Vivovdan! The Men Who Did or Didn’t Start a World War

I’m back, and I know it’s been a long time! Fortunately, it’s time for the post I’ve been wanting to do since I started this blog: the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Duchess Sophia, by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, officially commencing the festivities of World War One.

Many people I know have wondered about the root of my interest in the Balkans. If I were to try to give an answer, or at least pin down when it started, it would be my quite early awareness of the Archduke’s assassination, back when I was about 13, which was also when the war in Bosnia was making headlines. I wouldn’t say I had an immediate fascination with the event, but it stuck in my mind enough for me to look things up intermittently over the following decades. In the process, I became more aware of the complexities of the Balkans, the World Wars, and a deeper sense of the timeless questions of fate, chance and human nature. On a certain level, the Archduke’s demise is a perfect philosophical and metaphysical dilemma: Did a virtually chance encounter between a Balkan peasant and a hapless aristocrat decide the fate of the world? Or did they merely provide a pretense for the fight everyone had been waiting for? Was there, ultimately, ever a chance to avoid a world at war?

In the course of my reading, I found out quite a few things that didn’t entirely fit the tellings I first encountered (though much of this has been coming out in the current wave of press releases about the assassination). Despite the common characterization of the assassination as a terrorist attack, it can in fact just as well be described as an act of guerilla warfare: The Archduke was a military officer of high standing in his nation’s army, which was effectively occupying Bosnia, while his murder was orchestrated by Serb military officers. Also, despite his family’s willingness to go to war on behalf of his corpse, the Archduke was actually very unpopular in the Austrian court, due to his scandalous habits of advocating reform, having children with a wife he married for love and shooting pretty much every non-human creature in sight. Likewise, while Princip became a hero to the Serb nationalists with whom we are all too familiar, he was himself a proponent of a multi-ethnic Yugoslav state, and his comrades in the band that set out to kill the Archduke included Bosniak Muhamed Mehmedbasic.

At the same time, the details of the assassination readily align with the paradox of inevitable disaster or pure randomness. We can start by noting that Princip was one of only three out of nine children in his family to live to adulthood. Moving forward, the Serbian government ordered Princip’s arrest while he was in Serbia in the final stages of preparation for the assassination, and sent the Austrians a reasonably explicit warning that the Archduke would be in danger if he visited Bosnia (which the Austrians evidently neglected to forward to the Archduke). On the day of the assassination, the band of assassins made preparations to first shoot up the Archduke’s car and then blow it up with a had grenade for good measure. When their would-be ambush ended with only a single hand grenade lobbed, resulting in injuries to two officers in a second car, the Archduke and Duchess were quickly sequestered (though various parties still found time for speeches), until the Archduke decided to go back out onto the streets to visit the injured officers. His driver then got lost, and stopped directly in front of a cafe where Princip had retreated to plan his next move, in a position where an officer riding on the left side of the car failed to shield the couple. (One detail which, based on my research, is not at all clear is whether the Archduke was between Princip and the Duchess, as consistently shown in drawings, or vice versa!) Most bizarrely, accounts have come to light of a scuffle between a plainclothes detective who tried to stop Princip and an evidently otherwise uninvolved bystander who got in his way. This final detail, especially, reveals the nearly equal merits of two opposite conclusions: Either the demise of the Archduke was the wildest fluke, or he was dead as soon as he set foot in Sarajevo.

Now, let’s pull back to the wider angle. To my recollection, the junior-high textbook where I first read about the Archduke and Princip held very much with the conventional view of the assassination as essentially incidental to the real causes of the war. I very distinctly remember a quote with the iconic “powder keg” analogy. Such appraisals are, certainly, eminently justified by the evidence, especially an infamous and eerie remark by Otto Von Bismarck in 1888: “One day, the Great Euopean War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” It would seem almost inarguable that, if the circumstances of World War One could be described with such precision decades before the fact, then it is as close to inevitable as an event could get. (This has also long struck me as a fitting rejoinder to critical religious scholars who insist that any “prophetic” text must necessarily be dated after the event it predicts!) This presents a bleak and cynical picture of the leaders of the world as at best unable to stop a long-predicted crisis and at worst eagerly bringing it about, with all the further and still darker implications for human nature and free will that it entails.

Yet, there are definitely cracks in this view. The actions of Serbia, in particular, belie any eagerness for the demise of the Archduke on their part: On top of their efforts to arrest Princip and war off the Archduke, the Serbs readily made concessions in the face of increasingly vindictive Austrian demands, until even Kaiser Wilhelm, in some times and circles an even more favored scapegoat for the war than Princip, went on record as saying that Serbia had “eliminate(d) any cause for war”. If anyone pushed for war, it was the Austrian royalty, who strikingly found ways to snub the Archduke at his own funeral. Considering the disparity between the royal family’s demands and strikingly un-profound displays of grief, it is not outlandish to speculate that, on some level, the Archduke was allowed to go to Sarajevo in the hope that he wouldn’t come back. Yet, even the Austrians’ crazed diplomacy belies any grand plan, giving every appearance less of a calculated push for war than a succession of almost whimsical impositions on a party presumed too weak to put up real resistance.

Meanwhile, the Archduke himself certainly deserves more than a fair share of blame. One of the more mind-boggling detail of the assassination is that June 28th, 1914 was the Serbian Orthodox holy day of Vivovdan, and also considered the 525th anniversary of the epic last stand of the Southern Slavs against the Ottomans at the Battle of Kosovo Polje. (Due to complications in various church and secular calendars, the actual date of the battle was June 15, 1389.) This made the Archduke’s visit to Sarajevo (at the invitation of Bosnia’s governor!) as manifestly ill-advised as George W. Bush going on a scenic tour of occupied Baghdad on the last day of Ramadan! If going at all was astonishingly reckless, his decision to go back onto the streets of Sarajevo can only be considered insanity.

This brings us to an especially neglected aspect of the Archduke’s background: Within Franz Ferdinand’s family tree, there is a quite impressive list of men who found interesting and colorful ways to get themselves killed. His father, Karl Ludwig, met his end in a moderately charming fashion, by catching typhoid when he piously drank from the Jordan River on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, reportedly against the strong urgings of several traveling companions. His cousin Crown Prince Rudolf died with his mistress in an apparent murder-suicide. His own brother Otto died of syphilis, presumably contracted in pursuit of his scandalous lifestyle. Perhaps most notably, his uncle Maximilian accepted the post as French-installed Emperor of Mexico, and then refused to leave when the French withdrew the Foreign Legion. In this light, the `notorious’ Archduke appears to be, if anything, one of the more stable members of the royal family. The grim history of his line gives further testimony to the nearly certain impact of mental illness, exacerbated by a society which by all appearances considered it preferable to let its ruling class endanger themselves and the state rather than breach protocol by restraining them.

Once the full extent of the “human element” is brought in, the dilemma of the assassination becomes even more intractable. The events of a century past are inseparable from the actions of the participants, especially the deceased Archduke himself. It is pure arrogance (not to mention no small measure of “blame-shifting”!) to suppose that no course of events could have turned the world from war. Yet, at the same time, the actions of the individuals are (per a favorite theme in my own work) constrained by their underlying personalities and perhaps even more by their times and cultures. One might as well reframe the usual questions by asking, was there any way to prevent the gallantly foolhardy Archduke and the determined assassin from colliding with each other?

I’ll close with another personal story. Back in February 2008, my novel Walking Dead was in print as my second and last book with an an official publisher, and I was well on my way to fleshing out the “assumed mythology” that became the “Exotroopers” series. Then, in February, news came that Kosovo had declared itself independent from Serbia. I had long concluded that an independent Kosovar state was going to happen, eventually, and worked it into my books, but it still came as more than a surprise to me. My immediate response in conversation with people who knew of my Balkans research was, verbatim, “Worst case scenario, there could be a war in a week.” Needless to say, I watched the news with great interest, waiting to see if the war I had envisioned in fiction decades in the future was going to happen in front of me. Needless to say, it didn’t… at least, not yet.

To me, this experience is as good an answer as any to the riddle of the “Archduke and the Assassin”. Sometimes, surely, expecting a disaster is what keeps it from happening, and that should be hope in that. At the same time, there can be little doubt that some expected disasters happen because nobody thinks they can stop it, and there should be a kind of hope in that, too. In the end, all we can do is plan for the worst, and try for the best. And did anyone really need a history lesson to know that?


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