Vienna. July 25th, 1914. “Is Mother up yet?”
Elsa -- who occupied an amorphous role in the household which included lady’s maid, general light work, and his mother’s companion -- shook her head as she set the coffee pot down next to Jozef. “She did not sleep well last night. I don’t think she will be up before eleven.”
Jozef nodded and unfolded the paper: GOVERNMENT AWAITS SERBIAN RESPONSE TO ULTIMATUM.
“What did Mother have you bring in for breakfast?” he asked.
“Fruit. I think she was already feeling poorly last night, and she said she wanted nothing but fruit. Would you like some?”
Jozef shook his head and settled down to read the paper instead. If mother was likely to get up around eleven he had an hour to spend, and once he had talked to her he could get a pastry when he met the other fraternity men at the coffee house.
It had been an absolute rule of the household for as long as Jozef could remember that Mother’s half of the flat was never to be entered until she rang for Elsa and asked for her breakfast and mail to be brought in. The layout of the flat lent itself to such privacy. The main door led, through a small passage with a coat closet and hatrack, into the drawing room. From there a hall led back to the dining room, and behind a door the hall continued in more utilitarian style to the kitchen, Elsa’s bedroom, and other rooms into which Jozef and Lisette seldom ventured. To the right and left off the hall between drawing room and dining room opened two doors, one leading into Lisette’s sitting room and bedroom, the other leading into Jozef’s. Even as a little child, the arrangement had been thus, with Nurse having her room set up in the sitting room outside his bedroom. As a child this distance had at times brought heartbreak. Memories of such things had faded into the obscurity of childhood, but there had been times when the three or four-year-old Jozef had cried himself to sleep, wailing that he didn’t want Nurse, he wanted Mother. Lisette, however, had always been firm. From the time she went to bed until the time she rang her morning bell, she was not to be disturbed under any circumstances.
Now, as an adult, he much enjoyed the privacy of the arrangement. Each little suite even had its own back staircase, should one wish to go in and out without going through the main rooms, a feature which he had found useful on occasion when returning home the worse for drink.
Today, however, he had something that he particularly wanted to discuss with Mother, and so their mutual pact of privacy necessitated that he wait until the bell rang. In the meantime, he read the conditions to which the perfidious Serbs would have to agree if they were to avoid punishment for their obvious complicity in the assassination. They would not, of course. If the Serbs were capable of anything other than self destructive defiance they would not have reached this point. But it would be better if it was a sure thing. How many times had some half compromise been accepted to paper the attacks against the empire, and now they were practically the joke of Europe. If only they had simply declared war and not left a loophole of this ultimatum which might allow the bureaucrats and the diplomatists to wriggle their way out of taking any real action yet again.
At last, Elsa passed through the dining room carrying Lisette’s breakfast tray. Jozef waited a few minutes, finishing his cup of coffee and the article he had been reading and then went to see his mother.
Lisette was sitting in her bed, propped and surrounded by pillows, in a kimono-style dressing gown with a black background decorated by a print of huge white and red flowers. Her breakfast tray was set over her lap, and she was carefully cutting a plum with a fruit knife.
Jozef waited for his mother to provide some acknowledgement of his presence, but she gave none. Having removed the pit of the plum and cut the flesh into wedges, she took a sip of tea and began to eat the wedges one at a time with a little fork.
As if sensing that she would not like what he had to say, Lisette remained focused on her breakfast tray, alternating between slices of plum and sips of tea. Jozef resolved to plunge on regardless of her response.
“Yesterday I met several of my fraternity comrades at the beer hall. You remember Theodor Meyr and Konstantin von Heideck. And there were a few others.”
Lisette suddenly looked up. “Of course, young von Heideck. We had him and his mother over for the tea on your name day two years ago. Such a kind woman, Baroness von Heideck.”
She seemed quite ready to go on indefinitely in this vein but Jozef took advantage of the pause when she took a sip of tea to regain control of the conversation.
“They were telling me about their decision. They have all joined the army. They went down to a recruiting office yesterday and signed up. All of them urged me to do the same, to serve the empire. Surely that’s what all of us young men are called to do at this time, isn’t it?”
She did not reply or meet his eye, but took up another plum and began to section it.
“All of them encouraged me to do the same, Mother. And I want to join them. For comradeship. And because--” He had thought about how to explain this so many times during the night, and yet actually making the case out loud was curiously difficult. The society talk, the light conversation which was the world that his mother thrived in, which she had brought him up to inhabit, was invariably distant, ironic, mocking, just a little bit tired of it all. Those habits were so long formed, that standing here in front of his mother it seemed almost impossible to say, ‘We young men are called to struggle and suffer for the empire, and I want to do something real, something authentic with my life at last.’ He could too easily picture his mother’s eyebrow arching as she said, ‘Authentic? Dear boy, if it’s authentic you want--’
“But of course,” Lisette said, interrupting the imaginary dialogue which had taken over his thoughts. “You are already serving the empire. You have not embarked upon one of the coarse professions: trade, money lending. You are studying in order to devote your whole life to the empire’s civil service. You can hardly compare a bit of playing about in uniform to that.”
“Mother…” He drew himself up, as if he were already wearing the Imperial-Royal uniform and coming to attention. “I want to join them. I think it’s something important and noble that they are doing. The only thing that held me back is that I knew I must discuss it with you before signing up.”
There was no light reply this time. Lisette was focusing all her attention on pouring just the right amount of tea into the delicate china cup on her tray. Then she stirred in a spoon of sugar and raised the cup to her lips. She did not meet her son’s eyes.
“I believe that I need to do this, Mother,” Jozef said. She must provide some response other than this determined silence, even a refusal. “I need to serve the empire. It’s my duty as a young man.”
She sipped her tea thoughtfully and then set the cup down.
“Well,” he asked. “Would I have your permission to join the army?”
She turned her eyes on him. “Jozef. My son. I would never begrudge the empire anything, even your very life, though it would cut me to the heart.” She placed her hand against the point where her dressing gown divided, and he could not decide if she was shaming him or mocking him with the emotion of the gesture. “As a mother, I ask nothing. I offer all I have. And yet… What do I ask you to remember? Not your mother’s heart. That is grist for the empire’s mill. I offer it happily. But think of your father, of his name, of his title. Of course, it is nothing if you sacrifice yourself on the field of glory, if I was left a poor widow with no son to inherit, but all I ask is that you think of your father, and of your cousins who had no respect for him, who will inherit if you are gone. And thinking of all these things, consider: Is it possible that you are actually sacrificing more, and benefitting the empire more, if you serve worthily your whole life in the civil service than if you throw away your position to serve in the ranks in order to satisfy some need for adventure or authenticity?”
The flood of objections was too various to be answered individually. “Are you forbidding me to join up, Mother?”
“Of course not. You’re too old for me to tell you what to do, Josef. You should know what’s right.”
“I believe that the right thing is for me to serve. This may be the defining event of my generation, the way that we bring new energy to the country. I don’t want to be left out.”
Lisette did not at first reply, and for a moment Jozef thought the conversation was over. Then he saw that large tears were beginning to trace their way down his mother’s cheeks. Was she so deeply moved, or more likely, did she have the ability to summon tears upon demand if argument was not getting her what she desired?
She dabbed the tears away with her handkerchief and shook her head. “I understand. You don’t want to be left out. Of course, I shall be left out. Left alone. To fear for the only family I have left to love in all the world. But that is of no consequence. Yes, go. You must if it is your duty.” The tears were coming faster now, and her voice trembled as she spoke.
He hesitated. The boundary between ploy and real emotion, with his mother, was not always easy to determine, if indeed she knew it herself. Was he indeed being selfish? Was this too much to put his mother through?
“If you tell me to stay, Mother, if you truly need me I won’t go.”
“No, Jozef. I would never tell you what to do in such a matter. Go if you believe you must.”
“I want to go, but I won’t if you tell me not to.”
The conversation went round after round, until Jozef felt ready to break down crying himself, or perhaps more likely, to smash something against the wall. Every offer to not go was refused, and yet just as it seemed she had agreed to his enlisting she would again lay out how utterly devastated and alone she would be.
“Mother,” he said at last, the exasperation clearly evident at last in his voice. “If you tell me, as your son, not to join the army I will respect your wishes and stay. But you must tell me. You cannot make me change my own mind and want to stay. And if you won’t clearly tell me not to go, I will go.”
For a moment, Lisette focused a malevolent eye on him. This clear formulation was not appreciated. Then she picked up another plum and her fruit knife and began to section the fruit. No further words from her son could get the slightest response from her. Once she had consumed all the slices and meticulously wiped her fingers with her napkin, she pulled the bell rope and told Elsa, as if there were no one else present, “I’m ready to dress now. I think the light green silk, today.”
Jozef left the room and the flat.
The streets outside were cheerfully bustling with the activity of late morning on a Saturday. After the long verbal struggle in his mother’s bedroom, where the still-drawn curtains had given the impression of early morning, the bright sunlight and hurrying passers-by who neither knew nor cared about his own errand or his own choices were refreshing, and he resolved to walk the half mile to his preferred coffee house, near the university. A streetcar rumbled to a stop nearby, paused while two charwomen got off, and then set off again clanging its bell as it moved through the intersection. Jozef let it pass and continued on his way on foot.
The Cafe Prieler was not among Vienna’s most notable cafes. Freud had never held forth there. Trotsky had never composed polemics on its round, marble-topped tables. However, it was located on the Felderstrasse, near the University, and it had a tolerance for students and their habits.
On entering, Jozef spotted Theodor Meyr along at a table with a selection of newspapers spread out before him. He flagged a waiter, ordered coffee and cheese pastries, and then went to join his friend.
“Any news in the foreign papers?” Jozef asked, recognizing French and English as he looked over Theodor’s shoulder.
He shook his head. “Even less than ours.”
Jozef laboriously read his way through the two paragraphs about the ultimatum on the front page of Le Figaro, but his French was even more cursory than the interest of the Paris papers in the crisis. Then his coffee and pastry arrived, along with a tall glass of water, and he pushed the paper away from him in order to focus on these.
“I talked to my mother about the army this morning,” he said after several more moments.
“Yes?” Theodor was immediately focused on his friend rather than the paper. “Will you be joining us? What did she say?”
“She hates the idea. She argued, she cried, she told me I’d be abandoning my father’s legacy if I went and got killed, but she wouldn’t actually tell me not to go, she just made it very clear that she would be unhappy if I did.”
“Well, of course, that’s natural. What woman wouldn’t be unhappy at her son being exposed to danger, no matter how noble the cause? But she must recognize too the necessity; that’s why she didn’t actually forbid you to go.”
This seemed, if anything, an overly reasonable description of his mother’s feelings and response. However, it would be more comfortable to move on to other topics than his difficulties with his mother. “How are your own preparations?”
Theodor shrugged. “Well, as you can see, I’m a man of action today.” He waved the newspaper. “Everything is so slow. I’m to report for a medical examination on Wednesday. After that I will be told where and when to report. God, we need a good war to shake us out of our complacency. I’ll be lucky to even be issued a uniform before we’ve finished Serbia.”
So much thought had been focused during the last few weeks on whether there would be a war with Serbia and whether they could get into it in time that the question of what would happen afterwards had not previously occurred to Jozef, until the phrasing of Theodor’s complaint suggested it.
“What will happen with your enlistment if the war is over before you’re trained and ready?”
“I don’t know exactly. The enlistment form said ‘a term of two years unless extended for war or national emergency’ but if Serbia’s taught its lesson in a few weeks I suppose they won’t have much use for all of us who just signed up.”
“But you’re enlisted in the infantry. Won’t they just send you off somewhere for two years?” What was it that nationalist officer had said at Baroness Miko’s, something about being stationed off in Ruthenia? “Do you know what regiment you’ll be in, or where it’s stationed?”
“I told them I didn’t care where I was put so long as I could get in quickly. Jozef, you’re letting your mother’s talk get into your head. You mustn’t think of this as a career decision, it’s a national emergency. Patriotic duty isn’t something to be measured and rationed anymore than love, it’s to be given freely and gladly.”
Perhaps it was selfish, but it seemed impossible not to consider the contrast between the infantry regiments he’d seen march through the city streets -- in their dull blue-grey uniforms and slouch hats, their huge greatcoats making them look like boys trying on their father’s clothes, and their chests criss-crossed with the leather straps for their enormous backpacks and assorted other pouches and bags -- with the dash and splendor of Friedrich’s Hussar uniform. It was not a strictly aesthetic difference, though if he interrogated himself he was forced to admit that he would prefer to be seen in the latter to the former. No, the exterior reflected an interior difference. Friedrich was an officer. He was trained to lead men, to make decisions, to win battles. And beyond rank, the showiness of the cavalry uniforms reflected the more essential function of that arm on the battlefield. The infantry soldiers, slogging along with their steps looking too small for the oversized bodies of their great coats, held ground; but it was the cavalry, their horses stepping quickly, their swords hanging at their sides and their carbines slung over their shoulders, who would swoop down and take ground. If only he had followed Friedrich into the cavalry years ago rather than letting his mother guide him into the university, destined for the civil service.
“Well,” Theodor asked. “Are you going to join us? You know this hesitance of your mother’s is just…” He paused to find the right words with which, from his extensive knowledge of the human condition, to explain a woman’s reluctance to see her son go to war. “It’s just the natural maternal inability, conditioned by her years spent suckling and caring for an infant, to recognize that her son has grown into a man. No matter what her feelings of the moment, she’ll be proud of you if you take the uniform. And when the misgivings of the moment are passed, she’ll think less of the son who doesn’t fight for the glory of the empire.”
“I’ll serve,” Jozef said. “I just need to decide how to do it. If I’m going to join up, I want to make sure that I’m able to see action.”
Theodor clapped him on the back. “You’re in the same boat with all of us then, brother. Sign and pray.”
“I think-- The recruiting office is closed until Monday anyway, isn’t it?” A plan began to form, and it was one that could perhaps be acted on immediately.
“Yes. I don’t know why it isn’t open day and night at a time like this.”
“I have an idea. I need to go see a friend.”
Jozef’s knock was answered not by Friedrich or his soldier servant, but by Minna, Friedrich’s opera singer mistress.
“Oh, have you come too?” she asked, leaving the door open wide and turning back into the flat. “Come in. Join the madness. We’re all mad here today.”
Having left the door open for him, she walked away with no apparent interest in his presence. Jozef found his eyes fixed on her narrow waist, set off by her high-waisted skirt, and saw her hips moved as she walked, which seemed somehow more knowing and confident than the unmarried women her age he normally met. Self consciously, he made himself look away. This was Friedrich’s woman and the unconscious violation of their friendship. He shut the door behind him and went looking for Friedrich.
He found him in his bedroom, where he and his soldier servant were in the midst of packing a vast array of uniforms and supplies.
“Jozef! I’m so glad you came. Otherwise I might not have seen you before leaving.” He turned to the soldier servant, who was carrying a stack of white, high collared shirts. “Put those in the chest over there, please.” He took a stack of cigar boxes off a chair and set them on top of a pair of wine crates that were stacked at the foot of the bed. “Here, have a seat. I’m sorry for the chaos. As you can see, I’m packing.”
Jozef sat down as ordered, looking around and wondering what volume of baggage Friedrich expected to take with him. “Have you been given orders? Is there news about the ultimatum? A declaration of war?”
“No news yet, but my regiment has been put on orders to be prepared to move on twenty-four hours notice. I’m having all my campaign equipage packed and loaded with the other regimental freight, and then I’ll stay in barracks until we depart.”
Looking around again at the stacks of material being organized, Jozef hazarded to say, “It’s rather a lot of stuff, isn’t it?”
“Well, yes, it is, isn’t it.” Friedrich shrugged. “But we’re allocated plenty of freight space, and those of us who can ought to do it in style, I think, so that we can treat all the others. You know, it’s not all rich younger sons like me. Anyone who serves twenty years in the army can get his son into cadet training to become an officer. And even some of the nobility who join out of family tradition don’t really have any money to do things properly. Believe me, those boxes of cigars and cases of champagne will go quickly if I have all the other officers in the squadron over. Max!”
The soldier servant entered from the drawing room carrying several books.
“Put these in the chest with the campaign uniforms.” He took the boxes of cigars from the wine crates and handed them to Max. “I don’t want them getting crushed, and if the smell hangs on those I don’t mind.”
Having thus cleared the crates, he sat down on them. “So tell me, what did you come about? Not to see my packing, that’s for certain.”
Jozef took a moment to gather his courage. Asking for help had seemed the obvious approach, far superior to enlisting at a recruiting office and hoping for the best, and Friedrich was a friend, but actually asking for a favor so bluntly was not as easy, when the time came, as he had expected.
“My friends from the university have all enlisted. They believe there will be war--”
“Oh, there will. Depend upon it. We won’t let this pass.”
“Well, we all believe that we should serve the empire. They went down yesterday and enlisted in the infantry. Everything is so busy right now, they won’t even be getting a medical exam until Wednesday, and they don’t know where or when they’ll be serving.”
“In the mud, like as not. Jozef, don’t just throw yourself into the infantry. You’re not some Romanian peasant or Czech worker. You’ve spent two years in university, if you’re going to join up you should become a cadet.”
“Yes, that’s what I wanted to ask you about. Is there some way I can join the cavalry, perhaps even become an officer, rather than just enlisting in the ranks?”
Friedrich looked down at his boots and ruffled the hair at the back of his head with one hand for a moment. “Not an easy thing at this notice, though you’re right to think of becoming a cadet. Still, everyone in the empire has got army fever right now. Don’t think you’d be the only one asking for a favor. And becoming an officer isn’t just a matter of issuing you a sword and uniform. By the time you’re half trained the war could be over.”
“But surely, if I joined the infantry like the rest, I could still miss the war while still in training.” He’d half feared that Friedrich would tell him that he didn’t have what it took to become a cavalryman. That, at least, he seemed to be spared, but it had not occurred to him that his friend would suggest it was too late to join the war at all. “And in that case I’d still be an enlisted man in the infantry for another two years. If I’m to serve, I want to serve where I can make the most difference.”
“No, no. You’re right of course.” Friedrich got up from his stack of wine crates and paced the room several times. “Well, I’ll tell you what I know for sure, and that’s that there’s no chance of getting you attached to any of the squadrons in my regiment. We’ve already got a full compliment of cadets, and as the Emperor’s Hussars, our regiment is always in the most demand. Besides, our Oberst isn’t especially inclined to grant me favors at the moment; that last duel made a bit of trouble for him, killing a dragoon officer just as we’re all likely to be deployed soon. Who do I know elsewhere… Better yet, who does Father know elsewhere?”
He paced for a moment longer in silence, then stopped. “Ah! I have it. Come on! We’re going to pay a call on Oberst Jelen.”
Friedrich snatched up a uniform coat that was hanging over the bedpost and pulled it on, then hurried towards the door, fastening buttons as he went. Jozef followed in his wake.
“Who is Oberst Jelen?”
“An officer on the general staff who is also a friend of my father’s. If anyone can help you with this, he can.”
Oberst Jelen’s flat was not far away, a slightly less ostentatious, but no less well located, block of flats within the Ringstrasse, complete with balding concierge behind the desk and an unsteady little lift whose construction of slim metal bars made it resemble a bird cage. The door was opened by a soldier servant, wearing the pale blue of the regular Imperial-Royal army rather than the red and blue of the Hussars. The Oberst was sitting at his desk, a small cup of coffee at his side and papers spread out before him in an array of neatly squared stacks.
He greeted Friedrich warmly and enquired as to his father, before asking them what their business was. Friedrich laid out the problem, and Oberst Jelen sat back in his chair, his finger steepled before him, and regarded Jozef.
“So, you are a university student.”
“Yes, sir. I’m in my second year.”
“And your age?”
“Well… You understand, of course, that if the war proves a matter of a few weeks, there’s nothing anyone can do for you. This will be a war, not a school outing, and while the feelings of all the men signing up are sincere and right, it is trained and equipped men that we must send against Serbia. However, it may take up to a year to fully pacify the country. This won’t be some little punitive expedition. We must eliminate Serbia as a danger on our border and a source of instability in the region. That means occupation, and that takes time and men. So here is what I can do for you. I can enlist you as a reserve officer cadet. You’ll be sent immediately to train. That will take some months, but if the war is stretching on I’m sure things will be made to move quickly. And the war is over quickly, well, you’d be out of luck anyway. And as a reserve officer you serve one year and then can decide whether to apply to become an active duty officer or go into reserve status and return to your studies with your compulsory service taken care of. How does that sound to you?”
Jozef thanked him profusely.
Oberst Jelen smiled. “Yes, yes. Don’t thank me, young man. It’s not a favor, because of course I never do those. And give my regards to Baron von Goldfaden. Now…” He took a pair of gold-rimmed pince nez on a slim chain from the breast pocket of his uniform coat and perched them on his nose. “Now let me see. There’s a set of cadets being dispatched for training on August 1st. I think that we can add one more. Can you be ready by then? Good. You’re responsible for buying all your kit. Go to one of the reputable military supply houses and show them your orders, they’ll let you know what you need. Find a good tailor to make your dress uniforms, that’s always important. We can’t let standards slip or what will they think of us. Now, I’ll just write the orders out now, and we can all be on our ways.”
He took a piece of official stationery and wrote several lines on it in a flowing hand, then signed it with a flourish and added an official stamp in blue ink. After waving the sheet in the air for a moment to dry it he handed the orders to Jozef and stood up to clasp hands with him and then with Friedrich. Then with a bow he turned back to his paperwork, leaving the soldier servant to escort them out.
“I that all there is to it?” Jozef asked, when they were once more in the street.
“All? My dear Jozef, you don’t think that such wheels turn for just anyone, do you? Don’t let his appearance throw you off. You may not have heard of him, but after Generalfeldmarschall von Hotzendorf there aren’t many other men with more power over where our soldiers move than Jelen. And unlike von Hotzendorf, Jelen actually knows where all the units are, how many men are in them, and what supplies they have on hand.”
“I didn’t mean-- I’m sorry. Friedrich, don’t think I’m not grateful. I just meant it seems strange that all I need is this piece of paper and now I’m ready to become a cadet.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m glad to give the favor. Now you’d better go break the news to your mother and get some money out of her. You’ll find that equipping yourself as a cadet doesn’t come free.”
They parted and Jozef returned home, catching a streetcar this time in order to get there quicker. Every time it crackled in his pocket he was aware of the piece of paper in his breast pocket which turned him from a university student into a cavalry cadet.
Lisette was sitting at her writing desk, answering her morning’s correspondence, when he entered.
“Why, Jozef! How has your morning been?”
He explained his enrollment as a cavalry cadet, and that he would be departing in a week. At first he had feared that she would burst into tears, or argue, or demand that he stay. Instead she listened with complete calm, then turned back to her letters.
“Countess Hadik is giving a reception on Thursday,” she said.
“Mother, I’ll be leaving in a week. I’ll need some money to buy uniforms and equipment.”
“I’m sure that Baroness Miko is going. Perhaps I can ride with her in her car.”
It was impossible to get any response to his news out of her. At last, Jozef gave up trying and went out. It was that night, while he and his other fraternity comrades were celebrating their enlistment at a beerhall, that the news arrived and rushed through the crowd like a wave: The government had declared Serbia’s response unacceptable. The emperor had signed the order to mobilize the army. Cheers broke out and more drinks were ordered. They were going to war.
Read the next installment.