“Europe today is a powder keg and the leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal. A single spark will set off an explosion that will consume us all. I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where. Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off.”
— Otto von Bismarck
Is an ascendant Kurdistan acceptable to its neighbors, to the region, to the world? Whose stability would it most threaten? After all, by deftly gobbling up North Ossetia, the Crimea, and backing the Eastern Ukrainian separatists, Russia’s Putin demonstrates anew that ethnic grievance and pretensions are suitable pretexts for redrawing map-lines.
Not that we needed much reminding, given the democidal excesses of the last century or two.
So why not “Make it Official” and put the sanguine cartographers back to work drafting up an Independent Kurdistan from the homelands, farms and mosques of lands predominantly Kurdish? What would one additional flag mean to the 180-or-so outside the United Nations building? Oh, and that new flag for the new Donetsk Republic, as well. And maybe ones for Scotland and Quebec and any other “Breakaway” provinces in the world.
Certainly a Kurdistan would be very meaningful to the region, and the discomfiture occasioned by its declaration of independence would be liberal for the Kurds’ many neighbors in Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Central Asia and even Russia, and gratifying to those who oppose this grubby lot of religious, political and technocratic dictatorships.
So, who among the blood-dimmed host of militaries, hatchetmen and autocrats in and around the region is fit to judge the norms by which peoples should call themselves nations? Who among any of us, actually?
Rather than force ourselves to make a decision better left to the Deity, let’s instead travel back 100 years in time. Let’s compare today’s horrors to the situation in Southern Europe in the decade-or-so before the outbreak of the Great War of 1914.
It was around this time, just last century, that Orthodox Christian Serbia had come unto her own in two Balkan Wars, first ejecting the Turks from the peninsula, then quashing the overstimulated Bulgars in the second.
Not that the Serbs hadn’t been helped, Mother Russia had played her role as well, pruning the Sultan’s realm, at great cost, of Bulgaria, annexing the Crimea and mastering her native Tatars, as well as pacifying the Caucasus with its horde of Hadji Murads, the Chechen brigand-chief whom Tolstoy immortalized.
Russia’s purse and sympathies lay open to the Serbs, close linguistic cousins and co-religionists of the Russian Tsar and the Orthodox Church which he led. The Serbs offered a natural ally and forward outpost of the imperial pretensions of the later Tsars, whose lands bordered those of Austria-Hungary.
Thus would formerly Ottoman Bosnia come into play. When Austria annexed it Bosnia in 1908, the Serbs, Bulgars and Montenegrins united in opposition, along with all the other Great Powers of Europe. But it was a fait accompli, and now, firmly in the Austrian sphere. Serbia’s arrival was also aided by the internal problems that were dissolving the Ottoman Empire as well. The once-potent Sultan and his Janissary guard now governed an empire weakened by its own internal ethnic, linguistic religious divisions, its economic and technological backwardness, and a vitiated military class whose capacity for palace intrigues was more greatly to be feared than its swords.
Turkey had thus earned the sobriquet, allegedly uttered by Russian Tsar Nicholas I, of “The sick man of Europe.”
Russia was no picture of health, to be sure. Her grain exports fed the world, while her own peasants starved. Conditions in the workhouses of St Petersburg, Moscow, Tula and other industrial centers lagged those of Western Europe. Child labor and 12-hour days provoked strikes. Bloody Sunday in 1905 saw a peaceful march of workers and their families mown down by the Tsar’s Cossack guard: at least a thousand died in the shooting and the panicked trample that followed. Eventually, the instigator of the march, Father Georgii Gapon, was discovered to be a double-agent: earning needed cash by informing for the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana.
The Emperor of Austria, Franz Josef, His Heir Apparent, Franz Ferdinand, and the general staff of Austria-Hungary eyed all these signs of imperial dissolution with mounting concern. Austria’s annexation of Bosnia necessarily put the rising power of Serbia at the door of the Hapsburg’s Empire, itself an increasingly unmanageable patchwork of nations, languages and confessions. Emperor Franz Josef knew well the insane pitch to which national and linguistic pretensions could rive his peoples. After bloody clashes, and humiliation at the hands of the Prussians, he had been forced to raise Hungarian to equality with German as national languages of the realm. More than that, Hungarian would be primary in those regions possessing a Hungarian majority.
Thus the Slavs (and Rumanians, and Italians) of the Dual Monarchy were doubly penalized, having long been forced to conduct official business in German. To the non-Magyars born in Hungarian-majority lands fell the requirement to carry out government business in Hungarian, a language as utterly dissimilar from the Slavic or Romance tongues as from the Germanic. Hungarian is a language of legendary impenetrability and flummoxes even the most intelligent adult’s attempts to learn it. Franz Josef’s Bavarian wife, Elizabeth, even tasked herself to learn it, so she could better enjoy life as Queen of Hungary in Budapest, the city whose quiet and beauty she preferred to Vienna. The death of her son, Crown Prince Rudolf, in a murder-suicide with an actress named Maria Vetsera, ineffaceably grieved her. His death had placed Archduke Franz Ferdinand next in line for the Habsburg throne.
But the linguistic issues of the Empire still rankled. Austria-Hungary’s patchwork consisted of many different languages as well as religions: Protestants, Greek Orthodox, Judaism and Islam were all represented. the Naturally, the thought occurred to many of the Slav subjects of Franz Josef, Why shouldn’t there be a third language of empire: a Slavonic one? And these were the milder opinions. Other, more imperative voices were beginning to be heard, as well, new voices that crossed national frontiers, German, Hungarian and others beginning to self-identify as Polish, Croatian, Italian, Albanian, Rumanian, Ruthenian, even Russian. And most important, Serbian.
Picture the Dual Monarchy as a quilt of as many as 36 languages and dialects, uncounted sects, religious affiliations, labor relations, inevitable intermarriages, gap between rich and poor mitigated by a vital and growing middle class, the “bourgeoisie” whom we nowadays find quaint or the subject of mildly pitiful scorn. Weave into the fabric all the colors of the ideological, philosophical, scientific, artistic and literary spectrum of the period, much of it centered around the three Hapsburg capitals of Vienna, Budapest and Prague. This colorful, ornate tapestry is ancient, yet, as of 1914, still incomplete, being woven through annexation, military conquest and all attendant human frailty.
The enduring, regal beauty of this Hapsburg tapestry owed as much to marriage as it did to Mars.
And now this ancient artwork was threatened by Serbia. Or so Vienna believed. But the integrity of this tapestry was compromised well before the arrival of Serbia.
The real threat was within. For the threads of matrimony that had established the Empire as surely as had military conquest were fraying, from above and below. From below, a sense of aggrieved nationhood across the grew among the speakers of the Empire’s disparate tongues, as these minorities, united around language and church began to think of themselves as “Peoples.”
Abetting and itself benefiting from this ferment, Vienna, the capital became the magnet of Europe’s thinkers, prophets, artists and writers: all were there who would figure most prominently in the affairs of the 20th Century, from Freud to Hitler to Lenin to Josip Broz, who would become known as Tito, to Klimt to Schiele to Mucha. Schnitzler to Mann to Musil, as Frederic Morton points out in his marvelous Thunder at Twilight.
A new middle class lived and worked in Vienna enjoying what we ourselves today enjoy but tend now to disparage as “bourgeoisie”: private property, real estate ownership, businesses, manufactories, reliable electricity, plumbing and civic hygiene, and even such novelties as design firms, cinemas and well-lighted, comfortable restaurants and taverns. Along with these comforts came new clothing styles, new sounds, new arts and new letters. Radical ideas welled up and poured into Vienna from East and West, as Morton so eloquently conveys. Other entertainments, abetted by the usual social solvents of liquor, tobacco, gambling, cocaine and opium.
This was the aspirational, motive, creative engine of Vienna.
Restive peoples, polyglot, a bustling intellectual ferment, entangling alliances, the up-thrust of magical science and technological war-making all outpacing the diplomats’ understanding, and then, the fateful rend.
For the fabric of empire was tearing from the top: the putative heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who, being consumptive, had not been expected to survive to inherit old Franz Josef’s crown, had recovered his strength and with it, his own implacable resentments.
First was the resentment he felt for those of the royal family and their retainers who had written him off and forgotten him.
But the Archduke’s most implacable hatred was reserved for those who barred his children from inheriting the throne, for, according to the edicts of the House of Hapsburg, Franz Ferdinand had voided his own inheritors claim to the throne by marrying a too low-born noblewoman, Countess Sophie Chotek, whom he had met while ostensibly courting a royal bride acceptable to the Imperial Family.
A heartbeat from the throne, Franz Ferdinand had married a woman, who, by dint of the insufficiency of her title, could not bear him legal heirs to the Hapsburg Crown.
How cruel, to oppose such a romance! Yet, how essential that the matrimonial cement of this particular empire not be tampered with, particularly at this most restive moment in its history!
Bear this violation of the Hapsburg House rules of matrimony in mind as you consider the run-up to the Great War. No one expected that the 99 years of relative peace arising from the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic Wars to end so suddenly. The cultural efflorescence of these years of peace and rapid industrialization had bred in Europe’s thinkers a romanticism and self-awareness that was rapidly dismantling the old cultural norms of Europe, its churches, its monarchies, its ancient laws, replacing these foundations with doubt, ferment, and fantastic new ideas and entertainments for the masses.
As you conjure your own picture of these times, factor in the dynastic falling-outs, the fateful arms race with its souring of intradynastic and intrafamiliar relations between the great houses of Europe, England, Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, all of them cousins at one level or another, through the late Queen Victoria and the octogenarian Franz Josef. View this through the lens of the technological leaps being made at the turn of the century (radio, heavier-than-air flight, the motorcar, the caterpillar tractor, chemistry, physics), and behold: A new world, or what historian Paul Johnson called, in a slightly later context, “A Relativistic World.”
The factors that to us make the denouement of the summer of 1914 seem inevitable were hardly so obvious at the time. Who could tell that the infection of the dying Ottoman Empire and the gravely infirm Russian Empire would afflict the neighboring, Austrian empire as well?
Who but the military elite, of which Franz Ferdinand, as Army Commander, was foremost? This circle viewed the crumbling of Turkey with suspicion and alarm. At worst, Slav nationalism, incited by the success of the Serbs, Bulgars and Russians in liberating the Balkans, Crimea and Caucasus from Ottoman suzerainty, might inspire uprisings among the Austrian’s restive Poles, Ukrainians, Ruthenians, Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, Czech, and Slovaks…
At best, they would demand Slavic linguistic parity with Hungarian, which had been made a co-national language in 1867. Three official languages: more gasoline into the potentially explosive mixture.
The government and military had its problems too. Austria’s intelligence arm had been compromised, thoroughly, by the revelation of a double-agent at the most sensitive level. Colonel Alfred Redl had been blackmailed into treason by the Tsar’s agents, who’d turned him into a traitor using what we now call the “Honey Trap” by photographing his homosexual sadomasochism with several specially recruited young men.
Oberst Redl happened to be the head of the Austrian army counterintelligence section for Russia.
The victim, in a way, of an expensive lifestyle, Redl was paid well for turning over to St Petersburg the latest Austrian plans for war against the Tsar. The revelation of this treachery brought General Conrad to the Colonel’s apartments, where, in short order, Conrad offered the automatic pistol with one bullet to Redl. The disgraced officer of course chose the “honorable” course, and shot himself before he could be questioned as to the extent of his perfidy. This omission, and the fact that Redl committed the mortal sin of suicide and died without benefit of confession or priest, infuriated the Archduke, and a major schism formed between Franz Ferdinand and his army commander, Conrad.
It was not merely the Redl Affair that had come between them.
Their attitudes towards Serbia had begun to diverge. Where the military wanted to make a hard show of force, the Archduke’s line had begun to soften. There are some who argue that the Archduke may have sought parley with the Serbs, instead of war.
And then, the fatal appearance in Sarajevo: the perfectly scripted hit.
Why do I say, “scripted”? Because it feels too perfect. Perfect in the way all the imperfection, peccadilloes, frailties, fears, jealousies, gluttonies, distractions and murderous, fiendishly clever insanities of the time intersected with the Archduke and his car on June the 28th. You’d think a screenwriter wrote it, the way it gets so neatly wrapped up at the end. Take an example: here’s the way the aforementioned theme of “gluttonies” plays out.
“Gluttonies?” you might ask.
Yes, the Archduke was renowned as an expert shot and hunter. In fact, his appetite for carnage was as bottomless as any of today’s players of “Call of Duty” or one of the “Halo” series of super-violent videogame. This was no game, though, but Game, Big, Small and Medium.
Franz Ferdinand was a wholesale slaughterer of flesh on the hoof, wing or paw. Shortly before his death, he boasted of shooting his 3,000th stag. And 500,000 animals. A number beyond the ken of most normal people and certainly beyond the reach or desire of anyone who hunts for sport or sustenance. Such a scientific-notation-scale slaughter prefigured the appalling casualty numbers that forever haunt the places called names like Passchendaele, Verdun, and the Somme.
Franz’s hunting parties would extinct entire royal estates of game and flatten forests in pursuit of the last remaining creature stirring in the woods. The Archduke imbibed himself in death, blood, and the blackening effects of days of shooting “smokeless” cartridges upon his physical features. Much has been written of this addict’s need to pull the trigger. Some see it as unconscious retribution on the world that rejected him and his wife. We will return to Sophie, for she is the key to the matrimonial unraveling.
For now let us return to Sarajevo on that fateful early afternoon in June. A bomb has been thrown at the Archduke’s motorcade, wounding an officer but leaving the Archduke and Consort unharmed. Arriving at Sarajevo city hall, the Archduke throws a small fit.
Allow Dame Rebecca West to set the scene:
“It may be conceived therefore, that… the half million beasts which had fallen to Franz Ferdinand’s gun according to his own calculations were present that day in the reception hall at Sarajevo. One can conceive the space of this room stuffed all the way up to the crimson and gold vaults and stalactites with furred and feathered ghosts, set close, because there were so many of them: stags with the air between their antlers stuffed with woodcock, quail, pheasant, partridge, capercailzie, and the like; boars standing bristling flank to flank, the breadth under their broad bellies packed with layer upon later of hares and rabbits. Their animal eyes, clear and dark as water, would brightly watch the approach of their slayer to an end that exactly resembled their own.”
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
June the 28th was a singularly inept and frankly insulting day to arrive in the Bosnian capital to lead the 15th and 16th Austrian Armies on maneuvers in nearby Ilidzhe.
525 years before, in 1389, at the battle of Kosovo Field, the Sultan defeated the Serbian Tsar and his army. That the Sultan was assassinated by a Serb infiltrator on the night of his victory was small succor to the Christian denizens of the Balkans left in the charge of the Turks. Those Slavs who converted to Islam were welcomed into the apparatus of Ottoman society and could expect advancement. The Christians of Macedonia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia and Bulgaria paid the heavy jizya religious tax and worse, had their young boy children taken away to be converted to Islam and rendered into the Sultan’s elite guard, the Janissaries, “The New Soldiers.”
The news of the planned maneuvers had been publicized well ahead of time, inciting the undying hatred of the Bosnian Serbs, and inciting many a would-be avenger, such as 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, to plan to meet the Archduke in Sarajevo.
June the 28th was the day on which the Serb nation dated both its birth, as well as the beginning of her Turkish bondage. On the anniversary of this day is when the Archduke had arrived, with his wife. Why was Sophie with him? The answer is simple.
For the first time in their marriage, Countess Sophie would be permitted to appear in public with her husband. They were technically free of the Hapsburg imperial protocols that forbade the Countess from being at her high-born husband’s side on any official occasion. Franz Ferdinand would have his revenge on all those pitted against his romantic happiness.
Now let us return to the scene after the first bomb has been thrown, the conspirator captured, and now, at this turn, the screenwriter uses a heavy hand.
On the verge of failure, the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, is offered a Mulligan by the Hand of Fate. In what is perhaps the world’s most fateful multi-point turn, the Imperial Death Car stops directly adjacent the café where Princip has retired after the failed attempt by his collaborator. In the excitement arising from the assassination attempt and in the subsequent decision to visit the wounded man in the hospital, no one bothers to inform the Archduke’s chauffeur of the change in the motorcade’s route… leading to the infamous slow turnaround, the agonizing change of direction, leaving the Archduke unprotected as slow-comprehending Gavrilo emerges from the cafe and begins to address the revolver hidden on his person.
This particularly weapon was offered not by the Hand of Fate but by the Black Hand, the secret nationalist group seeking to unite with the Serbs of Bosnia.
You can still see the graffito, the tattoo, the symbol, scrawled on walls, on the internet, in royal crests and flags and unit markings wherever Serbs tread. The Cross, superimposed on the letter C in each of the four open quadrants of the cross. Τhis acronym (in the Cyrillic alphabet) stands for “Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava”, “Only Unity Saves the Serbs”. But it is can also be perceived as the Cross smashing a Crescent to pieces.
Austria viewed this land as her backyard and took it, and though the Great Powers took notice, they took little other action.
The assassin and his conspirators had been supplied with weaponry, explosives, and suicide pills by agents of the Black Hand in the Serbian Secret Police. These shadowy figures, led by “Colonel Apis,” Dragutin Dimitriević, had been responsible for the hideous murders of King Alexander Karageorgević and his wife Queen Draga, replacing them with the other Serbian dynastic family, Obrenović.
Apis may, or may not, have been operating with the approval of certain segments of the Serbian government and perhaps even of St Petersburg and the Tsar’s Okhrana? Who knows Who-Knew-What at the Foreign Office? Or Who-phoned-Whom from the bureaux of the proto-Gestapo in Berlin? And certainly, Serbia knew something was up. Shortly before the visit to Sarajevo, the Serbian Ambassador to Vienna had warned the Austrian government that the Archduke’s safety could not be assured by the Serbian government.
But nothing would stay the Archduke’s plan to visit Sarajevo on the most sacred day to Serbs, June the 28th, known to the Serbs as Vidovdan, translated, St Vitus’ Day. St Vitus, as you probably know, lends its name to what we now call Sydenham’s chorea, a disorder characterized by rapid jerking movements.
What a shaking fit awaited Europe.
What fit awaits us?
For continued and further study, consider the secret protocols and usually anonymous actions taken by the secret police of Europe in the run-up to World War One. How much of their intelligence was inaccurate, spurious, or altogether fabricated? Besides familial rivalry, why did Wilhelm of Germany choose to challenge his cousin George’s Royal Navy? Who really controlled the events? What were the real alliances that allowed such immense capital projects to roll forward? To whom did their loyalties belong, those who financed the then-greatest atrocity in history, and which led, inevitably, to the cataclysms that followed, beginning with the hideous Russian Civil War, followed immediately by famine, Stock Market Crash, the invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the ascendence of the Nazi Party, the Spanish Civil War…? If you’ve followed me this far, need I prattle on?