An Incredible Intensity – Lviv, Budapest, Krakow, Berlin & Vienna: Explaining Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe, how best to understand such a complex, and conflicted region? Perhaps one should start with the cities, many different cities, in many different countries. Catalog the impressions and then ponder what it means, if anything, if nothing.

Lviv – A Man With No Legs
Travel to Lviv in western Ukraine, that beautiful city frozen in a state of rapturously Austro-Hungarian glory. Stroll through the heart of the historic old town. Listen to the sound of stilettos on cobblestone, voices of desire. Gaze at the bucolically bright mansions surrounding Ploshcha Rynok. Spend at least one single morning watching a man with no legs in a wheelchair. He patiently waits to see if any passers-by scatter a bit of change in the bowl that sits in his lap. The man does not beg, he just sits there patiently. He is not dirty or ill-kempt, but actually rather well dressed, if modestly so, from the waist up everything seems normal. The complete picture is quite different, like the many sides of this city. This drama takes place in the shadow of the Neo-Renaissance Opera House. Operas are fiction, while the dramas played out on the street are real.

The Opera House in Lviv

The Opera House in Lviv – fiction inside & reality outside

Budapest – Beauty, Horror & Grandeur
Go to Budapest. Float down the Danube, on one side the hills of Buda blossom, staked out by the spires of churches and castles. Opposite lies Pest, home to the Hungarian Parliament, that delicious architectural confection of neo-Gothicism, a scene and style that devours the skyline. Disembark on the embankment just before the Chain Bridge, walk a bit upriver on the Pest side, to find a series of sculpted shoes at water’s edge. It was here, that hundreds of Jews were forced during the winter of 1944-45 to take off their footwear just before being shot on the banks of the frozen Danube.  Buda and Pest, here is a city that combines beauty, horror and grandeur in uncertain order.

Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial in Budapest

Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial in Budapest – hundreds of Jews were forced during the winter of 1944-45, to take off their footwear just before being shot on the banks of the frozen Danube

Krakow – Defying Disbelief
Onward to Krakow, in that main magnificent square, Rynek Glowny, reputedly the largest medieval square in all of Europe, whatever that is supposed to mean. Here, the glory and pageantry of Poland is spread over 40,000 stunning square meters. All that once was, still remains, the Cloth Hall and the Clock Tower, St Mary’s and the Mickiewicz Monument. Could this square, this astonishing slice of Poland’s rich history, really have once been subject to the diktats of totalitarianism? It all seems too bad to be true. Amid such magnificence one tends to forget the more recent and troubled past. A cure for any case of 20th century Polish historical amnesia is just a tram ride away.

Cloth Hall with the Clock Tower in the background at Rynek Glowny in Krakow (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

Cloth Hall with the Clock Tower in the background at Rynek Glowny in Krakow (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

Stand outside the gates of Nowa Huta and ponder the terrible, fierce rust bucket beauty that was still born here. This suburb was what Krakow, Poland and all of Eastern Europe was supposed to become. A whole city, an entire nation and a wide swath of Europe forged out of iron and steel. Factories lauded as the new cathedrals, heavy industry as the master mold of mid-20th century civilization. Nothing lasts forever, but this hardly lasted a lifetime. Nowa Huta still exists, but its glory days are gone, its labor days are not. This place has become a piece of modern art that rusts right before the eyes.

Model of Nowa Huta

Model of Nowa Huta – It seemed like a good idea at the time

Berlin – French Kissing Fear
To understand Eastern Europe, surely one must understand Berlin. Why it is so hip, so youthful, so vibrant, so alive. This used to be the world capital of disunity, but now it is united in revelry. 21st century Berlin is a city that seems to be giving fear a French kiss. It is so interesting, all those places where terrible things happened and now most of them can be seen for free. There is enough history here to last several lifetimes, but the past need not detain anyone, when there is another club to hop. Stand beneath the Brandenburg Gate and ponder Frederick the Great, the Kaiser, the Nazis, West vs. East. This is where both ends met the middle and a nation, became arbiter of a world divided against itself.

Now the traveler can dance until dawn in no man’s land, admire galleries worth of graffiti at any random underpass and glide by, rather than through Checkpoint Charlie. That once formidable barrier, looks so small and stupid in retrospect. What is more illuminating, the helpfulness of Berliner’s who rush to provide directions or the fact that nothing really happens here anymore, unless fun and efficiency is now of world historical importance.

An apartment block in East Berlin - putting a coat of color on the past

An apartment block in East Berlin – putting a coat of color on the past

Vienna – The Madness of Fairy Tales
Final stop, the fairy tale city of Vienna. Like all fairy tales, this one has more than its fair share of madness. The Hofburg, at the heart of the city, imposes splendor and arrogance, refinement and oppression upon the visitor in unequal measure. Here is where the Habsburg’s decided what was beautiful and everyone else had to live with it or suffocate from it. This was a world that made its own rules which the rest of the world was supposed to live and die by. And the Hofburg is just the start.

Vienna is a grand illusion, a magic act made out of marble and sculpted stone. There is more than enough of this to go around and around the Ringstrasse. It is enough to drive someone mad. No wonder this city gave the world Freud, Klimt and Wittgenstein. It was not just Metternich and Franz Josef who strolled through the gardens at Schonnbrunn, it was also Hitler and Stalin, at the same time, long before they became deities of death, these men were plotting and plodding amid the perfectly kept pathways. Modern Vienna is filled with an world of underlying tension, irksome and uptight. This can best be seen in the strained countenances of the Viennese. Those faces that stare away from the traveler. They are forever peering out tram windows, looking at nothing in particular, with an incredible intensity.

A tram in Vienna - An incredible (and troubling) intensity

A tram in Vienna – An incredible (and troubling) intensity

A World Turning Inward On Itself
The man with no legs, candy colored baroque buildings, shoes sculpted from stone, forty thousand square meters of magnificence, the heavy heart of heavy industry, a world that bordered on the apocalypse and now on frivolity, the weight of history at the Hofburg and so many other things. These are the impressions that help the traveler understand Eastern Europe, its peoples and it cities. What does all this amount to? There is no clear answer, there never will be. Eastern Europe is complex and conflicted. It is filled with the joys and horrors of life. As in the present, as in the past, it is forever turning inward on itself.

The Avars & Gyor: Only the Name Remains

The city of Gyor is situated in one of Hungary’s most prosperous economic areas. Located in the far northeastern part of the country, the city is close to both the Austrian and Slovakian borders. The capital cities of Vienna and Bratislava, are little more than an hour away. These major metropolitan areas are a crucial part of Gyor’s economic hinterland. The city is home to a large Audi factory which produces state of the art engines. Industrially, it is best known as the home of the Raba Engineering Works which manufactures rolling stock for railways and trucks. The name Raba comes from the river which flows into a major tributary of the Danube, the Mosoni-Duna at Gyor. The Habsburg name for Gyor in the 17th and 18th centuries was Raab named after the Raba River.

Gyor - this beautiful Hungarian city's name belies a vague and mysterious peoples past

Gyor – this beautiful Hungarian city’s name belies a vague and mysterious peoples past

Darkest of the Dark Ages – The Rise & Fall of the Avars
Over the last couple of centuries as Austrian influence waned, the city gradually came to be known as Gyor. This only seems right since Gyor is dominated ethnically, linguistically and culturally by Hungarians. Strange as it may seem though, the name Gyor is neither a linguistic creation of Hungarians or Austrians. Actually the name was adopted from the language of a much older group of people who once inhabited this same area. Gyor comes from the word gyuru, which means circular fortress in Avar. It seems that during the 8th and 9th centuries the people known as the Avars placed a round fortress in the area that is Gyor. This comes about as close as you can get to any direct Avar influence in Hungary today. It is simply amazing that a people who once dominated the land which makes up present day Hungary have all, but disappeared, if not from the historical record, at least from historical consciousness. So exactly who were the Avars?

Depiction of Avar warriors

Depiction of Avar warriors

In the simplest terms the Avars were a tribe of nomadic horsemen that occupied the Carpathian Basin in the period between the decline of the Huns and the arrival of the Magyars (Hungarians). Keep in mind that the Huns and the people who came to be known as Hungarians were two very different, distinct peoples, separated by over four hundred years as well as the rise and fall of the Avars. The Avars would rule the basin area from the mid-sixth century up until the beginning of the ninth. This era is often referred to as the Dark Ages, due to the decline of European civilization following the collapse of the Roman Empire. During this period the Avars occupied a historical netherworld that might best be described as the Darkest of the Dark Ages. This was a time when written chronicles were few. Most of what is known about the Avars comes from archaeological evidence.

The Avars ruled over much of Central and Eastern Europe by the middle of the 6th century

The Avars ruled over much of Central and Eastern Europe by the middle of the 6th century

The Historical Middle – Caught Between Greatness & Oblivion
If historical knowledge of the Dark Ages is vague and mysterious in western Europe, than it is downright invisible in eastern Europe. Noticeable traces of the Avars have been all but erased from the landscape. Whereas one can go visit the ancient Roman ruins of Aquincum in Obuda, there is no easily accessible Avar site that would even come close to being termed a ruin. The only people with knowledge of the Avars are most likely to be found in the archaeology or ancient history departments of local universities.

This almost total unawareness of the Avars is mostly caused by the fact that they neither built nor developed anything of lasting influence. Furthermore, the Avars never produced a leader that captured the historical imagination such as the Hun warrior, Attila. Even though the Huns rise and decline in Europe occurred in barely a hundred years – a blink of an eye by human historical standards – knowledge of their deeds vastly outweighs what is known about the Avars who occupied relatively the same area two and a half times longer. Unfortunately, the Avars suffer the plight of those who came before (the Romans) or those who came after (the Magyars). A cautionary tale for those who get stuck in the historical middle, their past has been relegated to at best, the unknown and at worst, oblivion.

Avar Artifacts - Silver arm rings found in Hungary (Credit: James Steakley)

Avar Artifacts – Silver arm rings found in Hungary (Credit: James Steakley)

A History of Forgetting – The Avars & Us
So what can be learned from story of the Avars or should we say the lack of a story? Perhaps they help us grasp just how incredible it is that the Magyars were able to make the Carpathian Basin their permanent home. Consider that if you take the combined time the Avars, longer lasting Romans, and short lived Huns ruled the area, it still does not match the 1,100 years and counting that the Magyars have ruled over the Carpathian Basin. The Hungarians took what had become a land of the temporary and made it their permanent home.

In the bigger picture, the Avars remind us how everything human is temporary. Rises, declines and falls are all normal outcomes in the histories of peoples, empires and nations. Some such as the Greeks and Romans are remembered long after they are gone. They are the exceptions rather than the rules. Many more peoples, too numerous to name, are all but forgotten. The Avars are unexceptional because their story is so common. The majority of human history is just like the Avars, vanished without a trace. Does it really matter? Who cares about the Avars? It really does not seem to matter, until one considers that almost all of the human history occurring today will be all but forgotten. We are not headed to the historical realm of the Greeks or Romans or even the Hungarians, the majority of us are headed to oblivion. If we are lucky someone may remember us, a little bit more or a little bit less, than we now remember the Avars.

Passion, Levity & Treason – Alfred Redl & the Betrayal of Austria-Hungary

“Passion and levity have destroyed me. Pray for me. I pay with my life for my sins. Alfred…” – Suicide Note of Alfred Redl, Chief of Staff Eight Army Corps, Austro-Hungarian Royal Army

In those two sentences and eighteen words, Alfred Redl concisely summed up his own demise. The above words were the last of a man who rose from poverty in that prototypically backward Austria-Hungarian province of Galicia to the very height of power. The brilliant career of a man known for his extraordinary work ethic, innovation and charm was shattered an hour after midnight on May 25, 1913 in Vienna. The end may have been quick, but the demise had been coming on for many years. It had been a matter of if, not when, Redl would be “discovered” as the man who was selling the Austro-Hungarian Royal Army’s most sensitive military secrets to the Russians.

The Price Of Love & Vanity
Redl’s short note was a fabulously tragic explanation of why? His guilt was so vast, his fall so dramatic that it would not have done for him to have given a drawn out explanation. The details of his actions were left to the empire he had betrayed to work out. In that moment before his death, he gave them only what he wanted them to know, just like he always had in life. He could not control what would be known or unknown after his suicide. That was left to his fellow officers. Later they would unearth his secrets, countering his counter-intelligence. Secrets he left behind were to be found in his luxurious apartment in Prague. Pink leather whips, pornographic photos with snakeskin frames showing fellow officers involved in acts considered at the time to be criminal. Why they, including Redl, were even dressed in women’s clothing and wore cosmetics.

These were the secrets he had hidden from his colleagues for over a decade. Yet his vanity and excess had been in full view. How could they not have noticed? Redl had so often been accompanied by his “nephew.” This false relation was a dashing, young, Czech calvary officer, Stefan Hromadka. He had been a mere teenager of fourteen when they first met. Hromadka became Redl’s lover and the man whom he would lavish with affection and most importantly, luxurious gifts. Covering his fingers with diamonds, purchasing for him a mansion in Prague and supplying a Daimler convertible, Redl bought Hromadka’s love. The price for this romance and so many others was treason. He sold the Empire out to the Russians. They had first confronted him and threatened to expose his scandalous behavior unless he secretly worked for them. Redl became their man in Vienna.

Alfred Redl - arch traitor

Alfred Redl – arch traitor

The Deadliest Secrets
As head of first counter-intelligence and then intelligence for the Monarchy, Redl was uniquely positioned to sell out the spies and secrets he managed. His treason, like the payments he received, was enormous. The mobilization plans for the coming war with Serbia were given to the Russians. They passed them on to their allies. When the World War began, the Serbs were prepared. Redl’s influence on the course of the Empire was profound, it outlasted even him. The Empire and its Royal Army retrospectively deplored Redl’s homosexuality, was puzzled by his coarse vanity, sickened by his deadly duplicity. It would all come much too late, after the fact. And what were facts in a man who would betray anyone and everything, including himself. This was Alfred Redl, a man who charmed everyone into trust. He had used his cleverness to carry out the most nefarious of activities.

How could he have done it? They thought they knew him, but he knew them much better. After all, he was the one whose innovative ideas to collect intelligence helped preserve (and destroy) the Empire. He bugged phone and wireless conversations, dusted for fingerprints and recorded visitors, including his closest confidants, by image and audio. He had it all covered. The Empire upheld him as a sterling example of the self-made man. The old Emperor, Franz Josef even awarded Redl a medal for “Expression of Supreme Satisfaction.” In an empire where legacies were almost always born and rarely made, Redl was the ultimate exception to the rules. In fact, it would turn out that he was making his own rules.

Honor, Tradition & Treason
When he was finally “discovered” Redl’s traitorous actions scandalized and weakened the Army. It had been the one institution in a rapidly fading empire that upheld honor and tradition. As the scandal broke, it was not so much Redl who had been exposed, as it was the Army’s and by extension the Empire’s image which was irreparably tarnished. Here was one of its most decorated officers, who had ascended from the ranks of the commoners, to hold an exalted position. Now the word was out, the Army was riven by decadence and corruption, the rot was pervasive, it was no different from the rest of the monarchy. The damage to Redl’s reputation did not much matter since he was already dead. Redl after all was just a man. The Army was an institution, a symbol of the Monarchy, and the Monarchy was everything. Just over five years after Redl’s death it would be nothing.

Death Knell for the Central Powers – The Battle of Dobro Pole

Serbia was at the heart of the troubled Balkan region during the 20th century. Its influence in political and military affairs was pervasive in the area and ended up having an effect far beyond its own borders. It is hardly surprising to find Serbian involvement in two of the most important events of World War One. The one at the beginning is famously well-known, while the other which helped lead to the war’s conclusion is almost entirely forgotten today. The first event which sparked the war is world famous. A Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy.

This set off what has become known as the July Crisis, where diplomatic efforts failed and the Great Powers ended up on opposing sides based largely on treaty commitments. By the end of that month, artillery shells were falling on Belgrade, as Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia. What flowed from there was a war that expanded across much of Europe, the Middle East, Asia Minor and the High Seas. The blood of millions was spilled on fields of battle that are still recalled with horror today. Such battles as Tannenburg, Gallipoli, Verdun, the Somme and Paschendaele evoke memories of massive clashes over weeks or months. All of these were indecisive in either a tactical or strategic sense. Yet they have helped define the war, though none of them decided it.

The Way To Skopje & Victory

The Way To Skopje & Victory

Lost to Memory – The Defining Moment of Victory & Defeat
It is difficult to recall one battle that brought the war to an end or even the beginning of the end. Battles were subsumed within campaigns. The Allied offensive that finally was able to roll the Germans inexorably backward during the late summer of 1918 seems to be more a prolonged push rather than a rout. The Allied blockade that slowly squeezed the life out of Imperial Germany is symptomatic of the lack of a singular, triumphant event. Neither quick nor tidy, its success was based upon duration. As for the armistice of November 11, 1918, this final defeat of the Central Powers was more an agreement, than an infliction.

It as though World War I lacks that one defining moment where triumph is finally crystallized. Perhaps that is a proper coda to a war which caused such widespread destruction of men and material. Because such a moment is so hard to define, it also means looking in less obvious places.  Searching beyond the Western Front also means looking at other theaters of the war. Was there a forgotten battle of historical significance that has been overlooked?

The name Dobro Pole scarcely comes to mind when memorable battles of World War I are discussed.  The name sounds cryptic. It could be almost anywhere or anything. Actually it means “Good Field”  just the opposite of what it actually was for the Bulgars defending it. Conversely, it was a very good field for the Allied “Army of the Orient.” An unforgettable scene would unfold high up in the Moglenitsa Mountains stretching across central Macedonia. A scene which no one could have predicted based upon what had occurred on this part of the Balkan Front over the eighteen months prior to the battle.

Soldiers waiting in their trenches on the Macedonia Front

Soldiers waiting in their trenches on the Macedonia Front

Southeastern Approaches – Appearances of Deadly Deception
The much maligned Army of the Orient consisted of a polyglot force of Serbs, French, British, Greeks and Italians. Their most notable hallmarks were complacency and mismanagement. Only through slow and haphazard efforts had they gained a bit of ground from their original base at the Aegean coastal port of Salonika. Attempts to dislodge the Bulgarians from the position in foothills and mountains had made only tepid progress. Four attacks by the Allies over the past eighteen months had been miserable failures. The rest of the time, the Army of the Orient tried with little success to fend off the dual scourges of malaria and boredom. Meanwhile, the Bulgars were also plagued with morale issues and limited food rations. Their front line was stout, but beyond these troops was an armed rabble of starving reservists. Nonetheless, the high ground was well fortified and the Bulgarians were still the one major European Army that had avoided defeat in the war. It record was unblemished and looked as though it would stay that way.

Appearances in this case were not just deceiving, but in the Bulgarian case turned out to be deadly. During the summer of 1918 the Allies began to prepare for what would become a remarkable offensive. Specifically, Serbian and French forces worked under the cover of night for two weeks to push, pull and lift artillery into positions up to heights of 7,700 feet in the Moglenitsa Mountains. From here they would be able to unload devastating barrages on the Bulgarians. The Bulgars unwittingly believed that their fortifications were impregnable. Even the German officers and troops sprinkled in to stiffen the Bulgarians spine did not believe the Allied forces would attack the rocky slopes, precipices and peaks covering the area. Yet that was exactly what they intended to do.

Serbian soldiers on the Macedonian Front

Serbian soldiers on the Macedonian Front

In & Above the Clouds – The Battle of Dobro Pole
The Allies had set their sights on Dobro Pole, a broken ridge six miles in length that ran between the Sokol and Ventrenik, names which respectively meant hawk and wind swept one. These were apt pseudonyms for land forms that were in and above the clouds. The common belief up to this point on the Macedonian Front was that an attack on this area would be suicidal. It was steep, heavily fortified and offered the enemy open fields of fire. Conversely, if the Allies did somehow manage to take Dobro Pole, the entire Bulgarian defenses might entirely collapse. It offered an opportunity to unhinge the entire Bulgarian defended part of the front. The risk was worth taking.

At 5:30 a.m. on September 15th, just as dawn was breaking over the high peaks of the Moglentisa, the French and Serbian artillery began to rain shells onto the exposed Bulgarian positions. The barrage was part of an eighteen hundred gun, storm of shot and shell stretching for over a hundred miles across the entire front. It was the greatest assemblage of artillery on the entire Balkan Front during the war. The thunderous roar shook the mountain sides softening the Bulgarian defenses The Bulgars were able to withstand the initial barrage. Dobro Pole would have to be conquered by foot soldiers. Serbian forces slowly fought their way up the steep slopes. The closer they got the more ferocious and frequent the Bulgarian counterattacks, five were launched in a matter of hours. The inhospitable landscape had once only been the haunt of goats and shepherds, now the Serbs and French followed in their footsteps. The machine gun nests of the enemy unleashed a deadly torrent. The Serbs had to use flamethrowers to finally root out the defenders. In the early afternoon, eight hours after they had begun, Dobro Pole was surprisingly conquered. The Bulgarian front line had been breached.

The Way To Skopje – The Way To Victory
The same process was repeated in other areas all along the front. What lay beyond the first formidable defenses was the fragile Bulgarian second line, filled with those starving reservists. They offered scant resistance. Two days after Dobro Pole fell, the Allies had managed to carve a salient six miles deep and twenty miles wide into the enemy lines and this was just the start. Ten days after the offensive had begun the Serbs took Gradsko, the main communications center for the Central Powers along the front. Now the German commanders were unable to coordinate a defense with their Bulgarian counterparts. The breakthrough continued at an incredible pace for what had been heretofore one of the most static fronts of the entire war. On September 29th, the city of Skopje and its important rail yard fell to French and Serbian forces. Meanwhile on the eastern end of the front, British forces had managed to break out as well. The Bulgarians were in full retreat. The Germans had no other recourse, but to abandon this ill-fated area of the Balkans.

Erich Ludendorff in 1918 - his look only got worse

Erich Ludendorff in 1918 – his look only got worse

Beyond All Repair – The Ramifications of Dobro Pole
For the once mocked Army of the Orient, the road to Budapest and Vienna lay open. In just two weeks the entire course of the war had changed. Bulgaria sued for peace. An armistice was granted on September 30th.  The Bulgars, once a bulwark of the Central Powers, had been decisively defeated. It would not be long until the others surrendered as well. The Battle of Dobro Pole was a tipping point. What had been thought all but impossible, the conquest of this high mountain area had been brought about by planning, surprise and innovative tactics. With its fall the Bulgars were suddenly exposed. Their rugged façade had finally cracked and what lay beyond offered little to no resistance.

Unlike other World War I battles, there were no tens of thousands of casualties to count and victory was no longer measured by a few hundred meters. It was a resounding and resonant triumph, the ramifications widespread. No less a historic personage than Erich Ludendorff, the overall commander of German forces at the time, said that the collapse of the Macedonian Front spurred by the loss at Dobro Pole was the worst day of the war for him. On September 28th just as Skopje was on the verge of being captured, Ludendorff collapsed to the ground, began foaming at the mouth and suffered a nervous breakdown. He must have known that Bulgaria would soon surrender and worse was yet to come. The battle of Dobro Pole and its resulting effects damaged the Central Powers beyond all repair.

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.

Empire At The Point Of A Dagger – The Failed Assassination of Emperor Franz Josef

On a late winter’s day, in mid-February of 1853, two men stood near a bastion on the ramparts of Vienna’s old town watching soldier’s exercise in a yard below them. It was just past lunch hour. One of the men, the most powerful in Central Europe at that time, Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef, was dressed for the weather in a heavy coat and cap. These were to help shield him from the winter chill. Such unassuming attire was also about to save his life.

A Viennese Lady, Half-Irish Count & A Butcher – The Emperor’s Personal Security
For not far away another man was moving toward the emperor rather quickly. He brandished a knife, which he wanted to plunge into the monarch’s back. Watching this scene unfold was an unsuspecting Viennese woman. Realizing that something quite sinister was about to occur, she suddenly let loose a piercing scream. As the emperor turned around to see what was happening, he inadvertently caused the would be assassin to miss the mark. Instead of plunging the dagger into Franz Josef’s back, it grazed his neck which was semi-protected by a stiff coat collar. The emperor reeled from the blow. His companion, the half-Irish Count Maximilian O’Donnell, used his saber to strike down the assailant. A butcher, Joseph Ettenreich, rushed over and helped further subdue the attacker. Ettenreich would be ennobled for providing assistance. Meanwhile, the emperor was bleeding quite badly.

Portrayal of the assassination attempt on Emperor Franz Josef

Portrayal of the assassination attempt on Emperor Franz Josef on February 18, 1853 (Painting by J.J. Renner)

At first glance, it seemed that Franz Josef had not escaped this brush with fate. Blood was pouring forth from the wound and the situation looked dire. Fortunately for Franz Joseph, it turned out to be much more superficial than first thought. Doctors were able to treat the bloody gash. He spent several weeks bedridden, but would recover. Just over a week after the incident, his attacker, an ethnic Hungarian, by the name of Janos Lebenyi was executed. Lebenyi was a supporter of the exiled Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth. Kossuth led the Hungarians in revolt against the Habsburgs in 1848-1849. Franz Josef – along with assistance from Russian forces – had brutally suppressed the revolution. In the years that followed, Hungarian resistance had changed from passive to active resistance, that was until Lebenyi attempted to take matters into his own hand. Like his fellow countrymen, he had come close to success, but in the end the attempt failed. Franz Josef had survived to live another day, for that matter he survived to reign another six decades. As for Janos Lebenyi, his name has been lost to history.

The Course of Empire – Destiny By Luck
Franz Josef’s most notable historical achievement is the fact that he was able to survive for so long. He is well known as one of the longest reigning monarchs in history, in total, he ruled for sixty-eight years. Quite the feat, when one considers that he presided over a multi-ethnic empire challenged by the forces of radical ideologies, nationalism and the changes wrought by the industrial revolution. His reign was longer than the average life expectancy of a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. He escaped the chances of war, of disease, even defying age for the last decade of his reign. It seems that he was destined not for greatness, but survival. Another way of looking at it though, is that he was just lucky.

What really saved Franz Josef’s life that mid-winter’s day? The best explanation is that it was the warning invoked by the full throated scream of an anonymous lady. The difference between her reaction and Lebenyi’s murderous intention, allowed for the moment that saved the emperor’s life and preserved him to preside over the slow, yet precipitate decline of the Habsburg Monarchy. That voice of warning, was the difference between a short reign where he was reviled by the majority of his subjects and a reign of almost seven decades, where his life and personage became inseparable from that of the monarchy’s. The life saving scream and the emperor’s reaction, were all part of that fateful moment, when the future course of an empire was nearly cut asunder by the point of a dagger.