The Blue Raccoon

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Strange Interludes Part the Second

"While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down."
From "The City in the Sea," Edgar Allan Poe

"There is so much that goes unanswered, even though the facts of the case are
so well known: how the failing Hapsburgs, impelled by their own unlucky taste for adventure, had seized Bosnia and Herzigovina from the Turks and aggravated the racial imbalance of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire; how the southern Slavs within the Empire felt themselves oppressed and increasingly demanded freedom: how the ambitious little hill kingdom of Serbia saw a chance to establish a South-Slavic hegemony over the Balkans; and how
Czarist Russia, itself near ruin, plotted with its client Serbia to turn the Austro-Hungarian
southern flank. But there is so much more that needs to be taken into account: how Franz Ferdinand, the aged emperor Franz Joseph's nephew, became his heir by default (Crown Prince Rudolph had committed suicide at Mayerling; Uncle Maximilian, Napoleon III's
pawn had been executed in Mexico; Franz Ferdinand's father, a pilgrim to the Holy Land, had
died--most improbably--from drinking the waters of the Jordan): how the new heir--stiff, autocratic, and unapproachable, but implausibly wed in ironic middle class marriage to the
not-quie-acceptable Sophie Chotek--sensed the danger to the Empire and proposed a policy
that would have given his future Slav subjects most of what they demanded: how the Serbian
nationalists were driven to panic, and how the secret society of jingoes known as "The Black
plotted Franz Ferdinand's death: how seven boys were recruited to do the deed, and
how one of them, Gavrilo Princip, on the morning of June 28, 1914, shot Franz Ferdinand and
Sophie dead."

-- "Sarajevo -- The End of Innocence," Edmund Stillman,
Horizons Magazine, Summer 1964

The Ridiculous Regent and the Munificent Minister.

Kaiser WIlhelm II and British Liberal Member of Parliament from Dundee, Winston Churchill, on Sept. 15, 1909, a few years before the end of the world they both knew.

The Kaiser's propensity to drama is, well, self-evident here. At this moment in time, Wilhelm's brash and unfortunate public statements about the German Empire's might and its rightful place in the sun, was scaring the bejeebus out of England's public and damaging his own tenuous credibility.

At this time in England, popular books and plays speculated on the possibilities of a fictional German invasion. Churchill couldn't conceive of an English conflict with their Teuton brethren. Churchill instead advocated for a reduction of naval spending in order to cool the heating arms race between the nations jockeying for empire.

This image distills the future. The Kaiser looks and is
archaic. Churchill's political education is well underway.

Anti-Thesis: Natural-Born Conspirators:
Meanwhile, on the other side of Europe, Balkan intrigue proceeds a
Shown here, like Tony Soprano with his lieutenants, on the far right, is Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, code named "Apis" or "The Bee." You
didn't want to get stung by this one.

Dimitrijevic was a member of the vehement Serbian nationalist movement. No coward, the Bee carried in his body three bullets fired into him during the "successful" 1903 slaughter of the autocratic and unloved Serbian King Alexander and Queen Draga. And that's about where the train of reason careened off the rails.

Dimitrijevic in 1911 co-founded The Black Hand terrorist organization that advocated the achievement of Serbian statehood by any means necessary, including assassination. He had the means and resources to conduct covert operations as a respected and courageous leader, he was also chief of Serbian military intelligence.

In the spring of 1914, Dimitrijevic learned of Archduke Franz Ferdinand's visit to Sarajevo and put the wheels in motion to "whack" the unsophisticated and not completely anti-Serb successor to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Some of Apis' colleagues expressed alarm at such an egregious attack. But in a series of pathetic and unfortunate events the main actors stood by as though frozen or they either could not, or cared not to believe what was happening around them. The great disaster occurred, it could be said, because of a failure in procrastination. At any given time the whole process could've been interrupted. The plans moved forward with a strange and implacable sleepwalker momentum to a catastrophic conclusion.

The Last Man: Gavrilo Princip was a young, frail, and idealistic Bosnian who wanted to make a mark in the world for his people. Rejected from regular military service and even other terrorist activity, he fell into the influence of the Black Hand, and became, by simple dint of circumstance, the catalyst that blew over the trembling diplomatic and social house of cards that Europe had built for itself during the prior few decades. He was one of seven trained killers who were in Sarajevo a month in advance of Franz Ferdinand's arrival.

Ferdinand chose to visit Sarajevo to review troops, attend the opening of a museum, and give his beloved Sophie an anniversary trip. His father, the Emperor Franz Joseph, didn't regard Sophie as a royal, though she was a countess though not from the proper side of the aristocracy. He disapproved of their courtship, tried to prevent the marriage, but finally relented, though he didn't attend their wedding. The union was permitted with the catch that any children wouldn't be in the line of royal succession, and Sophie couldn't ride next to Ferdinand, or sit with him in the royal box. That was in Vienna. In the provinces, they could be together like husband and wife.

The would-be assassins hung out until the appointed day, then spread themselves along the Ferdinand's parade route. They bungled almost every part of the plan. A bomb thrown too late blew up the car behind the Archduke's, injuring spectators, and also--quite important to the story-- the man responsible for directing the route of the motorcade. The bomb thrower tried at first to take expired cyanide--it just made him sick--then drown himself in a nearby river, but due to a drought, it was only a few inches deep. He was seized by the mob.

The other terrorists, perhaps thinking their job was done, scattered. Princip blended into the crowd, chatted with a friend, and sat down to eat a sandwich at a café.

The visting monarch nonetheless kept to schedule and arrived at the Sarajeven mayor's offices where Ferdinand expressed his outrage. The spluttering mayor nonetheless kept to his regular welcoming speech. Ferdinand wanted to visit his wounded attaché but the uninformed driver kept to his pre-scheduled course. The chaffeur, realizing his error, jammed the gears of the Archduke's car while putting it into reverse -- in front of the café where Princip sat munching his sandwich. The littlest terrorist saw that Ferdinand and Sophie were quite alive. He pulled out his pistol and fired. Sophie was struck in the abdomen. Ferdinand, bleeding from his mouth, urged her to stay alive for the children. When an aide asked him where he was hurt, he said, "It's nothing. It's nothing."

Princip tried ineffective poison, and almost shot himself, before he, too, was tackled.

Neither the Emperor Franz Joseph nor Kaiser Wilhelm could be bothered to attend Ferdinand and Sophie's funeral.

Four years and an estimated more than 10 million military dead later, 20 million wounded and missing, the otherwise wrecked world was made safe for the cobbled together country of Yugoslavia. We all know how well that worked out.

Princip, who died of tuberculosis in prison six months before World War I ended in 1918, got a plaque in Sarajevo, to commemorate his patriotic duty. It was removed after the Bosnian War of 1992-1995. A less chauvunistic marker is on the site today.

And the hits just keep on coming.

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