Endemic European Terrorism before 1914

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 433-456, 502-512:

The pre-1914 era was characterised by endemic acts of terrorism, especially in the Balkans, which were the butt of condescending British humour: a Punch joke had one anarchist asking another: ‘What time is it by your bomb?’ Saki penned a black-comic short story about an outrage – ‘The Easter Egg’. Both Joseph Conrad and Henry James wrote novels about terrorists….

For the Hapsburgs, such matters were commonplaces. Franz Joseph’s semi-estranged wife, the Empress Elisabeth, had been stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist while boarding a steamer at Geneva in 1898. Ten years later in Lemberg, a twenty-year-old Ukrainian student assassinated the governor of Galicia, Count Potocki, crying out, ‘This is your punishment for our sufferings.’ The judge at the trial of a Croat who shot at another Hapsburg grandee asked the terrorist, who had been born in Wisconsin, if he thought killing people was justified. The man replied: ‘In this case it is. It is the general opinion in America, and behind me are 500,000 American Croats. I am not the last among them … These actions against the lives of dignitaries are our only weapon.’ On 3 June 1908 Bogdan Žerajić, a young Bosnian, intended to shoot the Emperor in Mostar, but relented at the last moment. Instead he travelled to Sarajevo, fired several times at Gen. Marijan Varešanin, then – wrongly supposing that he had killed him – shot himself with his last bullet. It was later alleged, though never proven, that the Black Hand had provided the revolver. The Austrian police sawed off the terrorist’s head for preservation in their black museum.

In June 1912 a schoolboy shot at the governor of Croatia in Zagreb, missing his target but wounding a member of the imperial administration. In March 1914 the vicar-general of Transylvania was killed by a time-bomb sent through the post by Romanians. Yet Franz Ferdinand was capable of seeing the funny side of the threat: while watching military manoeuvres one day, his staff succumbed to panic when a dishevelled figure suddenly sprang from a bush clutching a large black object. The Archduke laughed heartily: ‘Oh, let him shoot me. That’s his job – he’s a court photographer. Let him make a living!’

There was nothing comic, however, about the obvious threat in Bosnia. The Austrian police had detected and frustrated several previous conspiracies. Gavrilo Princip was known to be associated with ‘anti-state activities’. Yet when he registered himself in Sarajevo as a new visitor, nothing was done to monitor his activities. Gen. Oskar Potiorek, governor of Bosnia, was responsible for security for the royal visit. The chief of his political department warned about the threat from the Young Bosnians, but Potiorek mocked the man ‘for having a fear of children’. Officials were later said to have devoted more energy to discussing dinner menus, and the correct temperature at which to serve the wines, than to the guest of honour’s safety. Official negligence alone gave Princip and his friends their chance….

Word of the death of the Archduke and his wife swept across the [Austro-Hungarian] Empire that day, and thereafter across Europe…. The [German] Kaiser was among the few men in Europe who personally liked Franz Ferdinand; he had lavished emotional capital upon their relationship., and was genuinely grieved by his passing…. But most of Europe received the news with equanimity, because acts of terrorism were so familiar.

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Filed under Balkans, Europe, nationalism, war

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