I’ve been watching the excellent BBC mini-series entitled, “Fall of Eagles.” Filmed in 1974, it tells the stories of the collapse of three enormous dynasties: the Hapsburgs of Austria-Hungary, the Hohenzollerns of Prussia/Germany, and the Romanovs of Russia.
The miniseries takes place from the late 1800s until 1914. Watching these events unfold on film, one cannot help but be struck by an astonishing fact: Less than 100 years ago – my own grandparents were alive -- millions of people lived in abject poverty across vast swaths of Europe and all of Russia. Rural serfs and urban factory workers endured abysmal conditions, starving and destitute. As the nineteenth century ended and the twentieth century began, people were struggling – often by violent means – to overthrow oppressive governments that stifled every hope and possibility of a better life.
To see this is to understand anew what a remarkable, unprecedented, and utterly unique country the United States was – and is. While the European emperors pontificated, peasants starved, and revolutionaries incited to violence on the eve of World War I, the United States had already been a free nation, a democratic Republic, for nearly 140 years. Russian Tsar Nicholas II, Hapsburg Emperor Franz-Josef, and Kaiser Wilhelm II thought America a silly, frivolous, hopelessly naïve country doomed to failure. They were proven wrong when America’s entry into the Great War helped end it. They were proven wrong when their own people insisted upon the rights that Americans already had. They were proven wrong when they were toppled from their thrones.
But life remained grim after the monarchies. Germany flung itself from the brief Weimar Republic to the horrific Third Reich of Adolf Hitler, who plunged Europe and Russia into World War II. Millions more Europeans died – 20 million in Russia alone, and 6 million Jews, victim of Hitler’s “final solution.” Russians, Hungarians, Poles, and the rest of the people in what became the Soviet Union descended into the Communism of Lenin and Stalin, and tens of millions more died in privations far worse than the tsars and their okhranka could have dreamt up - famines, purges, persecutions, executions, labor camps.
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