The Archduke and the Dominican Priest . . .

The 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand just passed – the seemingly fairly minor event (this is where one usually adds the disclaimer “but not for his family” – not so much the case with the Archduke) that unexpectedly triggered World War I.

“Unexpectedly,” and “triggered,” and a few hundred other like words will be written between now and August 1st.  The 100 year narrative – the Archduke is assassinated, threats, recriminations, ultimatums fly through Europe, alliances are enforced, honored, Europe is at war in 33 days – is so entrenched that Franz Ferdinand is now the name of a pretty good Scottish indie band.  

Entrenched, certainly, the question, of course, is . . . why? For hundreds of years there had been assassinations, skirmishes, wars in the Balkans. Napoleon, Bismarck and hosts of others had warned that the Balkan’s were the “powder-keg” of Europe – Bismarck undoubtedly the most prescient with the remark  “the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” 

Why was the death of poor Ferdinand that ‘damned foolish thing’?

I took a year and a half series of courses in the history of the British Empire in college that culminated with World War I. Finished with the Boer War and the great battleship race with Germany, the Great War looming on the syllabus, our professor, Father ‘Corny’ Forster unleashed his answer to that question: The dreaded Map.

Father Forster was tall, square, had a sense of humor as dry as the Gobi Desert (but a lot more fertile), moved like a Prussian autocrat and looked like he had led a Panzer division across France. No one called him Corny to his face. By the time I took his courses he was as much an institution at Providence as basketball. 

europe 1914

He was known, accurately, as a great lecturer, a tough tester, and  for ‘The Map’.  As in: “Hey, you get to the map yet?”, “Wait’ll you have ta memorize the map,” “I wouldda had an A in that class if it wasn’t for that frickin’ map.”

The Map. The map was Father Forster’s way of illustrating the why. He believed, fervently, that a traditional map of Europe circa 1914 went pretty much nowhere toward explaining anything, and a map of the Austria-Hungarian Empire & Balkans was completely worthless . . .

Austria1914physical . . . unless it was a map that ignored geographic lines and showed where the people lived:

austria 1914

Father Forster’s map, taken from Laurence Lafore’s The Long Fuse. It shows the Austria-Hungarian Empire as it really was, not as the Hapsburg’s and the rest of Europe hoped it was.

Thirteen (at least) ethnic groups/nationalities thrown across the expanse of the Empire, clumped here and there, isolated in other spots, in ways guaranteed that no one group would ever be contiguous or, well, happy. Those thirteen (at least) groups shared seven distinct religions, which, to say the least, led to some interesting subsets.

This was Father Forster’s starting point, the beginnings of why, a look into the powder keg . . . it was also a huge part of his final exam – fill out a blank map of the Empire putting the right ethnic group in the right spot(s) … there are twenty-two possible points. Lots of room to make a damned foolish mistake.


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