There is a theory that threats to empires, nations and alliances usually begin on the fringes. Two recent examples come to mind. The European Debt Crisis began in Greece, a nation whose size, economy and geographical situation make up a miniscule portion of the European Union. Yet it was the possibility of a Greek default that threatened to collapse the European Union. Currently, a migrant crisis has been sweeping across Europe. It only came into the European consciousness when waves of migrants bottlenecked on the Hungarian – Serbian border last summer. Before that, the majority of Europeans hardly gave a second thought to the plight of Syrians. Even fewer cared about Hungary’s external border with a non-EU member. Then suddenly the issue moved from the fringes to the heart of Europe.
Historically, one of the best examples of “fringe theory” was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo which ignited the First World War. Bosnia-Herzegovina was an imperial backwater, though on the frontiers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one murderous event there led to worldwide conflagration and irreparable change in the European order. No one could have imagined that a single event in a fading empire’s hinterland would cause such a cataclysm. It would be easy to say that the assassination was without precedent, but it was not. Before the assassination in Sarajevo there was an earlier event that warned of tensions in another fringe region of Austria-Hungary. It was also an assassination, a product of the same kind of ethnic friction that would eventually cause the empire’s implosion. This first act took place in Lviv (known then by its German name of Lemberg) in 1908.
An Audience With An Assassin
In Austro-Hungarian times, Galicia’s top provincial official, known as the Governor General, was available each Sunday to meet with citizens. They could request assistance with a problem, air a grievance or submit a petition. These meetings were completely confidential with not even a single security officer present. In retrospect, it seems a quaintly paradoxical notion that despite a rigid class system with rampant inequality between ethnic groups, aristocrats and peasants, in addition to city and rural laborers that once a week anyone could address the Emperor’s handpicked, top provincial official. Many of these meetings dealt with minor problems caused by the tangled web of bureaucracy. These meetings gave the citizens a feeling of empowerment. While the ruling class felt that holding such an audience was a symbol of justice and fairness. On April 12, 1908, Governor-General Andreas Potocki, a wealthy scion of the Polish aristocratic Potocki family, held his regular audience with citizens that wanted to meet with him.
The first meeting involved a man who asked for help in clearing up bureaucratic problems so he could open a pharmacy. Potocki dutifully promised to ease the administrative logjam. The second man entering Potocki’s office had an unknown petition, but immediately made his intentions clear. Right after closing the door behind him, the man pulled out a gun and proceeded to shoot Potocki five times. The Governor-General was somehow still conscious after the attack, but among his wounds, the worst one was just above his left eye. The assailant did not attempt to flee, instead he just stood there. A clerk ran into the room, saw what happened and immediately called for medical help. As he lay dying Potocki dictated a brief telegram to Emperor Franz Josef. After suffering for two hours he uttered his last words, “Tell the Emperor I was his most faithful servant.” That servitude had cost Potocki his life. The assassin was Miroslaw Siczynski, a university philosophy student, who held radical pro-Ruthenian (Ukrainian) sentiments. He had been part of Ruthenian student protests, demonstrations and hunger strikes. A brother suffering from mental illness had recently committed suicide. This was thought to have triggered Siczynski’s fatal act. His sister quoted him as saying, “If someone is going to renounce his life, he should first achieve some great deed, a deed for the whole people.” The deed had been done, but what followed was totally unexpected.
Crime & Punishment
The assassination made news around the world. A New York Times headline gave a brief and accurate summation of the act’s underlying motive, “Count Andreas Potocki victim of the bitter enmity between Ruthenians and Poles.” There was no love lost in Lviv between the Poles who controlled the levers of power in Galicia and the Ruthenians who were the majority population in the eastern half of the province. Poles enshrined the use of their language in civil administration and universities, marginalizing the Ruthenians. The crux of the matter was that Ruthenians refused to become Poles and Poles refused to allow Ruthenians equality in the economic, political and cultural arenas. For radical Ruthenians, such as Siczynski, the only solution was violence. It held the possibility of toppling the entire system of Polish power in Galicia.
The Potocki assassination would not lead to major changes right away, but it exposed the combustible ethnic tension found throughout Galicia and Austria-Hungary as a whole. It also led to unintended consequences in the life of Siczynski. Like many a zealot, he had hoped to achieve martyrdom. A jury sentenced him to death by hanging. This was reinforced by the highest courts in Vienna. In a dramatic turn of events, at the eleventh hour his death sentence was commuted by the Emperor. He was now to serve 20 years in prison, but he actually only served little more than three. One night Siczynski, with the aid of an accomplice, walked out the gates of the prison where he was confined in Stanislalviv (Ivano-Frankivsk). He made his way to Sweden and later immigrated to the United States. He would spend the rest of his life as a free man. Siczynski had suffered relatively little for the murder he committed. Other would-be revolutionaries must have taken note.
The Most Dangerous Precedent
The assassination in Lviv may not have transformed the Ruthenians immediate situation in Galicia, but it did set a dangerous precedent throughout the empire. It was the first time in Austro-Hungarian history that a direct representative of the emperor had been murdered. It was now possible to conceive that assassinations would become the preferred method of effecting change. No one, including the Emperor or his heir apparent – the Archduke Franz Ferdinand – was safe from ethnic violence. There was a line that ran between the assassination in Lviv during the spring of 1908 and the one in Sarajevo at the end of June 1914. That line ran red with the blood of the powerful murdered by the powerless. Out along the fringes of an Empire, radical change was being promulgated. Eventually, it bled straight into the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.