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The world in upheaval - «Even we don't know whether wars are waiting for us»

SRF: When you hear the title of your book “Comet Years”, one immediately thinks of Halley's Comet, which casts a spell over humanity every 76 years. It had also been seen in 1910. But your book is aimed at the year 1918 and is nevertheless called “Comet Years”. Why?

Daniel Schönpflug: In my book, the comet is a metaphor. His appearance brings a sense of time to the point.

A time in which something comes to an end, not just a war, but an entire epoch - and in which something new is emerging. The comet stands for visions and hopes that appear briefly and then burn out.

A comet is also a sign of upheaval and revolution. But in 1918 the Russian Revolution was already history.

In Russia, 1917 was indeed decisive. But in 1918 there was also a whole series of revolutions - in Germany, Austria, Eastern Europe.

Even in Western countries, movements have started making revolutionary claims. In this respect, 1918 was definitely a revolutionary year.

“Comet Years” is peppered with figures, many of which are historical greats: Käthe Kollwitz, Ho Chi Minh, Gandhi, Virginia Woolf, Walter Gropius, to name just a few. Isn't there a danger with these celebrities that resistance will arise if you reinterpret the characters?

I tried to find a mix between characters that you know superficially, but with whom you can still discover a lot of details, and people who are completely unknown. Many of the names known today were then still unknown everyday people. It was a chance to say something new about her.

About the writer Virginia Woolf, for example, who in 1918 did not yet know whether she would ever be able to make a living from writing. Or about the future US President Harry. S. Truman, who was still an artillery officer at the time and wanted to open a men's boutique after the war.

In 'normal' history books one neglects the details in which history comes to life.

You sometimes put dialogues in the mouths of your characters that appear lifelike and real. Where are you from?

I owe my attention to detail to diaries, letters and memoirs. I didn't make anything up. You can find these jewels if you just look for them. And that is surprising insofar as one rarely finds such passages cited in "normal" history books. You always look at the big picture, at the overview and neglect the details in which history comes to life.

Given the variety of characters, have you, as an author, developed a closer relationship with some of them?

Yes, the Parisian journalist Louise Weiss is one of those characters. She is fantastic in many ways. Firstly because she is a strong female figure and went her own way when it was not yet normal for women to study at universities, for example.

She was extremely convinced of the idea of ​​a Europe based on solidarity, of a new world order. However, what touched me the most is how literary and intimate she wrote about her own life.

A second figure stands out next to her: the black US soldier Henry Johnson, who was drafted for military service and involuntarily mutated into a war hero, although the blacks in the US army were initially badly treated.

He came home after the war and was celebrated in the big parade. But just a few months later, the dream of a new life and the emancipation of blacks from reality shattered.

Sometimes I've noticed a certain kinship between the post-1918 period and ours.

In the book, you mention that 1918 is all too easily associated with what you call the vanishing point of 1939. What do you mean?

Historians have a habit of looking at history in the rearview mirror, that is, from a knowing position. This does not apply in any way to the actors involved.

You experience the story from front to back and you don't know what will happen the next day. And certainly not that 20 years later there would be an even more devastating war. I'm interested in capturing your perspective, depicting the variety of possible futures and putting my omniscience behind.

We do not know what to expect either. Do you see parallels between now and then?

Indeed, this book speaks to many things that move me today. And sometimes I've noticed a certain kinship between the post-1918 period and ours.

What we have experienced since 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall can be compared. There was also a revolution in 1989 and a world order collapsed. The division between the Eastern Bloc and the Western Bloc suddenly no longer existed, since then things have had to find a new order.

But the hopes of 1989 - freedom, peace, prosperity - refused to materialize. Soon there was the first war in the Balkans, then the Gulf War, emerging nationalism, 9/11, the Arab Spring, the economic crisis. New authoritarian regimes have increased in recent years.

It is a chain reaction with an uncertain outcome. We also do not know what will happen tomorrow or in the next year, whether wars are waiting for us. In a way, we are thrown into a situation like the people back then. That makes this past more understandable for us.

The interview was conducted by Markus Matzner.

To person

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Daniel Schönpflug is Professor of History at the Free University of Berlin and Scientific Coordinator of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. His specialty is Europe in the 18th to 20th centuries. He is particularly interested in the revolutions and upheaval processes of modernity.

Book reference

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Daniel Schönpflug: "Comet Years", S. Fischer Verlag, 2017.