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Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife get in their car in Serbia five minutes before they are both shot

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife get in their car in Serbia five minutes before they are both shot

A century ago, on June 28th, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo by a Gavrilo Princip, a Yugoslav nationalist. The assassination began a terrible sequence of political events which ineluctably dragged the nations of Europe (and eventually most of the world) into World War I –and eventually into World War II as well. Western society had been running blindly towards a terrible abyss: Franz Ferdinand’s death was when everyone unknowingly stepped off the edge and plunged into horror.

An abandoned trench destroyed by shellfire, Delville Wood near Longueval, Somme, September, 1916

An abandoned trench destroyed by shellfire, Delville Wood near Longueval, Somme, September, 1916

Historians are still arguing about the agonizing and labyrinthine causes of the war (which would almost certainly have happened whether or not the Archduke had been shot). His death was merely the incandescent spark which fell into a pile of explosives. In the coming days and years, the world will look back on the events of those times from the temporal distance of a century and we will all try (again) to figure out how everything went so completely wrong. This is a very necessary exercise for humanity: the same forces which caused the First World War are always at work–gnawing at all we have tried to build like the great serpent Níðhöggr chewing away the roots of Yggdrasil.

Franz Ferdinand

Franz Ferdinand

Today, however, let us ignore the larger issues of what caused World War I and concentrate instead on a single person, Franz Ferdinand himself—because he was a deeply strange individual from an odd and convoluted family. His personal story is a troubling and sad story. To begin with, Franz Ferdinand had not initially been the heir to the Imperial throne. The real rightful heir was Rudolf Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, however Rudolf abdicated his inheritance (and his life) in 1889 when he shot 17-year-old Baroness Marie Vetsera in the head and then turned the gun on himself. The murder-suicide was believed to be an emotional response to an imperial edict from Rudolf’s father Franz Joseph I, who had ordered the crown prince to end his love affair.

Crown Prince Rudolph & Baroness Mary Vetsera

Crown Prince Rudolph & Baroness Mary Vetsera

After the death of Rudolf (who was the only son of Franz Joseph I), Franz Ferdinand’s father Karl Ludwig became the heir to the throne, however Karl Ludwig quickly chose to renounce the throne and die of typhus. This left Franz Ferdinand in a position which he had not expected. He was an ultra-conservative aristocrat and military officer which a morbid obsession for trophy hunting (his diaries indicate that he personally killed 300,000 animals); but he was also a well-known romantic. This latter aspect of his personality became a huge problem which nearly ripped apart the Austrian imperial family (anew). In 1894 Franz Ferdinand met Countess Sophie Chotek and fell deeply in love, but the Countess was not a member of one of Europe’s ruling royal families. In his new role as heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand was expected to marry someone fitting of his station, but he refused to do so. The Pope, the Tsar, and the Kaiser interceded between the Emperor and the Archduke until eventually a solution was found. The couple would be married, but none of their children would inherit the throne. The Countess was elevated to but she was to be treated as a sort of underclass concubine at court (although she was at least styled as “Princess”).

Pre-1900 pastel painting of Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg held at Artstetten Castle Museum.

Pre-1900 pastel painting of Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg held at Artstetten Castle Museum.

Once his controversial marriage had happened, Franz Ferdinand became less controversial: he raised a family and assumed more and more imperial honors and duties. On June 28th, 2014 he was visiting Sarajevo with his wife and his advisors when Nedeljko Čabrinović, tried to assassinate him by throwing a grenade at his car. The bomb missed and injured the occupants of the following car. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie decided to visit the people who were injured in the grenade attack, however the changed itinerary confused their chauffeur who got lost and had to back up to get back on course. Gavrilo Princip was sitting a t a café when he saw the Archduke’s car slowly backing up the street. He got up and walked over and shot Sophie in the abdomen and Franz Ferdinand in the neck.

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie Chotek, on their state visit to Sarajevo. The illustration was published in the French newspaper Le Petit Journal on July 12, 1914.

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie Chotek, on their state visit to Sarajevo. The illustration was published in the French newspaper Le Petit Journal on July 12, 1914.

The archduke was more concerned for his wife than for himself. As the car accelerated away from the gunman, he cried out “Sophie dear! Don’t die! Stay alive for our children!” As his increasingly alarmed aids and underlings begin to realize the gravity of the situation, Franz Ferdinand began to repeatedly say “It is nothing,” again and again until he fell silent and died. Sophie likewise died of blood loss on the way to the hospital. Then, because of the loss of this middle aged couple, the world began to fall apart.

The Imperial Crown of the Austrian Empire. Schatzkammer. Vienna, Austria.

The Imperial Crown of the Austrian Empire. Schatzkammer. Vienna, Austria.

The crown to the Austro-Hungarian Empire is one of the most splendid of all crowns (look for a post about it next week), but considering the stories of Franz Ferdinand, Franz Joseph I, Sophie Chotek, and Crown Prince Rudolf, one could legitimately wonder whether it is accursed. Considering the tragedy that spiraled outward in greater and greater circles from the death of the archduke and his wife, one wonders if the whole world might likewise suffer from some evil dementia.

Białowieża Forest

Long ago Eastern Europe was covered by vast virgin forests.  Almost all of these woodlands have long ago been cut down to make way for agriculture, roads, or towns, but in the northeast corner of Poland one of these ancient forests still survives.

Until late in the 14th century, Białowieża forest located at the junction of the Baltic Sea watershed and the Black Sea watershed was a primeval forest so thick that travelers could pass through the region only by river. Even in the fifteenth century roads and bridges were rare in the ancient woodlands of eastern Poland and the human population remained sparse to non-existent.  Because the lands were so empty of people but full of animals, the kings of Poland adopted Białowieża forest as a royal game preserve.  The Polish monarchy also used the forest as a wilderness retreat: it was in the dark fastness of his forest hunting lodge that King Władysław holed up to escape the Black Death.

Hunters returing to Białowieża Hill (1820, print)

The region remained a pristine royal forest until the partition of Poland delivered the forest to Russian hands.  Even the Russian tsars were beguiled by Białowieża forest, for it was one of the last wild preserves for the largest land animal in Europe, the mighty wisent.  In 1801 Tsar Alexander I was moved by the plight of wisent herds (which had swiftly dwindled due to poaching). The tsar reintroduced a hunting ban and hired a small number of peasants as game rangers.  Alexander II reinstated the ban in 1860 and in 1888 the tsars assumed direct ownership of the entire forest.

Great Gray Owl

During World War I the forest fell under German control and, from 1915 to 1918, the occupying army rushed to cut down Białowieża’s timber and hunt down all remaining wildlife. But even the Germans had their hands full during those tumultuous years and they lost World War I before they could despoil the entire forest.  Białowieża came under Soviet control and during Stalin’s era, all Polish inhabitants were “deported to remote parts of the Soviet Union” and replaced by Soviet forest workers.  When German troops again retook Białowieża in World War II, the Soviet forest workers in turn disappeared. Hermann Göring harbored ambitious plans to create the world’s biggest hunting reserve at Białowieża, but, in the end, the Nazis predictably used the remote location as a grave for resistance fighters.  When the Germans retreated they destroyed the ancient hunting lodges of the Polish throne, but they did not destroy the forest itself. After the war the forest was divided between Poland and the Belarusian State of the Soviet Union. Both regions became protected wilderness areas.

The brickwork Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas on the outskirts of Białowieża

Because of this history, Białowieża Primeval Forest is now the last remaining primary deciduous and mixed forest of the European lowlands.  The land is a refuge for pine, beech, alder, spruce, and towering oaks which have never known the axe. Just as the forest lies in the place where two watersheds meet, it also straddles the boreal and temperate zone: plants and animals from south and north live wild in the park.

The World Heritage Convention website enumerates the many wildlife species which currently live in the forest writing, “these wilderness areas are inhabited by European bison, a species reintroduced into the park in 1929, elk, stag, roe deer, wild boar, lynx, wolf, fox, marten, badger, otter, ermine, beaver and numerous bats. It is also a showplace reserve for tarpan (Polish wild forest horse). The avifauna includes corncrake, white-tailed eagle, white stork, peregrine falcon and eagle owl.”

A Wisent Flees into Bialowieza Forest

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

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