Today marks the centenary of Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie (whom the rank-obsessed Habsburg court had graced only with the title of Countess Hohenberg, she not being of sufficiently blue blood to marry an Archduke). Theirs was among the first blood to be shed in what became the Great War. I say “among” because the assassins’ first run at them that morning left them unscathed but wounded several in the next car in the motorcade.
The facts of what happened that morning are pretty straightforward. Royal party is to visit local dignitaries. In show of condescension (in the laudatory use of that word, now largely and sadly forgotten, of one placed higher going out of his way to encounter on the level another, placed lower, specifically as a gesture of kindness, or encouragement, or recognition of merit), the Archduke directs that the usual military guard be dispensed with, so the crowds can see the heir to the throne come among them, unafraid.
Among that crowd is a group of youngsters, lead by teen-aged Gavrilo Princip. Citizens of Austria-Hungary, from Bosnia, they are ethnic Serbs, outraged that Bosnia is part of the empire and not part of neighboring Serbia (back then spelled “Servia,” by the way). Having seen the announcement of the Archduke’s visit, they determine to kill him. They travel to Belgrade where they are armed by a group known as the Black Hand, fanatic pan-Slavists set upon uniting all Balkan Slav populations in one (Serbian-run) state. The conspirators return to Sarajevo and wait. The morning of 28 June, they disperse themselves into the crowd, the motorcade’s route also having been announced ahead of time. On the way to city hall, one of them manages to heave a bomb which misses its intended target but explodes near the next car in line, wounding several of its occupants (none severely). The motorcade, now alerted, speeds away. At city hall the Archduke, understandably distressed, tears a strip off the mayor. The gala reception is cancelled.
The royal party embarks to return to the train station by a route different than the trip there. The Archduke, mindful of his injured retainers, instructs that he wishes to see them before he leaves, to make sure they’re being properly attended to, and the motorcade is thus to swing past where they’ve been taken. On the drive back the lead driver, in one of history’s most portentous navigational errors (right on up there with Columbus’s, when you think about it), makes the turn to go back by the route they’d come by. Alerted to his mistake, he stops in the middle of the street to begin the cumbersome reversal of course. The Archduke’s car stops as well, a few feet from where Princip, convinced that his group’s mission has failed and its cover is blown, just happens to be standing. He approaches the car and fires a revolver, hitting Franz Ferdinand in the neck and Sophie in the abdomen. Both rounds sever arteries, and the Archduke and his wife bleed out in a matter of minutes.
It’s not really possible to say much of anything about the events of that day, or their background, or their consequences, that hasn’t been said repeatedly over the last century. If Gentle Reader is looking for fresh insight, it will not be found here. That notwithstanding, I do think it important to reflect on those times, not least because there is a powerful argument to be made that we are still living out their immediate consequences.
The interesting, the instructive, historical eras are those of change, whether gentle transition or violent overthrow. Generations and centuries in which very little changed much one way or the other just don’t intrigue. Yes the Dark Ages are of historical curiosity, but more in the sense of just figuring out what was going on in the first place. We want to know about the organization of agriculture and land tenures in the Sixth Century not because they teach us much of anything about ourselves as humans, but rather merely because we want to know, because knowing is in itself important (and it is). Ditto much of the history of sub-Saharan Africa, at least until the Scramble. The Reformation, the Age of Exploration, the Industrial Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the South American independence movements, however; these all teach us something about being human, because each of them was a change from one state of existence to another profoundly different in important ways. What sparked those transformations, and how did people behave during them? How did they resolve themselves and how did those resolutions reflect and impact human nature? What did people learn about themselves and their fellow humans in the process? What lessons from those times have we today forgot?
By the way, the notion of history-as-change is itself very much a recent concept in terms of the literate human experience. Men have always catalogued their
crimes and follies deeds and struggles, even in the pre-literate times (think Homer). “Wie es gewesen ist,” in the German historians’ 19th Century expression, has always occupied our minds. What is new — say, since the late 18th Century — is the meta-historical understanding, the insight that the chronicle of events has something to tell us beyond the bare narration of their sequence.
And so we turn our minds to 28 June 1914.
Franz Ferdinand was a marked man, from more sides than one. Viewed from within the power structure, he was a disruptive force in the empire. His father became heir to the throne upon Crown Prince Rudolph’s swallowing his pistol in January, 1889. The father died a few years later leaving Franz Ferdinand next in line. The heir understood what the emperor was unwilling to accept, notwithstanding its truth had been thrust down his throat, generally with a bayonet, since he first came to the throne in 1848. The empire could not continue as it had been. Changes both within and outside would not permit it. Industrialization, the rise of militant nationalism, the spread of literacy, mass emigration, and the flow of money, goods, and people within and among nations permitted by the Long Peace (a peace framed, ironically, at the Congress of Vienna) had laid to rest forever, at least for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the idea that tomorrow would reliably resemble today.
As mentioned, Franz Joseph’s acquiescence in that world state was objectively unreasonable. He was too young to have been alive for the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars. On the other hand, how blind did one need to be not to understand that a century inaugurated by the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, a political institution 900 years old and at the head of which one’s own family had served more or less without interruption for a matter of 400 years, was a time of Things Coming Unstuck? Since 1415 there had been all of two non-Habsburg emperors: Sigismund (d. 1437) and Charles VII (1742-45). Within a single generation the French had kicked the Empire’s ass all over the courtyard multiple times and in 1806 the last of the line just shut it down. Sure, you can argue that by then there really wasn’t very much substance to liquidate, but in point of fact it was a symbol, a symbol of What Has Forever Been. Humans are unique animals in that so much of our mental landscape is formed by symbolism, both concrete (statuary, pictorial) and abstract (The Church, the Roman Empire). There’s even a book about the Habsburgs which organizes its narration around the family’s use of religious and political symbolism to maintain itself in power, even as the physical forces over which they held sway frayed, snapped, dissolved.
From his first moments on the throne, Franz Joseph’s reign was riven with violent change. The very fact of his accession was a function of ructions among the Hungarians, part of the Revolution of 1848. Feeble-minded Ferdinand I, widely acknowledged among the family to be Just Not Up To It, was pressured to abdicate, as was his younger brother, Franz Joseph’s father. Pregnant with implications for the future, it took the intervention of Russian troops to secure Franz Joseph on his throne.
For Franz Joseph there then followed twenty years of getting his butt run out of Italy, or rather the rest of the way out of Italy, courtesy of the French and the House of Savoy. On his northern borders, the Prussians were squeezing him out of participation in the Greater German consolidation of the mid-century decades. That culminated in the humiliation of 1866. In 1867 the Hungarians forced on him the Ausgleich — the Compromise — of 1867, which formally created the Dual Monarchy, in which Franz Joseph was Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. The Hungarians extracted numerous concessions as the price for an undisputed throne, most of which can be categorized as mechanisms for the suppression of non-Hungarian peoples within Hungary, and freezing out from participation in the joint government any groups other than Germans and Hungarians.
Of the Ausgleich could be said, as the Duke of Wellington was told after delivering an over-my-dead-body speech against what became the Great Reform Bill of 1832 and he asked a fellow peer, a crusty old Scot, “I have not said too much, have I?” and was told, “Ye’ll hear of it.”
During these same years serfdom was finally abolished in the empire, a change which affected foremost Hungary. Of all the servient classes in Europe, about the only large group stifled in greater misery than the Hungarian serfs and peasants were their fellow toilers in Russia. And as in Russia, for the newly-emancipated serfs formal freedom brought precious little in material betterment.
Let’s just come right out and say it in plain Saxon: The Habsburg accession to the Hungarian throne after Mohacs in 1526 turned out to be a poisoned chalice, to retain its grip on which the monarchy repeatedly made decisions that compromised its ability to survive. Even when it wasn’t the Hungarians themselves creating tumult, it was accommodating the Hungarian insistence that nothing occur which might lessen their influence in the empire which was a if not the chief point on which snagged and capsized any attempt to adapt to a changing, challenging world.
The imperial coddling of Hungary was all the more disastrous — and in retrospect questionable — for the empire because Hungary was by a good margin the portion of the empire most backward socially, economically, and industrially. Yes it was to some extent the imperial bread-basket. It was a phenomenally inefficient bread-basket, however, and the only reason it occupied that position at all was because so much of the rest of the country was either badly suited to large-scale agriculture or was rapidly industrializing and so turning away from basic food production. More to the point, after the Napoleonic Wars, and even more so after the opening of the American Mid-West and the Canadian Plains by mid-century, cheap North American grain could and would have been more than sufficiently available to feed the population. In late century the Australian wheat fields came on-stream, with a growing season exactly the opposite of the northern hemisphere, and from 1867 the Suez Canal was open for traffic in grain carriers. Had Franz Joseph had the vision, or had the advisors, he could have very plausibly embraced the industrialization of his empire, used the economic surplus generated by that growth to feed his people from abroad (as Britain and even the German Reich were doing), and told the Hungarians to go pound sand up their asses. But he didn’t.
In fairness to Franz Joseph, it ought to be observed that he wasn’t the only monarch in thrall to a well-organized group of people who were adamantly opposed to any change at all which threatened a very ancient, and ludicrously inefficient agrarian way of life. The Prussian kings (and of course later German emperors) were forever tip-toeing around the Prussian Junker class, from which it drew its officer class, which latter class the Hohenzollerns insisted be the driving force in the Reich’s political life. The domestic policies of Bismarck (himself of ancient Junker heritage) and his successors were at any number of points forced through the seine of agrarian intransigence.
All the while these changes were going on, and Franz Joseph grimly setting his face against them, there grew and festered the nationalistic sentiments among the empire’s numerous non-German, non-Hungarian minorities. First among them were the Czechs, by late century the principal drivers of such Austro-Hungarian modernization as was occurring. If the Hohenzollerns in Berlin had Krupp (in Essen, clear on the other end of the Reich), the Habsburgs had Skoda . . . in Bohemia, founded and run by Czechs. Again the curious parallels: hard-shell Protestant, militantly anti-modern Prussia armed itself from heavily Roman Catholic (until Napoleon’s conquest, the city was church property), highly internationalized Essen. Hard-shell agrarian, chauvinistic Austria-Hungary armed itself from highly-industrialized, Czech Bohemia. But the Czechs at least had the power of money, and even in Austria-Hungary, hoary with tradition and snobbery (see: Sophie, Countess of Hohenberg), money was not mute. But you had Slovakians, Ruthenians, Rumelians, Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians, Rumanians, and many more besides. “Polyglot” doesn’t begin to do justice to the patchwork that was Austro-Hungarian ethnography.
Pretty much all those groups (except those who were so marginalized they knew better than even to dream of it, such as the Jews and the Gypsies) had a few things in common: They were outraged that all political power was artificially concentrated in the hands of the Germans and the Hungarians. They fervently wanted to establish national states, in which they and others of their ethnic group would dominate. They wanted to assemble their ethnic fellows into compact geographic groups. And finally, each and every one of them had its neck stomped on by the Austro-Hungarian government whenever they tried anything in the direction of addressing their grievances or aspirations. With the emperor’s full approval.
First Crown Prince Rudolph, and then Franz Ferdinand, saw all of this. Rudolph in his frustration to do something gave in to his genetic emotional instability (his mother was a Wittelsbach, a cousin of Ludwig II, and it showed) and whacked his girlfriend (I’m sorry; if you’re heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, with a litany of titles even as heir that can’t be pronounced in one breath or even several, and the best you can do as mistress is a 17-year-old tart of decidedly arriviste origins, then you aren’t much of an heir to that kind of throne.) and then himself rather than continue to watch his father drive his patrimony onto the rocks. Franz Ferdinand, soldier that he was, beat his fists bloody (metaphorically speaking, of course) against the absurdities and obtuseness of the system. The forces of reaction easily marginalized him. In this respect his marriage to Sophie, while reflecting great credit on them both (theirs has a good claim to be among the great love matches of European royal history, as warm-hearted, and eventually tragic, as George III and Charlotte or Nicholas II and Alexandra), did neither him nor his country any good. To a large degree, Franz Joseph’s natural antipathy towards change was made easier to maintain by his revulsion against an heir who had defied him to marry morganatically. Would Franz Ferdinand have been able to sway the emperor if the two had been on speaking terms? Maybe not, but it sure as hell wasn’t going to happen with the emperor feeling like he needed a bath after every audience with his heir.
Franz Ferdinand was no soupy sentimentalist about the empire’s ethnic minorities. With his customary lack of grace he damned them all. But he understood that unless they were brought into the polity, unless they acquired a stake in its continuance that they could feel and around which they could coalesce, the empire could not survive. And like all heirs to thrones who enjoy poor relations with their immediate predecessors, his views were known.
Those within governing circles had little trouble letting the air out of Franz Ferdinand’s sails. Those increasingly radicalized among the minorities were terrified of an Emperor Franz Ferdinand. This was not because they feared repressions and exactions, but exactly the opposite. They feared that his reforms would succeed, and that rather than follow them into revolt and dissolution, their ethnic brethren would reconcile themselves to the empire and become contented citizens of it. The expression “false consciousness” had not been coined yet, but that’s what the radical ethno-warriors feared. Lenin, with his gift for capturing complicated concepts in pithy expressions (e.g., “Who? Whom?”) once famously said of Russian tribulations, “The worse, the better.” Improvement in the minorities’ lot would damn their aspirations, and with Franz Joseph’s life rapidly approaching its close, improvement was on the horizon.
So Franz Ferdinand had to die. This may be one of history’s all-time greatest too-clever-by-half events. The Serbian radicals, terrified that Franz Ferdinand would undercut them with their kinsmen, decided to take him out, believing that they thereby could preserve their ambitions’ viability. In fact, the death was cynically used by those around Franz Joseph as a pretext for extinction not only of Serbian nationalism within the empire, but extinction of Serbia as an independent state. The emperor sure wasn’t identifiably upset by his heir’s murder; he commented that God had restored a balance he, the emperor, had been unable to maintain. The war-mongers (that’s usually a hyperbolic epithet, but I really don’t know how else you could accurately describe someone like General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, who (like Cato centuries before: Carthago delenda est) appended to almost every official statement something about the need to crush the “vipers’ nest” of Serbia) famously spent the next month putting together a list of demands that no sovereign country could agree to. The idea was that Serbia would reject some of them and that could be presented by the empire as a casus belli, after which either Serbia would not exist at all, or would do so in form of a vassal state. Austria-Hungary would not only have resolved an issue of domestic concern, but its brief and successful war would restore it to relevance among the world’s Great Powers.
The war-mongers genuinely believed they could pull it off. This would be just another tumult in the Balkans, and after all, in the preceding three years there had been not one but two Balkan Wars among shifting coalitions, and nothing larger had grown from them. In Edward Grey’s expression, the anchors held, and in the empire’s view there was no reason they ought not hold again.
It would be unfair to accuse Conrad and his allies of blindness to the risk that this particular Balkan crisis would be different because it, unlike the two previous wars, involved a Power — themselves. They knew that Russia viewed itself as the South Slavs’ patron. They knew from the Bosnian annexation crisis of 1908 that Russia’s position was that anything which increased imperial influence in the Balkans, especially at the expense of Slavic or Orthodox influence, was a direct threat to Russia’s standing as a Great Power (whether that position was reasonable or not). They knew that Russia was the wild card in the deck. They thought they could keep it from being played by invoking the aid of their German ally, Wilhelm II. Wilhelm, foolishly, gave them the “blank check,” the assurance that, whatever happened, Germany would back them to the hilt. And so forward they went.
Here it is not inappropriate to observe that, once again, the Hungarians gave the empire a shove in the direction of collapse. The Hungarian prime minister, Istvan Tisza, was not unopposed to Serbia, and in fact was not fundamentally in disagreement that the Serbs needed to be squashed. He did, however, have the imagination to realize where a war against Serbia, and against Russia, Serbia’s protector, was likely to lead. He knew that the ethnic tensions in Hungary could scarcely survive such a war, and for that reason he was opposed, originally, to forcing the issue in summer 1914. He was the sole politically powerful man who might, by firmness, have de-railed the self-delusion of the imperial government. That he was inclined to do so out of chauvinistic grounds is not important. He alone might have done so. Had he demanded an audience with Franz Joseph and point-blank told him the home truths that Tisza alone seemed to comprehend, the ultimatum in its eventual form might well not have been sent. And then he gave in, and blessed the enterprise.
If the Austo-Hungarians made one central mistake in summer 1914, it was in supposing that just because they and the Germans were allies they shared the same objectives. Conrad thought that by invoking the German alliance he could prevent the Russian card from being played, that he could secure his northern front while he proceeded against the Serbs. This is why you need to spy on your friends as well as your enemies. The German general staff affirmatively wanted a war, and specifically a war against Russia. They could see Russia re-arming, industrializing, growing, with access to French (and by that time, British as well) capital and markets. They knew that, fully mobilized, Russia could put millions of men in the field, men who even incompetently lead would simply swamp the German army in a flood of flesh and material (much as they — correctly — understood their exposure to American intervention in both wars). After years’ observation and debate, the German high command reached the conclusion that the only way to breach the encirclement of an allied France and Russia, with the association of a reconciled France and Britain in the background, was to smash the weakest member of the three: Russia.
The general staff’s objectives in respect of Russia are why, even after Wilhelm had, completely without consultation with any responsible member of his government (recalling that under the Imperial constitution, the chancellor had control of foreign policy) given the blank check, the general staff failed to jerk a knot in his butt. They wanted a war with Russia, and the sooner, the better. If anything, they were offended by their ally’s focus on the (for Germany, at least) irrelevant Serbian front.
By calling upon Germany, the Austro-Hungarians not only were unsuccessful in keeping Russia at bay, they ensured that Russia would be drawn in to the war. As Franz Ferdinand was, in death, used as a tool by his political enemies to accomplish that which he abhorred, so Conrad von Hötzendorf was used as a tool by his allies to accomplish their ends, the diametric opposite of his own.
In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln spoke of the country’s route to war.
“On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”
Of the route to war between June 28 and the end of July, I do not know that we can say better than that one side would make war rather than allow peace to continue, and the other would accept war rather than let peace be destroyed. And the war came.
Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace deals of the years ending in 1914. There is not a great deal in her book that isn’t widely known, but it’s her perspective that is important. She asks and tries to answer the question of why Edward Grey’s anchors failed to hold. And she keeps squarely before the reader that these were identifiable people, moral agents with a range of choices, who made choices that brought war closer instead of making those which would have made it more difficult.
The Serbian nationalists felt relieved when Franz Ferdinand died in Sarajevo. They thought they’d done a good day’s work. Fools. By war’s end 16% of Serbia’s gross pre-war population was dead. Nearly one out of six men, women, and children was a corpse. Sure, they got their kingdom of South Slavs (the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovene, the constitution of which was proclaimed on this day in 1921), but they had precious little time to enjoy it. Twenty years later the Wehrmacht came to town. Then came 45 years of communist oppression, then renewed civil war and genocide.
“Never let a good crisis go to waste.” This was said, flippantly, by a former aide to Dear Leader. He said it as if to assert his mastery of political intrigue, his control of the Great Chessboard of Affairs. Crises, according to this view, enable the savvy operator to accomplish things, to form alliances, that would be impossible under normal circumstances. This view rests on a sublime hubris, the delusion that in a pack of wolves, it is possible to select one, grab that one by the ears, and in so doing steer the entire pack in a direction you desire. Even if you can ride him, you’re still in a pickle: Thos. Jefferson said of slavery that it was like holding a wolf by the ears: You didn’t like it but you dare not let it go. General Conrad and the German general staff didn’t want to let a good crisis go to waste. And they didn’t. To borrow another expression of Lincoln’s (also from the Second Inaugural), they got something altogether more “fundamental and outstanding” than they’d bargained for. Franz Joseph, the man who abhorred all Change on principle, wearily acquiesced in the fomenting of the most fundamental change seen on the European continent since the Reformation.
God has a sense of irony. Again, from Lincoln: “The Almighty has His own purposes.”
And so today we contemplate the death of a man and his wife, a man whose life was a frustration of his own purposes and whose death was appropriated to their antithesis. We today begin the centennial observation of those years in which men, by no means fools, yet foolishly actively sought chaos because they thought their stability repugnant.
The history of revolution and revolutionaries is a grim litany of horror and death. About the only two I can readily think of which resulted in objective improvement to the moral or material conditions of their ordinary populations were the English Glorious Revolution of 1688 and their American colonies’ revolution of the 1770s-80s.
It doesn’t speak very well of us, does it?
Rest in peace, Franz Ferdinand. You at least were spared the sight of what you spent your life trying to stave off.