Lessons From 1914 for Israel in 2014

Oded Carmeli
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Austro-Hungarian soldiers, Bohemia, 1914.Credit: AP
Oded Carmeli

Until his death in 1942, at the age of 61, Austrian writer Robert Musil harked back persistently to August 1914. In his diary he describes the ecstasy in the streets of Berlin, the gangs of patriots in the cafes, the young people who threw themselves onto train tracks because they were not sent to the front. And Musil himself was no exception. “This is a time for action, not words,” he wrote in the literary weekly Die Neue Rundschau – and left Berlin to join the Austrian army.

Musil later drew two conclusions from August 1914. First, all the arguments concerning man’s nature, essence and identity were fatally wrong. “Human nature is as capable of cannibalism as it is of the ‘Critique of Pure Reason,’” he wrote in his great novel of ideas, “The Man Without Qualities,” adding, “the same convictions and qualities will serve to turn out either one, depending on circumstances.” And Musil’s second conclusion from World War I: Most people are incapable of living with the first conclusion.

A utopian, Musil sought to create a new man, a “man without qualities,” who would be impervious to any identity history might force onto him, and this “man without qualities” would establish “a state without identities.” But until that comes to pass, “The Man Without Qualities” – the monumental work acclaimed, and denounced, as a novel without a plot – can be read from end to beginning: The “state without identities” would be a type of Austro-Hungary. Indeed, more than any other, Musil’s utopian state would resemble the ephemeral empire that became a legend and a joke in its own lifetime.

With affectionate irony, Musil calls his lost homeland “Kakania,” based on the initials of the “imperial and royal” empire (“Kaiserlich und Königlich”), the compromise name agreed upon in 1867 by the Austrian empire and the Hungarian monarchy. Yet this artificial entity, says Musil, “was, without the world’s knowing it, the most progressive State of all; it was the State that was by now only just, as it were, acquiescing in its own existence. In it one was negatively free, constantly aware of the inadequate grounds for one’s own existence and lapped by the great fantasy of all that had not yet happened.”

As history proves, this is not merely an expression of nostalgia on the part of the former Austro-Hungarian writer. In 1917, when the Kakanians at long last became positively free, the imperial and royal empire was supplanted by a series of failed regimes, fascist and racist (suffice it to note here how the conditions of the Jewish minority in each of the new nation-states was worsened). History shows that Musil was right when he predicted, already in 1930, that the state of the future would be Kakanian in character. The fact is that after all the ethnic cleansings, internal conflicts and two world wars, most of the inhabitants of Kakania are today united in an even larger mega-national framework: the European Union.

For to be free negatively is indeed more progressive than to be free positively – meaning, to live in a state that takes your identity seriously. As Musil explains, “It is always wrong to explain the phenomena of a country simply by the character of its inhabitants. For the inhabitant of a country has at least nine characters: a professional one, a national one, a civic one, a class one, a geographical one, a sex one, a conscious, and unconscious and perhaps even too a private one… [This] permits a man everything, with one exception: he may not take seriously what his at least nine other characters do.”

Historical-cultural hatred

It follows that the comparison, being drawn by increasing numbers of Israelis on both the right and the left, between Israel’s situation and the situation of early-1930s Germany falls wide off the mark. Although the left likens our situation to that of the Germans, and the right likens our situation to that of the Jews – both sides agree that the situation in general recalls that of Germany on the eve of the Nazis’ ascension to power. But Germany at the cusp of Nazism was a country that took its identities with utmost seriousness.

If we want to draw historical analogies – all of which are groundless by their very nature, because you can’t compare millions of people to millions of people – then Israel actually resembles Kakania: a country whose political fluidity faithfully reflects, perhaps more than any other country in the world, the fluidity of the human subject.

Yes, like that royal-imperial entity, our Jewish-democratic one is also a model of dynamism and schizophrenia, a country that’s compatible with the rapid pace of modern life: “By its constitution it was liberal, but its system of government was clerical. The system of government was clerical, but the general attitude to life was liberal. Before the law all citizens were equal, but not everyone, of course, was a citizen. There was a parliament, which made such vigorous use of its liberty that it was usually kept shut; but there was also an emergency powers act by means of which it was possible to manage without Parliament, and every time that everyone was just beginning to rejoice in absolutism, the Crown decreed that there must now be a return to parliamentary government.”

Like the national conflict in Kakania, our Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, all told, a historical-cultural process that cannot alter the genuine fondness that the conflicted parties feel for one another: “But it would be wrong to think of the notorious Kakanian nationalist rivalries as particularly savage. It was more a historical process than a real one. The people actually quite liked each other; even though they did crack each others’ heads and spit in each other’s faces, it was done as a matter of higher cultural considerations, as when a man who normally wouldn’t hurt a fly, for instance, will sit in court under the image of Christ Crucified and condemn another man to death.”

Finally, in Kakania just as in Israel, the historical-cultural hatred cultivated a tradition of hairsplitting, skepticism and learnedness that penetrates even the most prosaic everyday life: “Persons who had to deal with some commonplace problem such as building a school or appointing a stationmaster found themselves discussing this in connection with the year 1600 or 400, arguing about which candidate was preferable in the light of what settlements arose in the Lower Alps during the great Gothic or Slavic migrations, and about battles fought during the Counter-Reformation.”

As everyone knows, here in Israel every taxi driver can go back in time as far as 3000 B.C.E. in order to prove a political point.

Musil scholars are divided over the question of why he did not complete the writing of “The Man Without Qualities” (of which a new Hebrew edition of Avraham Carmel’s translation is being published by Schocken). Some claim that Musil died before he had time to forge the new man, who would not believe any story that history told him about himself. According to others, though, it is inherently impossible to tell a story about a person who doesn’t believe in stories – in other words, Musil succeeded, and his partial novel is perfect in its partiality. Be that as it may, 100 years later, most people are still adopting external stories as personal qualities, and invented identities as a serious basis for politics.

“Kakania,” Musil observed, “was the first country in our present historical phase from which God withdrew His credit: the love of life, faith in itself, and the ability of all civilized nations to disseminate the useful illusion that they have a mission to fulfill.”

The first – but not the last country. Indeed, in recent years, most of the countries of the Middle East have had a hard time disseminating the illusion that they have a mission. Yet, precisely this blood-drenched transition period between one illusion and the next is the golden age of sober-eyed confusion – a period in which man suddenly grasps “the incomprehensible fact that there are seven days in the week. There are so many inexplicable things in life, but one loses sight of them when singing the national anthem.”

Who knows? Maybe 100 years from now, when every national, ethnic and religious identity in the Middle East has been vouchsafed its own state, and these states have cleansed themselves of competing identities and are fighting one another to the bitter end – maybe then historians will look back kindly on our small, peculiar country, which, thanks precisely to its conflicts, rifts and tensions deserves the title of “most progressive state of all.”

Quotes from “The Man Without Qualities,” from the translation by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser (1953-1960) and the translation by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike (1995).

Robert Musil.Credit: Getty Images