London's Last Waltz

Article excerpt

Byline: Niall Ferguson

With Europe on the brink, the U.K. faces its own crises.

Those planning to come to London for the Olympics should read Joseph Roth's Radetzky March. For London today resembles nowhere more closely than fin-de-siecle Vienna--in good ways, but also in bad.

A hundred years ago, the seemingly immortal Emperor Franz Josef was approaching his 82nd birthday. This year Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her Diamond Jubilee, meaning that she has reigned since 1952. A sprightly 86, she has acquired precisely the same air of immortality as the old Habsburg Emperor (to whom she is no doubt distantly related).

Last week I watched an astonishing number of bandsmen in bearskin hats and bright red tunics rehearsing for the jubilee celebrations, which culminate next month. Stuck in the resulting traffic, I had time to ponder why, at a time of deep cuts in defense spending, Britain can still afford the world's finest military bands.

"Austerity" has become the watchword of David Cameron's premiership as he grapples with the huge deficits run up by his Labour predecessors. Yet there is nothing austere about the Diamond Jubilee. On June 3, according to the official website, "Up to a thousand boats will muster on the river as the Queen prepares to lead one of the largest flotillas ever seen on the River Thames."

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland--to give the state its full title--is indeed a remnant of an era when nearly all the great powers of Europe were multiethnic empires held together by revered dynasties. The Habsburgs were deposed at the end of the First World War, along with the Hohenzollerns, Ottomans, and Romanovs. Other lesser royal houses (like the Dutch or the Spanish) have survived. But only the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha--as the Windsors were known until that was felt to be just a little too German--retain the dazzling production values of the pre-1914 era.

Roth's Radetzky March depicts the last sardonic hurrah of Habsburg Austria-Hungary. The prime culprit is the petty nationalism of Croats, Czechs, Hungarians, and Slovenians. Right on cue, the Scots are preparing to vote in a referendum on independence. The Welsh may be next.

Another distinctive feature of Vienna circa 1912 was the bombastic style of its newspapers, which specialized in publishing scandalous stories and sanctimonious commentaries on them. …