The Dawn of the Great War

As we commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of world war I, it is worth  considering what the world was like before then, a very different place to that after.

One of the first East European novels I read was novel prize winning Ivo Andric’s The Bridge over the Drina, widely assumed to have been the bridge at Mostar, but was actually further upstream. Though a novel, it tells us as much or more about the time and place than any history book can manage, especially with its descriptions of how the Christian, Moslemand Jewish communities co-habitated.  It is probably what got me thinking about bridges, one of my great obsessions, and from that of buildinigs and engineering in the wider sense. This is a description of the town on the eve of the Great War. Tha kapia is an open space on the bridge where people promenaded, celebrated, socialsed:

“There had been and there would be again starlit nights on the kapia and rich constellations and moonlight, but there had never been and God alone knows whether there would be again, such young men who in such conversations and with such feelings and ideas would keep vigil on the kapia. That wsa the generation of rebel angels, in that short moment while they still had all the power and all the rights of angels and also the flaming pride of rebels. These sons of peasants, traders or artisans from a remote Bosnian township had obtained from fate, without any special effort of their own a free entry into the world and the great illusion of freedom. With their inborn small-town characteristics, they went out into the world, chose more or less for themselves and according to their own inclinations,momentary moods of the whims of chance, the subjects of their studies,the nature of their entertainments and the circle of their friends and acquaintances. For the most paart they were unable or did not know how, to seize and make use of what they succeeded in seeing, but there was not one of the who did not have the feeling that he could take what he wished and that all he took was his. Life (andthat word came up very often in their conversations, as it did in the literature and politics of the time, when it was always written with a capital letter). Life stood before them as an object, as a field of action for their liberated senses, for their intellectual curiosity and their sentimental exploits, which knew no limits. All roads were open to them, onward to infinity; on most of these roads they would never even set foot,but none the less the intoxicating lust for life lay in the fact that they could (in theory at least) be free to choose which they would and dare to cross from one to the other. All that other men, other races, in other times and lands had achieved and attained in the course of generations,through centuries of effort, at the cost of lives, or renunciations and of sacrificse greater and dearer than life, now lay before than as a chance inheritance and a dangerous gift of fate. It seemed fantastic and improbable but ws nonetheless true; they coulddo with their youth what they liked,and give their judgements freely andwithout restriction;they dared to say what they liked and for many of themthose words were the same as deeds, satisfying their atavistic need for heroism and glory,violence and destruction, yet they did not entail any obligation to act nor any visible responsibility for what had been said. The most gifted amongst them despised all that they should have learnt and underestimated all that they were able to do but they boasted of what they did not know and waxed enthusiastic at what was beyond their powers to achieve. It is hard to imagine a more dangerous manner of entereinginto life or a surer way towards exceptinal deeds or total disaster. Only the best and strongest amongst them thre themselves into action with the fanaticism of fakirs and were burnt up like flies, to be immediately hailed by their fellows as martyrs and saints (for there is no generation without it saints) and placed on pedestals as inaccessible examples.

Every human generaion has its own illusions with regard to civilization; some believe that they are taking part in its upsurge,others that they are witnesses of its extinctin. In fact, it always both flames up and smoulders andnis extinguished according to the place and the angle fo view. This generation.. was richer only in illusions; in every other way it ws similar to any other. It had the feeling both of lighting the first fires of one new civilization and extinguishing the last flickers of another which was burning out. What could especially be said of them was that there had not been for along time past a generation which with greater boldness had dreamed and spoken about life, enjoyment and freedom and which had received less of life, suffered worse, laboured more hardly and died more often than had this one.

But in those summer days of 1913 all was still undetermned, unsure. Everything appeared as an exciting new game on that ancient bridge, which shone in the moonlight of those July nights, clean,young and unalterable, strong and lovely in its perfection, stronger than all that time might bring and men imagine or do.”


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