A hundred years on, lest we forget

A few years ago I needed some emergency dental treatment while on a visit to Germany. As I was waiting for my turn in the dentist’s surgery I picked up an old book from the shelves there and was immediately engrossed in it. It was the autobiography of a major scholar who became Rector (Principal/President/Vice-Chancellor) of an Austrian university in 1913. In June 1914 he was about to preside over a graduation ceremony for 52 graduands. As he was entering the aula maxima, an assistant whispered to him that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, had just been assassinated in Sarajevo.

In his autobiography he wrote that he had an immediate sense of the potentially awful consequences of this act, but he continued to conduct the ceremony, and gave a short speech in Latin on the benefits of education. What he did not know then was that, of his 52 graduands, 40 would die during the 1914-18 Great War. He himself (a Jew) would spend much of the Second World War in a concentration camp (although he survived it), while one of the twelve surviving graduands would be tried for war crimes in 1946. He himself wrote his autobiography in 1947, and he died two years later at the age of 86. He wrote of that day in 1914: ‘The waves and torrents of history were about to engulf us, and I knew it. But I could only say a few platitudes about the civilising power of education.’

As we reflect on the events of 1914 and all that follows, it may be worth remembering that a reference to the civilising power of education is not a platitude. It is, sometimes, all that we have, and it is everything.

Perhaps I can end this post with a short family note. The photo below is of my grandfather, a Lieutenant in the German army during the Great War. He made history by being the first in the history of warfare to drop a bomb from a plane; it landed in the Vicarage garden in Dover, thankfully hurting nobody. On 10 November 1918, just before the war ended, he was hit in the face by shrapnel. The somewhat basic treatment available at the time involved the insertion of a metal alloy to replace parts of his broken jaw. This subsequently proceeded to poison his blood and he died a few years later of the complications. May we all heed the lessons of that terrible war, and of all wars.

Lieutenant Alfred von Prondzynski

Leutnant Alfred von Prondzynski

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5 Comments on “A hundred years on, lest we forget”

  1. V.H Says:

    On a visit to an ex who lives in Knokke we went along the Line from the coast to the French border. What’s truly striking is the utter featurelessness of the place. When I’ve studied books and reports they speak of ‘hills’. But the truth is your mind creates inclines where none exist. And even when there actually is something of a tilt it’s the undulation of a just exposed beach.
    We saw places where the armies faced each other across a valley’s. But had a laser been placed from peak to peak it would’ve hit a fellow standing at the lowest point.
    The ex is a descendant of the Wild Geese and carries the same Gaelic name as I do. Her people settled in that banat/march between the HREmpire/SpNed and France that both armies parked themselves in 1914. It took 10 years before her grandfather could put a marker over his parents who’d passed in 1913/14.
    Anyhoos. 34 members of our family are under that sliver of Belgium. Most of whom are marked upon the stones of the Menin Gate and the curtain wall at Tyne Cot. And that was only for that sector.
    For any going to see the front line in Belgium a visit to Diksmuide will pay dividends. There the Belgians built a tower, an ugly thing if I’m honest, and from the parapet on top the distances you can see give you a good grip of scale since it’s midway between the sea and Ieper/Ypres.

  2. C H Sorley has always been an interesting and ignored writer of WWI. He was studying in a German Uni immediately before, and had strong empathy for his German peers.

    He fought them, naturally – the argument of his poems were later taken over by his letters, to the poems’ detriment. But he always strove for a balanced and fair view of the conflict

  3. cormac Says:

    Who was the scholar, Ferdinand? In which Austrian university was he Rector?
    Btw, I just finished Anita Shreve’s latest ( ‘The Many Lives of Stella Bain’). A superb novel, brings out the hardship of WW1 incredibly well

    • I’m afraid I didn’t take a note of his name or university – I had to go and get my teeth done! I’ve been looking for this book online and still hope I’ll find it somewhere. I like Anita Shreve, must get that one.

  4. […] Alfred von Prondzynski image source (from A University Blog by Dr Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Alfred von Prondzynski’s grandson) […]

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