14 November 2014

XIIth Prizes for History "Duke d'Arenberg"

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History Prizes "Duke d'Arenberg" Prizes

Programme

Welcome by Mark Eyskens, president of the Arenberg Foundation and by Prof. Hilde De Ridder- Symoens, president of the prize committee.

Presentation of the work of Sander Berghmans:

  • “Een studie van de heerlijke inkomsten en uitgaven in de late 17de en de 18de eeuw. De bezittingen van de hertogen van Arenberg in het land van Edingen en het prinsbisdom Rebecq” by Prof. Wim Blockmans.

Reply by the laureate

Interlude by the Arenberg choir

Presentation of the work of Christopher Clark:

  • “The Sleepwalkers. How Europe went to War in 1914” by Prof. Jean-Marie Cauchies.

Reply by the laureate

Conference: “The Sleepwalkers and the Origins of the First World War” by Prof. Gita Deneckere.

Conclusion by H.S.H. the duke d’Arenberg

Reception

Laureate Sander Berghmans

Messeigneurs, excellenties, dames en heren,

Het is nu reeds meer dan een jaar geleden dat ik mijn thesis , voornamelijk gebaseerd op bronnen uit het Arenbergarchief te Edingen en Algemeen Rijksarchief te Brussel, enigszins nerveus, ging indienen op het secretariaat van de faculteit letteren en wijsbegeerte aan de Ugent. Op dat moment had ik nooit gedacht hier vanavond te zijn. Het is dan ook met grote blijdschap dat ik jullie hier allen te woord sta.

As already mentioned by professor De Ridder - Symoens , this thesis doesn’t focus on the big names of the family or on their glorious battles, but on a less spectacular aspect of the history of the family . Namely, the organisation, management and supervision of the possessions of the duke of Arenberg in and around the town of Edingen , or Enghien as it is called in French , over a period of 150 years.

Il est évident qu’une période d’une telle durée exige l’analyse de centaines de comptes, de lettres et de règlements. Mais ces efforts ont en valu la pei ne. Les sources ont raconté leur histoire et ont donné la possibilité de réconstituer les revenus et les dépenses de la terre d’Enghien et la principauté de Rebecq. Hoewel het bestuderen van boekhoudkundige cijfers en documenten op het eerste zicht nogal droog overkomen, gaven deze bronnen evenwel een fantastisch inzicht in de manier waarop een domein georganiseerd werd. Niet onbelangrijk is, dat de ze bronnen ons tegelijker tijd ook informatie kunnen geven over de situatie in het gebied zelf.

Parce que, la présence d’un seigneur possédant un si grand domaine a eu un impact signifiant sur les habitants de la ville d’Enghien et les petits villages environnants. Un premier exemple; une grande partie des forêts autour de la ville d’Enghien était en possession du Duc d’ Arenberg . En deuxième exemple, je cite , l’administration du Duc dans laquelle était organisée une partie de la justice dans ce territoire.

Taking those examples in account, it became clear that the duke and his steward played a very important role in the town of Edingen, and its surrounding villages. But, it wouldn’t be right to talk only about the income side of the bookkeeping records . With the investment in buildings , forests, mills, ... the duke created a lot of employment for the local population. Another notable and a surprisingly large cost, were the charity expenses. So, as well as making profit, there was also a symbiotic relationship between the dukes administration and the local population, explained by the fact that the dukes possessions in this area were very extensive .

Retenant ces exemples détaillées , je peux vous assurer que c’était très agréable de travailler avec des sources si complètes et accessibles.

Je vous remercie vous, Monseigneur, et tous vos ancêtres pour la conservation des archives qui ont donné la possibilité d’écrire cette thèse. Je vous remercie également pour ce prix et pour toutes les autres initiatives qui stimulent les recherches historiques.

Daarnaast wil ik ook het wetenschappelijk comité bedanken voor het toekennen van deze prijs en specifiek professor De Ridder - Symoens voor het uitspreken en professor Blockmans voor het opstellen van deze laudatio. Ook mag ik niet vergeten de mensen te bedanken die mij geholpen hebben met het tot stand komen van mijn eindverhandeling. Eerst en vooral wil ik mijn dank uitspreken voor de hulp van mijn promotor; Professor Thoen. Hij bood mij de mogelijkheid om rond dit onderwerp te werken en ondersteunde mij steeds met de nodige raad. Daarnaast wil ik ook Nicolas de Vijlder bedanken die mij voor de eerder technische aspecten ondersteuning bood . Ook mijn ouders, broers en grootvader mag ik niet vergeten. Zij steunden mij zowel moreel als met een kritische blik . Ook al mijn vrienden die mij op de een of andere manier geholpen hebben zou ik nog willen bedanken. Tenslotte zou ik ook mijn dank willen uitspreken aan de archivarissen die mij geholpen hebben. Mevrouw Bické, meneer Lernout en mevrouw Vanden Hove in het archief te Edingen en meneer D’Hoore in het Algemeen Rijksarchief te Brussel hebben steeds hun uiterste best gedaan om mij bij te staan in mijn zoektocht naar het benodigde archiefmateriaal.

Een studie van de heerlijke inkomsten en uitgaven in de late 17de en de 18de eeuw. De bezittingen van de hertogen van Arenberg in het land van Edingen en het prinsbisdom Rebecq

Jean - Marie Cauchies, Presentation of the work of Christopher Clark

Christopher Clark: “The Sleepwalkers. How Europe went to War in 1914”

Prix d’Arenberg 2014 Académie royale de Belgique, 14 novembre 2014

Récemment, dans une émission télévisée en Belgique francophone, on interrogeait un groupe de jeunes s’affairant à l’entretien de tombes de soldats morts au champ d’honneur durant la Première Guerre mondiale. Activité sympathique à travers laquelle ces adolescents prenaient conscience d’être en quelque sorte des passeurs de mémoire. Le réalisateur les questionna sur la nature même de ce conflit. Tout ce qu’ils purent en dire, citant leur source : l’école, est que « deux pays » (non autrement identifiés : je présume qu’il s’agissait de l’Autriche - Hongrie et de la Serbie) se sont fâchés (pourquoi donc ?), sont entrés en guerre, et tous les autres ont suivi. Les commémorations de la Première Guerre mondiale, qui ne font que commencer, mettent à juste titre en jeu une « mémoire ».

Mais il me semble y avoir lieu de se demander si la grande oubliée ne risque pas, trop souvent , d’être l’ « histoire ». Deux perceptions complémentaires sont ici en présence. La « mémoire », en enregistrant des témoignages, écrits (de témoins directs), oraux (de leurs descendants), fait une grande place à l’affectivité mais expose au risque de tout brasser dans la même cuve. L’ « histoire », quant à elle, privilégie la connaissance, de faits, de figures, de rouages, qu’elle soumet à un examen critique. La première tend à évoquer, à représenter, la seconde à reconstituer, à expliquer.

Le livre de Christopher Clark est le bienvenu, tant il contribue puissamment à cette seconde démarche. Il est paru à point nommé, en 2012 dans sa version originale en langue anglaise, en 2013 dans sa traduction française : Les somnambules. Été 1914 : comment l’Europe a marché vers la guerre .

Marcher : des bruits de bottes ? En fait, il n’en est pas, dans ces pages, pas plus que de tirs d’artillerie. Mais les bottes sont chaussées et les munitions n’attendent que leur mise à feu . Christopher Clark propose une approche certes bien plus politico - diplomatique que militaire des causes du conflit mondial. Je sais qu’on a pu le lui reprocher , mais je pense modestement pour ma part , en non - spécialiste mais honnête lecteur, qu’il a visé juste. Une ligne de force, parmi d’autres, du livre : l’instabilité des exécutifs en place, en proie aux changements de cap. Instabilité politique donc mais aussi une autre instabilité déterminante, autre ligne de force, géographique celle - là : les Balkans, avec son foyer de violence, la Serbie, cet État monarchique en grand e ébullition auquel est d’ailleurs consacré to ut le premier chapitre : « Fantômes serbes ». C’est dans le futur espace yougoslave que débute et finit l’ouvrage : la première des trois parties s’intitule « Sur la route de Sarajevo », et le chapitre qui ouvre la troisième partie (« La crise »), c’est , trois cents pages plus loin, « Meurtre à Sarajevo ». Autour de ce détonateur, l’auteur ne nous propose donc pas une histoire de la guerre mais il en décrypte minutieusement le pourquoi et le comment, « les » pourquoi et « les » comment ». Ce n’est pas un récit de combats, c’est une analyse de comportements. Christopher Clark recherche comment la perspective d’une catastrophe, qui allait effectivement advenir, a pu être perçue. Il serait trop facile d’en imputer la faute à l’un ou l’autre des protagonistes . de « rechercher un coupable » : c’est le processus, je dirais volontiers davantage de mémoire que d’histoire qu’a encouragé le traité de Versailles en stigmatisant le Reich et ses alliés. Il y avait partout des « partis » bellicistes : en novembre 1912, lit - on, par exemple, le ministre russe de la Guerre déclarait déjà que l’affrontement était inévitable et que le plus tôt serait certes le mieux.

Il me semble, à la lecture du livre et moment de l’année oblige, que les gouvernants « jouent à » Halloween, à se faire peur les uns aux autres, sans avoir bien conscience que, bientôt, ce ne sera plus un jeu : c’est cela les « somnambules », un titre dont l’auteur, à la manière d’ailleurs d’Umberto Eco dans le Nom de la rose , ne nous donne toute la clef que dans la dernière phrase du livre : « ils regardaient sans voir ». Dans un monde encore dépourvu de structures et de mécanismes supranationaux qui eussent été susceptibles de prévenir et de désamorcer, le Professeur Clark retrace magistralement l’histoire d’une vaste toile internationale de relations, d’alliances, de conflits déjà bien ouverts – les guerres balkaniques de 1912 - 1913 – ou encore latents... mais ne demandant qu’à cesser de l’être. Au sein même des alliances, faut - il le rappeler, la méfiance est de rigueur, comme entre Grande - Bretagne et Russie en 1914 encore : jusqu’où, en ce sein, faut - il aller pour défendre les intérêts des autres, en l’espèce ceux du tsar dans les Balkans et en mer Noire ?

J’ai beaucoup apprécié pour ma part, m’étant livré pour des siècles antérieurs à pareille démarche, que notre historien dénonce la manie des « récits conspirationnistes », des manipulations de coulisses (tel a voulu la guerre et a tout fait pour...). Ah oui, cela est de nature à plaire à un certain public, mais la thèse de l’ouvrage est de montrer que cela ne résiste pas à l’épreuve des faits . Je cite : la crise – titre, je le redis, de la troisième partie – , déclenchant « 14 - 18 », fut le « fruit d’une culture politique commune », une culture nourrie d’impérialismes, au pluriel.

Plan en trois parties, on l’a dit. La première s’attache aux deux protagonistes à la pointe des événements, royaume de Serbie, empire austro - hongrois. La deuxième, de loin la plus étoffée, campe l’avant - scène du conflit, à travers un vaste tableau des relations internationales en Europe, « un continent divisé », depuis un quart de siècle ; en dépit des guerres balkaniques, tout n’est néanmoins pas perdu, il est encore entre 1912 et 1914 d’ultimes espoirs de détente. La troisième partie couvre un peu plus d’un mois, du 28 juin – Sarajevo – aux tout premiers jours d’août 191 4. On s’arrête là. Tout est en place. le canon peut tonner.

Christopher Clark a brassé pour rédiger son livre une masse prodigieuse de sources et d’ouvrages. Il a rassemblé, lu, soupesé : il accumule les anecdotes, non pour elles - mêmes mais pour la démarche critique à laquelle elles invitent ; il manie récits de témoins, carnets, mémoires, tout autant que documents diplomatiques ou rapports militaires, en toutes langues. Il ose les formules, volontiers paradoxales, soulignant ainsi que les guerres balkaniques se sont en fait déclenchées en... Lybie, avec l’intervention italienne de 1912. Il étonne, il séduit, il convainc. La richesse et la profondeur des investigations, la justesse des analyses, la dimension européenne intégrale des Somnambules ne pouvaient laisser indifférent le jury des Prix d’Arenberg. Voilà pourquoi, en étant pour leur part, je vous l’assure, bien éveillés, les membres de ce jury ont décerné au Professeur Chris topher Clark le Prix d’histoire européenne Duc d’Arenberg 2014.

Prof. dr. Gita Deneckere

“Was there really a war in the Balkans? Some intervention was bound to be taking place; but he was not certain whether it was a war. So many things were moving for mankind. The record height for aeroplanes had been raised once again; a proud affair . If he was not wrong it was now at 3,700 metres, and the man was called Jouhoux. A negro boxer had beaten a white champion and conquered the world title; Johnson was his name. The president of France was going to Russia; people were speaking of a danger for world peace. A newly - discovered tenor earned sums in South America which were unheard of even in North America. A terrible earthquake had hit Japan; the poor Japanese. In a word, a lot was going on, the times around the end of 1913 and the beginning of 1914 were momentous indeed”.

Monseigneur,
Your Excellencies,
Esteemed Colleagues,
Dear Professor Clark,

I was reading to you the musings of Ulrich, ‘the man without qualities’ in the monumental novel “Der Man ohne Eigenschaften” by Robert Musil, of which the first part was published in 1930 and the third, published posthumously, remained unfinished. We are talking about Vienna in 1913, the latter days of the Austrian - Hungarian “Doppel monarchie” , in the words of the avant - garde artist Karl Kraus ‘an experimental station for the Apocalypse’ – the “Götterdämmerung” certainly did nothing to make the modern world in decline less colourful. In Musil’s novel, the highest Viennese echelons decide to prepare for Kaiser Franz - Jozef the first’s seventieth jubilee. This is due to take place in 1918, when Kaiser Wilhelm II will have been on the German throne for thirty years . For this jubilee also, grand festivities are being planned – or so it is rumoured. ‘ A Parallel Action’ is set in motion, as Vienna certainly has no desire to be outdone by Berlin.

‘Sleepwalkers’ is what our distinguished award winner Christopher Clark called the leading figures and decision - makers in the real world, who failed to see the catastrophe of World War I coming in the turbulent times in late 1913 and early 1914: ‘watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams but blind to the reality of the horrors they were about to bring into the world’. Nowadays, we see that period, with the shadow of August 1914 and the horrors that followed, as an end time, or at least the end of an era – but that was not how contemporaries perceived it; for them the future was as just as open and infinite as it is for us, sleepwalkers of our own time.

What can we learn from the history of the First World War ? What more can the flood of publications, conferences , debates, exhibitions , re - enactments, musicals, documentaries, graphic novels and television series in the context of the 100th anniversary of the Great War actually teach us about the past, present and future of mankind? Truly an ambitious question, but that is what the non - specialised public expects of historians: answers to the big Why ? - questions that provide progressive insight to prevent the future recurrence of catastrophes such as World War I. Whether that is actually possible remains of course highly debatable.

World War I was the Urkatastrophe of the twentieth century, ‘the first calamity of the 20th century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang’ ( in the words of the German - born American historian Fritz Stern). It might thus be a more modest ambition for historians to try to make connections between the Urkatastrophe and today’s calamities. According to the late British historian Eric Hobsbawm, the short twentieth century or ‘Age of Extremes’, which began in August 1914, was one of the worst centuries in the history of humanity. The rise of Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism and the tragedy of terror and genocide that the totalitarian systems engendered are directly connected with World War I; the challenge for historians is to trace its aftermath now that the East - West division of Europe has been abrogated.

The Arenberg Committee asked me for this laudatory lecture to give a brief outline of the causes of World War I, a hundred years on. No mean feat, either. Though no specialist in the subject, as a public historian working in a research group in which World War I is one of the spearheads, I felt compelled to comply with that request. After all, in all the remembrance hype of the Great War , it is striking how little attention is being paid to the ‘why’ question and how much of the same story is being endlessly repeated and reproduced: the military action on the front lines, the tactics and strategies of t he commanders, the geopolitical alliances, the atrocities and carnage, the mud and the trenches, the millions of innocent victims, the futility and hopelessness of the war. The more clichéd the manner in which the war is portrayed, the more easily and gratuitously the peace message can be tagged on: ‘no more war’ as an extra finisher.

The topos of the useless, meaningless, senseless war is as old as World War I itself. 50 years ago, it was highly influentially interpreted by Barbara Tuchman in her bestsel ler, The Guns of August (1962) – extremely popular in the bipolar world of the Cold War, especially in the US. With Tuchman, Sarajevo, the Balkans and Austria - Hungary on the eve of the Great War are virtually absent in a narrative in which two power blocks have ended up in an unseen arms race. In that view, the war was the result of the inability to solve the mutual conflicts between the power blocks through negotiation, the inability of panicking leaders to keep peace in Europe. The loss of control over decision-making led to the disaster whose consequences they could scarcely imagine. In that sense, for policy-makers and diplomats, the outbreak of World War I has long been a lesson, especially during the Cold War, on how not to proceed in international politics, an example of poor crisis management .

In the 1962 Cuba Crisis, President John F. Kennedy actually made his cabinet and military advisors read Tuchman’s recently - published book to prevent them from making the same mistakes, miscalculations and poor estimations as the decision - makers on the eve of World War I.

In 1967, in his inaugural speech as Stevenson Professor of International History at the London School of Economics, James Joll warned against such an interpretation of the decision-making processes in 1914. His renowned argument was entitled The Unspoken Assumptions. Joll contended that it was impossible to understand the actions of the decision-makers in 1914 without having insight into their basic assumptions, the unspoken assumptions and principles that had sometimes already been absorbed and internalised forty or fifty years before. Without taking the unspoken assumptions of the actors into account, in Joll’s view diplomatic history was chiefly a waste of time. The American political scientists who delved into the “ crisis management of 1914 ” to learn lessons from the past had, in his view, better given due consideration to their double a-historic approach.

Joll is one of the prominent historians who studied the causes, or the why, of the Great War and, in 1984 , published an important synthesis , Origins of the First World War . In that work, he distinguished between structural explanations – economic, social, political – and intentional explanations, discussing the motives and interpretations of the actors themselves. That, of course , goes to the heart of the broader causality debate in human sciences and the question of how much or how little agency man has in the confrontation with social forces that evidently exceed his power and will, whereby man ‘loses control’, as with the outbreak of the 1914 war. Joll offers a balanced analysis of the two types of cause, and that is what good history should attempt to do.

Decisions made by statesmen and the military can be far less rational than we tend to believe, but the lack of rationale in certain complex events should not necessarily make historians play the structural causes card, or certainly not exclusively. Human error, incompetence, misunderstandings and communication breakdown can also be causes.

Nationalism is seen as the primary structural cause of WWI. In the course of the nineteenth century, nationalism lost its positive, emancipating role and, combined with social Darwinism and militarism, became a dangerous force that legitimised and place d one people above another, one race above another. The nation and state-forming process in Europe after 1870 used the school system and the army to strengthen the common man’s identification with the nation state: The nation state was therefore able to de mand ever - greater sacrifices. The notions of duty and honour, of serving your country and allegiance to the fatherland became steadily more self - evident for increasingly larger groups. From that point of view Belgium was a rather weak nation state in the run - up to 1914: it had one of the most antiquated armies in Europe. King Leopold II had to fight to the day he died for the introduction of compulsory military service - in 1909. Compulsory education was not introduced until 1914 – the two major vehicles for disseminating national feelings and loyalty to the fatherland amongst the masses were far less developed in Belgium than in France, Great Britain, Germany, Austria - Hungary or Italy in the same period. The militarisation of society, the glorification of the nation in the army and its incarnation in the soldier largely passed poor little Belgium by.

It might seem a paradox, but the democratisation of society facilitated the mobilisation of entire peoples for war – hence the growing importance for public opinion of the notion of the ‘just’ war – to defend the values of your own nation, which were deemed superior to those of the possible agressor. According to the military class, which pulled more weight everywhere in Europe, the modern nation should be prepar ed for anything and protect itself against possible attacks. The simple, but devastating logic of the arms race started here: The growing importance of armies for the nation state, combined with the technological advances in the arms industry, boosted defe nce expenditure in a struggle for military superiority, with total war as the result.

Strongly interwoven with the growing nationalism, the second important structural cause of WWI was the economic rivalry between the nation states, which generated growing international tensions. In 1916, in his famous pamphlet on imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism, Lenin argued that since 1900 capitalism had reached its most aggressive phase in the fight for the colonies and the associated commodities and markets. The emergence of Germany as a unified nation state and the rapid economic and military growth of Russia fatally rocked the European Concert that had existed in Europe since 1815 with the objective of maintaining the balances and keeping the peace.

I could elaborate for some time on the accumulation of this type of ‘impersonal’ structural cause that ultimately ‘inevitably’ and ‘irrevocably’ or even ‘fatally’ led to the war. Such a structural explanation may provide analytical clarity, but the actual st ory of the war is consumed in a narrative of causal pressure; the actors are mere puppets of forces that were stronger than themselves. We know the disastrous ending to the story and subsequently structure that story on the basis of our hindsight in a deterministic and teleological sense: nationalism then becomes an overwhelming force and other factors are overlooked or minimised: internationalism and pacifism become defenceless and even slightly ridiculed.

The great merit of Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers is precisely that it is neither an abstract structuralist analysis building up causal pressure , nor a dry retrospective rationalisation of the individual diplomatic moves on the world's chessboard. In Clark’s book, the war was not entirely ‘inevitable’ either; chance is attributed an important role, and so are the mental maps and unspoken assumptions of the actors in the decisions that were made or not made. ‘We cannot be content with a simple review of the successive international crises preceding the outbreak of the war,’ he writes, ‘We have to understand how the events were experienced and processed into stories that coloured perceptions and motivated behaviour’. ‘All the major players saw the world through the filters of stories pieced together from scraps of experience, glued with fears, projections and interests in the guise of worldly wisdom’.

For Clark, the search for the ‘how’ is an alternative route through the events to the ‘why’, without avoiding the question of responsibility. His story is pervaded with ‘agency’, of the greats of the world, crowned heads, the military, diplomats, politicians, each with their own share and responsibility in the outbreak of the war or the other way round , in the question of why war could not have been avoided in an era that appeared to be on the brink of détente. For contemporaries, 1913 and early 1914 were far more a golden age of peace and future promise than a period threatened by war.

Just as Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August was in dialogue with the Cold War at that time in 1962, a good history of WWI is today, too, linked to topical issues and concerns. Suicide terrorism in Sarajevo, empires in decline, emerging powers, the fluidity of power relations, multicultural realms with ethnic tensions and violent nationalism... phenomena that are more characteristic of our own era than of the nineteen sixties. While Serbia was a blind spot in the historiography of the 1914 July Crisis, the attack in Sarajevo at most a provocation, an incident with little causal weig ht, in Clark’s analysis the Balkans are central. For him, it is not just about the clash between two major alliances – the Allies and the Central Powers - it is far more the opposite: the weakness and unreliability of the alliances and the great uncertainty as to who was on which side in the summer of 1914.

Christopher Clark avoids the ‘why’ question, as that leads to the blame game , and where World War I is concerned the Kriegsschuldfrage has been posed again and again.

For the first time on the international political scene in response to article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, that clearly laid the blame at Germany’s door and formed the basis for the severe reparations after the war. Every historical accusation has a built - in telos: proving the guilt of the accused. The historic furnishing of proof and interpretation are hence entirely dominated by the issue of guilt and lead inadvertently to a tunnel vision of the events. In historiography, too, the blame game has, in that sense, remained burning. The best - known example is the Fischer controversy that flared up in 1961 with Griff nach der Weltmacht, by the German historian Fritz Fischer. He did away with any form of mildening of the Kriegsschuldfrage where Germany was concerned . On the  basis of new archive material, he argued that, for years already, politicians and the military elite in Germany had been preparing the war to grab world power. It is an example of a thesis that interprets the actions of the decision - makers as rational and purposeful and narrows the perspective to the guilt and responsibility of one belligerent and imperialistic state.

Clark, however, places himself above the geopolitical chessboard and attempts to oversee the moves and countermoves of all parties involved in the key capita ls of Vienna, Berlin, Saint Petersburg, Paris, London and Belgrade, without losing sight of the periphery of Europe. He focuses not so much on the long - term processes, but on the rapid shifts and the many short - term decisions and subsequent amendments and how that multipolar interaction ultimately led to blocking the international system, something he interprets as a tragedy rather than a crime. In the account of how, from 28 June to 4 August, the chances of peace were ultimately reduced to nil, the actors ’ room to manoeuvre became increasingly restricted . Clark describes the main actors as sleepwalkers who, deep down, were well aware that an Armageddon could be unleashed and immeasurable chaos caused, but they had not yet experienced first hand the terrible injuries the latest weapons could inflict.

Meanwhile, our world has. Have we become wakeful citizens then ? Or rather sleepwalkers, too? With a small amount of historical consciousness , present day nationalism and religious fanaticism, combined with the shakiness of international treaties and supranational bodies that have protected us from war for two generations now, do slightly horrify us. Historical consiousness is extremely fragile, though, and today’s horrors are taking place in front of our noses, albeit at a safe distance, just like the horrors of WWI in the past remain ‘in the end’ at a safe distance .

Four years ago, the Flemish writer Erwin Mortier penned the right phrases in a Remembrance Day reading in Ypres: ‘All too often, we risk reducing the suffering of others to the shiny proof of the reality of our own, rather safe feelings of involvement. We risk turning that suffering into a kind of souvenir, just as my relatives here in the front region made vases out of shells and grenade casings. Moreover, we therefore remain blind to the forces that have set the machinery of fate in motion and we deny ourselves the opportunity to discover patterns in the past that can help us to learn lessons for the present and the future. The success of the European nations in preventing the total catastrophe they have unleashed no less that twice might give us the illusion that the Great Peace has now broken out for good and that we no longer need a w ell - developed historic consciousness ’.

Ladies & Gentlemen , with a minimum of historical consciousness , I think we can fairly easily transpose Ulrich’s reflections in ‘The Man Without Qualities’ to our own eventful time. Perhaps each of you has recently caught yourself thinking such thoughts as: “Was there really a war in Ukraine?” Some intervention was bound to be taking place; but he was not certain whether it was a war. So many things were moving for mankind. A record height for aeroplanes no longer interested him - space travel had meanwhile reached other h eights. A female elite boxer from Zwevezele had beaten the Argentinean champion and conquered the world title, fought for the first time in Belgium; Delphine Persoon was her name. The vice - president of the United States went to Kiev; people were speaking of a danger for world peace. A hip - hop musician named Jay - Z saw 50 million copies of his album sold and earned 92 million dollars a year – his wife Béyoncé raked in 87 million – amounts that made even the best - paid opera diva giddy. A terrible earthquake had hit the Philippines; the poor Philippinos. In a word, a lot was going on, the times around the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 were momentous indeed”.

Decisions made by statesmen and the military can be far less rational than we tend to believe, but the lack of rationale in certain complex events should not necessarily make historians play the structural causes card, or certainly not exclusively. Human error, incompetence, misunderstandings and communication breakdown can also be causes.