Book Review: Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914

Morton, Frederic, Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914, Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1989.

Thunder at Twilight offers a detailed history – really almost an exposé – of the conditions of Viennese life that preceded the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which, as we all know, indirectly led to the First World War. The book is extraordinarily well-researched; the author even goes so far as to relay to us the weather on days of particular importance, and to describe which writers and operas were popular at the time. In other words, it creates a very large picture of Viennese society – a society on the verge of cataclysm – by revealing the minutest details of everyday life in a city in turmoil, and, by extension, a Europe in turmoil.   

What’s particularly interesting and most unique about this book is the way it examines its chosen moment in history by tracing the thoughts and interactions of a variety of important figures of its time. Thus not only are we offered insight into the life of Emperor Franz Joseph, and of the Archduke’s eventual assassins, but also of Adolf Hitler, who was then residing in Vienna as an unknown painter, and Leon Trotsky, who had made of Vienna a temporary home, and even Josef Stalin, who visited the city during these crucial years. Even the story of Sigmund Freud is deftly interwoven into this fascinating mix of individual histories, thus providing a perspective on the psychoanalytical as well as the political thought of the that era.

It is perhaps because of this unusual presentation that Morton manages to strike us with particularly fresh observations on the very essence of Viennese life. He remarks, for example, that Freud’s theory of the id-ego-superego parallels the structure of the old Viennese government. By focusing on slights on the Archduke’s wife, a mere Duchess who is not permitted royal privileges in accord with the aristocratic distinctions of the time, he effectively illustrates the rigidity of the turn-of-the-century Viennese class system. He notes the power and prevalence of “thunderbolt” imagery in contemporary politics, and imagines the storm that follows as a means of clearing away the stifling air of industrialization. And, ultimately, he concludes that the Great War was a reaction, not to the political assassination alone, but to the changes effected by modernization; to “progress unmoored from God.” Thus he departs somewhat from the oft-heard presumption that World War I was a result of rabid European nationalism; rather he claims that this nationalism was engendered by a vague and even continent-wide dissatisfaction of the people of Europe with their economic and social lives.

All in all, it’s a fascinating book, and well worth the read. I did find the style of writing a bit cheesy at times, and the characterizations of Vienna (of which Morton is a native) occasionally a little harsh. But it also lends a wonderful reality to one’s perception of the situation in Europe a hundred years ago, a climate that resulted in the worst war the world had then known. By looking at the years 1913/1914 through Viennese eyes, the reader can clearly see, can even possibly hope to analyze, the events, both direct and indirect, that led to that war. And this is perhaps the first step towards an understanding of the genesis of all wars.

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