Activity: Mark Twain’s “The Government in the Frying-Pan”
Concern and criticism about the Balkans was not limited to the Europeans. Mark Twain, considered one of the United States most popular and greatest writers, could not help but weigh in on the issue. After the American Civil War, he took on more and more controversial writing, including speaking out about race and prejudice against Native Americans and Jews. In the excerpt below he addresses his interest on the question of the Balkans. In it, he talks about the attitude of Austrians as they view the turmoil in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and of the role that the press has in conveying news. The full text is readily available if you want to see how Twain interprets the impending crisis. Read through the excerpt and answer the questions at the end.
The Government in the Frying-Pan
Here in Vienna in these closing days of 1897, one's blood gets no chance to stagnate. The atmosphere is brimful of political electricity. All conversation is political; every man is a battery, with brushes overworn, and gives out blue sparks when you set him going on the common topic. Everybody has an opinion, and lets you have it frank and hot, and out of this multitude of counsel you get merely confusion and despair. For no one really understands this political situation, or can tell you what is going to be the outcome of it.
Things have happened here recently which would set any country but Austria on fire from end to end, and upset the Government to a certainty; but no one feels confident that such results will follow here. Here, apparently, one must wait and see what will happen, then he will know, and not before; guessing is idle; guessing cannot help the matter. This is what the wise tell you; they all say it; they say it every day, and it is the sole detail upon which they all agree.
There is some approach to agreement upon another point: that there will be no revolution. Men say: 'Look at our history, revolutions have not been in our line; and look at our political map, its construction is unfavorable to an organized uprising, and without unity what could a revolt accomplish? It is disunion which has held our empire together for centuries, and what it has done in the past it may continue to do now and in the future.’
The most intelligible sketch I have encountered of this unintelligible arrangement of things was contributed to the ‘Traveler’s Record’ by Mr. Forrest Morgan, of Hartford, three years ago. He says:
'The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy is the patchwork-quilt, the Midway Plaisance, the national chain-gang of Europe; a state that is not a nation, but a collection of nations, some with national memories and aspirations and others without, some occupying distinct provinces almost purely their own, and others mixed with alien races, but each with a different language, and each mostly holding the others foreigners as much as if the link of a common government did not exist. Only one of its races even now comprises so much as one- fourth of the whole, and not another so much as one-sixth; and each has remained for ages as unchanged in isolation, however mingled together in locality, as globules of oil in water. There is nothing else in the modern world that is nearly like it, though there have been plenty in past ages; it seems unreal and impossible even though we know it is true; it violates all our feeling as to what a country should be in order to have a right to exist; and it seems as though it was too ramshackle to go on holding together any length of time. Yet it has survived, much in its present shape, two centuries of storms that have swept perfectly unified countries from existence and others that have brought it to the verge of ruin, has survived formidable European coalitions to dismember it, and has steadily gained force after each; forever changing in its exact make-up, losing in the West but gaining in the East, the changes leave the structure as firm as ever, like the dropping off and adding on of logs in a raft, its mechanical union of pieces showing all the vitality of genuine national life.'
That seems to confirm and justify the prevalent Austrian faith that in this confusion of unrelated and irreconcilable elements, this condition of incurable disunion, there is strength--for the Government. Nearly every day some one explains to me that a revolution would not succeed here. 'It couldn't, you know. Broadly speaking, all the nations in the empire hate the Government--but they all hate each other too, and with devoted and enthusiastic bitterness; no two of them can combine; the nation that rises must rise alone; then the others would joyfully join the Government against her, and she would have just a fly's chance against a combination of spiders. This Government is entirely independent. It can go its own road, and do as it pleases; it has nothing to fear. In countries like England and America, where there is one tongue and the public interests are common, the Government must take account of public opinion; but in Austria-Hungary there are nineteen public opinions--one for each state. No--two or three for each state, since there are two or three nationalities in each. A Government cannot satisfy all these public opinions; it can only go through the motions of trying. This Government does that. It goes through the motions, and they do not succeed; but that does not worry the Government much.'
The next man will give you some further information. 'The Government has a policy--a wise one--and sticks to it. This policy is--tranquility: keep this hive of excitable nations as quiet as possible; encourage them to amuse themselves with things less inflammatory that politics. To this end it furnishes them an abundance of Catholic priests to teach them to be docile and obedient, and to be diligent in acquiring ignorance about things here below, and knowledge about the kingdom of heaven, to whose historic delights they are going to add the charm of their society by-and-by; and further--to this same end--it cools off the newspapers every morning at five o'clock, whenever warm events are happening.' There is a censor of the press, and apparently he is always on duty and hard at work. A copy of each morning paper is brought to him at five o'clock. His official wagons wait at the doors of the newspaper offices and scud to him with the first copies that come from the press. His company of assistants read every line in these papers, and mark everything which seems to have a dangerous look; then he passes final judgment upon these markings. Two things conspire to give to the results a capricious and unbalanced look: his assistants have diversified notions as to what is dangerous and what isn't; he can't get time to examine their criticisms in much detail; and so sometimes the very same matter which is suppressed in one paper fails to be damned in another one, and gets published in full feather and unmodified. Then the paper in which it was suppressed blandly copies the forbidden matter into its evening edition--provokingly giving credit and detailing all the circumstances in courteous and inoffensive language--and of course the censor cannot say a word.
Sometimes the censor sucks all the blood out of a newspaper and leaves it colorless and inane; sometimes he leaves it undisturbed, and lets it talk out its opinions with a frankness and vigor hardly to be surpassed, I think, in the journals of any country. Apparently the censor sometimes revises his verdicts upon second thought, for several times lately he has suppressed journals after their issue and partial distribution. The distributed copies are then sent for by the censor and destroyed. I have two of these, but at the time they were sent for I could not remember what I had done with them.
If the censor did his work before the morning edition was printed, he would be less of an inconvenience than he is; but, of course, the papers cannot wait many minutes after five o'clock to get his verdict; they might as well go out of business as do that; so they print and take their chances. Then, if they get caught by a suppression, they must strike out the condemned matter and print the edition over again. That delays the issue several hours, and is expensive besides. The Government gets the suppressed edition for nothing. If it bought it, that would be joyful, and would give great satisfaction. Also, the edition would be larger. Some of the papers do not replace the condemned paragraphs with other matter; they merely snatch them out and leave blanks behind--mourning blanks, marked 'Confiscated'.
The Government discourages the dissemination of newspaper information in other ways. For instance, it does not allow newspapers to be sold on the streets: therefore the newsboy is unknown in Vienna. And there is a stamp duty of nearly a cent upon each copy of a newspaper's issue. Every American paper that reaches me has a stamp upon it, which has been pasted there in the post-office or downstairs in the hotel office; but no matter who put it there, I have to pay for it, and that is the main thing. Sometimes friends send me so many papers that it takes all I can earn that week to keep this Government going.
- What does Twain mean when he says that “one’s blood gets no chance to stagnate?”
- Twain quotes another writer, Forrest Morgan, on describing the political nature of the Balkans. Summarize Morgan’s ideas and hypothesize what problems exist for the individual groups of people being governed by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
- Why was it felt that a revolution led by those groups in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire would not be possible?
- How did Twain interpret the Austrian-Hungarian Empire’s approach to governing?
- How did the government control the press?
- What is the role of the press in a society? Are the roles and responsibilities different for the press in a free society from what they are for the press in a controlled society?
- What happens in a society when the press can not freely report the news?