Saturday, June 28, 2014

“Everything has to start again:” Some Thoughts on the Centennial of the Assassination of Franz Ferdinand

Today, as many of you know, marks 100 years since the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his maligned wife Sophie on the streets of Sarajevo.

While some marvel at the passage of 100 years, as I sit and reflect on the impact of what most historians say was the spark that ignited a global war, it may as well have been one thousand years ago…on another planet.

A lifelong fascination with the First World War has brought me no closer to understanding the plump Austro-Hungarian dupe whose very existence seemed offensive to people even within his own royal family. Similarly, the world which he inhabited seems made up – the past is indeed a foreign country when I place myself at the scene of the crime and look back at the “Proud Tower” of the preceding years.

Indeed, the whole assassination has a comedic flair to it:

- The half-witted coward Nedelijko Cabrinovic throwing a bomb that bounces off the hood of Ferdinand’s’ car and then yelling “I am a Serbian hero!” as he is tackled and led away – the Archduke and his wife looking on and seemingly shrugging their shoulders as they tell their driver to move along.

- Ferdinand’s driver, taking a wrong turn, informing the royal party that the car has no reverse gear and thus needs to be pushed back onto the correct street, where the wormy waif Gavrilo Princip is waiting.

- The sickly Princip managing to get off two shots, both of which strike and kill their targets.

Add the fact that nearly no one even liked Ferdinand to begin with – in a recent book on 1914, Max Hastings could only bring himself to say, “It is sometimes suggested that Franz Ferdinand was an intelligent man” – and it’s no wonder that students find themselves scratching their heads and asking, “now how did this lead to the deaths of 37 million people again?”

As I have grown older, the only chink in the armor that I have found to empathizing with this man comes from the knowledge that he was a loving father who doted on his children. His dying words, “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die – stay alive for our children!” are especially potent for parents.

But other than this insight, Franz Ferdinand remains more caricature than character from history.
The only person who seemed to mourn his loss was Kaiser Wilhelm, who bellowed “Everything has to start again!” when he learned of the assassination – a particularly telling phrase, given the events that followed. Besides the Kaiser (another malcontent who is difficult to be partial to), Ferdinand’s death occasioned scoffs, gasps, and the rolling of many royal eyes – even in death, Franz Ferdinand had the capacity to annoy.

And so today, students of history pause and reflect on the events of a century ago and continue to ask – “could this really have happened?”

With the Centennial commemoration officially under way, one hopes that this questioning will cause curious people the world over to dig deeper into this time period and find their own answers.

And if you happen to find any, please do share them – I, for one, would be very grateful. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

An Interview with Edward G. Lengel

Edward G. Lengel is a professor of history at the University of Virginia. He is the author of several books on military history, including To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918 which the late John Keegan hailed as “a superior achievement.” A recipient of the National Humanities Medal, he has made frequent appearances on television documentaries and was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize. His latest offering is A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, in which I was privileged to contribute an essay.

I recently caught up with him to ask a few questions about this new work and the state of First World War studies on the cusp of the Centennial Commemoration.

JP:   What initially drew your interest to the First World War?

EL: Back in the early 1990s I became interested in reading World War I memoirs. I started with the “big three” British memoirs cited extensively by Paul Fussell in his book The Great War and Modern Memory: namely, Good-Bye to All That by Robert Graves; Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon; and Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden. I found them fascinating, but did not stop there. Digging deeper, I found and read hundreds of memoirs, diaries, and letters of male and female participants in the war from all of the belligerent nations. Many are obscure and largely forgotten today. Yet aside from being often great works of literature, these books provide tremendous insight into the human condition—put simply, how do people respond to conditions that try them to the core, and overturn their terms of reference to the world around them?

In the process, I discovered that Fussell and others who have generalized about the “war experience”—or who have created the now-clichéd narrative of naiveté, horror, and disillusion—have vastly oversimplified what World War I meant to the ordinary people who experienced it. In truth, each person reacted to the war as an individual, and sometimes men or women who experienced the same events interpreted them completely differently. For me, in reading how individuals lived through 1914-1918, World War I no longer became a gruesome tale of mud, blood, and despair; it became a compelling human story. I’ve been hooked ever since.

JP: What can readers expect to find in these essays that previous volumes on the Meuse-Argonne have neglected?

EL: These essays explore the campaign from every possible angle. Some narrate particularly dramatic and important moments from the soldiers’ point of view. Others discuss problems of supply, logistics, and military administration. There are essays on tanks, airpower, artillery, and communications. And—importantly, I think—there are essays exploring in depth French and German participation in the campaign. The essays are heavily based in archival research and thus scholarly; but nevertheless all are readable and accessible for educated laypersons.

JP:  Do you have high hopes for American participation in the worldwide centennial commemoration? Are there any events slated for the near future that you are particularly excited about?

EL: I will shortly be attending the inaugural reception for the American World War I Centennial Commission in Washington, D.C. I look forward to learning more about what is planned. I know that there are smart and enthusiastic people working on commemoration; but it remains an open question whether their good ideas will find an audience on Capitol Hill.

JP: If you had to pick two or three aspects of American involvement in WWI that most need further study, what would they be?

EL: First, American participants’ accounts—be they memoirs, diaries, or letters—need to be found, published, and made available to the public. The Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress is doing a good job of digitizing collections in its care and putting them online, but much more needs to be done. Second, every major American engagement needs to be thoroughly studied on the tactical level, making full use of the vast official records available at the National Archives in College Park, Md. (I hope to have made some progress toward this in my next book). Finally, it is my dream that some individuals or organizations would sponsor the research and publication of something amounting to an “official” history of American participation in World War I. Such a work has never been written.

JP: Do you have any other volumes on the First World War planned?

EL: I just finished a book tentatively titled “These Terrible Days”: The A.E.F. at War under French Command, November 1917-September 1918. If all goes well, it should be published next year by the University Press of Kansas.

I’d like to thank Ed for taking the time to answer these questions and for the opportunity to contribute an essay to the Companion! If you would like more information on the book, visit Wiley-Blackwell’s website at: