A Bloody Coup In The Balkans

On the night of 10-11 June 1903, 115 years ago today, officers of the Serbian Army staged a palace coup by murdering with almost unimaginable brutality Serbian King Alexander and his Queen Draga in the Royal Palace in Belgrade.

Serbia styled itself a kingdom, yet to the majority of Europe it was viewed as a principality. Though Serbia had been independent of the Ottoman Empire in fact for more than 70 years by 1903, its status as a truly independent state had only been confirmed by the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Serbia’s internal politics had been notably turbulent throughout the 19th Century, and the competition between the dominant noble families often led to bloodshed. To a certain extent, though the bloody coup of 1903 horrified Europe, no one was really greatly surprised; it was, after all, Serbia. Therefore the coup was met by expressions of shock and official condemnations, but beyond the recalling of ambassadors, the powers of Europe declines to intervene.

In the aftermath of the coup, the Serbian legislature, guided by leaders of the coup, selected a new king. Butchered King Alexander was of the house of Obrenović which had dominated Serbian politics for almost a century. After the coup, the rival house of Karađorđević was placed upon the throne. The Obrenović rulers had long gravitated toward the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whereas the Karađorđević clan favored the Russian Empire. Many of the key leaders of the coup were quietly removed from their military duties to placate other European nations’ demands for justice for the murdered royals, but these conspirators were either pensioned off or “kicked upstairs” to positions of greater power and influence.

Do seemingly minor events of long ago and far away matter much? Is there any point at all in studying the past?

Naturally, I am convinced that the answer is a firm and resounding “Yes!” In studying the events that led up to the ignition of the First World War, the assassination of Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife Sophie has always seemed especially difficult to understand. The most challenging aspect of the assassination, which has been referred to as “the spark that touched off the powder keg,” is the astonishingly self-destructive role that Serbia played in the crime. Why did Serbia sponsor and supply the assassins? What did Serbia hope to gain from such barbarity?

I must honestly admit that I cannot supply an answer to that question. Yet I do perceive a potent connection and a possible line of inquiry. For this Serbian coup (known as the “May Coup” because Serbia remained officially on the Julian calendar) was principally planned and the actual assassinations were led by a young officer named Dragutin Dimitrijević. His role in the coup was rewarded, and he eventually rose to become Serbia’s Chief of Intelligence. Dragutin Dimitrijević had an almost fanatical commitment to the unification of all Serbs, including those living under the rule of Austria-Hungary; he was a prime figure in the secret Serbian nationalist organization known as “The Black Hand.”

It was Dragutin Dimitrijević who sponsored the Young Bosnian assassins of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and who supplied them with bombs, poisons, and guns.

So: do seemingly minor events of long ago and far away matter much? Is there any point at all in studying the past?

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

If there is ever another war in Europe,
it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.

— Otto Von Bismarck, 1890

“Some Damned Silly Thing In The Balkans” *

It was on a fine June Sunday – 28 June 1914 – that the world was forever and profoundly changed by the nearly random luck of a tiny group of inept would-be terrorists and assassins in the small town of Sarajevo, in Austrian-controlled Bosnia.

The heir to the throne of the ancient Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his morganatic wife Sophie were shot at close range by a young Bosnian, Gavorillo Princip. Princip, one of three assassins sent to kill the Archduke and his wife with bombs, was sitting in a cafe and moping over the failure of the plot: not one of the three assassins had been successful in their attempt to deploy their bombs. In two incidents, they succeeded only in wounding some bystanders when they hurled their distinctly inadequate bombs. (Adding insult to injury, Princip’s colleagues could not even commit suicide as they had planned because the “cyanide capsules” they swallowed were simply sugar!)

Astonishingly, after the failed bomb attempts, the Archduke and his wife continued on their motorcade to be received at Town Hall. Franz Ferdinand, unsurprisingly, scolded the mayor of Sarajevo for the reception the town had given him (Bombs! Of all the nerve!) and then decided to motor on to the hospital to visit those wounded in the failed attacks. This is where so much history hinges upon a trivial detail: the driver of the limousine made a wrong turn to the hospital in front of the very cafe where Princip was bemoaning his failure!

Princip, seeing the large car awkwardly trying to maneuver in the narrow old street, jumped up, pulled a pistol from his pocket, and fired twice at extremely close range, mortally wounding Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. Princip was prevented from turning his weapon on himself by the intervention of an enraged mob, and he was immediately arrested.

Dragutin Dimitrijevic, chief of Serbian Intelligence, had sponsored the operation, and the Serbian Prime Minister had passively approved it, evidently hoping for Bosnia and Herzogovina to be united with Serbia after a revolt against Austria. It remains an open question as to why the Serbians sent three inept teenagers to do such a job, supplied them with feeble, inadequate bombs, and gave them useless poison pills. It appears as if Dimitrijevic intended to start a war with Austria. Whatever the reasoning behind the plot, war was indeed the result, war on a scale and of a horror unlike any previously known. Austria, after five weeks of dithering, declared war on Serbia, thus Russia declared war on Austria, Germany on Russia, France and England on Germany, The Ottoman Empire on France and England, and so on. The fire consumed the globe for four years, and millions upon millions died in horrible ways as the latest deadly technologies were tried.

To read accounts of and from that summer of 1914 is to have an eerie sense of having heard it all before: the blind optimism for battlefield glory, the patriotic zeal to “teach a lesson” to the other side, and the certainty that the whole thing would be over in short order; all of this seems uncannily like what Americans North and South were saying in the Spring and Summer of 1861, unaware of the horror that the American Civil War would unleash. Somehow, the Europeans of 1914 repeated the scenario as if reading from the same script. How could they have been so foolish? Had they never heard of the American Civil War? Or, as I suspect, did they make the assumption – repeated by generation after generation, all across the globe – that This time it will be different, because we know better!

A profoundly ironic view of things comes from the Archduke’s assassin. As he lay in prison dying of tuberculosis in 1918, Gavorillo Princip is recorded to have said “If I had known what was going to happen, I would never have done it.” Famous last words, eh?


Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

If any question why we died
Tell them, “Because our fathers lied.”

— Rudyard Kipling, who lost his son, referring to World War I

* The title comes from a notable statement made in 1890 by Germany’s “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck: “If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.”

FURTHER READING:

Guns of August, Barbara W. Tuchman; Ballentine Books, 1994 ed.: ISBN: 034538623X

ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL

Tuchman’s history of the start of World War I was first published in 1962. It was re-issued in 1994 on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the start of that War. This book has been called the best history book ever written. Masterfully researched and documented, it is as scholarly as any such work need be, yet it retains a readability — and excitement — that makes it as entertaining as any fictional thriller. Even after the passage of 41 years, this book remains essential reading for those who wish to learn about World War I.

The First World War, John Keegan; Vintage, 2000: ISBN: 0375700455

A MUST

I am of the opinion that anything by Keegan is worth reading (I’ve not been wrong yet, to my way of thinking.) This is a highly readable and complete account of World War I from start to finish. Perhaps the best one-volume coverage of that war we have.

OF INTEREST:

On the 90th anniversary of the start of World War I, there was a remarkable amount of publishing activity. All the following are good, but these are not aimed at the casual reader.

Europe’s Last Summer : Who Started the Great War in 1914?, David Fromkin; Knopf, 2004: ISBN: 0375411569

In this minutely researched volume, Fromkin answers his title question. The result is the well-known tragedy of a war that many wanted, but from which none saw the ultimate outcome. I must confess that though this book was well-regarded in the review I read last August, I find it fairly tedious in its presentation. Scholarly, to be sure. But not an entertaining read.

Cataclysm: The First World War As Political Tragedy, David Stevenson; Basic Books, 2004: ISBN: 0465081843

This one-volume history of World War I is complete and as scholarly as can be, but at times the reading feels a bit too much like slogging along with those foot soldiers of the era, knee-deep in mud and growing ever wearier. Still, it is worth the effort, because Stevenson offers some fresh insights which offer a new perpective on the well-known truisms about World War I.

The First World War, Hew Strachan; Viking Adult, 2004: ISBN: 0670032956

Strachan’s one-volume distillation of his unfinished trilogy on World War I, this effort has many of the same virtues and limitations that I identify in Stevenson’s book: it is not popular history (whatever that might really be) and so it is not light reading. But it is likewise worth the effort.

The First World War: To Arms, Hew Strachan; Oxford University Press, 2003 ed.: ISBN: 0199261911

This is the first volume of a yet-to-be-completed trilogy about World War I. Strachan is a foremost authority on that war, and this book is a definitive account of the build-up to World War I. It is, however, so thorough and so comprehensive that it can be both daunting and — at times — almost tedious.