Thursday, May 29, 2008

Auf wiedersehen, Franz

...I have been concerned with...the way the dynamics and iconography of the Great War have proved crucial political, rhetorical, and artistic determinants on subsequent life. At the same time the war was relying on inherited myth, it was generating new myth, and that myth is part of the fiber of our own lives.
-- Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975)
I was a handsome man and had many women. But more important is to have a good wife, with whom one can share one's life.
-- Franz Künstler (1900-2008)
It's a commonplace to observe that World War I, the "Great War", was a hinge for history. Before August 1914, vistas of endless progress; after, disillusionment. Before, a balance of power; after, a constant struggle for supremacy. Of course, this oversimplifies. Bolsheviks had their belief in the inevitable triumph of the proletariat that would bring about utopia, but only after great struggle. Social democrats believed that melioristic policies could bring about a better world, but that belief was strained by the collapse of Weimar and the subsequent Great Depression. The Depression validated pessimism, and World War II enshrined it.

The number of people alive now who can remember the world before 1914 is quickly declining. Two days ago, one of the last surviving veterans of the war, and the last who fought on the side of the Central Powers, Franz Künstler, died at the age of 108. His life in a way reflected the turmoil of the just-over-a-century for which he lived. He was an ethnic German born in the Hungarian portion of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire to parents who were part of the German diaspora that extended through Eastern Europe to the valley of the Volga. When maps were redrawn following the collapse of the Empire, the place where he was born became part of Romania. He maintained Hungarian citizenship until the second defeat of Germany in World War II led to the expulsion of many East European Germans from their native countries to the now-diminished and divided Germany. Like Frank Buckles, the last surviving U.S. armed forces veteran of World War I, he also served in World War II.

Thanks to Ed Lenci for passing to me the news of Künstler's death.