Thursday, May 21, 2009

Finals, Flu, and Some Developments on Schleswig

OK, so I have missed some of my anniversaries. Unfortunately, working with about two dozen term papers and then being overwhelmed with finals, an especially sick group of test-takers (no swine flu that I know of, but several hospitalized with lung infections, etc.), and some severe cases of senioritis has taken its toll.

By the way, my college, Austin College, is in Texas, though nowhere close to the border, but the authorities were on swine flu alert. As readers of this blog will have perceived, there were loads of references to the 1918/1919 flu in the discussion of this swine flu (and, because of this one, the discussion of the 1976 "failed" epidemic). In both cases, scientists were thinking about the second round of the flu pandemic. It was the beginning of this one which killed several peacemakers in Paris in the early months of 1919.

Well, finals are done: the strong have overcome, the graduators have graduated. So I continue!
Let turn back to the issue of Schleswig-Holstein.

You may remember from my February 22 post that there was a long history to the northern border of the German world. It was a border that was, like most European borders, not especially clear. That is, there was a continuum from one hundred percent Danish speaking, southward, to some point at which Danish-speakers and German-speakers were about fifty-fifty, to some point farther south at which everyone spoke German. This zone (say from one hundred to one hundred percent) started in the middle of the Jutland Peninsula and ended just south of its base—perhaps a hundred and twenty miles north and south. And the Peninsula here averages maybe forty miles wide. (Quote me if you like, but the glib summary I have just made constitutes pretty rough justice. The demographics of the region were hotly disputed by, basically, German scholars on the one hand, and Danish scholars on the other, for fifty years.)

In any case, with the wars of German Unification, the region ended up not as a proud, independent German state of the new federal Germany, but as a somewhat unwilling province of Prussia, the largest German state, the one to rule them all, so to speak.

If we scroll forward to the Peace Conference, we have Woodrow Wilson insisting on "self-determination" and meaning ethnic togetherness. We have the whole French diplomatic establishment insisting on the old truism (outworn even in 1919) that cutting down the size and population of a state would cut down on its power, and of course on the application of that rule in cutting as much territory away from Germany as possible.

Clearly, Alsace-Lorraine would go back to France. Clearly, Wilson's concern with Poland would place many parts of Germany in Polish hands. And some German territory could be handed over in one way or another to Belgium and Lithuania.

But Denmark? Denmark had been neutral in the War. Yet the Entente diplomats found a way. German states, especially Prussia, had "unjustly" taken too much territory in the Danish War of 1864. This incorporation of territory had trapped many ethnic Danes south of the border. Hence, both on grounds of general "justice" (remember Wilson's unctuous commandment to his researchers: "Tell me what is right, and I will fight for it") and on grounds of ethnic self-determination, the Entente began to work (as early as March 1919) on a plan to give Schleswig, or some part of it, to Denmark.

OK. Now we are caught up, at least on this issue, and I promise to add the next installment in a reasonable day or two.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Yeats, Violence, and "The Second Coming"

Yeats was not at Paris, but maybe this would be a good time not only for me to get back on the line, but also to introduce the theme of a broader cultural critique of the age of the "The Peace."

As we have seen in the last post (pun accidental, but there it is, at least for all who are familiar with the famous British bugle call), the violence of the war had lessened in its horrifying intensity with the Armistice, but much, much more violence was in store. The very period of the Peace that we are looking at was a time in which our modern "left" and "right" were being more highly defined, and in which the murderous aspects of modern national identity began to take on more definition as well. The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset was already writing the material that in the late twenties became The Revolt of the Masses, in which the liberal philosopher decried the rise of barbarism associated with "mass man." His idea was not that social inferiors were taking over the system, but rather that the modern high-tech, crude demagogue represented a great danger for civilization. Ortega y Gasset was thinking of what the nineteenth-century art historian Jacob Burckhardt called the "simplificateurs terribles" (terrible simplifiers), men who would use the technology of modern life to power over the masses, whose faith was their driving force.

If we consider that the period between 1917 and 1919 saw the foundation of the Bolshevik regime, the formation of the Fascist party in Italy, and Hitler's conversion of a tiny crackpot political grouping Munich to the NSDAP, the National Socialist Party--well, we have the true generation of the whole "totalitarian" triumvirate so to speak, and precisely during the later phases of the war and the time of the peace conference.

To make a long story short, much that was happening seemed to thinking contemporaries a kind of retrograde motion in terms of civilization. British war poet Wilfred Owen sensed this in his grim vision "Strange Meeting," in which he describes a "trek from progress." A trek not toward progress, but from it. Other poets, philosophers such as Ortega y Gasset, and cultural observers of all kinds could see aspects of the same trend.

Among them was the great Irish mystic, the poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). Already in January 1919--as the Paris Peace Conference was opening, a telling conjunction indeed--Yeats was writing one of the great poems of the twentieth century and a powerful critique of times out of joint in "The Second Coming." (For a very fine short analysis of the poem, see this essay.)

In the poem, printed just below, the poet becomes the prophet. It is well worth reading. It certainly discerns a design for a violent century.

The Second Coming

by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.

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Design of a Violent Century by Hunt Tooley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.