The End of Empires

On Saturday, June 28, I was moving through Fiumicino, the Rome International Airport, on my way with my 95-year old mother to catch a plane that would bring us back to Philadelphia. That day one hundred years ago the 19-year old Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The date and its significance was on my mind because one of the books in my summer reading has been Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, a look back at the Great War, World War I, through the perspective of the poetry, novels and memoirs of those who fought in that “war to end all wars.”

On Monday, July 28, I was moving through Zaventem, the Brussels International Airport, on my way to the plane that would bring me to Chicago. The Flemish daily newspaper, De Standaard, was banner advertising a new book, Een korte geschiedenis van de eerste wereldoorlog (A Short History of the First World War). For that day was the centenary of the Hapsburg Empire’s declaration of war on Serbia. All the world thought it would be a war over by Christmas. Fussell and Adam Hochschild in To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion 1914 – 1918 chronicle the horrors of those four years which, because of the humiliating terms of the “peace treaty” imposed on the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey), set the stage for World War II and the global nature of all major geopolitical conflicts since.

My summer travels and work – preparing for the third international meeting of Norbertine Associates in the abbey of Teplá (Czech Republic) in July 2015 and making initial arrangements for a Center for Norbertine studies research project in Belgium – brought me close to more particular national dimensions of World War I. One has only to visit the Norbertine abbeys of Central Europe – even after their devastation in the Communist era (1950 – 1989) to get an idea of the high position these communities and their abbots played in the government and economy of pre-World War I Europe. Abbots mingled with nobility at Marienbad (a Norbertine foundation) and vast holdings of land shaped the local economies. With the downfall of the  monarchies these abbeys found themselves in republics little inclined to maintain the privileged status of religious communities.

The first and longest lasting victim of the war was Belgium, a neutral nation in 1914, but also the clearest way for the forces of the Central Powers to march toward Paris. On August 4, 1914 (eight days after Vienna’s declaration of war against Serbia) German infantry invaded Belgium which, in anticipation of the attack, blew up its bridges and tunnels of access. The retaliation of the invading forces was savage. The library of the University of Leuven was set afire, villages were raided, civilians imprisoned, forced into involuntary labor or killed. Fr Dominic Wouters of our Grimbergen Abbey was bayoneted to death in his parish two weeks after the invasion. Church bells were confiscated and melted down for munitions and to this day the munitions, gas masks, meal tins, and bones of troops from both sides come to the surface as Belgian and French farmers plow the fields torn apart by four years of trench warfare.

But the conquering powers of World War II had learned a lesson. In place of a humiliating “peace” there was the Marshal Plan and in the non-Soviet occupied lands a rebuilding. In God’s good times, after the fall of Communist regimes, our once imperial abbeys made into insane asylums and army barracks by those totalitarian governments, have returned to their ancient monasteries but to a much simpler way of life. In Teplá, whose Abbot Hellmer was made a Knight of the Garter by England’s King Edward VII, the present abbot sets the tables and helps serve the guests in the small refectory that has replaced the former grand dining spaces now being restored for receptions and conferences.

Monday. August 4, 2014, one hundred years after the invasion of Belgium by the Central Powers, the leaders of Great Britain, Belgium, France and Germany gathered in Belgium to remember their dead and to celebrate the peace that endures between them today – while in the Mideast and Eastern Europe the world once again seems threatened by prospects of global conflict.