Thursday, November 26, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Brushes With History

I feel a certain sympathy for the younger generations these
days --- restrained to staying so much at home, limited
mostly to virtual studies, not being able to travel, and
generally forced to sublimate so much natural exuberance
that arises only in the years of one’s youth.

I was fortunate in my youthful years. I had a loving and
middle class family, a good education, and was able to travel
quite a bit. I had many interests at an early age, including
reading literature and history, watching baseball and playing
tennis, investing in the stock and commodity markets,
following national politics, classical music, and working in
a paying job in the summer --- all this before going to college.
I also had an active social life and, after junior high school,
lots of friends and activities. All of it combined to bring me
out of the shyness and uncertainty I had felt in childhood.

Everyone has a life story. Mine has been filled from the
beginning with fascinating characters, and not a few brushes
with history in which I have only been a sightseer, albeit one
who could take notes and later tell some interesting stories.

I am going to tell one now. It happened 53 years ago in Paris.

First, some background.  I had graduated from college two
years before, and had completed one year of graduate school.
I then took a year off for study and travel abroad, first at the
University of Madrid, then Barcelona, and finally an intensive
French learning course associated with the Sorbonne in Paris.
My story occurred during the latter.

I mentioned earlier my early involvement with the stock
market. I started to invest when I was in junior high school.
I had no money to speak of, but  I bought a few shares here and
there, and eventually my father, a physician with no time or
interest in the stock market, let me invest for his account. (By
the time I finished college, I had paid its cost many times over.)
Through summer jobs, I had eventually some money of my
own, and I tried my hand at some of the more technical
investments of put and call options and commodity contracts
which had the advantage of smaller dollar investing.
In college, I continued my modest stock speculations until,
following a tip from my broker, I bought a call on a mining
stock which months later hit pay dirt, and my $200 call became
worth thousands. When I graduated, I had enough saved for a
summer trip to Europe during which I learned to manage my
travel finances through the foreign offices of my stock broker
firm in the large European cities I visited.

Like most U.S. tourists abroad I initially used traveler’s checks
to exchange for foreign currencies, butI found out that I could
get a much better rate by going to my broker’s office in Madrid,
London, Paris, Berlin or Rome, get a check in dollars from them
and cash it for pesetas, pounds, francs, marks or lira at a terrific
rate of exchange at their local bank. In those days,, there was
no euro, and exchange rates varied wildly, especially if you
made a small purchase in dollars. It’s not that much savings if
your trip is short, but when, two years later, I lived for a time
in Madrid, Barcelona, Paris and London, it made a bigger

But money was no the only reason for going to a broker’s office.
It was obviously also a way to keep an eye on my stocks back
in the U.S. via their teletype which also provided in-depth news
accounts in English in case there was a big international story.
This was before cable TV and the internet. A phone call to the
U.S. then cost an arm and a leg. All one had was the limited
daily coverage provided by the Internationsl Herald Tribune
which was not always available or was sold out.

As it turned out, I was living and studying in Paris that summer
of 1967 when the Six Day War broke out in the Middle
East, and for the first few days, no one in Paris seemed to know
how it was going. I immediately went to my stock broker’s
office to read about what was going on in a language I could

My broker in Paris was an American who lived in Versailles
with his wife. He was the grandson of the founder of a
well-known pre-World War I motor car company, and was
very gracious to me. I  think he thought I was the heir to
some fabulous fortune in the U.S. due to my Ivy League
background and  my knowledge of the stock and commodity
markets because he let me hang out all day, and even
invited me to his home in Versailles for a lovely dinner party
followed by a 9:00 p.m art auction nearby --- an auction that
included some very famous painters (Brueghel, DeChirico,
Leger, Miro, et al)

At the small dinner party were other brokers and their wives.
As was the custom in those days, the European offices of
U.S. brokerages often hired persons with royal or noble
titles to impress their clients. This office had its share, and
at the dinner party I met my broker’s colleague who was a
member of the French former royal Bourbon family (not
recognized in the current non-monarchial Republic of
France) over canapes and very good wine. My host then
sat me next to the office managing broker, an elegant older
gentleman named Czernin. I had once written a term paper
in college on the dual monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian
empire, so (to make conversation) I asked Mr. Czernin if he
was related to the Austro-Hungarian WW I foreign minister
who helped negotiate the notorious Treaty of Brest-Litivsk
with Leon Trotsky in 1918.

That a tourist kid from America would ask this question
aurprised him.

“That was my father,” he said. “Come to my office
tomorrow, and I’ll tell you some stories.”

It turned out that Mr. Czernin was, in fact, the current Count
Czernin. His father, Count Ottokar Czernin von und zu
Chudenitz, was  scion of one of Europe’s most noble families
that went back in Czech history more than 500 years (a great
grandfather had once commissioned Mozart to write some
music while he lived at the ancestral Czernin palace and
estate near Prague). After Emperor Franz Joseph died in
1916, his successor Emperor Charles I named Czernin as his
foreign minister, a post held for the remainder of WW I.

His son had stories to tell. As a boy before the Great War, he
spent his summers on the family estate in Czechoslovakia
where a steady stream of  Europe’s royalty, politicians and
industrialists came to see his father and hunt.

He remembered particularly meeting one of his father’s
closest friends, and a frequent guest, whose name was
Franz Ferdinand. He was an archduke, and also incidentally
the heir to his great uncle Franz Joseph’ throne in Vienna.

Yes, he was the same Archduke Franz Ferdinand who was
assassinated a few years later when his chauffeur made a
wrong turn in a crowded Sarajevo street, and changed
modern history so much that we are still living with its
consequences more than 100 years later. That Archduke
Franz Ferdinand.

There were lots of stories about Europe before and between
the world wars. (I wish now I had a tape recorder.) Needless
to say, Count Czernin had my rapt attention. Two days later,
while the Israeli air force was destroying the combined Arab
forces against them in the air and on land, he greeted me
when I came to his office with “I have something to show you.”

When we sat down, he brought out a big leather portfolio
which contained a single item --- a very large photograph of
the attendees at the conference which produced the Treaty of
Brest-Litovsk at which  Russia, one of the main Allied Powers
(France, Great Britain, United States, Italy, etc.) opposing the
Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary,Turkey, etc.),
ended its military effort in the war, and agreed reluctantly to
the humiliating terms imposed primarily by Germany. It
was a brilliant maneuver, freeing up a million Central Power
troops from the Eastern Front and enabled them to be
transferred to the Western Front where their arrival might
enable them to win the war.  But it was too late. Lenin and
Trotsky had taken power in Russia following the ousting of
the tsar in 1917, but were fighting a counter-revolution, and
desperately needed to end the now very unpopular and costly
effort against the Central Powers.  Lenin had delayed signing
the treaty, hoping that Germany, facing widespread food
shortages, would collapse. Finally, he sent War Minister
Trotsky himself to Brest-Litovsk to sign in early 1918.
Months later, Germany did collapse, and the treaty was
annulled by the Armistice in November. The only beneficiary
of Brest-Litovsk ironically was the regime of Lenin and
Trotsky which had gained vital time and resources      
without having to pay the humiliating terms after all.

Count Czernin was unhappy with the final treaty because
the heavy-handed Germans insisted on some terms
unfavorable to their Austro-Hungarian allies. But when he
warned Emperor Charles about it, he was rebuffed and
finally he was replaced. Just another human mistake in a
war of so many tragic and unspeakable errors!

In any event, I was looking at a photograph of the various
Central Powers dignitaries gathered at Brest-Litovsk,
including princes, counts, prime ministers, foreign
ministers, diplomats and generals --- most of them
forgotten today, but then the elites of a world about to
crash to its end. It was obviously an original  --- I had seen
photos like it in history books --- because every person
in the photo had signed their name in ink below their face.
A priceless memento!

This early brush with history was a foretaste of my life
as a  journalist writing about and getting to know the
political figures of today.. They hold no royal or noble
inherited titles (although political family dynasties are not
unknown). Some are outstanding, but on the whole they
seem no less prone to the delusions, presumptions and
misunderstandings of their predecessors.

Copyright (c)  2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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