Archive for June, 2014

A ridiculous assassination (which changed the world)

Gavrilo PrincipOn June 28, 1914, exactly one century ago, Gavrilo Princip, a young Serb nationalist, shot and killed the Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Archduchess Sophie. You may remember—or, if not, have been reminded by the media these days—that the event is generally accepted as the trigger of the Great War (1914-1918). After decades of diplomatic clashes between the main powers and mounting tension in the Balkans, Europe was ripe for a conflict and the assassination gave it the needed push.

Exactly a month after that assassination, all diplomatic efforts toward an entente having come to naught and Serbia refusing to give in to Austria’s demands for greater interference in Serbian affairs, Austria declared war on Serbia, causing a domino effect that eventually involved all of Europe, the Ottoman Empire, Japan, Australia, and some Latin American countries, with the United States entering the fray in 1917. All in all, the conflict saw the end of both the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires and made tens of millions of military and civilian victims worldwide. It has been called acalamitous conflict that, more than any other series of events, has shaped the world ever since; without it we can doubt that communism would have taken hold in Russia, fascism in Italy, and Nazism in Germany, or that global empires would have disintegrated so rapidly and so chaotically.”

Not a shabby achievement for Gavrilo Princip, celebrated day before yesterday in East Sarajevo as his statue was unveiled while West Sarajevo more somberly commemorated the Archduke’s assassination and the terrible events it set in motion. (If anything, the conflicting ceremonies illustrate that the past hundred years have not taught us how to move beyond ethnic divides. But then, we should know by now that nothing teaches us anything.)

The assassination shook the world and its consequences are still with us but the chain of events was more Marx Brothers than Greek tragedy, its main actor an unlikely hero. Princip, barely 19 years old, a frail young man already racked with skeletal tuberculosis, was a devoted admirer of Walt Whitman and, by some accounts, the president of the Walt Whitman Society in Sarajevo (the absence of Twitter and Tumblr presumably allowed loftier interests). About Princip’s love of Whitman, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz writes, “The young revolutionaries in Belgrade read [Whitman] politically as a singer of democracy, of the crowd en masse, the enemy of monarchs… and that is how an American poet was responsible for the outbreak of World War I.”

Princip was a member or follower of the Black Hand, a secret military society, and of Young Bosnia, inspired by the many wooly anarchist/romantic/Nietzschian currents of the time. He was part of a handful of young literary aficionados, also nationalists, who resented the tall shadow of their Austro-Hungarian neighbor who taxed them heavily and didn’t allow them enough autonomy. Assassinating a prominent figure was a long-time dream of these young people. When they learned that Franz Ferdinand would visit Sarajevo for the opening of a hospital, Princip and five fellow conspirators recruited by Black Hand members knew they had found the perfect target. They traveled from Belgrade and, on June 28, stood at various points of the official route, armed with hand grenades, four Browning pistols and cyanide powder with which to kill themselves after the act so they wouldn’t be captured.

Transfixed by the fear of getting caught, the first would-be assassin watched the procession of six cars go by, unable to move. Another one threw a hand grenade at the Archduke’s open-topped car but the driver saw it coming and accelerated. The grenade ricocheted against the car, fell back on the street and exploded under the next car, wounding occupants and onlookers. The grenade thrower swallowed the cyanide (the poison, probably an inferior quality, didn’t kill him and only made him sick) then, running to the nearby river, jumped in to drown himself but the water was not more than four inches deep. Police hard on his heels pulled him out and arrested him on the spot.

A while later, after the commotion had died out, the Archduke decided to go to the hospital to visit the victims of the explosion. Princip who was still around, indecisive, had just had coffee and bitten into a sandwich when he saw two cars drive by and recognized the Archduke. As luck would have it, the drivers had taken a wrong route and while being turned around, the Archduke’s car stalled. Seeing his opportunity, Princip ran and shot the Archduke and his wife. The couple would die within the hour.

The assassin then swallowed the cyanide, which didn’t kill him but made him sick as it had his co-conspirator, and turned the gun to his own temple but was stopped before he could pull the trigger. Arrested and tried—but too young to be condemned to death— he spent almost four years in the Therensienstadt jail (yes, the same Therensienstadt that during WW II became a ghetto and concentration camp), his body covered with sores and his rotting bones causing him such pain that his right arm had to be amputated, before illness got the better of him.

The echo of those two shots continues to reverberate down our history.


Sure, I’m indignant

Despite the complicated and not always happy world we live in, I most often manage to avoid being driven by contempt or hatred. For moral reasons—surely, despising and hating must be harmful to the soul–for trite aesthetic ones (to avoid those vertical lines a lifetime of disapproval etches round the mouths of older people and to prevent those between my eyebrows from deepening), for health reasons (to keep my blood pressure normal, my heart rate slow, my hands warm). Also, my mental setup is such that I believe in silver linings more than in clouds, I deliberately take things at face value, I don’t believe that a new conspiracy is being spun every minute, and I see the line running from A to Z as always straight. In sum, I refuse to be goaded into suspicion, anger or indignation.

Not an easy resolve, as this past week demonstrates.


First, the appearance, seemingly out of nowhere, of hordes of m-f-ing murderous flesh-eating Islamists, the ISIS. And how do these names, acronyms, abbreviations, become legitimate so quickly, how do we go in a few hours from “the IS what?” to “yes, of course, the ISIS,” and start bandying the letters as though these people form a bona fide political group with which, sure, we can talk once we bring them to the table, and indeed, the Sunnis have been ill-treated by Maliki so naturally enough they eat the heart of their enemies or post videos  of themselves smoking, relaxed, beside the heads of decapitated soldiers, occasionally pausing in their banter to insult one of the cut heads. What? Several thousand dead already? Well, this is war, it’s not supposed to be pretty. Read more…

Happy? You bet!

Picture this. You live under one of the most repressive regimes possible, a dictatorship not only enforced by thugs, which would be bad enough, but by Islamist thugs, so that ideology and faith gone astray are stirred into the already unpalatable mix. (Gallup’s most recent rankings of positive emotions find Iran at #93 on a list of 138 countries. As for highest negative emotions in the world, Iran comes second only to Iraq.) You chafe, you fret, there must be an outlet. Iran’s population is young, often hip, and not easily cowed, as we saw in June 2009 when boys and girls in practically equal numbers took to the streets to protest rigged presidential elections.

These youths are irrepressible in their thrust toward freedom. Today, theirs is not a political struggle—they don’t want regime change, they don’t challenge the existing order, they don’t even care about the sinister robed and turbaned clowns in power. They have chosen a different route. You won’t let me write or express myself? Okay, I’ll sing, how about that? You won’t let me have the life I want? Then I’ll dance. Just try and stop me. Read more…

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