representatives — need to be. History, it is said, never repeats itself exactly, but who, in this 14th year of the 21st century, could have dreamed we could be in a situation so similar to that which our forefathers found themselves in the same year of the 20th?

“Thunder at Twilight” is one of those rare books that inspires readers to think beyond its valuable confines.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.