Ideas that add up #102

Nowadays the notions of professional honour and family honour and personal honour, by which Herr von Trotta lived, seemed nothing more than the final residue of implausible and childish tales. But back then an Austrian district commissioner of the stamp of Herr von Trotta would have been less distressed by the news of his only son’s death than by the mere suggestion that he had conducted himself dishonourably. By the lights of that vanished epoch, obscured from our view as by the fresh graves of the fallen, an officer of the K-and-K army who had failed to kill someone who had impugned his honour merely because he awed him money, was a calamity, and worse than a calamity: it was a disgrace for his father, for the army and the Monarchy.

Joseph Roth The Radetzky March

Nuts. But it makes perfect sense in the context of that novel, about four-fifths of the way through, by which time you are wholly acclimatised to the circumstances of Herr von Trotta’s life, the mental frames within which that life has unfolded, the love he feels but has no tools for expressing for his disappointing, unappealing dragoons-guard son, and the backdrop of the sclerotic Hapsburg empire shuffling into the maw of catastrophe. WWI is waiting, at the end of the novel, to devour their world.

It seems that a hypertrophied sense of honour – personal, professional, political – had a lot to do with the slide into war:

(German Chancellor Theodore von Bethmann Hollweg)…seemed not to be able to see beyond a masculine code of honour that compelled German support for Austria-Hungary in 1914. To have done otherwise in July, Bethmann wrote in 1921, would have been tantamount to an “impossible capitulation”.

(British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey)…warned the House of Commons of impending catastrophe. His speech…advocated the use of force to uphold British moral authority in Europe by defending Belgian neutrality, diplomatically first, and militarily if and when needed. To do otherwise would be a “sin”.

Duncan Kelly review of “July Crisis: The World’s Descent Into War, Summer 1914” and “The Month that Changed the World: July 1914” in FT July 5th, 2014
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