The year 2021 marks a century since the parents and siblings of my maternal grandfather, the future engineer and doctor of technical sciences Ervin Becker, had to leave their hometown, Selmecbánya, and to move to ‘Rump Hungary’, as it was called at that time. My grandfather had had to leave one year earlier. The small but beautiful town (its centre is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site), also known in German as Schemnitz and now in Slovak as Banská Stiavnica, was until the ‘peace treaty’ of Trianon the home of the Royal Hungarian Mining and Forestry College, the sister institute of the Saxon Mining College in Freiberg, both founded in the late eighteenth century as important centres of technical innovation and education.

In 1916, my grandfather started his studies in metallurgy at the college in Selmecbánya, but as early as 1917 he had become a voluntary draftee of the Royal Hungarian Honvéd (Home Defence) Infantry Regiment No. 16. After heavy fighting on the Romanian front, he was transferred to the Italian front in 1918. During combat on the high plateau of Sette Comuni he was promoted to the rank of ensign (zászlós in Hungarian) and decorated with the Silver Medal for Bravery 2nd Class, for re-establishing contact with a neighbouring regiment by means of a very dangerous mission. Let us remember: in 1915, Italy attacked Austria–Hungary without provocation, just to ensure its part of the spoils after the war by fighting alongside the Entente powers. At the end of October 1918, due to an unfair interpretation of the cease-fire conditions, my grandfather became a prisoner of war in Italy, together with his complete regiment, which had, unsuspectingly, been withdrawing in good order. He was released in 1919 and sent back to his former regiment in Besztercebánya (Banská Bystrica in Slovak). He refused to join the new Czechoslovak Army, so he was demobilized, and went back to his parents in Selmecbánya. Because of his refusal to swear an oath of loyalty to the Czechoslovak state he was expelled from his hometown and had to continue his studies under very hard conditions in Sopron, the new home of his college. My paternal grandfather was luckier: the future architect János Brenner served in a sapper battalion of the ‘common’ Austro-Hungarian Army, finally also attaining the rank of ensign, and he did not lose his hometown Szombathely, which remained a part of Hungary. His brother was less fortunate: as a lieutenant in the well-known First Regiment of the ‘Kaiserjäger’, he died of pneumonia contracted on the Italian front.

Why might this story be interesting for present-day readers? The Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), perhaps the most-renowned Swiss newspaper published in the German language, has published in its online edition of 12 November 2019 an article headed ‘Ich trage eine rote Mohnblume aus Papier, denn sie flüstert mir zu: Sei wachsam!( und-kommende-konflikte-ld.1521093), written by the British-American historian Niall Ferguson (the English version of the text is entitled ‘Lest We Forget, History Has Lessons to Teach’, and can be read on his homepage, http://www.niallferguson. com/journalism/history/lest-we-forget-history-has-lessons-to-teach). In this text, he commemorates his two grandfathers—one of them serving in the First World War, the other in the Second World War, with the latter active in the campaigns against the Japanese in Burma.

Grandfathers are in many cases strong figures of identification—my grandfathers also did not hesitate to do their military service voluntarily, as it was important to vouch for the values they held dear. Ferguson’s essay, however, is revealingly partial in its sympathies, and, by viewing the war solely from the perspective of the Entente, weakens the overall effect of its message. He quotes Bethmann-Hollweg, then the Chancellor of the German Empire, who described the neutrality of Belgium as un chiffon de papier based on a treaty of 1839. The violation of Belgium’s neutrality gave Britain the pretext to enter the war and was—in my personal view—an inexcusable mistake by the German Empire, giving the Entente powers a through ball. One can read in the bestseller The Sleepwalkers by the Australian historian Christopher Clark that the wrong-headed German ultimatum literally drove Belgium into the arms of the Entente. There was a real option for the German Army to march through Belgium without fighting, and to pay compensation. Within this context, Ferguson reminds us of two other chiffons de papier, the North Atlantic Treaty and the Taiwan Relations Act, and asks the question: ‘Are there any similar commitments today, forgotten by the general public and yet capable of plunging the world into war?’

I cannot judge whether those two papers have this capacity or not—I am neither a historian nor a political scientist. However, I can recall a third scrap of paper, forgotten by the general public and not mentioned by Ferguson: the Fourteen Points of President Woodrow Wilson, delivered in an 8 January 1918 speech on war aims and peace terms before the United States Congress. It contains sentences such as this: ‘The peoples of Austria–Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity to autonomous development’ (cf.


asp). The flamboyant promise was quickly withdrawn—in practice, the situation after the war was, mutatis mutandis, similar to that which befell my grandfather, Ervin Becker. A lot of unresolved problems in Eastern Europe, which still generate unnecessary strains, are the long-term consequences of the peace agreements (or, to put it more accurately, the imposed peace conditions) after the First World War. The oft-quoted right of self-determination of nations applied at the best only to those on the side of the winners. This recalls an episode in another, much older ‘scrap of paper’, the Ab urbe condita of the Roman historian Livy (Titus Livius). In this book, a Gallic military leader tells the (supposedly) beaten Romans the notorious words: ‘Vae victis!’ Not only the recent treaties, but also the above-quoted words should teach us two things: the self-righteousness and moral complacency of the winners of the First World War left behind a series of unhealed traumas.

The habit of wearing a paper poppy in commemoration of the soldiers of the First World War as reported by Ferguson is a genuine Anglo-Saxon tradition. My own is usually to lay a flower on the graves of my grandfathers in the same season—on All Souls’ Day—in a very religious and ceremonial manner. The graveyards are in Hungary and I live in Germany, so during the coronavirus pandemic I did not have the opportunity to do so. In consequence, I opted last year for another solution: I laid some flowers at the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Berlin. There may be a lesson here from history: its interpretation should not be written only by the winners. After all, one day they may become the losers. Being convinced of the advantages of the North Atlantic Treaty, I have naturally noticed that the ‘old bull’ of modern world politics, the United States of America, together with the smaller bull, the United Kingdom, are able to maintain their current positions only by great effort. In the future, both Europe and the USA will require a sort of intellectual transatlantic cohesion, and a part of this should be—as I tried to demonstrate apropos of Niall Ferguson’s article—a degree of intellectual honesty towards former antagonists.

János Brenner Urban planner Berlin

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