A crowd in front of Buckingham Palace, London, July, 1914. (Photo via Wikipedia)

A crowd in front of Buckingham Palace, London, July, 1914. (Photo via Wikipedia)

A tale of two Julys – 2021 and 1914

These are, we might say, febrile times. This summer so far has been intense, in a unique way, and no doubt we will look on it as historic.

After almost a year and a half of the pandemic, we are starting to re-emerge into a different world. We may be thinking of it as “back to normal,” but it is not normal in the sense we understood “normal” before.” We’re calling it the “new normal.” Really, that’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one.

This transition out the pandemic, between the old normal and the new normal, comes with its own turbulence, like moving from one weather system into another.

The weather we’ve been labouring under lately — the Heat Dome — is also unprecedented. Record temperatures are affecting our lives, and have exposed our lack of preparation, and flaws in the ways we live. And this too is being talked about as the “new normal.”

The news these days, dominated by the discoveries of unmarked burials, particularly those of children at the sites of former residential schools, has brought to the fore the conflation of past and present, and a heated discussion of what we have done as a people and who we are as a nation.

This is heavy stuff — upheaval, self-questioning, subversiveness, ideological reactivity, and anger — but also new empathy, new understanding, and a new determination to find a way forward.

Yes, these are febrile times. One gets the sense that the future is unfolding into something dramatic. Loaded with change. “New normal” doesn’t begin to describe it. Revolutionary, perhaps?

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to July, 2021.

Still, fraught as these times may be, they’re still better than July, 1914. A famous July was followed by an unexpected August that changed the world beyond recognition. (And you can read all about July, 1914, in the Advertiser in David Humphrey’s “It Happened This Week In 1914.”

“Febrile” doesn’t describe July, 1914, at all. Instead, words like “halcyon” or “idyllic” are used to describe the beautiful summer weather in Europe that year, and the sense that the world — particularly the European dominated world — had reached its peak as the flower of civilization and sophistication.

The beautiful weather contributed to this sense of self-satisfaction, but it’s also thought that the beautiful weather contributed to the devastating war that broke out in August, 1914. Here is the historian Modris Eksteins: *

“That it was a beautiful and unforgettable season is part of the lore of the summer of 1914, part of its poignancy and mystique … it’s very simply because the fine days and nights of July and August encouraged Europeans to venture out of their homes and display their emotions and prejudices in public, in the streets and squares of their cities and towns. The massive exhibitions of public sentiment played a crucial role in determining the fate of Europe that summer.

“Had it been a wet and cold summer, like the previous year or the next one, would a fairground atmosphere conducive to soapbox oratory and mass hysteria have developed? Would leaders have been prepared to declare war so readily?

“There is evidence that the jingoistic crowd scenes in Berlin, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Paris and London pushed the political and military leadership of Europe towards confrontation.”

This was all in response to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which triggered the complex set of alliances, that led to the Great War, that put an end to that halcyon idyll.

July, 2021, is not a halcyon idyll. But, whereas the good people of July, 1914, were thinking they were living in a golden age, we are preparing ourselves for the hard work that is to come. The pandemic has us already shifting our attitudes as to how we live next to each other. The beautiful weather fooled the folks in 1914, but the weather of 2021 is showing us lessons. The military and political alliances of 1914 led to a disastrous sense of smug complacency. In 2021, we are reworking our attitudes about how we have treated each other in the past, and how we can do better in the future.

The halcyon, idyllic days of summer, 1914, led to cataclysm. It is my hope that the febrile days of summer, 2021 will lead to discussion, re-evaluation, reconciliation, and re-affirmation.

* From Modris Ecksteins’ “The Rites Of Spring”