Quietly awaiting Armageddon: “quiver theory” and the summer of 1914.

Today is June 25 (2017). Summer is just getting started, and while the rites and rituals of summer life begin their ritual repetition I am, as a historian, often reminded of similar times in the past. In three days, June 28, we will pass the 103rd anniversary of a political assassination that occurred in Sarajevo, the fatal attack upon Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke and heir-apparent to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife Sophie. This assassination, shocking at the time, lit a political fuse that burned t throughout the rest of that summer of 1914, ultimately exploding, in early August, into the outbreak of the First World War. The world was never the same again.

That’s a very old story, but for reasons less historical than emotional I’m drawn to thinking about what the days before that fateful event must have been like, in Europe and for the world. On the surface, the summer of 1914 looked like it was going to be a tranquil and fruitful one for many people. In the fields of France, grain was growing under the sun and gentle breezes, and there was no foreshadowing that these fields would soon be the site of muddy trenches of death. The great cities–London, Berlin, Paris, New York, Tokyo–continued to pulse with their daily rhythms. Years ago I remember browsing microfilm of the New York Times for the weekend of the assassination (June 28, 1914 was a Sunday) just to see what was in the papers around that time. The talk around New York was mostly about summer resorts, the latest fashions, horse racing and fairs. You would never know from this prosaic stuff that the world was about the change so dramatically.

Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Chotek lay dead in June 1914. Their murder in Sarajevo eventually led to the outbreak of World War I.

Yet there were signs. In historical hindsight they seem impossible not to notice, but the forces of violent, volcanic change in the world were there in the summer of 1914, if you knew where to look. They go beyond the political or diplomatic flashpoints that invariably accompany any account of the coming of World War I, crises and “war scares” in the previous years with names like Fashoda and Agadir, that sort of thing. Culturally and socially, there seemed to be unbearable pressure building up, manifesting itself in many ways–agitation for women’s rights and gender equality, labor unrest, terrible conditions in the crowded cities of old Europe, etc. I tend to think that people were more sensitive to these pressures than they may have let on, because it’s difficult to articulate, rationally, a feeling of impending change or foreboding. Some memoirs or histories of the years before the war, like Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, tap into this vibe almost without meaning to, but it’s clearly there.

In the last few years I’ve been trying to make rational sense of these historical ideas, and I’ve talked about this process on my blog before: the idea that there were certain “quivers” in the world in the coming of World War I, which, while often not relating explicitly to issues implicated in the war, were certainly part of the mix. I’ve identified, for example, the curious resonance of the Titanic disaster, and how it shocked the Western world just 28 months before the outbreak of the war, as a quiver. You can find more. Ludwig Meidner, a German expressionist artist, began painting a series of pictures in 1912 with strangely apocalyptic themes, many of which looked, in hindsight, like premonitions of the coming apocalypse. Ludwig Meidner and his work probably represent a quiver. It’s tough to link these factors specifically to the war using traditional historical thinking and analysis. The links there seem to operate on a sort of sub rosa level, involving what psychologist Carl Jung famously termed the “collective unconscious.”

Jung’s “Red Book” is not for the faint of heart–or mind. It is terrifying, bizarre and confusing.

Jung is, I think, relevant to this subject, in more ways than just his controversial theories of collective thought. In 1913, a year before the war, Jung began composing a bizarre diary he called Liber Novus (the “New Book”), which has come to be known as the Red Book. Detailing a series of bizarre apocalyptic visions and journeys of the imagination, the Red Book, which he continued to work on until the 1950s, had been cited by some as evidence that Jung was undergoing a period of psychosis, while others find value in the boldness of Jung’s expression of what was happening in his mind–a realm many of us are reluctant to bring out into the real world. Jung composed the Red Book in strange Germanic calligraphy and illuminated it like a medieval manuscript. Liber Novus was finally published in 2009. I’ve seen it, and it both terrified and attracted me. I have not yet read much of it, but I’m curious whether it offers insights into my “quiver theory,” and whether it can tell us something about the tormented minds of Europeans in the era of the First World War.

Whenever I talk about my “quiver theory,” I have to say something about its application to modern times. Quivers were not endemic to the coming of World War I. It may be happening now. Cracks are clearly appearing in the stability of our modern world in much the same way they did in the years before the First World War. Big-ticket political events like Brexit or the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Accords are the easiest to recognize, but more fundamental, I think, is a mood, an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and foreboding that many of us share but can’t articulate rationally. I’m not predicting another world war–it’s not that simple or literal–but it may well be true that some sort of major change in the world is imminent. Rationally, I would say that climate change and its effects are clearly the most important factor driving the world situation today. Climate change is more than science and politics, or even history; it manifests itself in cultural directions too. Just as historians focused on political events in Europe in the summer of 1914 might not even notice Ludwig Meidner or the Red Book, we today run the risk of seeing a too-narrow picture about what’s happening to our world. My “quiver theory,” nascent and as yet poorly defined as it is right now, seeks to broaden that picture.

This painting by Antonio Parreiras, depicting a forest in summer, was painted in Paris in 1914 just before the outbreak of war. This is a picture of tranquility about to be shattered.

I often think about what Europe must have been like in the last days of June 1914, just before the assassination that changed everything. I think of the farm fields of France as looking like the painting featured at the top of this article. Europe and the world were sleeping, blissfully awaiting Armageddon without knowing it, and the summer that began that year must have seemed at first like any other. History draws us to these “last moment before” scenarios in a curious way. I often wonder if we’re now living through a similar time.

The header image in this article is a painting by Martin Johnson Heade and is in the public domain.
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2 Comments

  1. Dunno ’bout quivers, but I like the idea in that it’s an encouragement to look more widely, and look for the less obvious connections.

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