Tragic Destiny –The Mysterious Afterlife Of Mayerling: History For The Worse (Part Three)

The Mayerling Incident was a tabloid ready controversy filled with rampant speculation, salacious gossip, bizarre rumors of ridiculous conspiracies and mysterious cover-ups. Fact and fiction were interwoven to the point that they became inseparable. The powers that be changed their story multiple times. Something akin to an approximation of the truth slowly came to light. The press in Austria was heavily censored, but further west in France and Great Britain speculation flowed freely, some of this crossed back over the border into Austria. The entire drama threatened to undermine an already weakened and rickety monarchy that was already having enough trouble just trying to deal with social and technological changes. Someone would have to take the blame for this self-inflicted debacle and it would not be the monarchy. Rudolf’s femme fatale never stood a chance.

United by fate - Crown Prince Rudolf & Mary Vetsera

United by fate – Crown Prince Rudolf & Mary Vetsera

Obscured By Spiritualism – Underwhelmed By The Unresolved
The court of official propaganda and public opinion was not kind to Mary Vetsera. She was viewed as a willing accomplice of a mentally troubled Rudolf. Her age did not help matters. She was thirteen years younger than Rudolf, a mere teenager who lacked the emotional maturity to understand what she was getting herself into. Her mother had sought fame in the highest aristocratic social circles for a family that were newcomers on the Viennese social scene. Their background in the near east limited just how far the family might climb, but Mary would end up showing just how far they could fall. Her mother was not allowed to attend the daughter’s funeral. Mary was buried alone at a spot the Crown Prince had selected for the two of them. Instead, Rudolf ended up in the Imperial Crypt, but only after officialdom ensured that his suicide was ruled as the result of mental problems.

As for the Mayerling hunting lodge, it was transformed into a Carmelite Convent where nuns could eternally pray for Rudolf’s soul. A very odd thing to do to at a murder-suicide site. While the gesture was heartfelt – Franz Josef wept at the convent’s dedication – such a transformation was incongruous at best, insincere at worst. This was the main reason I found the Jagdschloss Karmel Mayerling to be one of the most underwhelming historical places I have visited. My suspicion was that there had been a tacit agreement to keep the exact truth of what happened obscured by spiritualism. Thus, it was decided to create something of a memorial and leave it at that. The fact that the mystery of Mayerling may or may not have been solved kept interest from visitors such as myself high. It drew me and thousands of others to the Jagdschloss Karmel Mayerling each year.  Probably not what the Habsburg authorities had in mind.

Tragic Destiny - Crown Prince after the Mayerling Incident

Tragic Destiny – Crown Prince after the Mayerling Incident (Credit Schuhmann – Bundesmobilienverwaltung MD 065518)

A Shattering Effect – From Debilitation To Destabilization
Today a very strict order of nuns resides at the Jagdschloss in relative seclusion. The chapel now stands in the spot where the main actions of the incident occurred or so I was told. The facts from the investigation of what happened that day were sealed and then destroyed by decree of Emperor Franz Joseph. His wife Elisabeth is said to have never recovered from her son’s death. The same has been said of the Emperor. The royal couple did stay married, though they grew further apart. Mayerling had a shattering effect on the future course of the Empire and the 20th century. Rudolf’s replacement as heir to the throne was none other than Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who would have his own tragic destiny.

As time passed after the murder-suicide at Mayerling, Rudolf, the once Crown Prince of Austria gained a reputation as a tragic figure whose death changed history for the worse. This was predicated on the assumption that if Rudolf had lived long enough to become emperor he would have reformed Austria-Hungary and the monarchy would have had a better chance of survival. Such an idea overlooks the fact that Rudolf’s health was already in rapid decline at the time of his suicide mainly due to venereal disease. He had contracted either gonorrhea or syphilis from his endless conquests of women. The disease only served to intensify a nervous condition that had plagued him throughout his adult life. He had also suffered from debilitating migraine headaches for several years.  Only thirty years old when he died, photos taken in the months before then showed Rudolf as a prematurely aged man.

Imperial Crypt - Crown Prince Rudolf's coffin lies to the right of his parents' coffins

Imperial Crypt – Crown Prince Rudolf’s coffin lies to the right of his parents’ coffins (Credit Bwag)

Resting On Turmoil – The Extent Of One Man’s Sorrow
The Crown Prince had been trying to alleviate his various maladies with morphine and heavy drinking. Those only served to have the opposite effect on his condition. In addition to his physical ailments, Rudolf’s marriage was a disaster. His wife, Crown Princess Stephanie of Belgium, was sterile because he had transmitted venereal disease to her. He did not find her physically or psychologically attractive, the two were a poor match. Their relationship only grew worse as the years went on. Each lived an increasingly separate existence. By the start of 1889, Rudolf was a man living on the edge. He had already tried to get Princess Stephanie involved in a lover’s suicide pact. She demurred. He did the same with one of his mistresses, an ex-singer, by the name of Mizzi Kaspar, who dutifully reported it to the police. The authorities failed to report this to either the Emperor or Empress. The upshot of all this was that Rudolf’s parents failed to realize the extent of Rudolf’s woes.

Rudolf would likely have died long before having the chance to assume the throne. Franz Josef did not die until 1916, twenty-seven years after the Mayerling incident occurred. By that time Rudolf would have been 57. There is only a very slim chance that he would have lived a quarter century longer suffering so badly from disease. Rudolf probably realized his condition would continue to deteriorate. The future for him looked bleak, both physically and politically. As for the latter, he had been frozen out of all decision making in the empire. He was considered untrustworthy, impulsive and at times had been downright subversive. Publishing his views in the liberal press under barely disguised fronts. His father would not hear of an annulment to Rudolf’s marriage. His mother, Empress Elisabeth, while close in temperament to her son, was consumed with her own mental and physical problems. It is little wonder that Rudolf ended his life, to have done it in such sensational fashion led to speculation that still continues right up through today.  Mayerling’s fame will forever rest on Rudolf’s turmoil.

Click here for: Visiting Vysehrad – Myth, Mystery & History: Looking Down Upon Prague

Uncovering The Cover-up – The Mayerling Incident: From Sin To Sanctuary (Part Two)

Once upon a trip while traveling in Europe, my wife said to me “there is something of interest in every village”. In this case she was referring to Hungary, but the same could be said of almost any other nation on the continent. That certainly includes Austria. Even the tiniest burgs have played host to many centuries of history and been home to thousands of people all with their own unique stories, some more famous than others. Mayerling was one of those places. I left Vienna behind for a hamlet that was not even the size of a village. At a glance it would seem to be a place of no importance. Such an impression would be patently false, for it was in Mayerling where an “Incident” occurred that would have vast ramifications for the 20th century. The “Incident” had carried me on a journey to the Jagdschloss Karmel Mayerling. I hoped to learn more, but the true value of this place would not be found written on any displays or outlined in the exhibits. Its power lay in an opportunity to stand in the footsteps of history.

Interior of the chapel at Mayerling

Interior of the chapel at Mayerling

Sinister Connotations – The Confines Of History
The reason why anyone visited the Jadgschloss was to see where the scandalous “Mayerling Incident” had taken place. I assumed that visitors like myself had read or been told about it beforehand. Thus, the true value of coming here was to match reality with imagination. To place one of the more infamous historical events within the confines of where it had occurred. Visitors would get to see the actual place where Crown Prince Rudolf forfeited his rights to the Habsburg throne, first by murdering a teenage mistress and then committing suicide. Those actions ensured Mayerling’s place in history. The hunting lodge where this tragedy took place would forever be associated with the death of an heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The word Mayerling had taken on a sinister connotation in the wake of what happened in the early morning hours of January 30, 1889. Nothing would ever be the same again for this remote settlement and the hunting lodge that dominated the landscape.

The museum at Mayerling was pretty much what I thought it would be, nothing special. It was small, contained the obligatory information displays and a room set up to look as it did back in the hunting lodge’s 19th century heyday. No one would have paid a single euro to see this stuff. It was in the chapel where intrigue abounded. There was an altar placed in the exact location where the bed had stood that contained the bodies of Rudolf and Mary. The setting for the Mayerling Incident was now surrounded by stained glass windows, Christian symbolism and all the trappings of religion. This was one of the more bizarre re-imaginings of a place marred by tragedy. The fact that an altar with a cross, the most venerated symbol in Christianity, was placed in the same location where adulterers spent their final moments before a murder-suicide pact was carried out managed to shock me. There was something sadistic about placing the altar in such a location. It seemed to mock what had happened. Here was spiritualism in the service of obfuscation. The devil really was in the details of what had happened. The powers that be back then had decided to transform a bloody bedroom into a sanctuary to absolve sin.

An unhappy marriage - Crown Prince Rudolf and Princess Stephanie

An unhappy marriage – Crown Prince Rudolf and Princess Stephanie (Credit: Géruzet Frères – Österreichisches Staatsarchiv)

Open To Conjecture – Disputed Details
What happened at Mayerling on a brutally cold winter night in 1889 is still open to conjecture today. The “Mayerling Incident” was said to be a murder-suicide. Since that time, countless journalists along with professional and amateur historians have weighed in with an assortment of articles and books on what might or might not have occurred. The evidence is vague and ambiguous. It is also obscured by cover-ups. A short explanation goes something like this, Crown Prince Rudolf, next in line to lead the Austro-Hungarian Empire, supposedly murdered one of his many mistresses and then committed suicide due to a pre-arranged lover’s pact. Austria-Hungary’s version of Romeo and Juliet. Rudolf’s mistress, the 17-year old Mary Vetsera, was found in the bedroom with flowers folded in her hands as she lay dead from a gunshot wound. It is believed she died during the night, but the Crown Prince was seen that morning by one of his servants before going back to his bedchambers and shooting himself. No one knows what really happened, but by morning two dead bodies were discovered. Rumors and speculation were rife from the outset.

The details of this are still disputed today, complicated by imperial secrecy and conspiratorial politics. Some believe that Rudolf arrived at Mayerling utterly distraught following an argument with his father, the Emperor Franz Josef. Father and son were said to have quarreled badly in the preceding days, though there is no first-hand documentation of this happening. The emperor would most certainly have denied Rudolf the right to divorce his wife, Crown Princess Stephanie. Rudolf had already gone behind his father’s back in writing the Vatican to request an annulment of his unhappy marriage. To further exacerbate matters, it was thought that Rudolf had been in contact with Hungarian opposition figures whom the imperial administration loathed. One prominent theory holds that there was a plot to murder Crown Prince Rudolf. This was done to ensure his liberal ideas to arrest the empire’s continual decline could never be enacted. Franz Josef did likely feel that Rudolf was not worthy to succeed him.

Femme Fatale - Mary Vetsera

Femme Fatale – Mary Vetsera

From Trigger Man To Tragic Figure – Explanatory Evidence
Theories and opinions on the true cause of the Mayerling Incident have been rampant ever since news of it broke. Gossip and hearsay informed opinions as much as truth. This was aided by the suppression of information by the imperial authorities. This vacuum was filled by those with their own theories. Some hypothesized that the incident was really part of a French plot to weaken Austria and the Habsburgs. Then there was the initial conspiracy theory that Mary had poisoned Rudolf or maybe she shot him and then herself. The authorities needed some sort of explanation for what happened. The first “official” version was that Rudolf had died of a heart attack. Unfortunately for the House of Habsburg, Rudolf was almost certainly the trigger man. A trigger man who would soon become a tragic figure.

Coming soon: Tragic Destiny –The Mysterious Afterlife Of Mayerling: History For The Worse (Part Three)

A Place Touched By Tragedy – Incidental Contact: The Road To Mayerling (Part One)

The trigger that started World War One was pulled on a street corner in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The starting gun for that incident went off much earlier, twenty-five years earlier to be exact. At least that is what some scholars believe. That is because on the night of January 29,1889, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf committed suicide along with his young lover at a royal hunting lodge in the tiny village of Mayerling, just 25 kilometers from Vienna. The death of the Crown Prince, only son of Emperor Franz Josef and his wife Queen Elisabeth, meant that the succession passed down to Franz Ferdinand. In effect putting him in the direct line of fire to be murdered in Sarajevo a quarter century later. What has become known as the Mayerling Incident is famous both for the geopolitical outcomes that resulted from it and the endless conjecture about what exactly happened at the hunting lodge on that fateful winter night.

Scene of the crime - Mayerling Hunting Lodge of Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889

Scene of the crime – Mayerling Hunting Lodge of Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889

Anything But Normal – Lone Passenger, Strange Journey
Sopron was a great place to stay for a day trip to Vienna since it was only an 80 minute train ride away. Thus, I availed myself of the opportunity to visit the city for the second time on this trip. After sightseeing in the city center for a few hours I decided that there was still time to visit Mayerling. It interested me for two reasons. The first was because of what had happened there. Second, it was relatively remote for an attraction in the area. There was a reason I had never met anyone who had been to Mayerling. When all the glitter, sparkle and festive atmospherics of central Vienna are in front of you, traveling out to a wooded hinterland in search of a murder-suicide site is less than appealing to most normal people. Well I never wanted to be normal, thus visiting Mayerling appealed to my ego. I would be the first in my family to visit there, as though that meant something to anyone other than me. In addition, I could come home with a story to tell bored relatives, oblivious friends and legions of coworkers who would care less what some Austrian royal light weight had done to himself and his mistress. I told myself that Mayerling would be worth the bother of getting there.

Mayerling was not that far from Vienna, but it might as well have been in another world. To get there I first had to take the metro, then a tram, followed by a bus. It only takes half an hour to drive to Mayerling from central Vienna, but by public transport it took an hour and a half. The final leg by bus was quite scenic as it winded through rolling, forested countryside. Low mountains began to appear in the distance. In these woods I imagined royal hunting parties in the autumn, everything done according to protocol. Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef was especially fond of hunting, keenly interested in all aspects. It was a sad irony that his only son would come to a tragic end in a lodge that was associated with one of the Emperor’s few passions. The former hunting lodge was to be found in a small mountain valley. I was the lone passenger to get off at Mayerling. As the bus departed I suddenly felt abandoned.

Mayerling - A Strange Journey

Mayerling – A Strange Journey

Pushed Astride – Austrian Manners
The village of Mayerling was more like a settlement or what back home in the States would be called an unincorporated community. There were some scattered residences, a guest house and the centerpiece of this otherwise forgettable hamlet, the Jagdschloss Karmel Mayerling. What had once been an Imperial hunting lodge, then a church and convent of the Discalced Nuns was now a museum. I sensed a feeling of forlorn remoteness about Mayerling. It was a blustery day with a decided bite in the air. It felt like winter had not quite left the area, after what had happened here I wondered if it ever did. Rather than repel, the forlorn nature of the area fascinated me. A fitting prelude to a place touched by tragedy. I quickly made my way toward the museum. There was a handful of others visiting the museum at the same time as me.  An Austrian family nearly ran me over when I was headed into the museum where the “Mayerling Incident” occurred.

This was not the first time I had experienced the pushiness of Austrians. Despite the neat, well ordered world that could be found throughout the country, the Austrians I encountered, while gracious and helpful, were also habitual line jumpers. This came as a complete surprise to me. I assumed, quite wrongly, that since Austrians were ethnic Germans, they would act exactly as Germans do in Germany. I soon learned just how wrong my assumption had been. For instance, while standing in line at Vienna’s central train station waiting to purchase tickets, three older men decided to walk around me and take their place at the head of the line. When I tapped one of them on the shoulder and ordered the group back behind me, the men looked positively shocked. They did not fuss or fight over position, but I could see on their faces a sudden awareness that line breaking was not to everyone’s liking.

Entrance to the chapel area of the former hunting lodge - Inside is the museum of the Mayerling Incident

Entrance to the chapel area of the former hunting lodge – Inside is the museum of the Mayerling Incident

Childish Distractions – A Rude Awakening
This was not first time I had noticed that the lines in Austria were not straight and narrow like those in Germany. This was one of several things that separate Austrians from Germans, differences of nuance rather than degree. This was never truer than when that family at Mayerling muscled me out of the way. They were going to be first, no matter what rudeness was involved. Of course, this ended up triggering the same impulse in me. I stepped right in front of them again, then made it quite apparent I was holding my place. This bit of childish chicanery distracted me for a moment. Then I turned my attention to the reason I was visiting Mayerling, to see where Crown Prince Rudolf and his teenage lover spent their final moments.

Click here for: Uncovering The Cover-up – The Mayerling Incident: From Sin To Sanctuary (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.

“It Is Nothing”: The Exhibit on the Archduke’s Assassination As Seen In Vienna

In the Landstraße District of Vienna, stands the world’s oldest military history museum, the Heeresgeschichtliches (Museum of Military Museum). The museum’s exhibits focus on Austrian military exploits throughout the centuries. Among the prominent events highlighted are the numerous martial successes of the Habsburgs, one of the great ruling families in European History. Austria and the Habsburgs have a symbiotic relationship, the success and splendor of the latter, influencing that of the former right up to the present day. Yet in the early 20th ,the Habsburgs passed into history. Their fall came in both shocking and sudden fashion. In the space of just four years, the length of World War I, the empire completely disintegrated. First came defeat on the battlefield, followed by unrest and revolt at home. By the end of the war, the Habsburgs and their centuries old monarchy had vanished.

The Heeresgeschichtliches (Museum of Military History) in Vienna

The Heeresgeschichtliches – Museum of Military History in Vienna is located in the city’s former arsenal

The Decline & Fall of the Austrian’s Empire – Revolution, Compromise & Ossification
In truth, decline had been taking place for nearly a century prior to the war. Growing tensions caused by the forces of socialism and nationalism during the 19th century had to be constantly suppressed. Defeat in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 was a harbinger of the growing power of a soon to be unified Germany. Fear grew, both rational and reasonable, that Austria would be swallowed up by the German Empire. To stave off oblivion the Austrians created an unwieldy alliance with the Hungarians. The upshot of this was a political entity known as the Dual Monarchy (Austro-Hungarian Empire). This helped to stabilize the situation for almost half a century, but at the same time proved to be a constant source of irritation.

The Hungarians demanded almost complete independence. In areas where the two entities were supposed to coordinate, such as Foreign Affairs, disagreements were rife. There were also justifiable concerns about the growth of nationalism among the millions of minorities spread throughout the empire. The Italians of the Tyrol looked to Italy, the Romanians of Transylvania to Romania, the Serbs to Russia and so on. The empire was riven with internal contradictions. Atop it all sat Emperor Franz Josef, a man who would rule for sixty-eight years of revolution, compromise and ossification. Telling the story of a prolonged period of upheaval and transformation via museum exhibits is difficult at best. Perhaps that is why the essence of the fall of the House of Habsburg, Austria-Hungary and the end of old Europe really comes down to one exhibit at the Heeresgeschichtliches. Known as the Sarajevo exhibit, it showcases the residue from the seminal event which changed Austria, the Habsburgs and Europe forever.

1911 Graf & Stift Double Phaeton automobile which the Archduke and his wife were travelling in when they were murdered in Sarajevo

1911 Graf & Stift Double Phaeton automobile which the Archduke and his wife were travelling in when they were murdered in Sarajevo (Credit: Heeresgeschichtliches)

 

Assassination – Politics By Other Means
The largest and most noticeable item on display is an automobile. This was the car in which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (heir to the Habsburg throne) traveled through Sarajevo with his wife Sophie on Sunday, June 28, 1914. Easily recognizable is the folded back, convertible cover of the 1911 Graf & Stift Double Phaeton automobile. It was at precisely ten minutes past ten o’clock in the morning that a bomb thrown by a would be assassin deflected off the convertible cover. It injured travelers in another vehicle that was part of the Archduke’s entourage. Despite this, the Archduke insisted that the visit continue. He was dutifully taken to the town hall for a reception. Reflecting on this is bound to make the viewer wonder if arrogance, a quality which Franz Ferdinand was known to have in abundance, ended up costing him his life.

Perhaps this not only reflects the arrogance of Franz Ferdinand, but the attitude of the aristocratic order of old Europe as well. The governing elites still had a sense of invulnerability, despite numerous successful assassinations that had occurred across Europe over the past twenty years. Assassination, like war, was politics by another means. The marginalized of the Empire felt that this was the only way real change could be effected. Franz Ferdinand, an elite in every way imaginable, was an extreme example of the will to never change or recognize the obvious, even when it appeared in deadly forms. After the reception, the Archduke and his wife were once again traveling back through Sarajevo, when due to a mix-up, the chauffeur took a wrong turn and ended up stalling the car on a side street. It was then that the assassin, a Bosnian Serb by the name of Gavrilo Princip, pulled out a semi-automatic pistol. From just one and a half meters away he fired two shots. The Archduke was hit in the jugular vein, while his wife was shot in the abdomen.

Pistol used by Gavrilo Princip to murder the Archduke and his wife (Credit: Heeresegeschichtliches)

Fabriue Nationale model 1910 used by Gavrilo Princip to murder the Archduke and his wife (Credit: Heeresgeschichtliches)

The assassin’s pistol, a Fabrique Nationale model 1910, is on display at the museum. It is incredibly humbling to actually see the real weapon. The gun produced the first two shots of what would become a worldwide conflagration that ended up taking the lives of at least ten million people. The exhibit contains several photos of the assassins (including accomplices) along with their weapons. The contrast between the assassins and the royal family is brought home by the photos in close proximity to one another. Here is the scruffy Princip, eyes gazing back at the camera with a fearful, vacant perplexity. Nearby, an image of the royal family shows them as refined and well to do. There could hardly be a greater contrast. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie only met Princip in that one hair trigger moment, but due to that moment they have inextricably linked, forever.

The uniform worn by Archduke Franz Ferdinand when he was assassinated in Sarajevo

The uniform worn by Archduke Franz Ferdinand when he was assassinated in Sarajevo (Credit: Heeresgeschichtliches)

All & Nothing – Franz Ferdinand’s Famous Last Words
Another display case holds the uniform worn by the archduke on that fateful day. A hole is visible just below the collar where the bullet’s entry occurred. The front of the uniform still displays Franz Ferdinand’s blood stains, which have turned a dirty brown over the years. In a final coup of macabre grace, a chaise lounge is part of the exhibit. It is from the governor’s residence in Sarajevo. On this lounge the Archduke lay, still alive, yet barely breathing. Ten minutes after Sophie died, Franz Ferdinand is said to have uttered, “Sophie, Sophie! Don’t die! Live for our children.” Then he repeated “It is nothing” over and over again.

Those were his final words. The exhibit has the power to transport the viewer beyond the museum, to somewhere deep in the historical consciousness. A place where Franz Ferdinand’s final words, “It is nothing” echo across space and time. Those words have turned into a horrific paradox. They turned out to be quite the opposite of what occurred in the aftermath of the assassination. “It is nothing” was really the beginning of a final endgame for the Habsburgs.

There is nothing quite like the Sarajevo exhibit at the Heeresgeschichtliches. Thousands of artifacts and wonderfully informative displays may tell of the story of the Habsburgs and Austria’s military exploits and defeats, but they pale in comparison to the items showcased from that one day in Sarajevo. The artifacts in the Sarajevo exhibit have the ability to transport the visitor beyond walls and words, beyond facts and dates. Indeed, they speak of a final destiny that defeated an empire and a way of life.

 

Dead Reckoning – June 28, 1914: The Great War’s Legacy 100 Years Later

On Saturday, June 28, 2014, the 100th Anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event which sparked World War One, will be commemorated in Sarajevo. The commemoration will be solemn and relatively low key. Among other things, the Vienna Philharmonic is scheduled to perform a concert. There are a few other events on tap, but the overall tone for the anniversary is low key and respectful. This is only proper. After all, this was the moment when the 20th century changed forever and many believe was sent on its violent trajectory.

An Italian newspaper drawing depicting Gavrilo Princip killing Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo

An Italian newspaper drawing depicting Gavrilo Princip killing Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo

Improbabilities, Accidents & Happenstance
The assassination involved a series of ambiguous and troubled historical characters. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was not well liked or regarded by the citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, especially the elite. The fact that he was murdered gives some idea of the feelings of the empire’s enemies towards the Archduke. As for the assassin, Gavrilo Princip was an outcast, a man who lived on the very fringes of society. His act was neither glorious nor heroic. It was the result of a series of improbabilities, accidents and happenstance. Despite this, the assassination turned out to be a world historical event.

Yet it is what followed in the wake of the assassination rather than the event itself, which makes it of long lasting historical significance.  Four years of total war which ended with millions dead and wounded, along with a radical realignment of the political map of Europe flowed from the assassination. It is difficult to imagine how different Europe was before that event. Monarchies and empires ruled most of the continent including Bosnia. Freedom and representative government promoted the interests of the elite rather than a majority of the population. All of that either came to an end or underwent radical change. The world before the assassination vanished forever.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand & his wife Sophie at funeral ceremony

Archduke Franz Ferdinand & his wife Sophie at funeral ceremony

Coming to Terms – What Did They Fight For? What Did They Die For?
Following the commemoration in Sarajevo, expect much soul searching in France, Britain, Russia and Germany as they try to come to grips with the legacy of the Great War. For France, the Great War is a source of national pride, an honorable sacrifice to save their country from German militarism. Meanwhile in Britain, the war brings to mind images of needless slaughter, tragic heroism and victory at a cost that was indistinguishable from defeat. The Germans are still reckoning with causation and blame. Was the war really their fault? Should they bear the greatest burden of the blame? How do they honor their soldiers, without honoring militarism as well? Like so much of Germany’s ill-fated 20th century history, the questions are difficult and the answers are at best elusive, at worst nebulous. As for Russia, thoughts of the war are inseparable from those of the Revolution it led to. Russia has never come clean with its people about the truth of what occurred, the Soviet Union rewrote history to promote Bolshevism rather than honor the great courage and sacrifice of the peasant soldier. Lost in the Soviet version of the war was not only the truth, but also respect for the millions who died for what both then and now seems no good reason at all.

Lost amid these reckonings are the two principle polities whose enmity brought the world to arms. One, Austria-Hungary no longer exists, while the other, Serbia was synonymous throughout the 20th century with ethnic war and nationalism. They will both be referred to in Sarajevo, but following the commemoration they will almost certainly fade into the background. This will be a repeat of what happened during the Great War. The Austro-Hungarian Army fired the inaugural shots of World War I near Belgrade almost exactly a month to the day from when the assassination took place. After the starting point though, it seems these adversaries disappeared. This probably has to do with the fact that they were both losers in the war, even if the Serbs paradoxically managed to end up on the winning side. The Austro-Hungarian Army’s long awaited invasion of Serbia ended in defeat. Less than six months after the war had begun, the empire and its army were reeling. In the coming year, it would be reinforced and subsumed by the German Army. This would lead to victory for the Austro-Hungarians in Serbia, but it hardly mattered. This was a pyrrhic victory.

Serbian army in World War I - retreating into oblivion

Serbian army in World War I – retreating into oblivion

Defeat, Disillusionment & Disaster – The Great War 100 Years Later
When the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was murdered in Sarajevo, it was the beginning of the end for Austria-Hungary. In that way Princip’s action had been a success, but it brought Serbia so much misery, that it is hard to see how it was a victory.  The Serbs lost almost a fifth of their entire population during the war. That means about one in every five Serbs was dead by the end of the conflict. No country suffered a greater proportion of losses to its population.  What did the Serbs have to show for their suffering and sacrifice at war’s end? They ended up on the victorious side and led the states that would form Yugoslavia, but any gains they made were lost again during World War II, regained in its aftermath and finally lost in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s. The 20th century was not kind to Serbia. They could never quite achieve a Greater Serbia and the next best thing, Yugoslavia collapsed as well. For the Serbs, the Great War much like their entire 20th century history was filled with disappointment.

That word, disappointment may best explain the legacy of the Great War for all the major combatants. None of the nations and empires that were involved got what they wanted or expected. The war brought varying degrees of defeat, disillusionment and disaster to all involved. Perhaps that is why the commemoration in Sarajevo will be such a solemn affair.  It was the beginning of the end for one world and the start of something new and more horrible for the next one.

History Stuck On Repeat – The Belgrade Fortress & Neverchanging Human Nature

Where the Sava River flows into the mighty Danube sits the city of Belgrade, capital of Serbia. Towering over the confluence of the two rivers is the Belgrade Fortress. One would be hard pressed to find a more strategic point in the long and troubled history of the Balkans. It as though geology and geography have conspired to create a place where the desire of empires and ethnicities are acted out in century upon century of armed conflict. It is believed that some 115 different battles have been fought over the fortress throughout recorded history.

Belgrade Fortress - one of its many sides (Credit: Danomir)

Belgrade Fortress – one of its many sides (Credit: Danomir)

Buried History – The Graveyard of Conquest
The conquerors of this strategic point include three of the most important empires in world history, the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. They came, they saw, they conquered and they vanished. Holding this ground may well be just as hard as conquering it. Over the last one hundred years, the fortress has fallen under the sway of Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia, Germany, Yugoslavia and back again to Serbia. There are very few pieces of land in the whole of Europe that have such a contentious history. Control of this area, meant control over historic trade and migration routes. This was the reason that the Celts, Romans, Huns, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars, Byzantines, Serbs, Hungarians, Turks, Austrians and Germans occupied it with varying degrees of success over the past 2,300 years. It was also the reason that the Celts and Romans selected the area as a fortified encampment.

During the 6th century, the Byzantine Empire at its zenith under Justinian the Great, constructed a more permanent stone fortress. From that point forward, there were concerted attempts to create an impregnable fortification at the site. Each attempt tried to improve on the one before, but even stone and cement were never able to keep pace with technological innovations in siege warfare and artillery. Due to this building and rebuilding, much of the architectural history of the fortress has been subsumed. Today the fortress area is considered to be the most beautiful parkland in the city, but this beauty also hides a fascinating history. Beneath it are catacombs and tunnels that have scarcely been explored. They could hold tantalizing secrets about the past. Yet even the more recent past, relatively unknown in the popular historical consciousness, is worth remembering.

The Opening Shots of World War I
With such a conflicted past it is little surprise that the fortress and city it was built to protect saw fighting during the First World War. Of greater interest is the fact that the Belgrade fortress bore witness to the first shots of what became known as the war to end all wars. Exactly one month to the day from when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The telegram declaring war was officially received by Serbian officials during lunchtime at 12:30 pm on July 28, 1914. Less than twelve hours later, Austro-Hungarian artillery was prepared to fire the opening shots of the war. A few minutes past midnight, from across the Sava in Semlin (today Zemun in Serbia), the giant guns manufactured in the Krupp and Skoda factories of the empire unloaded a torrent of shellfire on Belgrade and its fortress. Then gliding across the slate grey waters of the Danube came river monitors bearing even more shot and shell.

These were the inaugural shots of what were to be millions more over the succeeding four years. There was panic in the city as civilians cowered in temporary shelters or descended into caves in the hills beyond the city. Windows were shattered all over the inner city as well as the residential districts. And this was just the beginning. In the coming weeks, the fortress was reduced to rubble as well as the industrial districts of the city. Food became scarce and sanitation soon degraded as water and sewer facilities were destroyed. Belgrade, capital of the Serbian nation was paying the price of a war that many felt the Serbs had brought upon themselves. Through it all stood the ruined remnants of the fortress, a crumbling witness to the excesses of modern warfare.

The Belgrade Fortress has been fought over 115 times - making this sign literally true

The Belgrade Fortress has been fought over 115 times – making this sign literally true

History Stuck On Repeat
Following the end of the conflict, it was proclaimed that World War I had been “the war to end all wars.” Meanwhile those ruins that pockmarked the Belgrade fortress offered a testament otherwise. The fortress would soon be rebuilt in time for the next war. And this was before anyone knew an even worse war was to follow. Why rebuild? Because it would surely happen again, for it is here where the Danube meets the Sava that history is stuck on repeat. Here in this place that has seen over a hundred battles, the future is totally predictable. What was to come might even be worse. It was. One wonders, is it really a conspiracy of geology and geography which has brought the Belgrade fortress such suffering. Perhaps it is, than again maybe it’s a conspiracy of man and his worst instincts. After all, the Danube and Sava rivers often change, but human nature never does.

A Belief Stronger Than Life: Sarajevo’s Failed Assassination of 1910

It was the middle of June, 1910, almost summer time in Sarajevo. Warmer temperatures were only one of the reasons for optimism. Another was the formation of a parliament for the Austro-Hungarian administered Bosnian province known as the Sabor. It was officially opened in mid-month by the provincial Military Governor, General Marijan Varesanin.   The Austro-Hungarians felt that this might be a turning point in the process of integrating the province further into the Dual Monarchy. It was wishful thinking. Despite the parliament’s creation, a peasant revolt had just taken place in the countryside. Bosnia’s heterodox population of Serbs, Croats and Muslims were restless to the point of violence. Just two years earlier, the Dual Monarchy had annexed the province. This had inflamed revolutionary sentiment among the South Slavic people who called this mountainous land home. Their aim was to expunge the Austro-Hungarians and set up a South Slav state.

Postcard of Sarajevo along the Miljacka River in 1900

Postcard of Sarajevo along the Miljacka River in 1900

Warning Shots: Bosnia on the Brink
The Austro-Hungarian hope that the creation of a Sabor would quell some of the populace’s anger was in vain. Political violence was the preferred solution for young Bosnians who felt marginalized and unrepresented. They wanted self-rule, rather than imperial occupation. They were going to change their world and were willing to die for it. The ultimate outcome of this mindset occurred in June of 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. That successful act of violence led to the First World War. Strangely, a failed act of violence on the 15th of June, 1910 in Sarajevo was a shocking example of what was to come. It was a pity few failed to heed the warning shots.

On that day, the Austrian Military Governor of Bosnia, General Marijan Varesanin had been given the honor of leading the official opening of the Sabor. After the ceremony ended, his carriage made its way down the Appel Quay, astride the Miljacka River. He was heading back to his home at Konak, the military governor’s mansion. It would be along this same stretch of road four years later where Franz Ferdinand’s motorcade would have a bomb thrown at it. This would also be the same road where the fatal wrong turn by the Archduke’s chauffeur led the royal couple directly into the line of fire from assassin Gavrilo Princip. While General Varesanin knew that any Austrian leader in Bosnia was under threat of attack, he could not have imagined that on such a heretofore successful day, an assassin was lurking along his route home.

Bogdan Zerajic- failed assassin, successful martyr

Bogdan Zerajic- failed assassin, successful martyr

A Turn for the Worst
The carriage turned onto the Kaiser’s Bridge, ironically only one bridge up from the Latin Bridge where the Archduke would meet his fate. Suddenly five gun shots rang out in quick succession. They came within a hair’s breadth of hitting the General. A sixth shot did hit its mark, but in this final case the target happened not to be the General. The would-be assassin had placed the Browning pistol against his head and pulled the trigger. He dropped to the ground, dead in the middle of the road. Varesanin left his carriage to take a closer look. What he found was a young man, in his early 20’s, with blood oozing from his mouth. The entire episode, from first shot to the inspection of the assassin, took place with breathtaking rapidity.

The man lying dead in the road was one, Bogdan Zerajic. He, like so many Balkan assassins around the turn of the 20th century, came from an impoverished peasant family, one which not surprisingly had nine children. He tried to make a career for himself by studying law at university, but had to drop out due to lack of funds. He then found his true calling while reading anarchist literature and joining the burgeoning ranks of those youthful, wayward souls calling for revolution. He initially targeted the Emperor of the Dual Monarchy, Franz Josef for assassination. He got within an arm length of him in the city of Mostar, but could not bring himself to go through with the planned attempt. Only a few weeks later, Zerajic’s attempt on the life of Varesanin failed.

Franz Josef in Mostar - no assassin in sight

Franz Josef in Mostar – no assassin in sight

In Death as in Life – Zerajic & Princip: A Convergence of Souls
In death, Zerajic gained martyrdom. His grave became a pilgrimage site for those who would eventually follow in his footsteps. Among the visitors included Gavrilo Princip, who is said to have placed flowers on his grave. In death as in life these kindred spirits would converge, Princip was buried in the same cemetery a decade later. Interestingly, whereas Zerajic barely missed with his five shots at Varesanin, he was able to commit suicide. Conversely, both of Princip’s shots were hits, yet his own suicide attempt failed. Yet Zerajic despite his failure inspired many a Serb, while the successful Princip’s actions led to defeat and misery for Bosnia and Serbia in the immediate years that followed. The unintended consequences of history work in strange ways.

Answers to what might have been in the aftermath of the attempt on General Varesanin’s life offer any number of fascinating suppositions. What if he had been killed? It would almost certainly not have sparked a World War. On the other hand, if Zerajic had murdered Franz Josef in Mostar, one can pretty much imagine the ramifications. The difference between assassinating a military governor and the emperor are vast. One could lead to martial law, while the other to world war. It is a pity that a mere four years after the assassination attempt on General Varesanin in Sarajevo no one seems to have really considered that the same could happen to the Archduke. Maybe there was an ingrained faith that strokes of luck, rather than strokes of fate would see Austria-Hungary through in Bosnia. If only the Dual Monarchy’s leaders had thought otherwise. If it had happened in Sarajevo once, it could certainly happen in Sarajevo again.

A Scene Terrible to Contemplate – Nedjo Cabrinovic & The Unfinished Assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The 100th anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand will soon be remembered all across Europe. This was the event that sparked the outbreak of the First World War, changing the world forever. The name of the man who carried out the assassination, Gavrilo Princip, will come into the historical consciousness once again. Princip’s fame rests upon his actions on that fateful day. If not for the assassination, he would never have gained any sort of notoriety. He was a lost and troubled soul. Like so many assassins before and after him he clung to the very fringes of society. Militant nationalism was the preferred anecdote to give his life some kind of purpose. Princip and the assassination may be synonymous, but there were several other young men lining the route of the Archduke’s motorcade that early summer day in Sarajevo. Four of the assassins failed to carry through with the original plan. Another, Nedjo Cabrinovic tried and failed. If his action had been successful, Gavrilo Princip would be a mere footnote in history, while Cabrinovic’s name would be on everyone’s lips when the centenary of the assassination is commemorated.

Nedjo Cabrinovic - almost famous, but now only forgotten and infamous.

Nedjo Cabrinovic – almost famous, but now only forgotten and infamous.

A Troubled Youth
Who was Nedjo Cabrinovic? Much like his co-conspirators he was a troubled young man. He began working as a teenager at various jobs all of which he invariably lost. These included stints as a locksmith, sheet metal worker and typesetter at a printing press. He stuck with the last of these, but never at the same place for very long. While working at the printing press he became familiar with radical socialist literature. He spent much of his formative years reading texts calling for revolutionary upheaval. His family life was chaotic. The relationship between Nedjo and his father was difficult in the extreme. They quarreled constantly. On one occasion, Nedjo’s father actually had him jailed for refusing to apologize to a housemaid he had slapped. Even at the printing press trouble proceeded to follow him. He took his readings of such revolutionaries as Marx to heart. He formed a union at the press, gave speeches and incited the worker’s to protest wages and conditions. Cabrinovic ended up losing the job and nearly being thrown into prison. He was also given to fits of anger, illness and non-conformist behavior.

Princip & Cabrinovic – Happenstance Versus Plans
Eventually he joined the Young Bosnians, a radical ethnic Serb group that wanted to see Bosnia throw off the yoke of Austro-Hungarian rule and unite with Serbia. Any possible means necessary would be used to carry this out. This background eventually led Cabrinovic to his place alongside the Appel Quay on the morning of June 28, 1914. Unlike Princip, Cabrinovic’s weapon of choice was a bomb instead of a gun. One thing they did have in common were the cyanide pills each carried with them to commit suicide after the assassination was done. Another similarity was that both turned out to be the only ones of the seven potential assassins in Sarajevo that day who actually tried to kill the archduke. There was a big difference between the two attempts though. Princip’s occurred by happenstance whereas Cabrinovic’s was done according to plan.

The Miljacka river and the Appel Quay to its left - this was the site of Cabrinovic's assassination attempt on the archduke in 1914

The Miljacka river and the Appel Quay to its left – this was the site of Cabrinovic’s assassination attempt on the archduke in 1914

Something To Remember Him By
On the morning of the assassination Cabrinovic did something very strange. Indicative of his mindset on that historic day, he went to a photographer and had several photos of himself made with a friend. Wearing an odd black and gray outfit, the last photos of Cabrinovic as a free man were taken. He asked the friend who had posed with him to make sure that among others, his sister and grandmother received copies. It was as though he was leaving them something to remember him by, as if assassinating the heir to the Habsburg throne was not enough. Not long thereafter, Cabrinovic found a suitable place to carry out his assassination attempt. He stood on the Miljacka River side of the Appel Quay close to a lamppost. This was critical because he needed to strike the bomb against the lamppost to prime it.

The Near Miss
At 10:10 a.m. the archduke’s car came into view for Cabrinovic. Unbeknownst to the passengers they had already safely passed two assassins, both of whom lost their nerve and failed to act. Cabrinovic had no such hesitation. He soon saw the motorcade coming into view and recognized the Archduke by the feathers in his helmet. He took out his bomb, struck it against the lamppost. It made a loud cracking noise. Cabrinovic’s motions in priming the bomb alerted the chauffer of the Archduke’s vehicle that something was amiss. The chauffer sped up, Cabrinovic tossed the bomb, but he was just off the mark. It hit the folded-down hood of the car, landing in the road where a few seconds later it exploded near the back of the next car in the motorcade. Shrapnel flew in several directions. Passengers in this car as well as bystanders had been hit, but none killed. Even the Archduchess Sophie had been grazed on the shoulder by a piece of shrapnel, the wound turned out to be superficial.

The archduke’s car came to a stop. He wanted to see exactly what had happened. After a minute, an officer hastily warned the heir to the throne and his entourage to keep going. The Archduke on learning of a bomb being thrown at him was reported to have said that the assassin “must be insane.” The archduke’s sanity can be called into question as well. He carried on with the morning program, rather than getting out of Sarajevo before another attempt on his life took place. It was a decision that would cost the royal couple their lives later that morning. As for Cabrinovic, he swallowed cyanide pills and jumped a wall, tumbling down into the languid, shallow waters of the Miljacka. In a matter of minutes a group of four men, one a policeman, had apprehended Cabrinovic. He was roughed up by an infuriated crowd before the police hauled him off to jail. It was all over for him, his attempt had failed. The archduke was still alive, but not for long.

Cabrinovic on the far left and Princip on the far right (in the foreground) - escorted by Austro-Hungarian soldiers suring their trial for murder

Cabrinovic on the far left and Princip on the right (in the foreground) – escorted by Austro-Hungarian soldiers suring their trial for murder

Contrition & Oblivion
As for Cabrinovic he actually showed contrition at the trial where he and the other assassins were convicted several months later. When reflecting on the fact that the assassination had led to a full scale war, Cabrinovic said that if he had known what would have transpired from the murder of the archduke, he would have used the bomb on himself instead. The damage had been done though. A worldwide cataclysm was in progress and would not end for another four years, after which millions were dead. Cabrinovic would die in a Bohemian prison from the effects of tuberculosis just a year and a half that day in Sarajevo. He was all but forgotten.

What Might Have Been – A Scene Terrible to Contemplate
Today at the Austrian Military Museum in Vienn,a the car in which the Archduke and Archduchess were riding in Sarajevo is on display. It is a surreal experience to look at the 1911 Graft and Stift Double Phaeton, still in good condition and think that it was nearly blown to pieces that morning. The tunic worn by Franz Ferdinand when he was shot is on display as well. The bloodstains are still visible. It is a humbling experience no matter one’s opinion of what transpired that fateful day in Sarajevo.

There is another way to look at this exhibit though, one that is not surreal or humbling, but truly horrifying. A counter factual approach sets the assassination forward an hour. Cabrinovic’s bomb lands on target. The archduke and archduchess try to scramble away, but the bomb explodes. Bits of their bodies are blown in all directions. Shrapnel incises every limb that is left of them. The screams of bystanders are more animal than human. The car is a heap of metal, glass and fabric, the chauffer and other passengers lay moaning and twitching. That scene is terrible to contemplate, but it was certainly possible. If it had occurred there would almost certainly be a very different exhibit about the archduke’s assassination in the Austrian Military Museum. Perhaps it would showcase bits and pieces of the debris, fragmentary remains of that morning in the Balkans nearly one hundred years ago. There will never be such an exhibit, neither will anyone have Nedja Cabrinovic’s name on their lips at the 100th anniversary ceremonies this June. Instead the man is lost to history, just like that moment in time, just like the world he so wanted to change.

Accompanied By Fate – The Last Years of Gavrilo Princip

Timing is everything. This was never truer than in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was in just the right place at just the right time. He stepped out of Schiller’s Delicatessen in the early afternoon of June 28, 1914 to suddenly discover the Archduke’s car stalled right in front of him. The rest as they say is history. That moment may have been the right time to commit the assassination, but Princip would later come to regret both the fortuitous timing and the event itself.

Gavrilo Princip being taken to court by Austro-Hungarian soldiers

Gavrilo Princip being taken to court by Austro-Hungarian soldiers

A Virtual Death Sentence
When the assassination occurred Princip was twenty-seven days short of his 20th birthday. Under Austro-Hungarian law, he could not be sentenced to death due to his age at the time when he committed the murder. This at first might have seemed to be a stroke of luck. After all, though Princip received the maximum sentence, it was for only twenty years. He could possibly live long enough to be a free man once again. Taking such a view of the situation is deceiving. Princip may have avoided execution, but he was also effectively denied martyrdom. Not a small thing in the mind of a man hoping to change the world. Princip’s twenty year sentence ended up lasting only three and a half years. Yet that turned out to be long enough. The tortuous years he spent in prison turned out to be a much worse death sentence.

Terezin was a fortress complex north of Prague, in what is today the Czech Republic. It was constructed during the late 18th century as part of what was to be a system of defensive fortresses to protect Habsburg Austria’s territory. The complex consisted of a large fortress, which was basically a walled town, as well as a much smaller fortress. Neither were ever attacked and both soon became obsolete. The complex was then converted into a prison. Today Terezin is better known by its German name of Theresienstadt. This is because of its role as a transit camp for Jews during World War II. Tens of thousands perished in the fortress due to disease and malnutrition. Those who did survive were shipped onward to extermination camps further east. Almost all the prisoners who were there during the darkest days of the Holocaust are anonymous to history. Strangely though, the most famous person to ever suffer within the walls of Terezin had been imprisoned there some twenty five years before.

Keeping Company With Failure
Gavrilo Princip arrived at Terezin in December 1914. He was lucky to have made it alive to the prison in the first place. On the week long railroad journey that carried him from Bosnia to Bohemia, the train had stopped in Vienna. At the station a lynch mob baying for blood had to be held back by the police. The mob had good reason to be angry. The empire they called home was committing suicide on the southern and eastern fronts of the Great War sparked by Princip. After just four months of war, the Austro-Hungarian forces had lost one million soldiers. And worse was yet to come.

Upon his arrival at Terezin, Princip was immediately placed in solitary confinement within the small fortress. For days, weeks and months on end he was bound with shackles that weighed over twenty pounds. His days consisted of either sitting or sleeping. He was not allowed visitors nor any reading material. In early 1916, during the depths of winter, his will finally broke. He attempted to hang himself with a towel, but was unsuccessful. This was the second suicide attempt by Princip that had failed. His first had occurred in Sarajevo immediately after he carried out the assassination. He took cyanide, but vomited it up. Before he could turn the pistol he had killed the Archduke with on himself, he was stopped by onlookers. It was not just his situation in the prison that brought Princip to such desperation, he had almost surely been informed by guards that the Serbian Army had experienced total defeat. By 1916, the south Slavic areas were occupied by German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers. The assassination by Princip had sparked an all-consuming war that had for the time being destroyed the dream of a Yugoslavia, which Princip had fervently believed could unite all the South Slavic peoples.

Cell where Gavrilo Princip was imprisoned at Terezin

Cell where Gavrilo Princip was imprisoned at Terezin

Dreams of Love & The Reality of Hopelessness
Within a few weeks of his attempted suicide, Princip received one of his first and only visitors in Terezin, a psychiatrist by the name of Martin Pappenheim. They met on four different occasions, the first in February and the last in mid-June of 1916. Princip confided to Pappenheim that the days were interminable. He badly missed being able to read and had no intellectual outlet. The only sliver of light that still cast a ray of hope amid the darkness of prison life were fantastical dreams he kept having about love. Yet these were fleeting, since Princip only slept a few hours at a time. According to Pappenheim, the twenty-one year old Bosnian Serb had lost all hope. Now that Serbia had suffered total defeat, there was nothing left for him. Pappenheim also noticed the festering sores on Princips wasting body. Tuberculosis was literally eating the young man alive on the outside. Being chained to the wall of his cell for a year and a half had irreparably damaged Princip’s physique. Little did he or his psychiatrist know that he still had nearly two years left to live.

Pappenheim’s meetings with Princip soon became a thing of the past. He was left alone once again. His condition continued to deteriorate. His left arm literally rotted away at the elbow. A wire was used to connect the lower and upper parts of his arm. Inevitably, an amputation had to be done. This only bought Princip a limited amount of time. With his body covered with infection, sores oozing profusely somehow he lasted into the spring of 1918. Than just after dawn, in late April he finally drew his last breath. The suffering was over for Princip, yet the war raged on.

Accompanied By Fate
A couple of years before his death, in one of the meetings Princip had with Pappenheim their discussion had turned to the war that was raging all over Europe at that moment. Princip found it incredible that the war had started because of the act he committed in Sarajevo. He had thought a war might eventually come about, but not right then. Princip professed that such an outcome seemed unbelievable. He was not the only one who probably felt that way. The rest of the world shared Princip’s disbelief of the Great War that had ensued from the assassination of the Archduke. Princip ended up dying all alone in a Bohemian prison, meanwhile a whole world was dying together on bloody fields of battle all across Europe.