An Austro-Hungarian State Of Mind – Bridge on the Leitha: Together One Last Time

Austria-Hungary or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I never thought much about the way in which that name was ordered. It always seemed quite natural that Austria would be in front of Hungary. Austria is wealthy and more well known, Hungary still shadowed, if no longer shrouded in my mind, by its decades hidden away behind an Iron Curtain. Their capital cities belie these differences, Vienna is much larger and its sparkle much greater than that of Budapest. The two cities’ relationship is the same today as it was back in the days of empire. The way it was happens to be the way it is today. Then there is the not insignificant matter of semantics. To say Hungary-Austria just does not sound right.

There is also the matter of chronology.  Austria allowed Hungary into the empire, not the other way around. Austria came first and Hungary followed. Even the Hungarians recognized this as such. In a language that runs counter to every other European one, the Hungarians still managed to call the empire Osztrak-Magyar Monarchia. That needs little translation because it is the same thing being said in the same way. They who controlled the empire, controlled the way it was expressed and internally divided. This was a literal and spoken truth when it came to Austria-Hungary. The Austrians knew it, the Hungarians acknowledged it.

An Empire in Full - Map with names of Austro-Hungarian Lands

An Empire in Full – Map with names of Austro-Hungarian Lands (Credit: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

Austrian Rules – The Terms Of Discussion & Division
Just as the wording of the empire’s name was by Austrian design, so it would be much the same when the Leitha River was used as a naming convention. The river served as a useful topographic symbol when dividing the empire’s Austrian and Hungarian halves. This is not surprising since Austria always managed to control the terms of discussion and internal division in its relationship with Hungary. In an Orwellian bit of irony, both sides were equal, but one was more equal than the other. The Leitha would be a convenient place to divide the empire, at least in a colloquial sense. This meant taking liberties with the geographical and political situation between the two. Like everything else in the empire, using the Leitha was a hedge. That was because the Austrians nominally controlled Galicia and Bukovina, two provinces which were located northeast of Hungary. The Leitha was as distant from those two provinces as Transylvania was from the Tyrol.

There was also the issue of the Leitha’s length or lack thereof. The river runs for a total of 120 kilometers, nowhere near as long as the internal border where Austrian and Hungarian controlled parts of the empire abutted one another. Perhaps this was a case where the Leitha was the best that anyone could come up with as a dividing line. It just happened to be in the area where German speakers gave way to a majority of Hungarian ones and vice versa. Everything depended on which side of the Leitha they were on. After the compromise of 1867 formed the Dual Monarchy, colloquial expressions arose out of Vienna that were expressive of the way Austrians viewed the empire.

Cisleithania - Austrian ruled lands in red and dark gray/Hungarian ruled lands in light gray

Cisleithania – Austrian ruled lands in red and dark gray/Hungarian ruled lands in light gray (Credit: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

Superiority Complex – A Detrimental Delusion
The Austrian lands were Cisleithania, meaning “on this side of the Leitha.” Conversely, Hungarian lands were Transleithania. Tellingly, the prefix in that term denoted “beyond”. This meant Hungary was the other or the outsider. In other words, it was foreign, obscure and meant to seem lesser. The implication of using Cisleithania was that the Austrian side of the border stood for civilization, refinement and culture. While the Hungarian side, Transleithania was the wild east, a land beyond normal in the minds of the Austrian powers that be. Then again, what did it say that Austrian weakness forced them to bring in the Hungarians as equal partners. The Austrian’s superiority complex was delusional. They needed the Hungarians in order to maintain their status. The Hungarians would have gladly taken complete independence. Being one-half of the Dual Monarchy was the next best thing. More than the Leitha divided Austrians and Hungarians, but setting an internal border there met each other’s needs. As usual, the Austrians came out feeling better about themselves, even if deep down inside they knew it was just a cover for their own weakness.

Today, the Leitha is just another small river and not even that during certain seasons. The river’s greatest claim to notoriety is that it eventually flows into the mighty Danube. It has long since lost its geopolitical raison d’etre.  The Leitha is now lifeblood to farmers and others who live close by it in eastern Austria. The river’s historical resonance vanished along with the empire that once made it famous in the early 20th century. For those few who recall the stature it once held, the Leitha offers a fascinating example of the fluidity of borders, both real and imagined. For the Leitha was a real border to the inhabitants of Lower Austria, especially Vienna, who viewed it as a point of differentiation. It was also an imaginary border, one given definition by a colloquialism that was informed as much by the imagination as facts on the ground. This us and them mentality showed that when it came to Austria-Hungary, the ruling powers were not on the same side. Cisleithania and Transleithania were a subtle expression of a known truth.

A Different Kind of Blue - Transleithania in light and darker blueA Different Kind of Blue - Transleithania in light and darker blue

A Different Kind of Blue – Transleithania in light and darker blue (Credit: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

Bridging A Troubled Relationship – Unified & Divided
Many years ago, the famous American novelist James Michener wrote a work of non-fiction called The Bridge at Andau. The book centered around the story of Hungarians escaping to Austria and the free world during the 1956 Revolution by way of a small footbridge near the Austrian border town of Andau. Perhaps someone in the future will write a book with a similar title about a bridge and town close to the modern Austria-Hungary border. The book could be called Bridge on the Leitha (Bruck an der Leitha). Ostensibly a work of history, the title acting both metaphorical and factual. The “Bridge” on the Leitha would be the Austro-Hungarian Empire which brought two great peoples, Germans and Magyars, together one last time. This imperial experiment lasted for less than a half century, but in that short span of time the Leitha became more than a river, it also became a border which divided and united. A border which today no longer exists except to those who know their history.

A Passport To Practicality- The 1900 Baedeker Guide: Including Hungary & Transylvania (Part One)

It is 1900 all over again as I open a copy of Austria including Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia and Bosnia – Handbook For Travellers by Karl Baedeker. A new century has arrived and with it the 9th edition of a guidebook that had been growing in popularity since the first edition with information on Hungary had been published in 1868. At that time, Hungary was nowhere to be found on the title page. The same was true for Transylvania. Hungary only managed to garner a mere eight pages of coverage in its inaugural appearance. Transylvania received none. Times changed dramatically after that first edition. The marriage of Austria and Hungary in 1867 as the Dual Monarchy (Austro-Hungarian Empire) led to explosive economic growth in Hungary, nowhere more so than the capital city of Budapest. A growing middle class in Europe was searching for new places to visit on vacations. Baedeker helped lead them into a whole new world. The railway network in the Hungarian part of the Empire underwent a massive expansion, which in turn led to increased travel opportunities.

Places that were previously off limits to travelers due to distance, bad roads or topography could now be accessed via a railway network that cast its web into the farthest reaches of the empire’s eastern lands. Traveling to the eastern half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for English and German language visitors almost always meant going to one of two large railway stations in Budapest, Nyugati (opened in 1877) and Keleti (opened in 1884). These were the shipping and receiving halls for tens of thousands of passengers, many of whom would be traveling around the country with their trusty Baedeker guidebooks in hand. These guides were an indisputable resource that no serious traveler to Hungary could do without. To learn more about this golden age of Hungarian travel, its uniqueness and how it differed from today, I took a closer look at what advice Baedeker offered to travelers.

An Open Book - Austria including Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia and Bosnia: Handbook For Travellers by Karl Baedeker

An Open Book – Austria including Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia and Bosnia: Handbook For Travellers by Karl Baedeker

Freedom To Roam – Getting Beyond Borders
Every Baedeker started off with the practicalities of travel. This was as it should be and remains to this day in most guidebooks. The first concern for any traveler then and now is money. The logic quite simple, without money a traveler would not be on a journey to Hungary in the first place. Baedeker’s 1900 edition tells us that Austria-Hungary has just switched over to the Crown as its main form of currency. The traveler should sure to carry a substantial sum of them since English money was of little use and only accepted in a few places. To secure the best exchange rate it was always better to change money within the empire rather than in nearby countries such as Germany. Passports were the next subject of concern. While they were not mandatory in Austria-Hungary, unlike other countries in Eastern Europe at the time, it was a good idea to have one anyway. They were a recognized form of identification. Some museums would not allow access unless the traveler showed their passport first.

The fact that passports were not required for travelers in the Empire is a striking illustration of how there were no internal borders in the Empire at that time. Today, the Empire has fragmented into whole or parts of no less than nine countries (Austria, Italy, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia and Croatia). The European Union has alleviated some, but not all the border crossing difficulties between these successor states. Austria-Hungary was a multinational polity long before the idea of a European Union existed. It connected disparate lands together under Habsburg rule. Baedeker also provided advice for those having to clear customs at border posts when entering Austria-Hungary. Best practices included being present when your luggage was inspected. Customs officials might well confiscate such offensive contraband as “playing cards” and “almanacks.”  While smoking was allowed on trains, the traveler was only exempt from paying duties on up to an ounce of tobacco and ten cigars. Anything beyond that was subject to a fee. Speaking of what a traveler could carry on the trains, luggage was permitted free of charge, depending upon the train and class of carriage a traveler could transport anywhere between 20 and 50 pounds of their belonging. Above these limits a modest fee was charged.

The Search For Ideal Conditions – Lined With Velvet
Such limits on luggage often were dependent upon the class of carriage in which one chose to travel. According to Baedeker there were up to four classes depending on the train. First class was luxurious by the standards of modern train travel. These carriages were “lined with velvet” and offered the best place to secure a window seat. There were usually plenty of spaces available in first class, most likely because second class was in much higher demand. According to the guide, second class carriages were close in comparability first class ones in England. The lowest class, fourth, could best be summed up as standing room only since it had no seating. Today on Hungarian trains, there are only two classes. The number of options when it comes to railway travel, whether of routes, accommodation or food, are much more limited today than they were at the turn of the 20th century.

One thing that has not changed between the past and present is expense or the relative lack thereof. Baedeker states that “Railway Travelling in Austria-Hungary is less expensive than most other parts of Europe.” The same still holds true today for Hungary and in most of the other regions that were once part of the Empire. Railways were surging with innovation, the same was not true for roads. Baedeker offers the memorable opinion that “the steam-roller is unknown in that country (Austria-Hungary).” The best roads were found in the Austrian part of the empire, but these were no better than “middling English roads.” Just like today, the worst roads were found in the east. A good rain was enough to halt travel by road, this was true even in the larger cities of Hungary. Thus, travel was best by rail, worse by road and the same as ever on foot. Baedeker might be able to provide the best information available for travelers to navigate their way around the region, but conditions in many areas were still less than ideal. That did little to stop travelers armed with the 1900 guidebook from heading into Hungary.

Click here for: A Turn Of The 20th Century Train Ride To Transylvania – Budapest to Klausenberg: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Two)

Time Travel – Budapest’s Millennium Underground Railway (Part One)

In 1873 the cities of Buda, Obuda and Pest were united to create Budapest. At the time of unification the combined population of these three cities was 296,000, by 1900 the population had grown two and a half fold to 733,000. Budapest was the fastest growing city in Europe during the latter part of the 19th century. The seeds of this explosive growth were laid in 1867 with the “Ausgleich” or compromise. A deal that tied together the Austrian led Habsburg Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary. Together they formed the Austro-Hungarian Empire or Dual Monarchy. This was done in the wake of Austria’s defeat in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Without this agreement, there was a distinct possibility that the Habsburg’s Empire would have been absorbed by the Prussians and eventually become part of greater Germany. Due to the compromise, the Habsburg Emperor of Austria, Franz Josef, was crowned the King of Hungary in a resplendent ceremony at the Matthias Church on Castle Hill in Buda. These events inaugurated an era in Hungarian history never seen before or since as the industrial revolution took hold. From 1867 to 1914 the country was transformed by growth, the epicenter of which could be found in Budapest.

Train at Vörösmarty Station

Train at Vörösmarty Station on the Millennium Underground Railway (Metro Line One) in Budapest

The M1 – A First For Hungary & Continental Europe
Hungary was given virtual freedom in its domestic affairs, the result was an incredible blossoming of economic, cultural and intellectual life. Budapest attracted immigrants from all over the Hungarian ruled part of the empire. This massive influx of a rural population into the city along with the creation of wealth bolstered by the Industrial Revolution led to grandiose building and transport projects. One of these projects is still thriving today. Unbeknownst to many, Budapest has the second oldest underground metro line in the world and the oldest in continental Europe. Line One of the Budapest Metro (M1), now known as the Millennium Underground Railway, constructed between the years 1894 and 1896. It was one of the many public works projects built in anticipation of the thousand year anniversary of the Magyars (Hungarians) arrival in the Carpathian Basin during the year 896.

In Budapest, the late 19th century was a time when the city was on developmental steroids. Public works projects in the city were a direct reflection of the growth of Hungarian confidence. While the future was being constructed, it was also used to pay homage to Hungary’s past. All that was great and glorious in Hungary manifested itself in architectural and engineering works that both popped up and delved under the capital city. It was no mistake that Metro Line One was conceived during this era of rapid growth. Built by the Siemens & Halske Company (Siemens still exists today as the world’s largest engineering firm), the line was constructed by 2,000 workers using the cut and cover method. This was done by excavating a trench in the shape of a box, rather than a tunnel. It was also built very close to the surface. This was crucial because at Oktagon square the line had to pass over the main city sewage canal.

The original cars which were used on the Millennium Underground Railway

The original cars which were used on the Millennium Underground Railway

Curiosity of the Metropolis
The M1 began in the Pest city center than ran the entire length of Andrassy Avenue – Budapest’s grandest boulevard and what has come to be known as the city’s ChampsÉlysées – then to the Varosliget (City Park) where the Millennium Exhibition would take place. The impetus for placing an electric railway line underground, rather than running a tram on the surface, was done in order to avoid altering Andrassy’s grand urban setting. At its completion, the line had a total of ten stops.

In The Millennium of Hungary And The National Exhibition: A Collection of Photographic Views published in 1896 an entry titled The Underground Electric Railway gives a glowing description of the line as “One of the curiosities of the metropolis…This underground railway will be a real boon to the visitors of the Exhibition forming an inestimable means of communication between the centre of town and the exhibition…The work which is now perfectly finished, is one of the great feats of modern engineering skill.” Originally known as the Joszef Ferenc Electric Underground Railway Corporation, the M1 was dedicated by the Emperor/King on the 2nd of May in that triumphal year of 1896. The M1 was certainly a great feat of engineering. Consider that it was built in just twenty months to be ready for the Millennium celebration. Compare this to the second Budapest metro line to be constructed, the M2 Red Line. The M2 was built during the Communist era and took two entire decades for the first iteration to be completed. The communists often said they were building a whole new world. When it came to metro lines like so many other projects they did it as slowly and inefficiently as possible. The M1 proved that energy, efficiency and a focused effort can create a groundbreaking work in transportation history.

Coming Soon: Tripping Through the Golden Age – Budapest Millennial Railway (Part Two)

An Echo Down Vacant Corridors: The Fortresses at Komárom, Hungary & Komárno, Slovakia

A highlight of the train ride between Budapest and Bratislava is the crossing of the Danube. This catches the attention of many passengers as one of Europe’s most important rivers comes into view. The Danube also marks the dividing line between Hungary and Slovakia, a watery ribbon that historically has both connected and divided the two sides. The links between the two towns can be seen in the close kinship of their names. On the Hungarian side stands Komárom, across the water is the Slovakian town of Komárno. These two settlements may now be a part of two different nations, but they share a common history. This shared past includes a feat of military engineering constructed in the 19th century that superseded the river. The area in and around the two towns contains one of the largest intact 19th century military fortresses in Central Europe. The alert and knowledgeable passenger may even catch fleeting glimpses of these from the comfort of a railcar.

Monostori - largest fort in Central Europe

Monostori – largest fort in Central Europe

A Prison Of Nations – The Habsburgs Guard Against Their Own Empire
Built by the Austrian Habsburgs to guard the Danube, the fortress complex at Komárom and Komárno straddled one of the empire’s most strategic points. The irony was that the fortresses were first built as much to protect against enemies within, as any external foes. The internal threats were the diverse ethnic groups of the Empire that lacked freedom and opportunity. Following the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848-1849, the Habsburgs decided to ward off any future threats by the creation of forts which could guard against another Hungarian insurgency. This was a case where policy fought the last war rather than the next one. The forts would end up being virtually useless. The long peace that ensued from 1850 until the outbreak of World War I was riven by the rise of ethnic nationalism. The resistance was political rather than martial.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867 through World War I) has been often referred to as “a prison of nations.” This was certainly true. Until the empire collapsed in 1918 it held all or much of what would become Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, as well as constituent parts of Romania, Serbia, Poland and Italy. The revolution from within rather than from without finally caused the empire to disintegrate. This led to the troubled birth of new nations. Gigantic fortifications such as those at Komárom / Komárno were impressive, but did little to solve the Empire’s numerous problems. Yet that did not stop the Austrians from constructing a fortress complex to rival anything found then or now in Europe. These defensive works were part and parcel of the myopic vision that clouded the Empire’s judgment, gargantuan public works projects that signified an affinity for large military fortresses and little else.

Artillery piece at Monostori Fortress

Inside Monostori Fortress – history without war

Keeping Up Appearances – The Great Power Facade
The largest fort in the complex, Monostori, is so expansive that its size is difficult for the mind to comprehend. After making a first-hand visit, I am still in awe of the length and breadth of just this one fort. I walked around at least a hundred large rooms, through vast, yawning spaces in both the interior and exterior, across grass covered grounds that could have swallowed fifty football fields. After four hours of wandering I still was unable to cover all of Monostori. This fort was the kind of place that could easily swallow an entire army. It contained 640 rooms with 25,000 square meters of floor space. The barracks could house up to 8,000 soldiers. Just what these soldiers did other than march endlessly across the vast parade grounds, distract themselves with mind numbing drills and try to look busy was open to the imagination. Perhaps they wandered through the four kilometer (2.5 mile) long tunnel system. It is hard to believe that thousands of soldiers were ever needed to monitor river traffic along the Danube or protect an area that was hundreds of kilometers from an enemy. As for protecting the Empire from its rebellious subjects such as Hungarians, the fort did nothing of the sort. After the Compromise of 1867 which created the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungarians made up the majority of troops stationed there.

Monostori Fortress was a pre-World War I example of keeping up appearances and little else. Perhaps the fort’s impregnability made an impression on a few would be attackers, but the Empire’s external enemies were hundreds of kilometers away in Serbia or Russia. The main idea that kept the Empire pouring money into Monostori Fortress was that Austria-Hungary still considered itself a great power, thus it had to act like one. This meant having huge, formidable fortresses that gave the pretense of imperial might. The same could be said for another of the empire’s military complexes, the gigantic Przemysl fortress in Galicia. The Austro-Hungarian Empire did what all modern Empires have done, whether they are in rise or decline, waste large sums of money on a large military industrial complex to keep the peace from real and imagined enemies.

Fort Igmand

Fort Igmand – one of several massive fortresses built by the Austrian Habsburgs

An Exercise In Futility – The Folly Of Empire
Monostori was just one of multiple forts that covered the immediate area. Nearby was the Igmand Fortress, constructed four years after the compromise of 1867. Paradoxically the beginning of a long peace meant more military preparations. The engineer’s must have been delighted. Igmand was noteworthy because it had a clear field of fire for artillery to ward off any attackers.  This artillery was never used in a battle at the fort. It was all just for show or practice. There was also the Csillag Fortress (Star Fortress), yet another work. On the opposite side of the Danube (present day Slovakia), there was yet another large fortress guarding the confluence of the Vah and Danube Rivers. All this construction was for naught. Among the many uses of Monostori after the collapse of Austria-Hungary included a stint as a regimental command center, a deportation point for Roma to concentration camps and ethnic Hungarians forced out of Czechoslovakia. During the Cold War, the Red Army made it the largest ammunition depot in Central Europe. One cavernous room I visited at the fort recalled the Soviet presence. Mannequins sat around a table where they play cards surrounded by a barracks type setup. When I stepped into the room a Soviet military anthem began to sound, eerily echoing through the vacant corridors.

My tour of Monostori was self-guided and went something like this, up one earthwork after another, down and through the bowels of innumerable, drafty rooms, followed by a visit to a museum that exhaustively interpreted every era of the fortress’s history.  Visiting Monostori was more about exercise of a physical rather than mental nature. The place wore me out. The fort’s most enduring quality seems to be the fact that it outlasts everyone who once inhabited or now visits it. I have a feeling that Monostori will still be standing astride the banks of the Danube along with the other forts, for many centuries. They serve as symbols of the Habsburgs misguided and wasteful military policy, the folly of an empire in terminal decline.

The Limits Of What We Know – Khust, Ukraine: Forever On The Fringes

In this age of Google Earth the geographically inclined user can be transported anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds. No place is truly off limits anymore. The whole world is open to discovery, at least in a superficial sense. The corollary to this technologically enhanced method of discovery is that once a place is located, the user can, via the internet find out almost everything they would like to know about a place. If a locale is sizeable enough then it obviously has a Wikipedia entry, which is assumed to contain all the necessary and useful information that one needs.

A week ago I began to research the small Ukrainian city of Khust, in the southwestern corner of the country. The impetus for my research was an amazing video that recreates Khust Castle (Huszt Vara in Hungarian). The castle stood for nearly six hundred years, but in the late 18th century fell into ruin. Watching that stunning film as the once impressive hilltop castle at Khust came back to life, sent me searching to learn more about the castle and by extension the city. What I discovered left more questions than answers. The internet may be a great source of information, but there are still many gaps to be filled. Though English acts as an international lingua franca it has only so much to say about small cities deep in the backwaters of Eastern Europe. Discovering a place digitally is wonderful, but getting to really know it is exceedingly difficult. Nothing can replicate the actual experience of being there, but learning just a few historical details can cast a fresh light on a place and the past. Here is what I was able to learn about Khust.

Khust Castle

Artistic representation of the fully intact Khust Castle

A Castle At A Crossroads
The history of Khust goes back nearly a millennium, beginning in the early Middle Ages. According to the historical record, the castle preceded the town by several hundred years. Actually the first castle on site was utterly obliterated by the Mongol Invasion long before a corresponding town appeared. Khust was a place that would always be under threat. It was never at the core of any lasting kingdom, principality or empire, it was a prototypical fringe community. A noticeable trend in Khust’s history is how it survived despite being at the crossroads of both multi-imperial and multi-national conflicts. Whether it was the Middle Ages or the modern age, Khust has always found itself on one of Europe’s most unstable geo-political fault lines. This was an area where Hungarians, Poles, Tatars and Turks fought for control during the 17th century. In the 20th century it was Hungarians, Germans and Russians with Jews and Ruthenians squeezed in the middle. Prior to the modern age, Khust’s best defense against numerous invasions was its castle. This was the only hope of survival when war struck the area, which it often did.

One of the most tumultuous periods in Khust’s history was brought about by the Ottoman Turkish incursion deep into Hungarian territory. Starting in 1644 it was besieged no less than three times over an eighteen year period, each time by a different army. The castle often could withstand the forces of man and military means, holding out time and again. This owed much to its near impregnable position atop a steep volcanic hill. Location was everything for Khust, geography was decisive, making it a place that would undergo numerous sieges down through the centuries. Yet its topographical situation also saved it many times.

The Ruins of Khust Castle

The Ruins of Khust Castle (Credit Cora_v)

Natural & Base Instincts – Destruction in Khust
That was until nature had its own way with the castle. In 1766 the castle’s gunpowder tower was struck by lightning, this set off a conflagration which burned much of it to the ground. Then in 1798 a violent storm collapsed the castle’s main tower. What remains of Khust castle today? After reading just a bit of its history I was fascinated to find out. The short answer is not much. Photos online showed little more than stone ruins, but according to first person accounts from travelers who had been there, the view from the ruins was splendid. These same accounts also spoke of the strenuous hike up to the ruins. Obviously, a trek to the remains of Khust castle communicates some of its stalwart defensive position to those who can make the lung bursting journey

Khust has not only lost its castle, but also much of a rich multicultural heritage from a more recent past. At the beginning of the 20th century, Khust’s most striking characteristic was the diversity of peoples who once inhabited the city. Today, Khust is almost 90% Ukrainian, but a century ago the ethnic makeup was much more stratified, betraying its location on the edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1910 only half of the population was Ukrainian (actually termed “Ruthenian” changed to Ukrainian as nationalism took hold), a third were Hungarians and another 15% Germans. World War I and its aftermath made Khust the ultimate fringe community. In a withering game of geo-political musical chairs that took place from 1918 to 1945 a citizen of Khust would have lived under an empire, multiple republics (one of which lasted all of a day) as well as Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. The only one of these entities that lasted was Hungary, which Khust is quite obviously no longer a part of.

The invisible minority in Khust during that head spinning era were the Jews, who made up a sizable proportion of the populace. Less than forty years after that 1910 Census, the Jews, Hungarians and Germans had all been either murdered or deported. Intolerance and racial prejudice were the forces that made and remade Khust on multiple occasions. The Germans and Hungarians turning on the Jews, the Soviets (led mainly by Russians) deporting the Hungarians and Germans, then Ukrainians left to repopulate the city.

View of Khust from Zamkova (Castle) Hill

View of Khust from Zamkova (Castle) Hill
(Credit: Cora_v)

Deep In The Heart of History – Traveling To Khust
Today Khust might best be described by one or all of the following terms: afterthought, overlooked, forgotten. This only seems right. Khust’s present is similar to its past, obscure and almost entirely unknown. Yet there is another way of defining Khust that I discovered this past week, fascinating. An existence forever on the fringes has left Khust as part of many larger stories and movements that are of historical importance: geography as destiny, the precariousness of medieval life, the Holocaust, the collapse of empires and rise of the modern nation state. Who would have thought Khust with its crumbling ruin of a castle and a forgotten multi-ethnic past could be so illuminating? And just think this all came out of the very little I discovered online. It makes me wonder what I would find if I went there. It makes me wonder what I will find when I go there.

An Offer They Can’t Refuse: Przemysl, Poland, The European Union & Ukraine

The Polish city of Przemysl, a place with an unpronounceable name (at least to English speakers), is located in the far southeastern corner of Poland, only 20 kilometers from the border with Ukraine. It is famous for having been at the center of one of the largest fortress complexes in Europe that saw ferocious fighting during World War I. Because of this, the city became the setting for what is now known to history as the Siege of Przemysl. This was a months-long ordeal that occurred exactly a century ago. The siege ended in the surrender of 120,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers to Russia. The Russian victory was pyrrhic. They would be forced to abandon the city several months later in the face of a German led offensive. This being the one hundredth anniversary of the siege, it seemed like a good time to visit the city to see remnants of one or more of the fortress complexes. What I found left of the First World War was interesting, but what I discovered about the city was even more illuminating. Przemysl is a beacon for both Poland and the European Union. This small border city is casting an alluring glow eastward into western Ukraine. Any Ukrainian who crosses the border to visit the city is bound to come away saying, that’s what I want.

Interior of Przemysl Railway Station (Credit: Pawel Zemetka)

Interior of Przemysl Railway Station (Credit: Pawel Zemetka)

Revelations At The Railway Station – Marketing Reality
Crossing the border from Ukraine to Poland, on the way to Przemysl is instructive. One expects to find long queues, nasty border guards and seedy smuggler types lurking everywhere. Actually, the entire process is quite orderly and well done. Albeit, I would not want to be crossing in an automobile, as the lines on the roadways were long. (though on this mid-December day not inordinately so)  Arriving on the Ukrainian side of the border by bus, it took less than 15 minutes to clear border controls for both sides at the walk through area. Astonishingly, this was done with a non-EU passport. The Ukrainian border control was just as efficiently run as the Polish. In retrospect, it is hard to even think of a difference between the two. Once in Poland, it costs the equivalent of a dollar and a half to take a bus to the heart of the city. It was just a stone’s throw from Przemysl’s bus terminal to its railway station and this was where the city began to reveal itself.

I have been in a lot of railway stations in my life, largely in Central and Eastern Europe. I like to say that the ones in Vienna, are some of the cleanest, most pleasant public spaces I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. Believe me, Vienna’s stations have nothing on Przemysl’s main one. In all honesty, one could eat off the floor. The place literally gleamed. It looked as though, it had just opened yesterday. The place put even Teutonic efficiency and cleanliness to shame. Yet as new as it looked, the station still had a belle époque aesthetic, as though the place was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I would not have been surprised if railways officials with twirling mustaches and aristocratic ladies with parasols had strolled past in the waiting room. It really was that historic and pristine. Then there was the tourist information center, in a word: professional. A helpful lady produced an array of colorful brochures that soon made it apparent that Przemysl was very proud of itself. Everything was free and several of the publications looked more like the kind of things people would buy, rather than give away. The brochures delineated historic walking routes that tourists could follow. There were beautiful parks, stately buildings and an old town stuffed with atmospheric churches.  Incredibly, the brochures all turned out to be true. This was not just good marketing, this was reality.

There is a wealth of religious architecture to be found in Przemysl's Stare Miesto (Old Town)

There is a wealth of religious architecture to be found in Przemysl’s Stare Miesto (Old Town)

The City Model – Przemysl Hedges Its History
Strolling through the town, one could not help but notice the cleanliness of the streets, the well-kept storefronts, the orderly traffic and ample directional signage. The city looked to be doing quite well. I came here thinking the place would be worse for wear, a downtrodden border town well past its prime with a few mildly interesting attractions. Przemysl was anything but. You could explore the many churches, which this being Poland, were of course all open. There was a restored hilltop castle. From what I saw, whatever great noble once called the place home, never had it as good as the present. There was nary a scrap of rubbish anywhere to be seen. Przemysl had a surfeit of museums, one for the history of the city, one for the history of the region, one for the history of the battle and one for bells and pipes The latter it seemed, they were especially proud of. I was disappointed this was only a day trip. One could have spent a good three or four days here and never grown bored.

Fort XVIc Trzy Krzyze from the Przemysl complex - found in Zamkowy Park im. Maraiana Stronskiego

Fort XVIc Trzy Krzyze from the Przemysl complex – found in Zamkowy Park im. Maraiana Stronskiego

Then there were the forts. Only a couple were easily accessible from the center of the city, but these had new or improved trails, so tidy that it looked as though a permanent grounds keeping staff was employed to perform trail maintenance. There were remnants of old pillboxes and brick fortifications pockmarked with bullet holes. There were trenches and berms, there were signs warning to watch your where you walked due to unexploded ordinance. The fortifications were just a taste of what could be found in the surrounding vicinity. After all, the complex was made up of some twenty-one forts.

A person could rent a bike and cycle through and around several on a historic route the city has mapped out. Exercise your body and your mind, was this place real? Przemysl’s infrastructure, especially regarding tourism, was some of the best developed I have ever experienced. Talk about hedging the past for the sake of present and future prosperity. This place looked like a model city, not just for Poland, but for the oft criticized European Union.  I got the sense that Poland and the European Union had deliberately made the city a showpiece for what could be done to advance post-Communist countries. Here was a border city, in both a Polish and European backwater, on the very eastern fringe of the EU, looking for all the world like it had enjoyed peace and prosperity since time immemorial.

View from the Stare Miesto (Old Town) in Przemysl

View from the Stare Miesto (Old Town) in Przemysl

An Eastern Opening – The Road To Prosperity
Everyday hundreds and sometimes thousands of Ukrainian cross the border into southeastern Poland. They make their way to Przemysl, probably not for tourism, but to shop or work. Each one of them experiences first-hand the progression of Poland, from a post-Communist economic basket case to a shining example of European integration and innovation. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine became independent, it had roughly the same average income as Poland. Now just twenty-three years later, Poland has an average income three times greater than Ukraine’s. This remarkable economic progress has occurred in a single generation. If it can happen in far flung Przemysl, it can happen anywhere else in Europe and that included the nation just 20 kilometers to the east, where Ukraine begins and the European Union, for now ends. Poland and the EU are making their eastern neighbor an offer they cannot refuse. The question is will they decide to take it.

A Lace Covered Woman Dancing In the Moonlight – Szeged: Hungary’s Finest

Szeged, the largest city in southeastern Hungary and one of the largest in the nation will be forever linked with the Tisza River. This watercourse led to everything from the city’s name, its development, destruction and finally a reconstruction of eye popping grandeur. The city’s inseparability from the Tisza goes all the way back to its very beginnings and continues to this very day.

The Naming of Szeged – A River Flows Through It
There is some question as to how Szeged received its name. Up to three different versions are given. What is not in question is that the Tisza plays a prominent role in each of these. The name may first have come from an old Hungarian word for corner – szeg – referring to the bend in the Tisza where Szeged is situated. Another theory is that Szeged’s name derived from the Hungarian word for island, sziget. Since islands are surrounded by water and the Tisza often flooded the land on which Szeged stands, undoubtedly the river played a large role in this derivation. A third theory is that the name derived from that same Hungarian word – szeg – which can also mean dark blonde. This might possibly be a reference to the color of the Tisza’s waters after its confluence with the Maros River just upstream from Szeged. Whatever the truth, Szeged’s linkage to the Tisza has the deepest of roots.

The Tisza River at Szeged - calm for now

The Tisza River at Szeged – calm for now

Controlling Chaos – Man & the Attempt To Master The Tisza
These roots are apparent not only on the city’s riverfront, but also in Szeged’s main square, Szechenyi ter. The square, like so many in Hungarian cities, contains several statues of famous Hungarians. These include such luminaries as the first King of Hungary, Stephen and his wife, Gisella who was Hungary’s first queen. Another is of Ferenc Deak, the man most responsible for the historic compromise agreement with Austria that created the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. This pantheon continues on the southern end of the square where its namesake is located, Istvan Szechenyi. Called by many “the greatest Hungarian” due to his highly successful efforts in developing the country, he brought steamships to the Tisza and by extension Szeged. The other statues on the square are not easily recognizable, even to most Hungarians, yet the people they portray were vital to the development of both the Tisza and Szeged.

Statue of Pal Vasarhelyi in Szeged - the engineer who tried to tame the Tisza

Statue of Pal Vasarhelyi in Szeged – the engineer who tried to tame the Tisza

One statue is of Pal Vasarhelyi, an engineer who in the 1840’s was the mastermind behind plans to finally tame the chaotic waters of the flood prone Tisza. The river was to be straightened by cutting off over one hundred of its bends. This could shorten the Tisza by a good 250 miles. A seemingly endless series of dikes would also be built, which could reclaim millions of acres of land from submersion. Getting the mighty Tisza under control was highly controversial project. Landowners adjacent to its banks were either big winners or losers. They might gain land, but also lose access. As for Vasarhelyi, he never saw his plans come to fruition as he succumbed to a massive heart attack even before the restructuring of the river began. Just the strain from planning the project was enough to do him in. Nonetheless it went forward. The power of the Tisza was harnessed for industry and commerce, but only temporarily.

Szeged and the devastation of the 1879 flood - painting by Pal Vágó (Ferenc Mora Museum)

Szeged and the devastation of the 1879 flood – painting by Pal Vágó (Ferenc Mora Museum)

Devastation & Recreation – Imagination Unshackled By History
The other statue on the square is of Lajos Tisza, a man who shared the river’s name and would make another name for himself following the Tisza’s return to its flood prone ways. Even though the river had been relatively benign since its confinement in the mid-19th century, this period would turn out to be the proverbial calm before the storm. In the spring of 1879, the river reasserted itself with a ferocity that had never before been experienced. In March, a catastrophic flood occurred which destroyed 6,600 structures in Szeged, approximately 97% of the city’s structures. No other Hungarian city in modern times has ever suffered such a disaster. Even the damage wrought upon Budapest during the World War II siege of the city pales in relative comparison. Incredibly this was not the end of Szeged. Instead it almost immediately led to a new and astonishingly vibrant beginning for the city.

Szeged would become the ultimate proof that a city can not only survive a natural disaster, but thrive in its wake. Within a week of the flood, the Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef arrived in the city to view the damage. He proclaimed that Szeged would not only be rebuilt, but it would be even more beautiful than it was before. He wasn’t kidding! The point man for the city’s reconstruction was none other than Lajos Tisza who had been the Minister of Labor and Transport. He led a rebuilding effort of historic proportions, both then and now. The city sported a dazzling array of buildings in the architectural style known as eclecticism. Brightly colored buildings, broad streets and grand squares came to define the new Szeged. It became one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Even today it seems to be eternally set in the Belle Epoque (Golden Age) of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A burst of intellectual, artistic and architectural creativity was the upshot of this age. Szeged provides the ultimate eye candy for imperial architecture buffs. Its historic buildings bear witness to what the Hungarian creative imagination can accomplish when unleashed from the shackles of history.

Szeged's Varoshaza (Town Hall) - one of numerous architectural beauties in the city

Szeged’s Varoshaza (Town Hall) – one of numerous architectural beauties in the city

Illuminated & Reunited – The Tisza & Szeged
Among Szeged’s most striking buildings is the Varoshaza (Town Hall). On an early autumn day, set beneath a deep blue sky, its creamy exterior literally glows. Multiple stories of windows are framed by fiery red flowers. Atop the hall sits a small tasteful tower, a crown of neo-Baroque stylishness. The Varoshaza is one of many such buildings that are representative of Szeged’s enchanting beauty. Years after the rebuilding, a writer remarked that Szeged was like “a lace covered woman dancing in the moonlight.” When that moonlight reflects off the waters of the Tisza and Szeged is illuminated in the half light, the river and the city are reunited once and for all time.


In Defiance of Fate (Part One) -The Republic of One Day: Carpatho-Ukraine

On March 15, 1939, the sun rose on the eastern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, in the land known as Subcarpathia. A new day was about to dawn both literally and figuratively. For the eight hundred thousand-odd people living in Subcarpathia at the time, it would be their last day ever as part of Czechoslovakia. The area was about to experience an identity crisis of historic proportions. This remote land, a forgotten backwater, began the day as an autonomous region of Czechoslovakia. At lunchtime it was a newly independent nation, known as the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine. By the next morning it was part of Hungary. Independence was fleeting, it did not even last the night. In just twenty-four hours, the population had been part of three separate nations. If given a choice, the majority of the populace would have preferred independence, but history was not on their side. The story of this land and its people’s geo-political situation over the past century is filled with fits and starts, false hopes and lost dreams. Independence turned out to be a dead end, but in the process, due more too historical accident rather than design, by the end of the 20th century, the region had received the next best thing, virtual autonomy. Through it all, in defiance of fate, the majority Rusyn population of the area retained a distinct identity.

Carpatho-Ukraine in March 1939

Carpatho-Ukraine in March 1939

Playground of the Powers: Great & Small
Carpatho-Ukraine is a beautiful, bucolic land. It contains the foothills and smaller mountains of the Carpathian range. The Carpathians are well known in Europe, but not the small slice that is part of Ukraine. The majority of the Carpathians lie further south in Romania, famous as part of Transylvania. This is a forgotten land, relatively unknown, with a modern history that is complex and confusing. Ukraine, roughly translated means borderland, and Carpatho-Ukraine, is the ultimate borderland in a border country. A quintessential frontier, it has been an appendage of empires and nation-states from time immemorial. In the last one hundred years it has been the playground of a withering array of political entities. These have included the Austro—Hungarian Empire, the Hungarian Red (Communist) Republic, Romania, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Soviet Union and the Ukraine. It has been conquered and occupied, as well as autonomous and independent. Presently it is a province of Ukraine, but has a coat of arms and flag that is almost an exact replica of the one that was used when it declared independence.

The idea of an independent republic that could not even last a day seems to be an historical absurdity. Was Carpatho-Ukraine unworthy of nationhood? Was this an attempt to take advantage of a specific geo-political situation? This slice of the sub-Carpathians failed as an independent nation in 1939 because it was crushed by powerful geo-political entities carving up Europe to suit their own interests. Paradoxically it was only because of power politics that Carpatho-Ukraine was able to gain its independence, if only for one day.

Occupying force - a Hungarian soldier in Khust  (Credit:

Occupying force – a Hungarian soldier in Khust (Credit:

History As Opportunism: The Disintegration of Czechoslovakia
To understand, the situation Carpatho-Ukraine found itself in, one must understand what was happening to Czechoslovakia, the nation-state it was part of from 1919 to 1939. Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany first began to dismember Czechoslovakia by occupying the Sudetenland to “protect” the German population from the Czechs. Hitler and his henchmen were not the kind of geo-political players who could ever be appeased. It was not long before the Nazis wanted all of Bohemia and Moravia, the traditional homeland of the Czechs. In addition, Hitler had allowed Hungary to take the southern part of Slovakia, with its large Hungarian population. Meanwhile the rest of Slovakia had declared autonomy. Because of this, Czechoslovakia was being divided or perhaps more to the point, hyphenated. Its name was actually changed to Czecho-Slovakia, reflecting the virtual separation of Slovakia from the Czech portion of the state. Forgotten in the unfolding of this historical tragedy was a third, bit player.

The far eastern quarter of Czechoslovakia was known as Trans-Carpathia. It was neither Czech nor Slovak. Neither was it Hungarian, even though it had been part of the Hungarian portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War I. It contained a smattering of Slovaks, Germans, Hungarians and Jews, but two-thirds of the population was Rusyn or Ruthenian, a people who were akin to the larger Eastern Slav population of Ukraine. Eventually, perhaps inevitably they would come to be called Ukrainians and the land they inhabited as the Carpatho-Ukraine. Following World War I Ukraine as a political entity had failed. Thus, Carpatho-Ukraine was attached to Czechoslovakia in 1919. Fast forward two decades, with Czechoslovakia disintegrating, Carpatho-Ukraine declared autonomy on October 11, 1939. Five months later, on March 14th, as the Germans stormed into Bohemia and Moravia, and Slovakia about to become an independent nation, a Carpatho-Ukrainian parliament convened in the city of Khust. There they voted to become an independent republic.

Panorama of Khust, Ukraine - the capital of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (Credit: Власна робота)

Panorama of Khust, Ukraine – the capital of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (Credit: Власна робота)

No Man’s Land – Oppressors and the Oppressed
Within a few hours of this declaration the leaders of Carpatho-Ukraine fled into exile. The reason, Hungarian troops were already crossing the border. By the evening of March 15th a Hungarian force the size of two army divisions had invaded Carpatho-Ukraine. The new republic’s defense force, known as the Carpathian Sich, consisted of only 5,000 troops. By the next morning, Carpatho-Ukraine ceased to exist. It was now part of Hungary, despite the fact that less than ten percent of its population was ethnically Hungarian. Why did the Hungarians want this region? It allowed them a strategic wedge between Romania and Czechoslovakia (which ironically now ceased to exist). These states had dismembered “Historic” Hungary in the aftermath of World War I. Now the Hungarians were reconstituting their former domains. Amidst this geo-political morass were the Carpatho-Ukrainians. Their incipient state vanished into oblivion, their autonomy was gone. Nonetheless, a historic seed had been planted.

The Hungarians would come to regret their land grab. Although the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine lasted less than a day, Hungarian rule over the area was also fleeting. Only five years later, in 1944, the Soviet Army came roaring out of the east. Many of the Hungarians and virtually all Germans in the area were either deported to the Gulag or murdered. Carpatho-Ukraine now became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic which was part of the Soviet Union. Thus, Carpatho-Ukraine became a constituent of a constituent republic. Interestingly, the idea of a Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine did not end on that fateful Wednesday of March 15th, 1939. It has had an intriguing after life, one that will be discussed in a coming blog post.



The Last Coronation – Funeral Rites for the Dual Monarchy

Matthias Church, atop Castle Hill in Budapest, is an architectural fantasy. With its diamond patterned roof tiles and gargoyle covered spire there is scarcely a more stirring scene of eclectic grandeur in the whole of Europe. This beautiful building was reconstructed in the late 19th century to a rough approximation of its medieval self, with flourishes of neo-Gothicism added to recreate it for the modern age. The church has been the site of numerous historical events, including the wedding of famed Hungarian Renaissance King Matthias Corvinus to Queen Beatrix of Naples. It was also the scene of multiple coronations. The last of these, less than one hundred years ago, was the setting for one of the most disturbing scenes in the history of Hungary.  It was at this event, what turned out to the last coronation of a Habsburg Emperor, that the fate of the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was foretold by an unanticipated event that took place in the church. This event exposed the crumbling decay that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the First World War.

Matthias Church - site of the last coronation

Matthias Church – site of the last coronation

“Creating Reality From Imagination” – Crowning A Final King
In the latter part of 1916, Emperor Franz Josef died after sixty-eight years on the throne, the last forty-nine of which he was at the helm of the Dual Monarchy as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. With his death a new coronation was hastily arranged. The demands of a raging war were set aside for the sake of tradition. This was imperative since the tottering monarchy needed to adhere to the trappings of power in order to give the appearance of strength and unity. The coronation in Budapest was set for the next to last day in December of 1916. Franz Josef’s great nephew, the man who would become Emperor Charles I was to ascend the throne.

The coronation ceremony itself was steeped in pageantry and protocol. Soon after it began, Charles had the Holy Crown of Hungary and St. Stephen’s robe placed upon him. He then retired along with his wife, Queen Zita, to the sacristy. Soon he was to step outside and take the royal oath. Before this happened, the audience – made up of the crème de la crème of the aristocracy – was to exit the church. We have an astonishing first-hand account of what happened next from Miklos Banffy, the director of the State Theatres, who was charged with organizing the ceremony. As Banffy watched, “the court ladies and those in waiting started to descend slowly from their places in the gallery on the left of the church…They came down, one by one or in pairs, down the steps from the gallery and into the center aisle, all in dresses of gold and white and silver studded with jewels and glittering like figures from ancient times suddenly come alive again, creating reality from imagination. As they moved slowly out of the church in procession they were accompanied by the softest of organ music as if the disappearance of all this beauty imposed silence in the now emptying basilica.”

Emperor Charles I, his wife Empress Zita and son Otto at the last coronation on December 30, 1916

Emperor Charles I, his wife Empress Zita and son Otto at the last coronation on December 30, 1916

“The Sad, Grey Tragedy of War” – The Knights of the Golden Spur
With the church now empty, it seemed just a matter of moments before the king and queen would exit as well. Yet protocol took precedence as suddenly the Knights of the Golden Spur arrived to receive accolades from the newly crowned king. They were a seen of tragic poignancy at the ceremony:

“There must have been about fifty of them, all officers coming from service in the front lines. Most of them were in iron-grey uniforms, faded, mended, with worn leather belts and blackened straps…In the forefront were men with wooden legs leaning on crutches, limping, knocking against each other, coughing and breathing heavily with the effort of movement. Through that side door and out into the glow before the altar there poured all the sad grey tragedy of war to flood the space where a few moments before all had been shine and glitter.
No one spoke. They were all utterly silent, not a word passing between them. All of them just stood there, looking straight ahead with a stare that was both eloquent and at the same time passive. Their eyes were the eyes of men who, day after day, looked death in the face.

The King, crowned with St. Stephen’s Crown and wearing St. Stephen’s mantle, now came back into the church and ascended the throne. The first name was called out. A grey broken ruin of a man pulled himself up on two crutches. An orderly rushed to his side to prevent him falling and guided him forward. At the steps of the throne he faltered just as St. Stephen’s Sword touched his shoulder the ritual three times. Then he was lifted to his feet and, supported by his orderly, tottered away.”

A greater contrast of scenes occurring in just a matter of moments could hardly have been imagined. Majesty met a deathly sense of duty. Splendor was overcome by decay and decline. The entire ceremony can be interpreted as a metaphor of life imitating art. In this case, art foreshadowed a tragedy of historic proportions. In the church that day the ladies represented what the empire had been, the alluring glamour and beauty of the aristocracy. The Knights of the Golden Spur were the stark reality of what the empire had become: broken, feeble, on its last legs and fading fast. The future was to be a very different place. After what these men – who were just a few of many millions – had endured nothing could or would ever be the same. The empire was disintegrating at the front. The broken soldiers were the physical embodiment of a mortally wounded monarchy.  The end was near.

Where the Dual Monarchy died - Austro-Hungarian troops at war on the Eastern Front in Galicia

Where the Dual Monarchy died – Austro-Hungarian troops at war on the Eastern Front in Galicia

The Verge of Oblivion – The Dual Monarchy On Its Knees
Studying this scene, it is much easier to understand what happened in the months and years that followed. The shimmering power of the monarchy had all but disappeared amid the dark shadows of war. It was a relic of a bygone era which had come to an end far from the neo-Gothic splendor of the Matthias Church. Belief in the monarchy had been buried in muddy and bloody trenches, drowned in the marshlands of Galicia and blown to bits high in the Italian Alps. The survivors were barely better off than the dead. The Knights of the Golden Spur were the last, stumbling vestige of a tradition that was on the verge of oblivion.  Soon the monarchy, the empire and the Kingdom of Hungary would cease to exist. Chaos would soon reign supreme.

“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.