Toward the end of his long and improbable life Franz Kunstler is reported to have said, “When I’m 110 the devil can come and get me.” The devil never came for Kunstler, but death did. At the ripe old age of 107, Kunstler finally died. It had been a long time in coming.
It has now been over six and a half years since Kunstler, the last surviving Austro-Hungarian soldier to fight in World War I, died. Kunstler outlived the other 7,800,000 soldiers who fought for an empire that would vanish at the end of the war. Kunstler had won the lottery ticket of life, outlasting his compatriots by luck and longevity. The biographic (and geographic) details of Kuntsler’s life are astonishing. They illuminate the lost multicultural world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a world of many different ethnic groups living side by side. This world existed across much of Central and Eastern Europe for hundreds of years, but was obliterated in just over three decades by two World Wars and the influence of radical ideologies. The passing of Kunstler was not just a bit of World War I trivia worth documenting, it was also an opportunity to reflect on how much had changed in Europe due to the rise of nationalism and nation-states in Eastern Europe.
The Twists Of Fate
Franz Kunstler was born at the start of the twentieth century in Sósd, (present day Măureni, Romania). The village was located in the Kingdom of Hungary, one-half of Austria-Hungary. Kunstler grew up in a region known as the Banat, an area of rich farmland that is today located in western Romania, northeastern Serbia and a small sliver of southeastern Hungary. At the time of Kunstler’s birth the region was part of one empire, by the time of his death it was part of three nations (and had also been part of one that no longer existed – Yugoslavia). At Kunstler’s birth, the Banat region was 40% Romanian, 25% German, 18% Serbian and 12% Hungarian. The Hungarians, though the smallest of the major ethnic groups, ruled over the area. Thus, Kunstler would have been officially known by the Magyarized version of his first name, Ferenc. Though German was Kunstler’s mother tongue, anyone looking to truly get ahead in the Banat region had to be bilingual, with Hungarian the official lingua franca.
At the tender age of fourteen Kunstler’s life took an unexpected turn. In an interview toward the end of his life he recalled arriving back in his home village by train after a vacation in the late summer of 1914. His father met him at the station with the news that their world was about to change radically, Austria-Hungary was going to war. Kunstler ended up abandoning his dream of becoming a lawyer. Instead he had to help on the family farm as his older brother’s went off to fight in the war. When he turned 18, Kunstler was drafted into what was about to become the final year of the war. He only received a month and a half of training before being sent off to the Piave Region on the Italian Front. There he served in the artillery until the end of the war. Kunstler witnessed the collapse of the army in the face of new Allied offensives that proved to be decisive. Though he survived the war unscathed, its end did not bring peace for Kunstler. He ended up fighting the communists in Hungary in the immediate years after the war. He also found himself, as did millions of others, with his home now in another nation. The village where he had grown up had now become part of Romania. The Banat Germans were not forced to leave Romania, but some reports state that Kunstler was expelled. This could well be true, since he had been fighting for Hungary, which was now a mortal enemy of Romania.
A Second War & The Search For A Personal Peace
Kunstler moved to the Republic of Hungary where he began a new life selling household goods in Budapest. Little did Kunstler know that this was not the end of his odyssey, but the beginning of another one! A little over twenty years later, he along with almost all of Europe became involved in a Second World War. Kunstler joined the Hungarian Army, seeing service as a mobile courier in Ukraine. Lucky for him, that this service only lasted six months. He avoided the cataclysmic defeat that befell the Hungarian Army in southern Russia. Loss was something that he could not avoid though. Hungary along with Germany was defeated. Budapest was devastated and Soviet troops occupied Hungary. Kunstler was soon arrested and put in jail by the Communists. It seemed as though his luck had finally run out. Was Kunstler like so many other ethnic German men to be exiled and waste away performing hard labor in Siberia? This would likely have been his fate if he had not managed to escape from prison. Running westward for his life and toward his ethnic brethren, Kunstler made it to southern Germany.
A man who had somehow survived two World Wars, lived under one empire, one republic and one dictatorship, finally found his place in a newly democratic western Germany. Kunstler had found a nation that he could call home, a nation created from the wreckage of war that would finally achieve a lasting peace. This might well be the most improbable part of Kunstler’s life. After forty-six years of upheaval and a life filled with surprises, he now settled down. The first forty-six years of his life had been anything but calm, yet he would go on to live a second life in peace. Kunstler became a tour guide at a hunting museum. A museum was probably the best place for Kunstler since he was truly a living relic. The places that he had once called home had now become communist Romania and Hungary, nations not at war with other nations, but at war within themselves. They would not last either. The iron curtain eventually fell and peace finally fell over all the nations East-Central Europe. Franz Kunstler lived to see and experience all of the 20th century’s violent, vengeful and finally peaceful iterations.
The Skill of Survival
Remarkably Kunstler lived on into the 21st century. Toward the end of his life he was not only the oldest living Austro-Hungarian veteran, but also the oldest living person in Germany. Kunstler was uneasy with his fame. In an interview with the German magazine Cicero he stated, “I was no Hurrah soldier and simply did what I had to do?” Millions of other Austro-Hungarian soldiers would probably have given the same answer, but they had died many years before. Franz Kunstler had outlived them all. His greatest and most enduring skill had been survival.