Sunday, March 23, 2008

Red Stars, Black Mountains: What’s Habsburg got to do with it? (Part 5).

A continuing Sunday series. See also:

Red Stars, Black Mountains: Raddy and what came after (Part 4)

Red Stars, Black Mountains: Mellow Ljubljana (Part 3)

Red Stars, Black Mountains: Welcome to Slovenia (Part 2)

Red Stars, Black Mountains: Roger in Yugoslavia ’87 (Part 1)

Red Stars, Black Mountains: Roger in Yugoslavia ’87 (Introduction)


In truth, the current Bosnian-Herzegovinian capital of Sarajevo, then just one of many provincial hubs in extinct Yugoslavia, always was the primary goal of my 1987 trip to the region, and to understand why, you have to learn a bit about my enduringly unfathomable Habsburg fixation. It certainly ranks among the more bizarre historical fetishes you'll encounter.

The Habsburgs were the long established ruling monarchs of the empire eventually to be termed the Austro-Hungarian empire, which in the years prior to the first world war occupied a substantial portion of what is now Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Balkans and parts of northern Italy (recall the port of Trieste in an earlier installment of this series).

In 1914, the reigning Emperor Franz Joseph was 84 years old and had sat on the throne for 66 years, since 1848. Whether tacit or explicit, obeisance to the emperor's many-titled royal personage served as the only generally accepted bond between the empire's multitudinous nationalities and their languages, customs, aspirations and diverse lives.

At the same time, virtually every strain of the 19th and 20th century European experience came to be woven into the complex fabric of Austria-Hungary's capital, Vienna, ranging from visual artists (Klimt, Schiele) to formal musicians (Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler); writers, academics and scholars (Sigmund Freud and his retinue); future world political figures (Adolf Hitler, Yugoslavia's own Josip "Tito" Broz) radical Zionists and hyperbolic anti-Semites, the pioneering lager brewer Anton Dreher, and later, unbelievably, Leon Askin, the actor who played General Burkhalter on the television series "Hogan's Heroes", and who was born in Vienna nine years before Franz Joseph died.

Add to the hoary chronological mix the tragedies of Franz Joseph's tumultuous personal life – his son infamously committed a murder/suicide with his youthful mistress, and his wife suffered from undiagnosed mental illness and was herself eventually murdered by an anarchist – then combine all this with various other socio-political and economic foreshadowing of imminent doom, and finally, consider that in 1914, Franz Joseph's closest remaining relative eligible for the succession was his profoundly unpopular nephew, and that uncle and nephew were quite different people with dissimilar views of the heavenly ordained family mission to rule … well, then you'll at least be aware of the many compelling threads in this narrative.

Readers of history already know the emperor's nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, as the man whose 1914 assassination in Sarajevo lit the fuse for the Great War. As for me, since my very first visit to Europe in 1985, when I made a visit to Austria's national military museum for the sole purpose of viewing the Archduke's blood-splattered tunic and the automobile he and his wife were using to drive through Sarajevo when Gavrilo Princip's bullets ended their lives, visiting the various Central European locales on the Franz Ferdinand heritage trail has been a constant attraction.

The military museum was first, and also in 1985, I walked through the crypt of the Austrian emperors in Vienna precisely to see where Franz Ferdinand and his wife are not buried – and this absence is a very important part of the overall story.

The Archduke was a blunt, obnoxious, violent, unlikable and repressed human being who in his spare time enjoyed slaughtering wildlife under the guise of hunting.

He also did something decidedly uncommon among his brethren European royalty of the age: He fell madly in love, and remained just as madly in love, with a woman decreed by the royal court to be inadequately marriageable for an heir to the throne, and so he married her anyway, even though doing so forced him to renounce the path of succession for the children, and to acknowledge that Sophie could not participate in the normal trappings of royal life … or enjoy an eternal resting place alongside the properly accredited Habsburg family members.

Inexplicably, the otherwise indefensible Franz Ferdinand was transformed into the perfect family man at home in various estates and castles scattered throughout the realm … but, not unexpectedly, his perceived mistreatment at the hands of protocol rankled, and he nursed a smoldering grudge until the end of his life, which came in Sarajevo during a journey of largely unnecessary semi-official business that was undertaken because it geographically placed he and his wife outside the direct control of the court, inside a province that had been annexed only a short time before, and enabled him to provide his wife, albeit it briefly, with the "official" perks denied her otherwise.

All this meant less than nothing to a young group of nationalistic Bosnian revolutionary conspirators who detested the empire and were being trained and financed by a covert arm of the independent Serbian kingdom's military arm in Belgrade ("Black Hand"), and thus we are brought back to Sarajevo, where the motley crew of inflamed and malnourished terrorists plotted their tragicomic ambush of the Archduke.

To start, a bomb was inexpertly tossed. It bounced off the hood of Franz Ferdinand's car and ignited on the one following it, injuring a subaltern. The bomb thrower sought first to drown himself, jumping from an adjacent bridge into the two-foot-deep river, then, thwarted, tried to ingest poison that wasn't poison. He was quickly arrested and the group dissolved in panic, with Princip adjourning to coffee house to morosely consider the failures of the botched performance.

Meanwhile, in spite of the bomb attempt and further warnings that security could not be guaranteed, a supremely annoyed Archduke elected to finish the official visit to Sarajevo's town hall, resulting in one of the most incredible photos you'll ever see, with the bedecked Austrian royal visibly bursting veins while minor officials in vests and fezes offer tepid and embarrassed salutes. The fear in their eyes is palpable even in the ancient black and white photo. A bad moon is about to rise, and they know it.

But nothing can be done when it comes to fate, especially in the Balkans.

Sure enough, perhaps an hour later, the motorcade resumed without the Archduke's staff having communicated to the lead driver a slight change in route undertaken to make the return safer. Having missed the turn, the cars were halted on the street directly outside the coffee shop where Princip now emerged to find his original target stock still and seated only 20 feet away, posing for the crosshairs. Princip fired two shots, one each for Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, both inexplicably perfect in aim, and within moments, the heir and his wife were both dead.

Throughout my subsequent travels, I've visited the Archduke's "hunting lodge" in Benesov, outside Prague, consumed the beer brewed in his name nearby, returned to Vienna to tour the Belvedere Palace (his official residence), and finally in 2003, arduously climbed the steep side of the Danube valley on a bicycle for the privilege of seeing the ancestral castle at Artstetten, and being presented the key to the mausoleum by the lady on duty so that after twenty-two years, the couple's graves could at last be viewed and my respects offered.

But Sarajevo in 1987 remains the benchmark. The town hall, the bridge and the museum located where the coffee shop had been … the footprints in the concrete sidewalk to show where Princip stood when he struck his blows against the empire … and the ambience of this strange old town with minarets and church spires both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, not to mention synagogues, nestled together on a hillside, with the sprawling newer town encompassing a winter Olympics complex.

How much of it remains today? I ask because I've not returned, and as you know, Sarajevo had a few big problems since my lone visit.


maury k goldberg said...

And no Synagogue?


The New Albanian said...


Good point, and one I'll be referencing in the next installment, but I'm making a minor revision in the preceding. Thanks.