He experienced the horrors of two wars and during this time he also covered an immense geographical area. The trip described in this blog is an attempt to retrace his steps from Prague across the Eurasian continent to beyond Lake Baikal in Siberia. The first part of the trip will follow the precisely described route of Josef Švejk, Hašek's inspired literary creation. I left home on April 30 2010 and was back on October 29.

Monday, 10 May 2010

When the lights went out

This blog entry deals with history.
The famous novel Švejk starts off with one of the most infamous political assassinations of all times. Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones, was killed in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. It was the pretext hard-liners amongst the Austro-Hungarian governing elite  needed to put Serbia in its place, in effect occupy and subdue it, perhaps even incorporate it in the empire. They blamed the Serb government for the crime, which in retrospect has proved unfounded. The last thing Serbia wanted was another war. The country was nearly bankrupt after the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, and was no military threat to the Dual Empire. Franz Ferdinand himself had in 1913 warned against attacking Serbia: he called them a bankrupt bunch of murderers of royals. He was right on both accounts: King Aleksandar Obrenović was assassinated in 1903 but Franz Ferdinand didn't know that he himself was to follow.

The threat was of a political nature; Austria-Hungary had large South Slav minorities within its borders; Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. These could be expected to have mixed loyalties or  even worse. Many of them in fact had; amongst them the members of the Bosnian Serb terrorist group  "Crna ruka" (Black Hand) which eventually carried out the killings in Sarajevo. They were only one of several groups which identified more with states beyond the border than with the Emperor and Kings' multi-ethnic empire. These included Italians in South Tyrol, South Slavs on the Balkan Peninsula and Romanians in Transylvania. There were even some Germans in the Empire which could be described as disloyal. One of them was later to become notorious; Adolf  Hitler despised the Dual Monarchy, and opted to become ein Reichsdeutscher.

Back to the outbreak of the Great War. Teaching Serbia a lesson wasn't just about Austria-Hungary and Serbia. The latter's main ally, Russia would not quietly accept a shift in the Balkan equilibrium of power. Russia was in turn allied with  France, which in turn had its Entente Cordiale with the  British Empire. Austria-Hungary itself had a powerful ally in the German Empire that already on 5 July gave full backing to deal with Serbia. So the scene was set for a large conflict. During the July crisis in 1914 attempts at diplomatic solutions were made, but powerful circles, particularly amongst German military strategists actually wanted a conflict. They were worried about the rising power of Russia. Despite her archaic and inefficient regime, Russia's industry was developing fast and the infrastructure was expanded  rapidly. The population also increased at a much quicker rate than that of Germany. All those developments did of course raise concern in Berlin.

On 28 July 1914 Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and by 4 August all the major European powers were involved. A chain of serious political miscalculations led to a human disaster only eclipsed by the Second World War (which also can be viewed as a result of the unsettled grievances caused by WW1). Thus the hawks in Vienna headed by Chief of Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, got more than they  bargained for; a quick and effective campaign to "teach Serbia a lesson" ended with a disastrous war and the eventual collapse of the multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire. The country which the war was initially waged against, Serbia, lost 25% of her population. These sufferings were worse than what any other nation experienced in any of the world wars.

An important reason why many military strategists were keen on a war was that they expected it to be short. This is even reflected in Book One of Švejk, by obrlajtnat Lukáš, when he explains the war situation to hop trader Wendler. One notable exception to this view was British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey:

A friend came to see me on one of the evenings of the last week — he thinks it was on Monday, August 3rd. We were standing at a window of my room in the Foreign Office. It was getting dusk, and the lamps were being lit in the space below...My friend recalls that I remarked on this with the words, "The lamps are going out all over Europe: we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."

Tragically Sir Edward Grey was right. The war lasted for more than four years; around 15 millions were killed, millions more were wounded physically and mentally, the material damages were  enormous. Four established empires collapsed, and the conflict destabilised Europe for the next 40  years, and paved the way for two inhuman dictatorships; Hitler's Dritte Reich and Stalin's only slightly less obnoxious Soviet Union. Sir Edward Grey died in 1933 and he never saw the lamps lit again. He  lived just long enough to experience Hitler's ascendancy to power in Germany. Thus he was spared 12 years of total darkness.

No comments:

Post a Comment