Lives Journal 12

Lev Detela




The final epilogue of the three-part novel on the June 1914 Sarajevo assassination, World War I, and the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The German original is ready for print at the occasion of this year’s centennial of the end of World War I; simultaneously, the author is preparing a Slovenian edition. See also the first Slovenian preliminary publication »1914 / Morda je bilo popolnoma drugache«, Revija SRP, februar 2015, shtevilka 121/122. (author’s note)


Time passes. Winter returns. Autumn comes. It may be March. Or June, and then it’s September again.

Everything flows by, everything passes. Years go by. Went by. And here is summer again, or winter. And everything is suddenly four times dearer than it once was in the small Lower Austrian town, where Helena once taught at the main school. Now she works at some scientific institute in Berlin. She still studies the events of World War I, but now her approaches are unorthodox, free, and new. She focuses on the fates of the little people. Her young assistants are trying to turn everything old upside down. With all this, the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph is no longer particularly important.

The former Viennese academic assistant is tired though also much wiser than before. She no longer covets exposure at any cost. Suddenly, after so many years and decades, an almost ungraspable multitude of conferences and symposia, and bends to the left and right, it has become clear to her that history is neither white nor black. History, in fact, is a particularly hard nut to crack. This led some historians to conclude that there exists no single history, but rather that there are several histories of several points of view. This teaches us that historic events must be analysed and evaluated multi-dimensionally. For this reason, one would need to break the habit of applying binary valuation patterns such as ‘perpetrator-victim’ or ‘friend-enemy’.

At any rate, it is often very difficult or even impossible to unravel what prompted individual actions and events. Much remains shrouded in darkness. There exists a multitude of interesting analyses and conclusions about this or that event but all her strenuous research leaves Helena yearning for a single final and ultimate explanation that would stand.

What would happen if Archduke Franz Ferdinand weren’t shot in Sarajevo in 1914? Or had the aged Austrian emperor not allowed military retribution against Serbia?

How wrong we can be! In spite of a general gloomy sense of an unsure conclusion and potential ruin in the final year of the War, Austro-Hungary expects victory and peace. After the Italian air raid on the Friulian Vittorio Veneto on Christmas Day in 1917, which had just been occupied by Austrian forces in the last campaign, Habsburg generals interpret broken glass from the town buildings’ windows as lucky omens, foretelling their famed Imperial army’s imminent victory.

And so it is that Russia in the fog of the Bolshevik revolution faces military ruin, Romania is beaten, Serbia and Montenegro defeated and occupied, two thirds of Albania controlled by Austro-Hungarian troops, and Italians pushed back, deep into Italian territory. Karel I, the last Austrian emperor, is already fantasizing about the Polish crown.

Ah, how wrong we can be! Even with all its numerous victories, the Habsburg state faces hunger brought on by its failing food supply. People are exhausted. Unrest and workers’ strikes arise. An ever-growing number of captured war prisoners generates public discontent; people feel that the captured foreigners are taking their last bites of food, making the prisoners increasingly less welcome.

In November 1918, it all quickly changes. After 1 November, Hungary no longer stands in state alliance with Austria. A Republic is announced in Berlin and the next day, 12 November 1918, the Republic of German-Austria is proclaimed in Vienna.

Yet, nearly fifteen million dead and more that twenty-one million wounded in World War I still did not suffice. A seed is already sown for an imminent new and worse World War. Humanity is blind and deaf, able to learn nothing from history.

The Earth is large, truly the Earth is really large. But it’s also infinitesimally small. Helena knows that now, many decades after World War I everything is different. Multimillionaires everywhere secured their power. Their decisions and demands steer Democrats, who are allegedly in power in the West. Billionaires have the first and last say at every turn. They are no longer sated with their four Villas on the lake, three castles in the hills, and two Yachts in Monte Carlo.

New roads leading to vast shopping centres at the edges of concrete towns and boring satellite housing estates facing ever thicker and slower traffic are spreading into the countryside with no regard for their surroundings. Dusty industrial buildings and concrete warehouses belonging to large international companies have everywhere poisoned, paved, skewed, and destroyed the primordial natural environment.

Trains and railway stations are also no longer what they once were. The former monarchy’s railway palaces were either demolished by World War II bombs or torn down in subsequent economically successful decades because they no longer suited the new traffic and technical demands of the times. They were replaced by massive sterile structures providing a vast array of retail and nourishment services.

The old emperor couldn’t have understood all this. He would have been utterly perplexed and astounded by all these lavish charms of the new era were he still among us after more than a hundred years. Or perhaps he would not. It is known that this old-fashioned man of pre-industrial aristocratic rearing was not particularly trusting of the inventions of his time. However, with all his doubts concerning the benefits of these new possibilities and contraptions, he did his best to allow and even enable these new technical, scientific, and cultural achievements to take root. He made an effort to understand that, which he could not comprehend until the day he died.

It is April again. And next comes summer or winter. On her travels to varied scientific conferences, Helena repeatedly encounters old acquaintances, but they have changed in the meantime. They are either even more egotistical than before, completely at their wit’s end, broken, grey with a variety of hardships, bloated with the self-adulating nothingness inside them, or utterly envious of all who have been successful. And here comes August again, with its ardent light and shadowy cool, ever returning to our lives like all the months of the year, because everything in nature repeats and is yet ever different.

The fields and the air are poisoned, incalculable climate mercilessly strikes and batters vast areas, destroying harvests and hopes. This issue also gets discussed at institutes and seminars, but it is deemed too difficult to have a deciding effect and improve the situation. Even though everything is obviously different in the end everyone is of the opinion that there has been no substantial change.

People at the Berlin Institute have actually lost interest in topics that were deemed important twenty years ago. Even when it comes to cultural policy and science, all there is talk about are receipts, increasing efficiency, favourable sales of scientific achievements, and successful financially viable linking via Internet networks. Experts who have been put in charge of paving a positive and financially successful path to the future are very loud and vivacious, but they only ever converse in small circles amongst themselves. They don’t hear or listen to what is important for the survival of others and crucial for future progress.

Still, Helena and a few likeminded people remain convinced that the past lives on along with all its nearly forgotten former factors and in spite of the many mistakes and blunders. At times, old buildings emerge from behind neglected apartment buildings in some remote part of town like unusual figures known to Helena not only from history books. It occurs that they appear entirely unexpectedly at the most inopportune moments, right there in the middle of the street, sometimes monuments to notable individuals or memorial plaques, inscriptions on tombstones, or almost illegible faded names in old dusty books in the farthest reaches of libraries. Yet they are here, with their wholly personal fates in the midst of the great recorded past of the world, Histories in their own right.

In some special moment, we traverse the mysterious boundary of existence and everything reappears before us clear as day. In truth, nothing really sunk into oblivion. Somewhere in the cracks of the world, a hundred years after the fated events that unhinged the old world still stands a small modest house with low ceilings, where a poor student once lived with his dark thoughts. A shot from his revolver changed absolutely everything. The skies filled with lead, even as the hot June sun brightly illuminated the victorious eagle on the obelisks by the entrance to the Schönbrunn Imperial Court. At the same time, the aged emperor strolled through the beautifully cultivated park at the Bad Ischl resort, during his regular summer retreat. Bees merrily buzzed outside the wide-open windows. It was a marvellous summer with vividly resplendent sunrises and sunsets.

Helena once again finds herself standing in front of the monument to the old emperor. His outline grows ever stranger, blurring in the evening dusk. The setting seems wrong for a monument. The emperor gazes from atop his stone with a hundred year-old stare of sadness, in complete silence almost imperceptibly bowing to crows and sparrows on the grass at his feet. His eyes are empty and hollow. He stands lost in contemplation of times past, alone and abandoned in the twilight. It is quiet and cold, because tired rain is gently falling from the sky.


Translated from Slovenian by Jaka Jarc



Slovenian (gajica)

Slovenian (bohorichica)