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.