Those planning to come to London for the Olympics should read Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March. For London today resembles nowhere more closely than fin-de-siècle Vienna—in good ways, but also in bad.
A hundred years ago, the seemingly immortal Emperor Franz Josef was approaching his 82nd birthday. This year Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her Diamond Jubilee, meaning that she has reigned since 1952. A sprightly 86, she has acquired precisely the same air of immortality as the old Habsburg Emperor (to whom she is no doubt distantly related).
Last week I watched an astonishing number of bandsmen in bearskin hats and bright red tunics rehearsing for the jubilee celebrations, which culminate next month. Stuck in the resulting traffic, I had time to ponder why, at a time of deep cuts in defense spending, Britain can still afford the world’s finest military bands.
“Austerity” has become the watchword of David Cameron’s premiership as he grapples with the huge deficits run up by his Labour predecessors. Yet there is nothing austere about the Diamond Jubilee. On June 3, according to the official website, “Up to a thousand boats will muster on the river as the Queen prepares to lead one of the largest flotillas ever seen on the River Thames.”
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—to give the state its full title—is indeed a remnant of an era when nearly all the great powers of Europe were multiethnic empires held together by revered dynasties. The Habsburgs were deposed at the end of the First World War, along with the Hohenzollerns, Ottomans, and Romanovs. Other lesser royal houses (like the Dutch or the Spanish) have survived. But only the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha—as the Windsors were known until that was felt to be just a little too German—retain the dazzling production values of the pre-1914 era.
Roth’s Radetzky March depicts the last sardonic hurrah of Habsburg Austria-Hungary. The prime culprit is the petty nationalism of Croats, Czechs, Hungarians, and Slovenians. Right on cue, the Scots are preparing to vote in a referendum on independence. The Welsh may be next.
Another distinctive feature of Vienna circa 1912 was the bombastic style of its newspapers, which specialized in publishing scandalous stories and sanctimonious commentaries on them. The satirist Karl Kraus never tired of mocking the hypocrisy of the Neue Freie Presse. He would have loved the ongoing Leveson Inquiry into the phone-hacking activities of the British tabloids, the world’s most unscrupulous panderers to public prurience.
Like Vienna a century ago, London today is one of the world’s most creative cities. Favorite novelist? Ian McEwan. Favorite artist? Francis Hamel. Favorite opera house? Covent Garden (unlike the New York Met, they don’t lock you out if you’re a minute late for Act II).
Yet, as in 1912 Vienna, cultural genius coexists with a toxic populism. Back then, the fatal issue was the “Jewish question.” Today a quite different but potentially just as dangerous question is being asked about the large Muslim immigrant communities in northern towns like Rochdale, where a ring of nine Pakistani and Afghan men have been found guilty of “grooming” dozens of underage girls for what amounted to gang rape. The far-right British National Party is having a field day.
A century ago, Europe was torn apart by a combination of imperial decline, ethnic conflict, and economic volatility. Worryingly, all three ingredients are present in Britain today. Earlier this month we were reminded that if you want to blow a really large hole in an American financial institution, London is the place to do it. In 2008 it was AIG. This year it has been JPMorgan Chase, which has lost at least $2 billion by selling the terrifyingly named credit default swap index CDX.NA.IG.9. The man responsible for the megatrade—which earned him the nickname the “London Whale”—has the ineffably Habsburg name of Bruno Iksil.
Like much of Europe, the U.K. economy now finds itself in a double-dip recession. Last week the Bank of England once again revised its growth forecast downward. Although (mercifully) outside the euro zone, Britain will suffer even more if the crisis over Greece escalates into a full-scale breakdown of the European monetary union. International financial crises are not good for international financial centers.
Karl Kraus once called Habsburg Austria “a laboratory of world destruction” (Versuchsstation des Weltuntergangs). I hate to worry the Olympics organizers, but could the same thing one day be said of Windsor England? I hope not. But I fear so.