Warning… Tangent ahead.
Albatross. Kissinger describes The Congress of Vienna as an “albatross” for Napoleon III. I was struck by this description on my most recent reading of this chapter for some reason. I believe I knew what he meant, that the albatross was a burden, something that Napoleon III sought to lift from his shoulders so he could go on into greatness. This of course made sense because the Congress of Vienna had returned France, after the Napoleonic wars to its “ancient borders” and through the creation of the German Confederation sought to “reign in” any territorial ambitions that France might have, and though Napoleon III is described as not quite the megalomaniac as his Uncle, he did believe France was entitled to the occasional territorial gain. I do not believe that it is mentioned here, but it was of course under Napoleon III that France installed a dictator in Mexico and began colonization of SE Asia (Vietnam).
All of this made sense to me. What did not make sense to me was the term “albatross”. I google imaged “albatross” for this post and all I could find were images of what appeared to be something of a majestic bird. “How could this seemingly majestic bird be turned into a metaphor for a burden?” I wondered.
Wikipedia to the rescue. The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere was a poem written in 1798 which has a number of phrases (“water water everywhere…”) that have fallen into common usage along with the use of the term “albatross” as a terrible burden. In the poem (you can listen to it, in all of its 30 minute glory on Wikipedia) the Mariner has set sail on a voyage with a crew and they appear to be lost when they are followed by an albatross for a number of days. The site of the bird I believe is used as sign of hope. Land must be nearby, and the sailors feed it some sort of biscuit and it flies and follows and plays. Then one day, for reasons unknown, the Mariner shoots and kills the bird with his crossbow.
What follows is a phantasmagoria of a voyage into years of horror, and drought, and famine and utter lostness and finally death for all of the crew, except for the Ancient Mariner, who prior to their death, is forced to wear the dead albatross around his neck, because it was his foolishness that brought all of them into this terrible plight.
I will not spoil the ending for you but I do want to make a point with my tangent. I have read this book, nearly cover to cover, for every year I have taught this class, which I believe started with the graduating class of 2000. Despite so many years of reading, and talking about Diplomacy with groups of highly intelligent and motivated young people like yourselves, I still get something new out of this book every time I read it. A hallmark of a really great book.
Now you may say the origins of the word “albatross” is not terribly relevant to Realpolitikand and you might be right. Regardless though, it stands as an example and could easily have been some other concept like “legitimacy” or “Collective Security”.
What you should take from this episode is that you can’t simply sit and read and “get” this book. Its why we have class. We have the time in class to discuss, to “quiz” to shape our knowledge together with one anothers’ help, around this book. I am enormously pleased with both classes to date. I have posted the first batch of quiz scores (raw. No extra credit added yet.) and some of you have like 144%! What that means to me is that you are on the road to “getting it” . As our year marches on you will face greater and greater tests of your knowledge and until you can rattle off dates and names and facts like our friend Dr. Dallek you will still be on the road.
In fact I think he would say he is still on the road. “History is never ending argument”