Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Larry Wolff's "Woodrow Wilson and the Reimagining of Eastern Europe"

Larry Wolff is Silver Professor of European History at New York University, Executive Director of the NYU Remarque Institute, and Co-Director of NYU Florence.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Woodrow Wilson and the Reimagining of Eastern Europe, and reported the following:
On Page 99 of Woodrow Wilson and the Reimagining of Eastern Europe, Wilson confronts the imminent collapse of the Habsburg monarchy at the beginning of November 1918, with World War One about to end. This is, in fact, a pivotal moment in my book, and a pivotal moment in European history. For Eastern Europe it represents the moment at which the prewar map of multinational empires was about to give way to the new twentieth-century map of interlocking national states. Wilson, at the Paris Peace Conference, would preside over this geopolitical transformation.

Though Wilson had advocated “autonomous development” for the peoples of Austria-Hungary as early as the Fourteen Points Speech of January 1918, he was hesitant to endorse the abolition of the Habsburg monarchy until the very end of the war. What I’m trying to understand in my book is how Wilson conceived of the whole region of Eastern Europe: his “mental mapping” of this region which he would never visit, but which he would fundamentally redesign through the peacemaking process. From 1917, when America entered the war, Wilson quickly accumulated knowledge and opinions, impressions and prejudices, about a region that had been hitherto of little interest to him, though many of the nations of Eastern Europe had representative immigrant groups in the United States. On Page 99, on November 5, 1918, Wilson was having a personal message to the nations of Austria-Hungary distributed from Switzerland, addressed to the peoples who were about to achieve “liberation from the yoke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.” While Wilson was always inimical to the Ottoman empire, and enthusiastic about seeing it disappear from the map, he only persuaded himself to accept the abolition of the Habsburg empire by convincing himself that its peoples were living under a “yoke,” that they were “enslaved” as he sometimes said (an extreme overstatement), that he was fighting a war for their “liberation,” even their “emancipation.” In short Wilson—whose presidency coincided with the building of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington— convinced himself that he was fighting a Lincolnesque war for the emancipation of enslaved peoples: in Eastern Europe. At the same time, he came to feel that he himself possessed a special sensitivity to those peoples and their political hopes and dreams, and that he could speak to them directly, as he did in his personal message of November 5, 1918, promising “to assist the liberated peoples of the world to establish themselves in genuine freedom.” Wilson’s sense of his own mission in Eastern Europe was almost messianic in his conviction that he was leading these peoples into the promised land of freedom; his actual work at the peace conference, however, involved translating that messianic commitment into a geopolitical settlement. He would help to produce the modern map of interlocking national states in Eastern Europe, states that he would never visit, but where he would be long remembered. The statue of Wilson at the train station in Prague, erected after World War One, was taken down by the Nazis after 1939— but was returned to its prominent pedestal as recently as 2011.
Visit Larry Wolff's NYU faculty webpage.

The Page 99 Test: The Idea of Galicia.

The Page 99 Test: The Singing Turk.

--Marshal Zeringue