The Kiss Of Death – Bela Kiss: Austro-Hungarian Soldier, Ladies Man & Serial Killer

Many a man who went off to the battlefields and trenches in World War I was never the same again. Some were radicalized, others brutalized and all had seared into their consciousness the ultra-violent nature of modern warfare. Those who survived the war came back home transformed, nothing about life was ever the same again. Coming into contact with such forces of violence altered their lives forever. Yet in one soldier’s extreme and exceptional case going off to war was an escape from home. The battlefront was the perfect place to hide from the dark deeds he had committed in the years leading up to the outbreak of war. It may have also given him a chance to use the war as an outlet for his violent tendencies. One thing is for certain, no army ever had to train the Hungarian soldier Bela Kiss on how to kill. He already had plenty of experience by the time he joined the Austro-Hungarian army.

Bela Kiss - Sketch of a deranged killer

Bela Kiss – Sketch of a deranged killer

Looks That Kill With Hands That Strangle
There is a picture, not quite a photo, but a detailed sketch of the man thought to be Bela Kiss. The picture portrays a man from his shoulders up. He is dressed in an army uniform and sports a soldier’s cap. On the left is the upper half of a rifle barrel, which he must be clutching in his right hand. He has a broad face, solid chin and a dark mustache, waxed to perfection, sharply pointed on both ends. This is a good looking man, except for one very disconcerting feature. The look in his eyes is deranged with a dark, piercing quality to his stare. An intense, fanatical amusement can be detected in his expression. This is the look of a man who kills for pleasure. The artist who put together this depiction may have infused it with what was already known about Kiss.

He was handsome, charming and suave, a ladies man through and through. These qualities must have been useful in helping him procure his first and only known wife. The marriage did not last, which seems a bit unlikely. After all, they had a stable income, from Kiss’ work as a prosperous tinsmith in the village of Czinkota close to Budapest. They rented a nice cottage in a quiet area, surrounded by neighbor’s who suspected nothing. Perhaps it was their age difference which made their marriage difficult, than again maybe it was his madness. Kiss was 15 years older than his wife. The young wife soon found a new love and then they disappeared together. Only later would they be found dead.

The bodies of Kiss’ wife and her lover were discovered in 1916, two years after Kiss went off to fight in the First World War. While he was away at the front a deadly secret Kiss had been hiding was discovered in a cache of metal barrels he had been using, ostensibly to store gasoline. At least that is what his landlord had been told a few years before. One day the landlord grew curious and decided to see for himself. When he made a small opening in one barrel, the landlord recoiled at the horrible odor which emanated forth. Soon the police were called. Barrel after barrel contained human remains, twenty-four bodies in all, only one of which was a male, the lover of Kiss’ wife. Each of the bodies had been pickled in wood alcohol. The women were naked with ropes still fastened around their necks. Puncture wounds were also found on the bodies which had been entirely drained of blood. No one would ever figure out what had been done with the blood.

Sinister Secrets Of Deadly Intent – Demented Pleasures
Twenty-three of the dead were females, other than his wife Kiss had lured love seeking women in search of a husband to his home. Before being murdered, the women had been talked into turning over any money or valuables to Kiss. He then strangled them to death. For over a decade prior to the war he had been storing one body after another in the barrels at the cottage. One can only speculate as to why he kept the bodies pickled. Perhaps Kiss gained some kind of demented pleasure by having his victims close to him. Or maybe he did not want to chance taking them off-site where they might be discovered. His cover-up worked long enough. When the war arrived Kiss disappeared into the maelstrom of the Eastern Front. All he left behind was the grisly remains and destroyed lives of the naïve women he had seduced with deadly intent.

The only person who might have shared Kiss’ sinister secret was a hired housekeeper who had spent years working for him. She pled ignorance to the police, but Kiss had left her money in his will. She could receive the compensation if he was killed in the war. Her main contribution to the resulting investigation was showing police a locked, secret room that Kiss had forbade her to enter. Inside the police found thick files with letters from 175 women who had responded to an advertisement for a “lonely widower seeking female companionship.” Those unfortunates who answered the call in person received a date with death.

Missing Person – In Search Of A Fatal Kiss
After the discovery, police in Budapest put out a call for Kiss to be arrested. He was thought either to be in a military hospital convalescing in Serbia or to have been killed in battle on the Eastern Front. When the authorities went to arrest him in Serbia they found another soldier’s dead body in the bed where Kiss was said to recovering. This was just the kind of ghoulish ruse that had all the hallmarks of Kiss. Not only had Kiss stolen away, but he also may have stolen the dead man’s identity. He would use this identity to evade law enforcement or so it was said. No one really one if Kiss was dead or alive.

Over the next decade and a half there were various reports from people claiming to have seen Kiss, including in Budapest. One of the more chilling post-war claims came from a French Foreign Legion soldier who told of a fellow legionnaire named “Hoffman” – an alias that had often been used by Kiss – who bragged about his skill strangling with a garrote. The last purported sighting of Kiss was just as improbable as his crimes. In 1932, a homicide detective in New York City swore that he had seen a man fitting the exact description of Kiss exiting the subway at Times Square. Unfortunately, the potential suspect was never apprehended. This was the last time anyone may or may not have seen Bela Kiss. He disappeared just like his victims. The only difference was that no one knew how, when or where he died.

Rescued From Obscurity – The Bulgarian Naval Officer’s Tunic at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City

This past week I was finally able to visit the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. All the acclaim I had heard about the museum turned out to be true. The two short films I watched, including one entitled “Europe Before the War” were excellent. The exhibits were first class, especially the replicas of French, British and German trenches. Characteristic German thoroughness was on display in their replica trench. Even in the mud of northern France and Flanders, the German Army managed to be neat, clean and uber-organized. The same could not be said for the French, whose trenches looked ramshackle at best. As for the British ones, they were pragmatic and functional. One could learn a great deal about the warring nations just by studying their trench systems.

Liberty Memorial in Kansas City

Liberty Memorial in Kansas City – the National World War I Museum is beneath the memorial

The Forgotten Fronts & A Memorable Artifact
My lone disappointment was with the museum’s treatment of the Eastern and Southern Fronts during the war or should I say the lack of a treatment. There was a small section within one exhibit that gave a broad overview of the front. This oversight is quite remarkable considering the Eastern and Southern Front’s dramatic influence on the Western one during the war. Consider that the German Army committed millions in men and material to these fronts during the war. Not to mention the fact that at critical junctures the Russian Army launched offensives in the east that drew German forces away from the western theater.

The outcome of the Marne and Verdun campaigns would have been very different if not for Russian offensives which benefited their western allies.  I have to admit I was not surprised that the Eastern and Southern Fronts were given short shrift. This was the National World War I museum of the United States after all. American forces only fought on the Western Front. Their experience was similar to that of the other Western Allies. The First World War has been seen in America through the prism of the Western Front and trench warfare, overcoming this bias was a bit too much for the museum. That being said, it is quite astonishing that my most lasting impression of the museum concerns an artifact from an obscure netherworld of the war. Behind a glass case in the exhibit area dedicated to the naval aspects of the war was a blue tunic. The text for this piece of clothing stated:

Bulgarian naval officer’s tunic

In 1915 the Bulgarian navy had six torpedo boats, a royal yacht, and several smaller vessels. Its largest vessel was a torpedo gunboat, the Nadiejda

The blue tunic looked to be in fine condition, with all of the brass buttons still attached. There were no signs of wear or tear.  I could almost imagine the owner, exactly a century ago, standing on deck as his boat patrolled close to the shoreline. The Black Sea calm, under a clear blue sky, the sunlight glittering on the water, war never looked so beautiful or benign. My imagination took me back to that distant sea for a moment before I came to my senses. Then I realized just how bizarre this tunic actually was. No imagination was required for such a unique artifact.

Bulgarian naval officer's tunic

Bulgarian naval officer’s tunic on display at the National World War I museum in Kansas City

What Little Is Left Of Nothing – The Bulgarian Navy In World War One
Start with the fact that the tunic was a product of the Bulgarian Navy. As the exhibit text made quite clear Bulgaria’s naval fleet was miniscule. Its force of sailors would not have been much more substantial. Officers would have made up a tiny proportion of the force. This was a very rare find and research I did over the next several days confirmed the obscurity of artifacts related to the Bulgarian Navy. Searches on the internet and through my own personal library brought up only a couple of references to the Bulgarian navy during the war. The topic proved that even Google has its limitations. The only information available was a paragraph in a Wikipedia article on Bulgaria during World War One. It said, Bulgaria possessed a small naval force of torpedo gunboats and patrol boats that were restricted to operating only in the coastal areas of the Black Sea and along the river Danube. Following the Second Balkan War the country acquired an outlet on the Aegean Sea and in January 1915 the “Aegean” Section of the Bulgarian Navy was created by a royal decree. Initially only 78 soldiers were assigned to the small force and were given a task to observe and defend the coastline by laying naval mines. These activities were centered on the ports of Porto Lagos and Dedeagach but the true development of the facilities there was hampered by financial difficulties”

My beloved 12 volume Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War I, unsurpassed in breadth and thoroughness when it comes to coverage of the Great War, dismissed the Bulgarian Navy with a single sentence, “The negligible Bulgarian fleet, as we shall see, played no role at all in the First World War.” For all intents and purposes the fleet was a non-starter during the war. As for the sailors there was virtually nothing to go on, at least as far as a cursory search of English language sources goes. It is safe to assume that the Bulgarian Navy was essentially useless during the war with the result that it had become anonymous to history.  At least that is a logical explanation, but it still does not account for the fact that a world class museum in the heartland of America had rescued the tunic from obscurity.

A World Gone Mad
The most fascinating aspect of the tunic are the questions it has raised in my mind. Who gave it to the museum? How was it acquired? Was the donor a collector of obscure artifacts or a Bulgarian war veteran? Of the thousands of potential artifacts for display why did the museum decide to showcase a Bulgarian naval Officer’s tunic? The questions were many, but how and where to begin finding the answers? The most fascinating question for me is what does the Bulgarian naval officer’s tunic really represent? Does it somehow communicate the scope and scale of a far flung world war? How the war was fought not just in the trenches, but also on the high seas? Or how one hundred years ago in a world gone mad with militarism, in the process of committing suicide, small nations as well as large ones built military forces just to have them, no matter their usefulness or uselessness.




The Power of Propaganda – Tannenberg: More Than A Battle

Several years ago while planning a trip to Poland I looked into visiting the site of the famous World War I Battle of Tannenberg. This was a seminal event in the opening months of the war. In what is today northeastern Poland, the Germans surrounded and destroyed an entire Russian Army. It was one of the few tactically decisive battles of the war. Tannenberg has become the only well-known Eastern Front battle among those with even a cursory interest in the war. Surely, I thought for such an important event there would be a battlefield with historical markers or a visitor center to educate the curious. I soon discovered this not to be the case.

Map of the Battle of Tannenberg

The Battle of Tannenberg was fought over an area of hundreds of square kilometers

Lost In Space & Time – Finding Tannenberg
The problem with locating the Battle of Tannenberg is mostly one of space and time. The battle was fought across a sprawling expanse of countryside consisting of lakes and forests. It took a total of five days from start to finish. Trying to pin down a specific place and date for the decisive events is all but impossible. On the Russian side, there was more surrender than actual combat. The Russian forces ended up with 92,000 soldiers taken prisoner versus 78,000 killed and wounded. Not exactly the type of activity that gets a history buff’s heart racing. On the German side, tactical brilliance consisted of setting a trap and allowing the Russians to fall into it. There was nothing inherently dramatic about that. This was not a Napoleonic set piece battle, with two armies staring each other down. Instead it was a blundering, confused mess marked by chaos and confusion. In other words, it was mobile warfare distilled to its essence.

Since there was no dedicated visitor center or x marks the spot historic site, I surmised that the battle’s location would be at or near the village it was named for. That idea turned out to be problematic. First of all, the village of Tannenberg no longer exists on maps, since it is now located in Poland. The Polish name for the village is Stębark. Once I knew that, it was easy enough to locate the village on a map, but then it got really tricky. After a bit of research I discovered that the heaviest fighting and focal points of the battle did not take place near the village. Instead, they occurred about 20 miles (30 miles) further to the northwest, in the vicinity of the small city of Olsztyn (Allenstein). So why was the battle named for a town on the periphery of where it actually occurred? The reasons had to do with national and racial identity.

General Hindenburg fighting the Russian Bear on a commemorative medallion

Slaying the demons of Prussia’s past – a naked General Hindenburg fighting the Russian Bear on a commemorative medallion

What’s In A Name: Uses & Abuses
After the battle was won, the German high command sent their victorious dispatch from Tannenberg. It was around this time that it was decided that the battle should be named after the village. This was done to avenge a historic defeat the German’s forebears had suffered in the area over 500 years before. At the Battle of Grunwald (German name Battle of Tannenberg) in 1410 the Teutonic Knights were defeated by a Polish-Lithuanian force. It was a critical moment in the history of northeastern Europe, as it stopped the Knights’ expansion. With the rise of nationalism in the decades prior to World War I historic battles between Teuton and Slav were no longer just about the past. They were also used to influence the present. A policy of Germanization throughout Prussia brought about resistance from the Polish population. The Poles did not have the ability to fight the Germans militarily, so they held onto the next best thing, victories from many centuries before. German nationalists certainly noticed this. The victory of the German Army at Tannenberg avenged the Teutonic Knights loss. Even though it came against the Russians, they were also Slavs. No matter what nationality, Slavic peoples were seen as the common enemy of the German people.

Funeral of Paul Von Hindenburg at the Tannenberg Memorial in 1934

The Power of Propaganda – Funeral of Paul Von Hindenburg at the Tannenberg Memorial in 1934 (Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-2006-0429-502)

The victory, presented the Germans with a golden opportunity to showcase their superiority. Henceforth, they referred to it as the Second Battle of Tannenberg. Never mind where the battle was actually fought, Tannenberg was close enough. This was just the beginning of the name’s usage for German propaganda purposes. After the First World War ended, a defeated Germany looked to victories in battle for solace. Tannenberg resonated with much of the populace and especially the far right. Thus, one of the two victorious German commanders from the battle, Erich Ludendorff used it as the name for his extreme right wing society, the Tannenbergbund. An even greater propaganda coup was the huge Tannenberg Memorial erected by Germany in 1924 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of their glorious victory. Interestingly enough, the Memorial was not located at the village of Tannenberg. Instead it was placed at Olsztynek (in German Hohenstein) 5 kilometers away. It eventually housed the tomb of Paul Von Hindenburg, Ludendorff’s fellow victorious commander from the battle. Like everything else in this once solidly Prussian territory it was transformed by World War II. Hindenburg’s remains were evacuated to western Germany in order to avoid looting by the Red Army. The Nazi’s then set off charges to demolish parts of the memorial. Later the Soviets and Poles finished its destruction.

Monumental Remains – A Hidden Legacy
After several weeks’ worth of research I decided to skip visiting the Tannenberg battlefield. My problem was also one of space and time. It would have taken days to cover the areas where fighting occurred. There was little possibility of finding any tangible evidence of the battle. The only sites I could find were not associated with the battle, but instead the memorial. Its former location can be roughly discerned by rubble strewn about in a vacant field that outlines the site. There is also a bit of the old memorial’s stone and granite standing in the town square of Olsztynek today. It was used in the Soviet World War II memorial, a subliminal, hidden legacy of German militarism.

Settling Affairs Past & Present – Lemberg 1914, Lviv 2014

In the early hours of a chill winter morning last December I made my way by taxi to the train station in Lviv, Ukraine. I was bleary eyed, with a dull headache from a restless night’s sleep. It is always this way when I have an early departure. In this case my train, headed non-stop towards Budapest, was to leave the station at 5:45 a.m. I could not miss this train since it was the lone non-stop express into Hungary that day. My taxi surged through empty streets. The city was in a deep sleep, with dawn still hours away. Arriving at the station, I exited the cab. My attention was suddenly taken by all the activity in and around the station. Glancing about, I noticed groups of soldiers in fatigues, walking slowly towards the station. They were toting packed duffel bags. These soldiers were headed to the Ukraine’s far eastern reaches, to the war zone of the Donbas.

Lviv's Famous Railway Station

Lviv’s Famous Railway Station – since 1991 the flag of Ukraine has flown atop its dome (Credit: Benhaburg)

The War At Home
The fact that these soldiers were disembarking from the most “Ukrainian city in the Ukraine” to points east should not have been that surprising. Here in the most nationalistic part of Ukraine soldiers were heading off to combat, fighting to save a distant part of their country. The war was on the other side of the country, but if a separatist onslaught was not stopped in the Donbas Region now, it might conceivably reach the doorsteps of Kiev or Lviv in due course. I looked at these men, wondering to myself, how many had seen combat before? Were they conscripts, professionals or volunteers? How many would come back alive? How could they look so calm and nonchalant? Surely they must have known the same things as I did.

The war against Russian backed separatists was a terrible mess. Ukrainian forces were barely holding on to Donetsk. Men were wounded or dying every day. I looked at these soldiers and thought will courage and luck be with them. They were stocky, well built, but otherwise regular men. I wanted to reach out and touch them. Just to see if they were real, because their presence made the war real for me. The war was suddenly no longer lines on a map, news stories from the Kyiv Post or International New York Times or grainy YouTube videos with muffled explosions and shouts of Slavic words. No these were real men, leaving a real place, heading off to a real war. I would travel back to Hungary on that day and a little later fly home. These soldiers might never come home. This could be the last time they would see their hometown. Here I was walking only a few yards apart from men who a month from now might no longer exist, be badly wounded or left with psychological scars for life. Suddenly the war felt very close.

Hours before dawn - the Lviv Railway Station on a cold December morning

Hours before dawn – the Hours before dawn – the Lviv Railway Station on a cold December morning

A Russian Front – Unsettling Affairs
Lviv has a majestic, eclectically elegant domed train station. It is so grand and imperial that it is hard to believe that the building would ever have anything to do with war, especially in 21st century Europe. The station looks more like the type of place eternally waiting to greet the ghost of Franz Josef or some other important administrator, arriving to survey the far flung reaches of empires lost long ago. If such a dignitary were to have somehow traveled forward in time to that chilly December morning, they might not have been so shocked by the sight of soldiers at the station speaking in a Slavic tongue. After all, a century before exactly this same situation had occurred. There had even been an American witness. The only difference was that the soldiers were not Ukrainians going to fight Russians, but Russians occupying what was to eventually become part of Ukraine.

The surreal symmetry of this history came home to me when I stumbled across “Field Notes From The Russian Front” by Stanley Washburn, an American journalist working as a correspondent for the London Times on the Eastern Front during the First World War. One of the chapters deals with his experiences in Lemberg (as Lviv was then known). Following the Russian takeover of the city after the Austro-Hungarian retreat, Washburn arrives at the train station to find soldiers everywhere.  “We arrived at three in the morning. The great waiting-room was packed with sleeping soldiers, while the dim light revealed the various baggage-rooms crammed with scores of coated figures sleeping beside their stacked rifles. The first-class dining-room is a hospital, and filled to the doors with stretchers and cots on which the wounded are waiting to be transferred from one train to another, or else to be removed to one of the local hospitals in the town. From the second-class waiting-room all benches have been removed, and there only remains one big table, used for hurried operations that cannot be delayed. At every door and in every passage sentries stand with fixed bayonets.”

Obviously what I saw was very different from the scene Washburn witnessed. There were no sick or wounded. The Ukrainian soldiers were not occupying the station, they were leaving it. Yet the fact that the station was once again crowded with soldiers, shows that war still casts a long shadow over this region, as do Russian actions. The fact that men gathering at Lviv’s train station were heading off to face forces backed by Russia, shows that the Great War fought a century ago did not manage to settle, but rather unsettle affairs in Ukraine. If anything, the Battle of Galicia in 1914 inaugurated an era that threw the region into a chaotic upheaval which is still playing out today. Russian occupation was temporary at that time and later Soviet occupation lasted less than fifty years. The Russians see Ukraine as their backyard, but they are far from getting near Lviv or anywhere else in the western half of the country.

Russian soldiers on the square in front of the Lviv Railway Station in 1914

Russian soldiers on the square in front of the Lviv Railway Station in 1914 (Credit: Ihor Kotlobulatov)

Turning Enemies Into Enemies
The Russian occupation of Galicia in 1914 was heavy handed. They managed to alienate a Ukrainian populace that spoke a relatively similar language. As Alexander Watson shows in Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I The People’s War, “The Tsarist army’s attempt to retake Galicia as a Russian land was a disaster. People who had once sympathized with the Tsar’s pan-Slavic aims were alienated by his army’s brutality and religious intolerance.”  A hundred years later, the Russians have managed once again to turn the overriding majority of ethnic Ukrainians against them. Russia sees Ukraine, even the western portion as part of its sphere of influence. Yet it is hard to see any Russia influence here that has not been a bad one. Not so long ago Galicia and Lemberg were crawling with Russian soldiers. Now that region and the city at its heart are sending soldiers to fight against Russia. There are parallels with the not so distant past here, but there are also irreconcilable differences. Ukrainian men were leaving their homes behind before dawn on a dark December day to try and settle such differences. I saw it for myself that chill winter morning.

The Real Ghosts Of Galicia – Pidhirtsi Castle (Part Two)

Paradoxically it was the loss of Polish sovereignty that brought the longest period of prosperity to Pidhirtsi and its inhabitants. A long era of peace set in after the Austrian acquisition of southeastern Poland in 1772. By the end of the 18th century Poland had ceased to exist, but the Polish aristocracy remained. It was during this time that Pidhirtsi thrived as a residence par excellence. Visitors could enjoy a private zoo, several gardens and parks on the grounds. The castle’s interior was an exquisite series of eye popping chambers, including the Knights Hall, Golden Hall, Chinese Room and others named after a full spectrum of colors. The Green Room functioned as a virtual art museum unto itself with over one-hundred paintings covering its walls. The castle’s interior also held several hundred portraits. Floors were covered in marble tiles and each had a fireplace built from the same. Wild parties took place with an orchestra and theater on offer to entertain deep into the night. A guest inn on the castle’s west wing housed the visiting gentry. The glittering glory of Pidhirtsi later attracted such famous visitors as Emperor Franz Josef and Kaiser Wilhelm to the castle. Pidhirtsi was an immaculate conception of style, grace and culture for the Polish aristocracy of Galicia. Like everything else in this land, the First World War would prove its undoing. The long period of peace was lost forever to the outbreak of war. The grand balls and famous denizens at Pidhirtsi were forgotten in a matter of months as the echo of artillery grew louder by the day. This ominous manmade thunder shook everything in the area to its very foundations. Was the castle to be sacrificed on the altar of a worldwide conflagration?

A Path To The Past - Pidhirtsi Castle and surrounding grounds

A Path To The Past – Pidhirtsi Castle and surrounding grounds

Conflicted History – A Modern Thirty Years War
Pidhirtsi’s location in the borderlands of Eastern Europe had nearly been its undoing in the 17th century. The long period of peace as part of the Habsburg ruled province of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria turned out to be the golden age of the castle’s existence. When Austria-Hungary entered the First World War, Pidhirtsi was suddenly at the very center of conflict in Galicia. An era of unprecedented tumult was now inaugurated in what would become one of Europe’s deadliest regions during the first half of the 20th century. Thirteen of the next thirty-one years would be consumed by war. The castle was directly in the line of fire, quite literally. The Austro-Hungarian Army converted it into a headquarters for its 5th corps at one point, but this was not before the Russian Army had thoroughly looted the castle. The castle straddled the front lines for long periods of the war’s first two years. Amazingly it somehow avoided being shelled into ruin. That did not keep the Russians from knocking the insides of the castle out. Tiles were pulled up and walls torn down. Incredibly, despite the destruction Pidhirtsi suffered, the castle was re-occupied by a Polish aristocratic family following the Soviet-Polish War, that little known conflict whereby Poland saved Europe from a widespread communist revolution.

The years between the wars were a period of disquieting, uneasy calm. Seen in retrospect, this period was a last, final grasp at restoring the castle’s former greatness. This could not last. Pidhirtsi was part of inter-war Poland, caught between the hammer of Nazism and the anvil of Communism. To further complicate matters, its own backyard was a simmering cauldron of Ukrainian nationalism. When the Second World War broke out the owner of the castle, Prince Roman Sanguszko did the most prudent thing possible, he made himself and the last treasures of the castle scarce. They ended up in the safest place possible, half a world away in Brazil. When the Nazis took over the area, they found Pidhurtsi useful, as a place for their sick to convalesce. This may have healed physical wounds, but not the self-inflicted ones of an evil ideology. Fortunately the Nazis became like everything else at Pidhirtsi a thing of the past, only to be replaced by Soviet totalitarianism.

The Past Is Not What It Used To Be At Pidhirtsi

The Past Is Not What It Used To Be At Pidhirtsi

A Wayward New World
The German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt famously theorized that German Nazism and Soviet Communism had more in common than not, both were equally tyrannical. When it came to their utilization of Pidhirtsi their commonalities were eerily similar. The Soviets also used the castle as a sort of hospital for those with tuberculosis. A trivial detail perhaps, then again it seems quite telling. The fact that both totalitarian systems could find no better use for what had once been an unparalleled palace of art and culture than a home for the wounded, sick and infirm says more about these two ideologies than any number of history books. They were trying to build a whole new world, but compared to what had once inhabited Pidhirtsi, it was nothing more than a decadent and depraved shadow world.

Try as they might, the Soviets could not totally destroy the essence of Pidhirtsi, but nature and neglect nearly did the job for them. In 1956 a bolt of lightning set the edifice alight. Flames of impure fire burned the structure for three weeks straight. And yet the castle survived, albeit with innumerable scars. Now a mere shell of its former self, Pidhirtsi still maintained enough presence that its preservation was proposed by citizens of a new nation that would inherit this grandiloquent semi-ruin. Ukraine was born from the ruins of the Soviet Union, now Ukrainians would try to resurrect a past that had never been their own. It was decided in the late 1990’s that Pidhirtsi was a heritage worth securing for posterity.

Many Windows Into the Past at Pidhirtsi Castle

Many Windows Into the Past at Pidhirtsi Castle

The Ghosts of Greatness
For the first time in its 350 year history the castle was turned into a museum, the Lviv Gallery of Painting, named for that famed city, ninety kilometers to its southwest. Restoration work began in an effort to restore the castle to at least a semblance of its former glory. The problem is that there is too little money in Ukraine to ever truly recreate Pidhirtsi in the image of its former glory. Perhaps this is best, since the aged, beaten look of the structure communicates the depth of history the castle has endured. The fact that it has outlasted every one of its owners and all of its conquerors is astounding. Unfortunately the depth and breadth of its past is often overlooked, obscured by a popular fixation with the legendary “Woman in White.” The tale is taken seriously by many. If only the rest of Pidhirtsi’s history could engender the same interest and recognition. The castle may be informed by myth and legend, but at its core is a history of both light and darkness much more fascinating than anything supernatural. The spirit of Pidhirtsi goes beyond ghosts, to a profound past that tells the story of a region, its struggles to survive and a beautiful, lost legacy.

Click here to read Ghost Stories: Pidhirtsi Castle (Part One)

Empires Of Irrelevance – Discovering Stryi, Ukraine

This past December I took the train from Budapest to Lviv. Sitting in the compartment I had ample time to study the timetable and all the stops that would be made along the way. A few of these were at bigger localities, only one of which I lacked any knowledge of, which was the city of Stryi, Ukraine. The spelling of Stryi’s name is so close to that of the Austrian province of Styria that superficially at least, it lacks the exoticism and uniqueness that to me defines the eastern hinterlands of Europe. Since Stryi was also not very far from Lviv, my thoughts tended to jump ahead to my ultimate point of arrival. I overlooked Stryi because I was nearing that final destination. It was also pitch dark when the train stopped at Stryi, with little of interest to see from the compartment window, unless one counts an empty grocery store parking lot. It was only six months later that I finally decided to learn more about Stryi. Fair or not, in the age of internet research a place like Stryi is mostly defined by its Wikipedia entry.

Stryi Railway Station (Credit: Alexander Krivonosov)

Stryi Railway Station (Credit: Alexander Krivonosov)

A Wilderness For War
Being interested in Stryi’s more recent history I scrutinized the paragraphs covering its 20th century history. Stryi had the usual horrific events that decimated the Austrian administered province of Galicia, the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Second Polish Republic, German Occupied Ukraine and the Soviet Union. The fact that each of the aforementioned political entities all ceased to exist gives an idea of just how calamitous the past one hundred years was for Stryi. Two World Wars, multiple occupations, inter-ethnic strife and a Holocaust that destroyed almost its entire Jewish population is enough to make any reader shutter. Tragically, Stryi’s past is part of a common history throughout the region. Of course, the Wikipedia entry could not come close to communicating the magnitude of this nightmare of history in a mere eight sentences.

Officers saluting at a trench on Zwinin

Officers saluting at a trench on Zwinin

Nevertheless, one sentence stood out from all the rest for shock value. It did not have to do with Stryi specifically, but concerned an event that occurred nearby during World War I. The sentence said, “In 1915 a bloody battle took place in the Carpathian Mountains, around the peak of Zwinin (992 meters above sea level), a few kilometers south of Stryi in which some 33,000 Russian soldiers perished.The mention of Zwinin (Dzhvynuv in Ukrainian) piqued my interest, specifically because I had never heard of the battle. Of course the Carpathians were the scene of deadly fighting throughout the winter and spring of 1914-1915, but the unending fighting that occurred makes it hard to separate battles from campaigns. After locating Zwinin on a map I discovered that it was more than a few kilometers south of Stryi, it was actually around twenty kilometers as the crow flies from the city. It is just as remote today, as it was in 1915. Zwinin, due to its natural beauty and remote wilderness, is now part of Skole Beskids National Park. During World War I, that beauty was not on anyone’s mind, but a certain manufactured aspect of wilderness was. From February 5th through April 9th, 1915 Zwinin became a setting for the wilderness of war.

The Storming of Zwinin (Credit: M Frost)

The Storming of Zwinin (Credit: M Frost)

Battling Over The Inhospitable
Discovering what actually happened at Zwinin is difficult. The battle is shrouded in obscurity. On one side were Russian forces attempting to push through the Eastern Carpathians and break into the Great Hungarian Plain, where they would be able to ravage the breadbasket of Austria-Hungary and knock it out of the war. On the opposite side were forces from the Central Powers, faltering Austro-Hungarian troops now stiffened by soldiers and leadership from their German allies. Between these armies lay mountainous terrain like Zwinin. The topography of the Beskid Range in the Carpathians, created an even greater obstacle than any army.  Frigid temperatures and snowstorms added another layer of problems. Interestingly, searches on “Battle of Zwinin” or “World War One Zwinin” brought up more images than information. One photo showed a German officer being saluted as he walks through a snowy trench. The icy scene gives new meaning to the phrase, “No Man’s Land.” Another image was an artist’s rendition of the storming of the east end of Zwinin that occurred on the final day of battle. Russian soldiers surrender or are killed by German forces crossing a gnarled, snow covered no man’s land on their way up the mountain. A final photo shows a series of crosses on top of Zwinin, makeshift graves covering the inhospitable prominence.

Stryi after taking the Zwinin. The city is decorated with German and Austrian flags - Postcard from 1915

The city of Stryi after taking the Zwinin. The city is decorated with German and Austrian flags – Postcard from 1915

What does all this have to do with Stryi? It seems, on the face of it, not very much. Yet there was one other image on a postcard that I discovered which stands out. Roughly translated it says, “Stryi after taking the Zwinin. The city is decorated with German and Austrian flags.” In it a crowd of soldiers and colorfully dressed civilians smile pleasantly while standing in the city center of Stryi. The Russians had been vanquished from both the Beskids and Stryi, a victory had been won. What is not shown in the photo and what we can never know is how many soldiers would be in that photo if the battle had never occurred. The German and Austro-Hungarian forces had been victorious, but battles like Zwinin took thousands of lives. All this really did was reclaim for the Austrians a relatively, small insignificant city in Galicia. They once again held sway over the city of Stryi and the wilderness that lurked just beyond the edge of it. The victory was part of an effort to keep an empire (from the Austro-Hungarian perspective) and an ally (from the German perspective) from crumbling. Were these reasons enough to sustain such losses? Stryi had only a handful of ethnic Germans. It was a city that had been held for nearly a century and a half prior to the war by the Austrians with barely any bloodshed.  Zwinin and Stryi mattered, only if the illogical course of empire was followed.

Mass Graves after the Battle of Zwinin

Mass Graves from the Battle of Zwinin

A Calamity On The Edge Of The Carpathians
As for the Russians, they lost 33,000 men, what amounted to a few infinitesimal snowflakes amid an avalanche of violence that buried hundreds of thousands in a frozen mountain wilderness. As many or more Russian soldiers died from exposure to the elements, as would from enemy fire. This was just the start of a massive retreat back to western Russia, where the Russian army would be only six months later. The Russians would come back to Stryi, less than thirty years later, this time as Soviets. Millions upon millions of lives were lost along the way in a long, horrifying journey that took years. The rewards were places like Stryi, a nearly anonymous city that turned out to be irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. As it was then, as it is today, an afterthought on the way to more important places.


One Last Frontal Assault For Honor – Dueling In Austria- Hungary & Catastrophe on The Eastern Front

By the end of the 19th century dueling had died out across much of Europe. It was seen as a primitive throwback to a bygone era when a man’s honor was considered as important as his life. The march of progress and the rule of law sent dueling into an irreversible decline. For instance, dueling in Germany had virtually ceased to exist as the German Empire industrialized. The same could not be said for that another empire in Central and Eastern Europe, Austria-Hungary. If anything, dueling was still fashionable in the Dual Monarchy, including in its most developed regions. One journalist estimated that in 19th century Austria no less than 2,500 duels were fought. This figure did not account for other provinces in the empire such as Hungary and Galicia where dueling was much more prevalent. It was in these areas that the aristocracy still dominated. Dueling by and large was an upper class phenomenon. This was especially true for the military where dueling among officers was all but legal. Disagreements could be settled by two distinct methods of dueling, those involving pistols or swords. Officers who refused to fight a duel were socially shamed and could lose their commission.

Prewar postcard of Dual Monarchy troops displays an idealized chivalric image of military life

This prewar postcard of Dual Monarchy troops displays an idealized chivalric image of military life – such behavior would prove deadly during World War I

Ehrenkalex – The Code Of Honor
While dueling with swords sounds more primitive and painful, it was less lethal than the use of pistols. Sword duels often were proscribed by rules agreed upon ahead of time. They took on one of two forms, slashes only or both slashes and thrusts. Fights could be stopped after first blood was drawn. On occasion though, they were allowed to continue until either both participants were exhausted or someone was killed. Dueling with pistols was much more dangerous. The most deadly format involved the participants walking toward one another, stopping 15 paces apart and opening fire. Pistol duels were a regular occurrence in Austria-Hungary. Up until the turn of the 20th century civilian courts in Austria ignored laws that made dueling an offense punishable with imprisonment. In cases where an Army officer killed a civilian in a duel, Emperor Franz Josef dutifully issued a pardon. Beginning in 1901 anti-dueling leagues began to crop up in the Dual Monarchy in an attempt to put an end to the practice.

These swayed public opinion against dueling, but in Austria-Hungary the upper classes and the officer corps of the military lived by its own rules. Foremost was the idea of Ehrenkalex, a German phrase meaning “code of honor.” If someone took offense at even the most trivial of slights they could demand satisfaction. Offenses ranged from the seemingly innocuous, such as giving someone an arrogant look, to the bizarre, staring at a man while playing with a dog whip, to the serious, committing adultery.

Franz Josef who seems to have been perpetually behind the times when it came to modernity, decreed in 1911 that officers no longer had to give or accept challenges when an offense was committed. He also forbade duels except in the case of serious offenses. This still did not stop the practice. That would not occur until the latter part of World War I, when Emperor Karl I banned dueling outright in 1917. The fact that duels continued right up to the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire speaks of how much the idea of honor was valued among the upper crust of society and the army. It that ingrained belief in Ehrenkalex, which exercised great influence among the officer classes who both led and bled at the front during those first six catastrophic months of World War I when the Dual Monarchy lost officers at an unheard of rate. A linkage can conceivably be made between dueling – a primeval code of chivalrous behavior – and the suicidal frontal assaults led by officers into a hail of machine gun or artillery fire. Both threatened violence to the point of death, taking part in them was a question of honor.  Officers should have known better, but they were both part of parcel of a military ethos.

German students fighting a saber duel in 1900

German students fighting a saber duel in 1900 – by the turn of the 20th century dueling had died out in Germany but not Austria-Hungary where the image would have been more fitting (Painting: Georg Mühlberg

Leading From The Front – Honor As Madness
This linkage came to me in an incident I discovered while reading A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and The Collapse of the Habsburg Empire by Geoffrey Wawro. “Skirmishing for control of Belzec in Russian Poland on August 15, an Austrian Calvary Division leading the Fourth Army summoned a nearby battalion of Vienna’s 4th Deutschmeister Regiment, and the battalion appeared, led not by a major or a captain but by the regimental commander – Colonel Ludwig Holzhausen – and his entire staff…The Russians – Cossacks and some infantry –had prudently dismounted and taken cover in buildings, behind walls, and in trees; they watched in disbelief as Holzhausen strolled to the front of the Austrian skirmish line, drew his saber and walked the battalion forward. The official Austrian report of the colonel’s inevitable demise spoke of his ‘crazy-brave, death-defying attitude’ which ‘fired the men and drove them forward.’…Thirty-eight Deutschmeister died with him and 51 were wounded – 12 percent casualties – in a minor skirmish.”
There was worse, much worse to come for the Austro-Hungarian officer corps. In the coming weeks and months, they proved their bravery to the point of madness while facing Russian forces in the battle of Galicia. In engagement after engagement officers emulated Holzhausen as they led from the front, setting a deadly example for their soldiers. Their attitude could be summed up as death before dishonor and death is certainly what they got. The fearlessness that it must have taken to lead charges into machine gun fire without regard for one’s safety had to be motivated by a belief that went beyond tactics. To dig in, to take cover, to avoid combat until absolutely necessary was anathema. In a sense the officers were taking the idea of dueling to the most extreme degree. The Empire was at war with a hated enemy they had given offense by its mere presence in Galicia. Satisfaction must be gained no matter the odds or the cost. This was despite the fact that their Russian opponents smartly refused to participate in these reckless charges. It is a commonly held perception that the Russian officers of World War I were terrible leaders (they were), but when compared to the officer corps of Austria-Hungary during the Battle of Galicia, they look totally sensible and not so bad after all. The idea of honor was also pervasive in the Russia, but their officers refused to lead from the front.

Austro-Hungarian infantry troops resting during the Battle of Galicia

Austro-Hungarian infantry troops resting during the Battle of Galicia – they would soon be making lethal frontal assaults

Duel To The Death
The Austro-Hungarian officer’s belief in a code of honor had fatal consequences on both an individual and empire wide level. Thousands upon thousands of officers were struck down leading foolish, sacrificial assaults. The soldiers they led followed their example to catastrophic effect. This dealt a blow to the empire that it could not afford. Honor died in the summer and fall of 1914 all over Galicia and Russian Poland in those first six months on the Eastern Front. Strangely enough, dueling did not. Even after the empire collapsed, dueling lived on in the nations of Austria, Hungary and Poland. It would only die out when the aristocratic way of life came to end due to a second and even worse World War.

Victory Indistinguishable From Defeat – The Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive (Part Two)

On May 2nd, the opening bombardment for the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive started at the light of dawn. Over the next four hours, the Germans let loose a torrent of 700,000 shells. This was followed by a new tactical twist, as German storm troopers moved forward. The storm troopers were able to wreak havoc and chaos as they got behind enemy lines. When the Russians turned to face them, they were confronted with another wave of attackers on what a few hours earlier had been their front. Resistance was feeble. The German General Hermann Von Francois wrote of the hellish scene that unfolded as the battle began in earnest, “North of Gorlice a thick column of fire sprang up, as high as the houses, black masses of smoke swept up into the clouds. It was a gripping unforgettable spectacle. The tanks of an oil refinery had been ignited, either by our fire or perhaps deliberately by the Russians.”  Scenes such as this were common all along the 30 mile front of the attack. The Russian Third Army collapsed. In two days no less than six divisions were totally ruined. One Russian corps, the 24th, lost nearly all of its 40,000 men. A week after the offensive had begun, Russian losses ran upwards of 210,000, with one-third killed or wounded, while the other two-thirds had been captured.

German postcard showing war damage in Gorlice - the town was destroyed and had to be rebuilt

German postcard showing war damage in Gorlice – the town was destroyed and had to be rebuilt

German Steamroller/Russian Collapse – The Front Moves Further East
This was just the beginning. The German 11th Army poured into the gaping hole they had opened through the Russian lines. For their part, the Russians futilely attempted a retreat. The chaos led to tens of thousands more Russian soldiers surrendering. On June 3rd, just a month after the offensive’s start, the fortress of Przemysl, which the Russians had taken in March only after a six month siege, was surrendered by them with scarcely a fight. On June 22nd, Lemberg (Lviv, Ukraine today), the fourth largest city in Austria-Hungary was recovered. The pre-war borders were now reestablished. An offensive that had begun in order to relieve the beleaguered Austro-Hungarian forces in the Carpathian Mountains and keep the Russians from breaking into the Great Hungarian Plain had succeeded beyond the wildest dreams. The Russians were forced to not only pull back from the Carpathians, but they continued to retreat eastward. The German steamroller had advanced an average of ten miles a day during the offensive. It now looked like the war on the Eastern Front might be headed to a decisive and dramatic conclusion.

A big problem loomed for the Germans though. The vast spaces of the front made it increasingly difficult for the Germans to resupply their troops so far beyond their initial starting point. They soon put out peace feelers to the Russians, as they hoped to knock Russia out of the war and refocus their efforts on France. Russian Tsar Nicholas II stubbornly maintained his loyalty to the allies and refused to negotiate. This was one of two colossally bad decisions he would make during the summer of 1915. The Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive was over, but a full scale attack on the Russian Eastern Front sector was about to begin. The German high command now took the opportunity to use the success of the offensive to make a general attack against the Polish salient, a bulge in the Russian lines that had been created in 1914. The south side of the salient had been undermined by the offensive. Starting on July 13th new attacks took place on the north, west and southeastern sides of the salient. A total Russian collapse seemed eminent.

Russian World War I Military Cemetery in Kobylanka east of Gorlice

The Little That Was Left – A Russian World War I Military Cemetery in Kobylanka east of Gorlice (Credit: Tadeusz Kozik)

Temporary Victors/Ultimate Losers – Putting Gorlice-Tarnow In Context
On August 4th Warsaw, the capital of Russian Poland, surrendered without a fight. Fortresses at Kovno and Brest-Litovsk, among several others capitulated. By September 18th when the fortress at Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania) surrender to German forces the rout was complete. The German and Austro-Hungarian forces had pushed the Eastern Front 500 kilometers (310 miles) back. This unprecedented outcome became known as the Great Retreat to the Russians. They had suffered 500,000 casualties and nearly a million had been captured. The loss of men was matched by the loss of material. Whole swathes of the countryside were burned and bridges destroyed by retreating Russian troops. Polish Jews became scapegoats as thousands were murdered, raped or robbed. This was the unknown Holocaust twenty-five years before a more infamous one would take place. The Germans inherited a wasteland. The Russian Army’s disaster became known as the Great Retreat. Yet the Russians refused to settle for a negotiated peace. Paradoxically, the retreat in many ways strengthened their overall strategic position. There was no salient to defend, as their lines were now straight. The front line had also been shortened from 1,600 (960) to under a thousand kilometers (600 miles). The German supply lines were beyond their limits. Russia had men, material and space to spare, for now.

The worst outcome for the Russian Empire could not be foreseen at the time.  In the midst of the retreat Tsar Nicholas II dismissed Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich as Chief of Staff of the Army. He now assumed supreme command of all Russian forces. This was a fatal decision. He would now bear the brunt of blame for anything that went wrong with the Russian war effort. This was a crucial decision that eventually helped lead to revolution and eventually cost the Romanov Dynasty its very existence. Gorlice-Tarnow and the general offensive which followed was not the death knell of the Russian war effort, but it was an unmitigated disaster. For the Germans and Austro-Hungarians it was a pyrrhic victory. It gave them a false sense of confidence that they were winning the war. In actuality they were only winning battles and offensives that led them deeper into an eastern oblivion.

Kriegsfriedhof (German) World War I Military Cemetery in Gorlice

German & Austro-Hungarian forces sustained 87,000 casualties during the offensive -Kriegsfriedhof World War I Military Cemetery in Gorlice (Credit: Tadeusz Kozik)

The Ultimate Outcome –A Microcosm Of The Eastern Front
A Google news search for Gorlice-Tarnow around the centenary brought up a lone English language article about a reenactment of the battle in Poland. It was a minor affair. At best it provided some entertainment for the locals and created a bit of awareness of the catastrophe which occurred in their backyard long ago. The reality is that no reenactment can do justice to the destruction wrought upon the area by the offensive. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians counted it as a glorious victory, but lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the campaign. They gained nothing, but territory that was filled with people who opposed them only a little less than they did the Russians. Seen this way, Gorlice-Tarnow was much like the ultimate outcome of the Great War on the Eastern Front, a case where victory was scarcely distinguishable from defeat.


The Unknown Centenary – Gorlice-Tarnow: World War I’s Forgotten Breakthrough (Part One)

The centenary of the Great War is now in its second year. After highly publicized ceremonies to commemorate the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the resulting lead up to and outbreak of war, remembrances have been much fewer. There has been an uptick of late with the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign and the Armenian Genocide, but by and large commemorative events are no longer front and center in the media’s or public’s consciousness. To be sure 2016 will be host to major ceremonies that commemorate the centennials of the Battles at Verdun and the Somme. Conversely, the current year 2015, lacks many signature events. Look a bit closer though and a century ago, in May 1915, a landmark offensive took place. The centennial of that event offers an opportunity to reflect on both the most successful advance and greatest retreat of the war.  The offensive occurred on the often overlooked Eastern Front, between the Galician cities of Gorlice and Tarnow. These localities proscribed the boundaries of a stunningly successful attack, that exploded and expanded from a narrow start into an offensive the likes of which would never be seen again in the war. The consequences of the Gorlice-Tarnow campaign were long lasting and led to an event that would change the war forever.

A plaque in Gorlice commemorating the victims of the  World War I battle

A plaque in Gorlice commemorating the victims of the World War I battle

The Unknown War – Gorlice-Tarnow & The Eastern Front
A Google search of “Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive” yields only 10,500 results. By way of comparison, a search of “Gallipoli Campaign” gives 426,000 results. The 2nd Battle of Ypres and the Battle of the Isonzo both show 229,000 results. To say that the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive has been overlooked is a classic understatement. Unknown might be an even better description. No less a personage than Winston Churchill named his 1931 history of the Eastern Front in World War I, The Unknown War. This was an apt description both then and now. Conversely, historians that have studied the Eastern Front are aware of the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive’s importance. Norman Stone in his seminal work The Eastern Front 1914 – 1917 says, “The six weeks’ campaign turned out to be one of the greatest victories of the war.” Hew Strachen in The First World War makes the bold statement that, “Mackensen and Seeckt (the Commanding General and Chief of Staff of the offensive) were the most successful double-act in the German Army in the First World War.

The fact of the matter is that Gorlice-Tarnow was an unmatched achievement. Yet the gulf between knowledge of the war and the offensive’s shattering ramifications are huge. Of course, the Eastern Front of World War I is scarcely studied by English language historians. Places such as Gorlice and Tarnow seem to belong to another world. Perhaps it is the size of the front that swallows all attempts to comprehend it. Language is a strikingly difficult barrier for even the most gifted of historians to overcome. Then there is the fact that the three empires involved: the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian all ceased to exist by the end of the war. Despite such obstacles to historical knowledge, the offensive was a landmark at the time and still stands out today.

Germans and Austro-Hungarian forces on the move during the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive

Germans and Austro-Hungarian forces on the move during the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive

Tough, Sturdy & Totally Helpless – Peasants To The Slaughter
The name given to the offensive comes from the city of Tarnow and the town of Gorlice. The war did Gorlice no favors as it was utterly destroyed in battle and would later have to be rebuilt. The main thrust of attack came in the area between these two locales. It was delivered by the German 11th Army with help from the Austro-Hungarian 3rd and 4th Armies. The German 11th Army was created prior to the offensive. It was a fine example of the German High Command’s ability to improvise in order to provide the troops needed to carry out operations. The soldiers used to create the 11th Army were taken from existing Western Front regiments and supplemented with new recruits. Though the Germans and Austro-Hungarians were greatly outnumbered by Russian forces, the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive mitigated these factors with a high degree of innovation. The German and Austro-Hungarian commanders selected an area of weakness to attack, the Russian 3rd Army.

On the verge - soldiers look up at smoke rising above Gorlice in 1915

On the verge – soldiers look up at smoke rising above Gorlice in 1915

These Russian troops were largely illiterate, ill-equipped and incompetently led. This was an army made up primarily of peasants, tough, sturdy and totally helpless when confronted by industrial weaponry on the field of battle. Many were raw recruits, lucky to even have a full uniform. Tens of thousands did not carry rifles, simply because they had not been given one. At this point in the war, for every four recruits there was one rifle being produced by the Russian war effort. The only option was for soldiers to take a rifle from one of their dead or wounded comrades in the midst of battle. Then there was the Russian trench system along this part of the front. These were little more than rifle pits. If this was not bad enough, the attackers had a tremendous advantage in artillery. According to historian Hew Strachan, “The Central Powers collected 334 heavy guns to 4 Russian, 1,272 guns to 675 and 96 trench mortars to none…the densest concentration of the war so far: one heavy gun every 132 yards and one field gun every 45 yards.” The result would be a massacre, quickly followed by breakthrough and breakout.

Click Here To Read The Unknown Centenary – Gorlice-Tarnow: World War I’s Great Retreat (Part Two)

When The World Will Not Leave You Alone – Maximilian, Duke of Hohenburg

It did not happen very often that a member of the House of Habsburg was reduced to cleaning latrines, but that is precisely what happened to Maximilian Duke of Hohenberg. There is probably no greater anecdotal evidence of the massive changes wrought upon European society in the first half of the 20th century than the fact that the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – the man who was heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne until his assassination sparked World War I – ended up orphaned, banished from his home and later from his homeland and was lucky to survive imprisonment at a concentration camp.

The Young Maximilian

The Young Maximilian

Heir To The Fates – Maximilian, Duke Of Hohenburg
The man who would become Maximilian, Duke of Hohenburg was born in 1902, the second child and oldest son of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Chotek. The marriage was extremely controversial due to the fact that Sophie was of a lower aristocratic order than Franz Ferdinand and as such was not considered a suitable candidate to marry an heir to the throne. Nonetheless, the couple married and gave birth to three children. Maximilian, being the eldest son would have been in the direct line of succession for the Habsburg Throne, but even before he was born the arrangements of his parent’s marriage made it impossible. Some might say it was fate, others tradition, but one of the conditions of Franz Ferdinand’s marriage to Sophie was that his sons were not allowed in the direct line of succession to the throne. Thus from the very start Maximilian had no hope of gaining the throne. Furthermore, he was not allowed to inherit any titles, incomes or property from his father. Inheritance was only allowed from his mother’s side. This seems quite bizarre, but the aristocratic world of Austria-Hungary, especially the loftiest ranks was wedded to tradition and protocol.

Tradition in the House of Habsburg was often stronger than people. Yet tradition could only go so far in keeping Austria-Hungary together in a 20th century of mass movements and great technological change. Maximillian was unlucky enough to be born into this era. His own father, Franz Ferdinand, had flirted with changing tradition and his offspring ended up paying the price. On June 28, 1914 Maximilian’s parents were both murdered in the streets of Sarajevo by a Bosnian-Serb assassin. This of course was the great spark that ignited World War I, a conflict that would change the order of Europe and the world forever. On a more personal level, the war upset millions of people’s lives. Maximilian’s life was one of these. He and his siblings were now orphans. Their lives were thrown into a state of uncertainty. The war was bad enough, but the aftermath even worse from an aristocratic perspective.

Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie with their three children

Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie with their three children, Maximilian is at the far right

Normality & Domesticity, Imprisonment & Humiliation
The monarchy collapsed and the Habsburg’s lost all power. Being part of the family was no longer a privilege, but now a curse. The newborn nation states of Central and Eastern Europe were led by men who had abhorred Austria-Hungary. They now set about vanquishing the Habsburg legacy. Maximilian had been brought up at the family residence in Konopiste. His life there had continued even after his parents were killed, but in 1919 the new nation of Czechoslovakia expropriated the property. The three siblings now became displaced persons, albeit very unique ones. They moved to another family home, Artstetten Castle, in lower Austria. Possibly the strangest aspect regarding the first half of Maximilian’s life was how normal it was turning out to be. He attended to University of Graz where he acquired a law degree. He was doing a fine job managing the family estates prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. It seemed that his life just might turn out normal.

Millions of others could probably have said the same thing before Nazism changed everything. For Austria, the rise of the Nazis resulted in the Anschluss of 1938 whereby it was absorbed into the greater German Reich. Maximilian, along with his brother Ernst, vehemently opposed this infringement upon Austrian sovereignty. The Nazis would not stand for any opposition. Both brothers were arrested and imprisoned in the Dachau Concentration Camp. In comparison to others who suffered in the camps, there punishment was mild. They were not murdered, but instead forced to perform humiliating duties which included cleaning toilets. In the space of just twenty-five years Maximilian had gone from the exalted heights of royalty to literal servitude at the beck and whim of a depraved ideology. The old Europe was not just a thing of the past it was on the verge of perishing in the camps. And yet Maximilian survived. After only six months inside Dachau he was released. Lucky to be alive, he managed to survive the war. Soon thereafter he was elected mayor of Artstetten. The final period of his life was one of peaceful domesticity.

 Maximilian, Duke of Hohenburg later in life

The survivor – Maximilian, Duke of Hohenburg later in life

A Life of Unequal Measures
There is a precarious balance to the life of Maximilian. His fate often swung from the depths of despair to surreal domesticity. An awful event was often followed by a pleasant surprise. When the worst could be expected, events turned out for the better. The examples of this pattern are numerous. Even though he was orphaned, he was also raised in a castle. After losing every royal title and many ancestral possessions, he lived a relatively carefree life managing the family estates. Thrown into a concentration camp, he spent the time more in servitude than slavery. He avoided murder, likely because of his lineage, but also suffered imprisonment because of it. His life was star crossed, filled with despondencies and satisfactions of unequal measure. It must have all been a bit maddening. Often at the mercy of world historical events far beyond his control, Maximilian made the best of a quixotic situation. Life for him was unique, dreadful and normal. He may have been born different, but in one key respect he was just the same as everyone else who lived through the multiple cataclysms in Europe during the first half of the 20th century. He was a survivor.