Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Misty Mystery of History

by KJ Howe

Vienna, Austria. That’s where I'm writing from today as I travel through Austria, Hungary, Germany, and Czech. During a walking tour of Prague, the guide, a philosophical man, pondered whether we could all benefit from studying the past. "If more people studied history, perhaps they could come to a greater understanding of what went wrong in the past and live differently as a result." Maybe this is true. Let’s take a look at two examples:

Vienna was the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that was also known as the Holy Roman Empire, a conglomeration of many different countries with different languages and cultures, all striving toward the same goals with all the parties fiercely loyal to the Habsburg Monarchy. Despite having such varied people from Austria, Hungary, Czech, Italy, Slovenia, and more, they thrived together as a single political unit for centuries. There are many lessons to be learned here about how everyone worked together that could be well-applied in our world today.

But the individual stories of how people lived can teach us as much as stories of empires. For example, Empress Elizabeth, wife of Franz Josef, was consumed by concerns about her appearance. A stunning woman, she worked out and dieted obsessively to maintain her twenty-inch waist. Every morning, her hairdresser spent an hour brushing out her hair (her personal hairdresser made more money than a university professor!). She didn't allow any photos or portraits after she passed age 40 (she was murdered at 61) because she always wanted to be remembered as a young and beautiful woman. Overly conscious of imperfect teeth, she carried a fan around with her and used it to block her face in all public forums. Imagine all the work and worry involved with this level of obsession about appearance. Perhaps this could be a good example for young women, teach them the pitfalls of caring about appearance more than substance? Empress Elizabeth's story reminds me somehow of Princess Diana's tragic tale.

I'd love to hear if you feel that there are lessons we could all learn from history? Have you been shaped by what you've learned from history?


limecello said...


limecello said...

KJ! You forgot to pack me in your suitcase!!!! :'(

Haha - I love history - even considered majoring in it... and yes I think there's a lot to be learned from it, but I won't wax - say- boring :X on the subject.

Although one thing - the dust bowl in the US - I saw/heard on the History channel something similar in happening in China - and I experienced the remnants of a dust storm that affected Taiwan while I was doing research there in 06. I was not thrilled.
:) I've recently fallen in love with the history channel :P Color me geeky.

Lynz Pickles said...

Congrats on the GR, lime! Nice to know I'm not the only one who loves the history channel.

I think history does teach important lessons, but those are generally on a larger scale. The lessons I've learned about myself and my actions stem more from the results of my personal history over the years than from learning about the history of others. So I guess the answer to your question is yes, I've been shaped by history, but by my own history, not history in general. Though I do love reading about the latter and think it provides many important lessons. I just can't think of any at the moment.

hrdwrkdmom aka Dianna said...

I think the key is that we don't seem to learn the lessons history can teach us. The lessons are there but we don't seem to understand that we need to change.

Helen said...

Congrats limcello have fun with him

A very thoughtful post and I agree we should all learn from the past and learn from mistakes, I love learning about history maybe that is why my favourite genre is historical romance LOL. And yes I have learn't a lot reading them probably more than I learn't in school.

Love the photos have a great time

Have Fun

Terry Odell said...

I never liked history classes, although once I did some traveling (rather late in life, alas), and could see things, I appreciated it a lot more. I was probably "shaped" more by history I was unaware of. Not that many years ago, my mother finally decided she was willing to go back to the country where she was born, and invited us to go along. That was a fantastic history lesson.

Nancy said...

Limecello, congrats on taking home the GR. I actually did major in history and have a tendency to go on about it at times.

KJ, what a fabulous trip! You take wonderful vacations.

There's a saying, "Those who do not learn from the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them." One lesson that occurs to me, maybe because my class just touched on it a few weeks ago, is that repression in victory comes back to bite you.

After World War I, the European Allied powers, especially France, which had so much of its land destroyed and had bad blood with Germany dating back to the previous century's Franco-Prussian War, were determined that Germany bear the cost of the war. The resulting debt burden sank the German economy, caused the collapse of the Weimar Republic, and opened the door for the nationalism that eventually spewed out Adolph Hitler.

In contrast, the Marshall Plan after World War II focused on rebuilding Europe, including Germany. One of the books I'm looking forward to reading now that it's out in tpb is The Candy Bombers, which is the story of the Berlin Airlift.

But right now I have to go give a quiz. My students will be so thrilled.

Donna MacMeans said...

KJ - Fabulous photos. I want more!

I think the problem of learning from history is that so often it depends on who is doing the interpreting. What is taught is sometimes not the most accurate depictions of what really happened in the hopes that the omission will shape young lives. Crazy huh?

I love the history channel and am green with envy that you're walking the ground where upon so much history has played out.

Joan said...

KJ I are always going to such exciting places!

Move over, Lime....I'll squeeze into the carry on :-)

No secrets here that I love history evidenced by my Roman historicals.

I also just returned from a long weekend in Savannah GA. MAN, the beauty and the history and the rich cultural life was amazing.

Mosquitos not so much.

We stayed in a B&B that had been built in 1888. THe sheer number of restored and potentially restored structures in that city gives it a charm that I do not think can be replicated anywhere else in the US.

Gerri Russell said...


What a great post. Beautiful pictures! Enjoy your trip. And yu are so right. There are so many lessons we could learn from history if we just looked for them, then applied them.

jo robertson said...

What an interesting blog, KJ. I hope you're having a wonderful time. Can you tell us where you are in the photo? That's an amazing picture.

Didn't someone say something about if we don't learn from the past we're doomed to repeat our failures? Students often hate history classes, not seeing the value of "old stuff," but I've always found it fascinating.

Kim Howe said...


Congrats on the GR! Interesting comment on the dust storm. Many years ago I lived in Saudi Arabia and I experienced a dust storm. Nothing like it! Instead of a white-out from snow, it was a brown-out--and the sand is so fine that it gets into everything (and it doesn't melt so clean-up is brutal). Thanks for stopping by!

Kim Howe said...

Lynz, be proud that you have learned from your own history. I try so hard to avoid making the same mistakes, but sometimes I fall into those same old traps! :)

Kim Howe said...

Dianna, point well made!

Kim Howe said...

Terry, you didn't mention where your mom was born. Love to hear more about your experience visiting there.

Kim Howe said...

Great comment, Nancy! It's amazing how our choices can really change the world. For example, Hitler wanted to be an artist, but he couldn't get anywhere with his paintings, so he felt rejected by society and followed revolutionary ideologies. Imagine if he would have been accepted into art school how different the world might be.

Kim Howe said...

Donna, it is truly incredible here. I'm just back from a walking tour of Vienna and the guide was so full of fascinating stories. I was inside the church where Napoleon was married for the second time. The interesting part was that he had a respected opponent stand in for him because he was too busy at the time! Can you imagine how that would go over today????

Kim Howe said...

Joan, mosquitos are a four-letter word to me! I was the kid who went to camp and came back with bites everywhere. Hope you're not too itchy.

Kim Howe said...

Jo, the first photo with the fog is taken in Durnstein, Austria where Richard the Lionheart was held in prison for two years for angering a Duke Leopold. The other photo was taken in St. Stephen's church in Vienna. Breathtaking.

MsHellion said...

I love history! (Not from high school though...we had nothing but PE coaches who taught history, and I swear none of them knew a thing about it. *eye roll*) In college I took some wonderful classes. Yes, I think we could learn a lot from history--mainly that no matter how advanced we get, we're never that different from our ancestors.

We're still ruled by what our society dictates; we're still self-absorbed by our wants and greeds; and we still have the occasional GREAT PERSON who shames us all by being someone we should all be more like. *LOL* And like our ancestors, the people who are making the history are the same people who made history before: the pirates, the railroad barons, the ones with the gold... The people can't be bothered with the rules and therefore make new rules. *LOL* Quiet people never make history. You have to be daring; you have to be interesting. Which is why I don't understand why more people don't enjoy history's littered with the most interesting people. Usually people who are behaving badly! Seriously you'll watch a reality TV show of vapid people behaving badly, but you can't be bothered to see what Napoleon or James I or Henry II were up to? Doublecrossing galore!

I don't know if the Empress reminds me of Princess Diana. The article presented on the Empress seemed vapid, and I didn't consider the Princess vapid. Anorexic, sure. But not vapid. And she loved being with her children, which it looks like the Empress's mother raised her children... But I don't know. I'm sure you read much more about the Empress than I did. *grins*

Anna Sugden said...

KJ - so close and yet, so far! next time you'll have to head over to Cambridge!

Sounds like you're having a fab time.

I love learning about history - it's fascinating how much we still have to lear even about our own countries. And it's so true that people don't seem to learn - as we see over and over again.

In my personal life, I try to make sure history doesn't repeat itself! LOL But, I also enjoy learning why certain things have happened. I'm a believer in things happening for a reason and it takes the benefit of hind-sight to see why.

Kim Howe said...

MsHellion, you made several fabulous points. If the Empress came across as vapid, then it is surely my fault for not portraying her in her entirety. The Empress was quite involved in putting together the compromise that kept Hungary in the empire for decades. Also, she wrote top quality poetry and was one of the most accomplished horsewomen of her time. I have deep respect for both the Empress and Diana, but they both seemed to feel a great deal of social pressure to look their best. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

Kim Howe said...

Anna, I'll send you a smoke signal tonight. :) I wish I had time to come visit! I'm also a big believer in things happening for a reason. I hope this year good things happen for you!

Anna Campbell said...

Wow, KJ, you go to the best places! Isn't Vienna fascinating? I'd love to go back there - haven't been for over 20 years. Remember being fascinated by the palaces - the Hofburg and Schonbrunn. I remember there was a really sad display of items associated with Napoleon's shortlived son in Schonbrunn - really sad. Actually something history teaches is that glory and success can be very fleeting! I've never been to Eastern Europe, definitely on the list, though.

Happy travels. Look forward to hearing more about where you went!

Anna Campbell said...

Actually, the Empress Elizabeth was genuinely beautiful. I think it's in the Hofburg where there's this amazing larger than lifesize portrait of her at the time of her wedding and she still takes your breath away. I think great beauty can be a burden. Mind you, she was slightly nutty - a bit like her brother Mad King Ludwig.

heidi ruby miller said...


Great photo! Traveling agrees with you.

I love that part of Europe. Jason and I were completely absorbed by Austria, Germany, and Czech Republic.

Prague's Velvet Revolution is one of those great examples of learning from history. So sad, yet so peacefully triumphant.

You and Russ enjoy your trip. We want to see pictures in June.


Susan Sey said...

Hey, KJ--

What an incredible trip! I've wanted to visit Prague for years--I'm completely jealous!

I wish I were a better student of history but reading historicals is about as far as I journey toward self-improvement in that arena. :) But I do love learning about the history of places I'm visiting. Good excuse to go travelling, I suppose. :-)

Tawny said...

Kim, I'm not a big history buff, but I totally agree that we need to learn from the past. And from the gifts the past has left us -like those gorgeous pictures. WOW, what a wonderful time you must have had.

catslady said...

Fantastic post. Most history classes need revamped. It is usually taught as such a dry topic (dates, names, places but not interesting facts and of course it depends on what "they" decide to tell). I hated it in school but historicals are my favorite genre.

A perfect example is mostly how the Indians were portrayed - they were the bad guys and we were the good. Obviously we now know more about that but rarely is it taught.

I was reading on another blog how there use to be millions and millions of buffalo before they were all slaughtered (not for food) thinking there was an endless supply. We are now slaughtering an overwhelming amount of food from our seas. It too is not endless. Species are disappearing from our planet. Guess when it comes to greed and/or stupidity we never learn (sigh).

Kim Howe said...

Anna C,you're right about those palaces being capitvating. I spent hours in them. The Austrian tour guide was phenomenal, a born storyteller!

The Empress was intensely beautiful. I saw several portraits of her and she was stunning. The sculpture of her was captivating...especially the twenty-inch waist. Supposedly her husband could put his hands around her waist...but we can all say that, right? :)

Kim Howe said...

Heidi, fabulous to see that you visited today! We thought of you and Jason while touring. Hope you are both well!

Kim Howe said...

Susan, I would encourage you to come visit this area. Being in Prague was like stepping into a different world!

Kim Howe said...

Hey Tawny, it has been memorable. I'm off to Budapest next, so I'll keep you posted. I'm really looking forward to the Spanish Riding School.

Kim Howe said...

Catslady, you made a poignant comment about our resources being priceless. I know Chilean Sea Bass are close to being extinct because of overfishing. We need to think of future generations.

Kim Howe said...

Thanks so much for visiting today!!! It's late here in Vienna, so please enjoy your day.


Trish Milburn (Tricia Mills) said...

I had a minor in history in college (wish I'd gone ahead and gotten a second major in it), and I've always loved reading about the past. There are definitely lessons to be learned -- particularly about how people treat other people. Slavery, wars based on religion or greed, women's rights -- things that are still problems today in many parts of the world.

I hope you're having a marvelous time. You are the most traveling woman I know.

Pat Cochran said...

What's the phrase, something about
those who do not learn from the
things that happened in the past
are doomed to relive those very
occurrences? It's something we
should all keep in mind!

Pat Cochran

Louisa Cornell said...

K.J. you lucky thing! You are in my old stomping grounds now! Vienna, Budapest. I wish you had time to visit Salzburg. Magnificent city steeped in history. Thought I recognized St. Stephens.

I have a passion for history and I despise the callous way so much of our history is being pushed aside, torn down and plowed under for the sake of "progress." History is a gift with many layers. It is incumbent on us to peel away each layer and take what we can from it - joy, enlightenment, peace, a sense of roots, and a reminder that we are all mortal and have far more in common than we think.