The First World War witnessed the mobilization of sixty-five million people, leaving nine million dead and twenty-one million wounded. By 1918, much of Europe lay in ruins or disarray, while the rest of the continent sank into poverty. Yet the First World War and its turbulent aftermath did not manage to destroy Central Europe’s “capitalist class” as Keynes and others had predicted. Surprisingly, most tycoons returned to their villas or moved to new ones within months after sovereignty changes and revolutions. Tracing the fate of European business dynasties through French, Swiss, German, Austrian, Hungarian, and Romanian archives reveals glaring continuities across the dividing line of 1918, not just among the top “one percent” of local societies but also among middle classes, professionals, and workers. These continuities contradict still-dominant historical narratives that emphasize the victimhood of ethnic minorities, the “trauma” of vanquished states, and the ecstasy of “new beginnings” in victorious countries. Our laser-like focus on the “episodic history” of events that fix our attention on ruptures such as the disintegration of empires and competing nationalisms has led us to overlook the slow-moving structures of social and economic life that belied the nationalist rhetoric of ethnically homogenous societies preached by governments after 1918. From waning empires and nascent states as units of analysis, the present study directs our attention instead to border regions, local societies, and families.
Image: Fortepan 84167