More than 90 years have passed since that August of 1914 when a peaceful and progressive Europe came to an end. Historians can attribute most of the woes of the century -- the rise of Hitler and World War II, the Bolshevik revolution, Stalin, and the Cold War -- to that fatal breakdown of the old order that came with the First World war. Curiously, before the slaughter in the trenches taught them otherwise, many Europeans in 1914 welcomed the coming apocalypse as a cleansing force for the moral good of nations, a sweeping away of what they thought had become corrupt and decadent.
There was also a strong belief in empire, of the civilizing effects of what Europeans could teach "those lesser breeds without the law," as Rudyard Kipling put it.
The last decades of the 19th century were called the Belle Epoque, a materialistic, hedonistic age of peace and plenty that no distant cloud could ever threaten. Or so it seemed.
Yet as pleasant as those last days of peace might have been, there were discontented intellectuals. Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, quotes Thomas Mann on war as a moral necessity, "both purging and a liberation." In England, "any vestiges of (Oscar) Wilde would be swept away at last, and the reign of Kipling secured," Gopnik writes.
Even Sherlock Holmes, who surely should have known better, tells Dr. Watson in the summer of 1914 that the coming war will be "cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind, nonetheless, and a cleaner, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared."
The American ambassador to Imperial Germany in 1914, James Gerard, wrote in his memoirs that when war was declared, "there was a general feeling among the Germans that their years of preparation would now bear fruit, that Germany would conquer the world and impose its Kultur among all nations."
One has to wonder if, among those discontented intellectuals of the Bush administration, there was not a similar impatience with America's "belle epoque," the decade of peace and plenty between the end of the Soviet Union and 9/11. Some of the Republicans close to Bush today called themselves "the Vulcans" after the Roman god of fire. Did they perceive a moral decay and a lack of imperial will in that brief, fin de siecle age of Bill Clinton, whom they despised? Did they perhaps see in the sloppy Clinton White House, culminating in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the modern equivalent of an Oscar Wilde age waiting to be swept away by the harder values of the right?
Did the German plans for war in 1914 and the German dream of spreading Kultur to other nations by force have their echo a century later in America with the pre- 9/11 plans to invade Iraq in order to spread democracy and American Kultur to lesser breeds without the law? If so, then the assassination of the Austrian archduke in Sarajevo in 1914 and Sept. 11, 2001, provided both sets of narcissistic idealists with the crisis they needed to put their plans into action.
George Bush's foreign policy is described as "Wilsonian," but perhaps it has more in common with an Imperial Germany that thought that a whiff of gunpowder and the use of raw power in the service of empire might restore moral fiber as well as make the world over in its image.
Like the German dreamers of 1914, the Bush administration's warriors had little doubt that their Kultur was superior and that all upon whom it was imposed would eventually be grateful. Neither the kaiser's general staff nor Donald Rumsfeld seemed to have any idea that the wars they planned would not be over by Christmas. Imperial Germany had its von Schlieffen plan for the conquest of France drawn up long before hostilities began, and the United States had its Wolfowitz plan for Iraq long before 9/11 presented an opportunity.
The German dreamers lost the war and their kaiser. George Bush's war planners have probably lost the war in Iraq and have most certainly made the more important struggle -- against extremist Islamic terror -- harder.
© 2004 Boston Globe