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Not Your Father’s World History Part 13:
“What we wrote and said is also believed by many others.”

27 January 2006

The White Rose
Hans + Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst
The White Rose

Curious Article No. 22:

It was Sunday June 28th, 1914 in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. In their lavish 1911 Graf & Stift, Austro-Hungarian heir apparent Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Chotek narrowly missed being gunned down from a nearby bank by a certain Muhamed Mehmedbasic who couldn't get a clear shot. Next, they missed being hit by a grenade thrown by a cohort, Nedjelko Cabrinovic. It instead demolished the next car in line, seriously injuring two passengers and peppering spectators with shrapnel.

As per prior arrangement, Cabrinovic gulped a cyanide capsule and leapt into the nearby Miljacka River. But the cyanide was a dud (moisture had degraded it into sodium carbonate or washing soda) and as natives would know the summertime Miljacka runs almost dry. Cabrinovic was dragged from his bruising impact, beaten, and taken into custody. The motorcade then sped off to a reception at the town hall, passing unawares by three more would-be assassins, Vasco Cubrilovic, Cvijetko Popovic, and Danilo Ilic.

After the mayor’s speech the Archduke asked to visit the injured and so the motorcade reassembled and started for the hospital. It passed by a sixth assassin, Trifko Grabez, at Imperial Bridge. The mayor’s driver made a wrong turn, though, and stopped to back up. The Archduke’s car, right behind, also stopped. This happened to take place smack dab in front of yet another assassin, nineteen-year-old Gavrilo Princip, as he walked out of a sandwich shop.

He fired twice, hitting both the Archduke and the Archduchess who, though forty-six, happened to be pregnant. Under his coat the Archduke was wearing a silk four-ply bullet-resistant vest invented by a Chicago priest, but he got nailed in the neck. They both bled to death in minutes. Meanwhile, Princip gagged on his own washing soda, got worked over by police and then led away. Bosnian Serbs Mehmedbasic, Cabrinovic, Cubrilovic, Popovic, Ilic, Grabez, and Princip all had tuberculosis which in those days made them expendable. Though they probably didn't know it, so did Archduke Ferdinand.

Bosnians, especially Bosnian Serbs, had been smarting for years under Austro-Hungarian occupation. So after an ultimatum was issued to Serbia by Austria-Hungary and rejected, it declared war against them on July 28. Europe, at that time seething with nationalistic passions and a hair-trigger arms race between Britain, Germany, and France, quickly erupted as every schoolchild knows into the First World War. As for Ferdinand and Sophie, neither Emperor Franz Josef nor Kaiser Wilhelm troubled to attend their funeral. When Hitler annexed Austria to Germany in 1938 their three surviving children were arrested and shipped to the Dachau concentration camp where they remained until 1945. The eldest, Her Serene Highness Princess Sophie von Hohenberg, lived until 1990.

Pre-existing pacts requiring other states to pitch in when any one of them is attacked can also help expand a local tiff into a continental holocaust. In this instance the two major ones were the Triple Entente linking the British Empire, France, and Russia dating from 1907 and the Triple Alliance of Germany, Italy, and Austria from 1882. In the sense of its multinational character one might more logically count the World War of 1914-1918 as Number Five after the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the War of Spanish Succession (1702-1714), the Seven Years War (1754-1763), and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1791-1815).

Regardless of ordinal, its human toll was stupefying and largely pointless. With 15 million deaths it was at that time history’s sixth bloodiest war† but at least in terms of, say, casualties per yard gained on the battlefield it surely set a world’s record that stands to this day. It also saw the first significant use of poison gases, at least two dozen of them, and industrialized no-more-Mister-Nice-Guy slaughter in general on a scale previously unimagined.

Spanish Flu
But widely overlooked was the flu pandemic that broke out in its wake and actually killed many more people — according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control between 20 and 50 million from 1918 to 1919. Wartime censorship seriously obscured the news of it in many countries. Since Spain was neutral and reported it freely it came to be known as the Spanish Flu, though its first known case appeared in Fort Riley, Kansas. In some regions it wiped out entire villages, while at the other extreme it left the Switzerland-sized island of Marajó in the Amazon estuary entirely untouched. From samples taken from some of its victims preserved under Alaskan permafrost, investigators have assembled the virus’s genetic sequence and found significant similarities between it and the Bird Flu (H5N1) now stalking southeast Asia.

This era fostered some of history’s vilest despots. These were alpha males who availed themselves of its advanced technologies to inflict their brutalities with unprecedented thoroughness and efficiency. The three most storied were Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong. Of them, only Hitler served in the First World War. He enlisted in the Bavarian reserve infantry regiment, facing enemy action in Belgium and France and drawing cartoons for the army newspaper. After capturing four exhausted French soldiers he earned an Iron Cross First Class. Much later on Hitler actually became a multimillionaire from the sales of his rambling book Mein Kampf and spent years evading income taxes on it, but when he took power in 1933 his debt of $8 million (in modern equivalent) was forgiven. Most Germans snapped up the book not so much to read it — few bothered — but to display their allegiance in case visitors showed up.

According to a distillation of many divergent sources, Adolf Hitler was responsible for around 34 million deaths. Subtracting those that were casualties of the war he started, we're left with some 15 million unarmed civilians. These included Jews, Roma or Gypsies, homosexuals (though this was often simply a code word for political troublemakers), the handicapped, blacks (yes, there were about 20,000 who settled in Germany at the close of World War I), Slavs and other ethnicities from occupied territories, Jehova’s Witnesses, Esperanto speakers (!?), criminals, and internal dissidents.

Of the latter category, about 800,000 were at least imprisoned for criticizing Nazism. Proudly recalled by modern Germans is the White Rose student movement of Hans and Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst, and three others who disseminated their provocative flyers for eight months until the Gestapo finally closed in on February 18, 1943. At the trial of the first three on what would be the last day of their lives, Sophie told presiding judge Roland Freisler, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don't dare to express themselves as we did.”

† Most conservative available estimate. Others promote it to fifth, fourth or third bloodiest.

Next: Tyranny, weird science, roughing it with Mao »
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Text © Peter Blinn 2006

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