Habsburg Redux: Aristocracy, Progeny, and the Genealogy of the Next Disaster

by / Nov. 15, 2014 9am EST

I Kiss Your Hands Many Times: Hearts, Souls, and Wars in Hungary, by Marianne Szegedy-Maszak

Catastrophe 1914:Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings

This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — plus plenty of valet parking — in America’s GIlded Capital, by Mark Leibovich

The Collapse of Western Civilization, by Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway

Right here, right now, mainly hidden from common view but sometimes cunningly not hidden at all, there exist among us the curious, fabled, peculiar remnants of a class that World War I mostly obliterated: the aristocracy.

Don’t be confused: The term aristocracy is no synonym for “the rich,” though that confusion is perfectly understandable, because the gap between old-time aristocrats and the old-time peasantry looks awfully like the gap between the 1% and the rest of us today. Indeed, the latest available IRS data show that in 2012, right here in Erie County, New York, about 2.6% of the people and households that filed income tax returns reported $200,000 or more in taxable income—and that these few households brought in about five times as much money as the median-income household here did. But even that five-to-one gap doesn’t quite tell the story, because we know that here in the Empire State, which differentiates between income-tax filers reporting returns over $500,000 and those in that sort-of-rich range of $200,000 to $500,000, there’s a huge difference between sort-of-rich and really quite rich—rich like old-time aristocrats used to be rich, with incomes more than 50 times higher than the median-income household. (In 2012, the average income of a tax-return filer in the top 1% in New York State was $2.5 million, compared the to state median household income of around $50,000.)

But we don’t have those numbers broken out locally. What we do know is that eight out of 10 income-tax filers here reported less than $50,000 in income, which means that almost all households here are not only not rich, but also that they are not anywhere near as prosperous as the American median. In the Buffalo area, we witness the same income polarization that economist Emmanuel Saez of Berkeley has been writing about for the past few years. But we don’t see it as starkly —yet —because the IRS data for counties is a couple of years behind the times, and the high-income statistics are all lumped together in the category of “over $200,000.”

So just looking at available numbers, we see that in 2012, the top 2.6% here brought in more than 28% of all the taxable income reported in all 443,800 federal income-tax returns filed in Erie County. That’s about 11,360 income-tax filers bringing in about the same income as 345,730 of their neighbors, which works out thus: Folks right here who reported over $200,000 in 2012 income reported more income than the bottom 77% combined.

But merely being well-off is not the same as belonging to the hereditary, titled, empowered elite that existed until just one hundred years ago this past September, when World War I broke out.


Aristos on display

If you saw Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel, you got a glimpse of their world in its last days. Aristocrats in all their splendor—British and German, Russian and Magyar, Austrian, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish, Greek and Turkish and more—truly, indisputably mattered until World War I. They had power. They set taste. They modeled behavior. They ran institutions, much as they had since medieval times. Their inherited wealth consisted not only of the vast estates depicted in that film and in PBS mini-series like Downton Abbey, but starting in the mid-19th century, aristocrats also owned significant chunks of then-new industrial and financial firms. Well into the age of automobiles, aristocrats were visible, famous, stylish, notorious, envied, and resented in that part of the world that lay south of the Arctic Circle and north of the Mediterranean Sea, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caspian Sea. There were thousands of Downton Abbeys in Europe, ancient houses galore, houses so grand that they had names.

Tennessee Williams posed the tragic Blanche DuBois, ever dreaming of her family’s lost plantation house Belle Reve (“beautiful dream”), as what remained after Abraham Lincoln smashed the southern version of aristocracy.Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressives created the federal income tax, and the federal estate tax, expressly and explicitly to prevent the transformation of American robber-barons and other rich Yanks into European-style aristocrats who would protect their money generations after it was amassed.

Yet the year 2012 was a banner year for bequests of amassed wealth. Figures compiled by Citizens for Tax Justice show that of all the people who passed away that year, leaving behind nearly 20 million grieving New Yorkers, only 279 had estates that paid the federal estate tax—or Death Tax, as the political consultant Frank Luntz has advised Republicans  to call it. “The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans own 35 to 37% of the wealth nationwide,” the do-gooders report, noting that only 0.2% of the estates in New York — and only 0.1% of the estates nationwide—paid the estate tax. Over 72% of the wealth went to heir. Only 11% went to charity. The federal government didn’t get more than 14.3% of the money, notwithstanding the law that used to send more than half of estates worth more than $5 million to help pay for our wars, our missions to Mars, our veterans.  

It feels awfully like a new American Gilded Age, to use Mark Twain’s term. The new season of Downtown Abbey will soon air. To prepare ourselves, we should set aside the spreadsheets on wealth and income, and pick up a copy of Marianne Szegedy-Maszak’s family memoir —especially here in Buffalo, where there’s a general celebration underway, or at least an official one, thanks to the non-charitable, non-monumental, but very visible purchase by one of our newest neighbors. In our first Gilded Age, which began after the Civil War and actually lasted through the early 1960s, our rich used to try to emulate aristocrats —such that our very landscape still bears the imprint of the American class that modeled itself after its European exemplar.

Szegedy-Maszak’s memoir is about the last days of aristocracy. She is an American journalist who grew up surrounded by ghosts speaking a language or two that she didn’t learn, from a world that continued to live on in her own house —with grandma upstairs, the baroness, and dad, the ambassador, the last ambassador to the United States of the Kingdom of Hungary, and uncles and cousins whose surnames included markers, in several European languages, that once differentiated Them from the rest.

In our anciently rich city, we drive past the Delaware Avenue mansions and clubs created by the big “old” money from Buffalo’s Erie Canal and Civil War and railroad days. The biggest art gallery, the world-class collections in the library, the history and science museums, the Olmsted boulevards, the signature architectural works are all relics of the era between the first President Roosevelt and the second President Roosevelt, and especially of World War I, when airplane-maker Curtiss and the truck- and car-maker Pierce Arrow and other tycoons piled up profits from that empire-destroying, aristocracy-wrecking disaster—the war that made Marianne Szegedy-Maszak’s Jewish great grandfather Manfred Weiss rich, too.

Weiss was a converted Jew in Budapest, a city whose politics and people touched Buffalo over and over and over again during the 20th century. In faraway Austria-Hungary, as industrial fortunes were growing here, so they grew in Budapest, too. Manfred Weiss’s extended family owned several massive industrial enterprises, including a bullet factory, huge machinery-making and metal-bending works, and more—coal mines, vast agricultural lands, hobby farms. Weiss’s factories did more for his family than build the kind of mansions and clubs that Buffalo’s early 20th century tycoons erected. The Weiss’s money got them a wonderful country estate, just as if they’d been descendants of medieval knights. Their brand-new manufacturing and trading fortunes got them townhouses filled with museum-quality art, and visits to fashionable spas, and thousands of acres of ranches in western Canada, and vacations in the then brand-new ski resorts in Switzerland—and something else, too, something that was not to be had in Buffalo or anywhere else in this country. Their new money got them noble titles.

Grandma was a countess, cousin a baron, dad’s dad the chief officer of the emperor’s court. These titles persisted after the House of Habsburg fell in 1918 because the Hungarian part of what was once the Austro-Hungarian empire (now Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and pieces of Romania, Italy, and the former Yugoslav republics) remained a kingdom, if a king-less one, until the end of World War II.

Manfred Weiss’s children were raised Catholic. Jewish converts had been given noble titles in the German empire, too—but to the Nazis who took over Hungary in 1944, the Weisses, notwithstanding their half-century of Catholicism and their membership in the titled nobility, were still, forever, Jews, and thus targets. While the Nazis and their Hungarian allies were rounding up the poor and middle-class Jews of Hungary, whome the old regime had harassed but protected as Hungarian citizens, the Nazi leadership, hungry for the Weiss’s money and art and factories, made this family an offer it couldn’t refuse: they could give up everything they owned in return for their lives, or they could board the trains for Auschwitz.

The family profiled in I Kiss Your Hands Many Times chose life, and exile. Without income, without possessions, with only their defunct titles left over from an empire that had gone out of existence in 1918, the survivors of the Weiss family, like other one-time aristocrats, became Americans, and lived.

What’s most compelling about this family story is that it was only possible because papa, the last ambassador, wrote a diary that the author had translated. We who are children, and who have children, know about translation, but not so starkly as this: The faraway vanished world that our elderly  relatives knew, and about which they wrote, can only be glimpsed—a movie here, a memoir there—because of this loving, arduous, tragic act of translation. Even now, the generation that experienced any of this story is passing; even now, the generation to whom this story has a family connection has long since been overwhelmed by more recent wars, including those that just started this past year, not far from Manfred Weiss’s family’s country house, where children learned to ride horses, where carefully-chaperoned dates occurred, where elegant parties entertained guests from all over that part of Europe that Vladimir Putin doesn’t want to be part of Europe.

The Max Hastings book about World War I is a horrifying story of what fools the European aristocrats were. Read it awhile—read at it awhile, as one would read at an encyclodepdia, because it is too full of picayune items, even for the interested. Its true value is in reconstructing the day-by-day unfolding of events that need not have unfolded as they did. There is context, there is heart-wrenching detail, and readers who do not want to will have to admit that we are still living in the wake of incomprehensibly bad thinking undertaken then, and in reverberations of bells then rung—of Austrian soldiers mudering Serbian civilians, of Americans in Buffalo and Hungarians in Budapest coining fortunes in trucks and bullets used in battles in stinking, cold, muddy fields from France to Russia, of Ukrainians lurching for independence as the empire shuddered…

In Buffalo lives a remnant of an ancient Hungarian aristocratic family that lost everything after centuries of service to the once-noble notion of a Europe that would join across ethnic and national lines to maintain a civilization, repel horrificly destructive invaders from Genghis Khan to Sultan Mehmet to Stalin, but a family that, in 1914, included a fool, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s ambassador to Serbia, a fool who joined with other fools to advise his king to go to war. It happened that this family also includes a hero for the ages, a modern miracle of a man named Tibor Baransky, who, with another Buffalo Hungarian, Clara Ambrus, saved Jews from the Nazis and from the Hungarian fascists in 1944 by working with other Hungarian Catholics and with the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, whom Stalin had murdered in 1945. And now this family, here in Buffalo, having long since lost the ancestral castle (inconveniently, just over the border, across the Danube River in today’s Republic of Slovakia), just does its thing, albeit with a certain aristocratic flair—a decidedly Jeffersonian sort of aristocratic flair. Hyper-achieving mom and dad pursuing professions here, hyper-achieving brother running a law firm in Beijing, the family as multlingual as feudal landlords of vast multi-ethnic domains once needed to be, but following the slave-owner Thomas Jefferson’s dictum of being a member of an American “aristocracy of talent.” Their current prosperity proceeds not from inheritance, but from sweat and fortuitous circumstance—the exiles landed here in Buffalo, rather than in a country where physicians and attorneys don’t get very rich, rather than in a metro where a two-bedroom condo prices out at 10 times the ask for a Lincoln Parkway mansion.


Leibovich on Washington

Aristocracy was about politics. Aristocratic privilege and wealth were rewards for ancient war, and, in the dying days of the Habsburg, Romanov, Prussian, and the other doomed empires, aristocratic titles went to the rich whose wealth served the sovereign. Today’s political money, as New York Times reporter Mark Liebovich’s depressing, horrifying, compelling This Town demonstrates, is about a new class — the plutocracy — that serves only itself.

Leibovich should be read and re-read every time there is an election. It’s the story of the incoming Obama idealists after he was first elected—and about the Washington leadership,consisting of the media barons, the legions of lobbyists, the princesses of Washington salons, the dukes of the various law firms, industry groups, and Congressional committees—who gradually enticed the hungry, idealistic, but fallible folks who went to Washington on a wave of “change.” It’s a saddening, dispiriting read. The companion text to Leibovich’s tale should be that short summons that Shakespeare imagined King Henry V gave to his peasant troops when he bucked them up for the battle ahead, a summons that explains where the ruling class used to come from:

And you, good yeoman,

Whose limbs were made in England, show us here

The mettle of your pasture; let us swear

That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;

For there is none of you so mean and base,

That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.

In Shakespeare’s time, in the time of the old Empires, even through World War Two, the “mean and base” among us could be the moral equivalent of aristocrats, because who were nobles but people of breeding—which meant people whose ancestors had been granted titles in return for having helped defeat the enemy at war.  The speech in Henry V shows a politically awake king promising his yeomen farmers, his Welsh bowmen, his peasants at Agincourt, the reward of aristocratic status in return for doing service to king and country. We all know this language of patriotism, of self-sacrifice for the common good, of heroic strength. Translated into the American idiom that prevailed for our first couple of hundred years, it’s not the promise of the reward of a title, but rather, the promise of general esteem we used to expect for having done national service, community service, personal achievement that results in general benefit. Our politics had been, until at least Reagan’s rhetoric began to change this, consistent with aristocratic notions of decorum, exemplary behavior, commitment—without the expectation that money and status were identical.

No more, and especially not now. That expression of our self-hood, that showplace of our culture’s core values, shows us bipartisan perfidy, bipartisan greed, with Leibovich channeling Hunter S. Thompson, H. L. Mencken, Mark Twain, and a refresher course in Elizabeth Drew, except that Leibovich is never as aghast at the sordid as his predecessors. Why? Because it’s just so, so much worse than it was just a few years ago.

Shortly after finishing Leibovich’s book, we read of former Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, Republican, joining former Louisiana Senator John Breaux, Democrat, in a lobbying firm whose principal client is Vladimir Putin’s Bank Rossiya—the bank that launders money for the Russian plutocracy, or mafia, the very bank that President Obama sanctioned after Putin grabbed Crimea and invaded Ukraine.

The nobility of old gave us World War I because heroism, self-sacrifice, and courage do not transit the generations as reliably as do stupidity, arrogance, and bad judgment. Reading Leibovich, though, makes one yearn for the days when there was at least some expression of nobless oblige, that notion, now antique, that along with the conspicuous display of amassed wealth, one ought to help out. The leadership culture of our great democracy is so devoted to the conspicuous display of amassed wealth, and so utterly devoid of any sense of social or even national obligation among Democrats or Republicans, that one despairs of any King Harry ever arriving on any future stage to lead the fight against the threat ahead.


The professors’ warnings

Without even a bumbling aristocracy, we can expect no brakes on the globally-destructive behavior described in last summer’s e-publishing phenomenon, The Collapse of Western Civilization. It’s a short read, a parable drawn up by teachers to teach us what eight out of 10 Americans tell pollsters that they already know—which is that they want their government to follow the advice of 97 out of 100 climate scientists, and to get going on preventing planetary calamaty by doing something, quick, about climate change.

Catching up with the already-convinced will only cost $6 and an hour’s time. It’s worth the effort, and the storage space on one’s smart phone, if a reader connects the story to the current state of American politics, and gets the connection—that we, the rational self-maximizing economic decision-makers in the American marketplace, are actively refusing to engage our own political class, and, as a consequence, we will allow this century’s equivalent of a catastrophic, regime-wrecking, society-disrupting war to happen. It’ll be like World War I all over again for Americans: most of the havoc that unmitigated climate change will wreak will, as the authors remind us, occur on the seacosts of the planet’s poorest countries, even as desertification dries out faraway fields, killing off peasants and whatever remains of their old ruling classes.

What’s lurking in The Collapse of Western Civilization is a careful restatement of a warning increasingly voiced over the past few years—a warning that the American decision-making system, the one that replaced obsolete aristocratic regimes with robust democracy that could be ralled to face crisis, is now no longer functional. This little book ends with a less-than-convincing scenario of global rescue from climate-change—a scenario that presumes effective top-down, dictatorial Chinese policy, plus fortuitous achievements in engineering. Scary stuff: the idea that American writers imagine Chinese kleptocrats can direct government better than American plutocrats and their minions. Makes one yearn for days of old, actually.

Bruce Fisher is a visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.