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World War I Centennial: Austria-Hungary Escalates, Kaiser Convenes War Council

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He’ll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 48th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

December 7 and 8, 1912: Austria-Hungary Escalates, Kaiser Convenes War Council


Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As 1912 drew to a close, Europe seemed to be teetering on the brink of war. The victory of the Balkan League over the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War put Serbia on a collision course with Austria-Hungary over the issue of Serbian access to the sea through (formerly Ottoman) Albania, including the important port of Durazzo (Durrës). Fearing Serbia’s influence on Austria-Hungary’s restive Slavs, Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Count Berchtold was determined to prevent Serbia from becoming a maritime state by creating an independent Albania—and was apparently willing to resort to military means to achieve this goal.

On November 21, 1912, Austria-Hungary flexed its muscles by mobilizing six army corps near Serbia and Russia (Serbia’s patron and protector), which sent a clear message: Serbia and its allies, Greece and Montenegro, had to evacuate Albania. But it also raised the risk of conflict between Austria-Hungary and Russia, which could easily become a wider European war with the involvement of Austria-Hungary’s ally Germany, Russia’s ally France, France’s (informal) ally Britain, and Italy, on one side or the other. (On December 5, Italy signed the third and final renewal of the Triple Alliance Treaty with Germany and Austria-Hungary, but also had secret agreements with France and Russia.)

On November 28, Albania declared independence with support from Austria-Hungary, but most of the country was still occupied by Serbian, Greek, and Montenegrin forces; the Serbians captured Durazzo and Serbian and Montenegrin armies continued to besiege the important city of Scutari, which Berchtold also wanted to give to Albania. On December 3, the Greek navy bombarded Vlorë, where the Albanian provisional government was meeting—not exactly an indication the Balkan League was prepared to recognize Albanian statehood.


Click the map to enlarge.

On December 7, 1912, Austria-Hungary ratcheted up the tension again by mobilizing two more army corps even closer to Serbia: the XVI corps, based in Sarajevo, and the XV corps, based in Ragusa (Dubrovnik). At Berchtold’s request, Emperor Franz Josef also called up the Landswehr, or local militia, in Dalmatia on the Adriatic coast. Perhaps most significant, on December 7 Franz Josef reappointed the energetic, bellicose General Count Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf to his old post of chief of the general staff, where he exerted a powerful (and technically unconstitutional) influence on Austro-Hungarian foreign policy.

On December 14, 1912, Conrad advised Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne (who, as Conrad’s political patron, was responsible for his appointment on December 7) that in the face of rising Slavic nationalism, Austria-Hungary’s only chance of survival was to simply absorb Serbia—by force if necessary. In the long term, Franz Ferdinand and Conrad essentially hoped to do an end run around Slavic nationalism by restructuring the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a tripartite state with the addition of a third monarchy representing the Slavs—an idea known as “trialism.” In the most likely scenario, Serbia might join the empire but retain its own monarchy, like the Kingdom of Bavaria in the German Empire.

Whatever happened, Conrad advised: “The unification of the Southern Slav race is one of those phenomena of nation resurgence which can neither be explained away nor artificially prevented. The only point at issue is whether this unification is to take place inside the dominions of the Monarchy—i.e. at the cost of Serbian independence, or under the aegis of Serbia at the cost of the Monarchy.”

Unsurprisingly, this idea was bitterly opposed by Serbian nationalists and pan-Slav ideologists in the Balkans and Russia, who prized independence as an integral part of the Slavic national project. “Trialism” was also absolutely opposed by the Hungarians, who feared it would diminish the power they secured in the dual monarchy agreement of 1867 by absorbing more Slavic subjects (making Franz Ferdinand a dangerous enemy to both Slavic nationalists and Hungarian aristocrats).

Now, in the face of yet another Serbian affront (access to the sea), Austria-Hungary was apparently taking a hard line. Typically, Conrad was prepared to go all the way: On January 9, he advised foreign minister Berchtold to attack Serbia as soon as possible, and “Russia must be overthrown.” But Franz Ferdinand opposed going to war over Albania, “that poverty stricken grazing ground for goats." Like Conrad, the heir to the throne felt the real long-term threat to Austria-Hungary was Italy, a Great Power with nationalist claims on Austrian territory (even though it was supposed to be Austria-Hungary’s ally under the Triple Alliance).

On the other side, was it really worth it for Russia to call Austria-Hungary’s bluff and risk a European war, all over the issue of Serbian access to the sea? To keep the situation from spiraling out of control, diplomats from all Europe’s Great Powers hurried to arrange a meeting where they could settle the situation in the Balkans. The Conference of London (actually two parallel conferences—one between the Great Powers, one between the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire) was set to convene on December 17, 1912.

Kaiser Convenes Imperial War Council

While some European powers were working to defuse the situation, others seemed to be looking for a fight. Germany was in a particularly belligerent mood—not because German interests were really affected by the issue of Serbian access to the sea (they weren’t), but out of concern for the prestige and influence of their ailing ally Austria-Hungary, both in the Balkans and Europe in general. Between their anxiety about Austria-Hungary’s position and paranoia about “encirclement” by Britain, France, and Russia, the German leadership was not in a mood to compromise or heed warnings.

It was no surprise, then, that British attempts to clarify the situation produced the opposite response. On December 3, 1912, British Chancellor Richard Haldane warned the German ambassador to London, Prince Lichnowsky, that Britain would probably side with France in the event of a European war. Instead of responding to this warning by steering a more cautious course and trying to conciliate Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II was infuriated by what he considered a threat—indeed a “moral declaration of war.”

On December 8, 1912, the Kaiser convened what came to be known as the “Imperial War Council” to consider the possibility of a European war and assess Germany’s chances. Attendees at the War Council included Wilhelm II, chief of the German general staff Helmuth von Moltke, and Admiral von Tirpitz, the architect of German naval strategy, as well as two other top admirals. Tellingly, Germany’s top civilian leaders weren’t even invited: Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg and foreign secretary Kiderlen-Wächter only found out about the meeting a week later.

Wilhelm and Moltke took a dire view of the huge increase in Russian economic and military power, which, together with French armaments and the Anglo-German naval arms race, threatened to tip the balance of power against Germany and Austria-Hungary forever. They had to break out of the Triple Entente’s encirclement before it was too late, and Moltke favored a preventive war against France and Russia sometime soon, probably in the next couple years, but also recognized the need to prepare public opinion: “I consider a war inevitable—the sooner, the better. But we should do a better job of gaining popular support for a war against Russia, in line with the Kaiser's remarks.”

In keeping with the racialist thinking of the day, Wilhelm and most of his peers viewed the confrontation between Austria-Hungary and Serbia as the harbinger of an impending “racial struggle” between the Germanic and Slavic peoples, as he warned German Jewish shipping magnate Albert Ballin, director of the giant Hamburg America Line, in a personal letter on December 15, 1912. In 1912, Berchtold chose to settle the matter diplomatically, but through this racial lens, the situation in the Balkans was grim and inexorable; to the German and Austro-Hungarian elites, some kind of confrontation was inevitable.

In the end, on December 8, 1912, Wilhelm sided with Tirpitz, who begged for another year and a half, promising the German fleet would be ready for war in 1914. In the meantime, all agreed, Germany had to focus on ramping up its own armaments program, strengthening its alliance with Vienna, and seeking potential allies among Europe’s “undecided” states, including Bulgaria, Romania, and the Ottoman Empire. Everyone hoped that Britain would stay out of the fight (an interesting mental contortion, considering they were meeting in response to a British warning, but entirely typical of Germany’s leadership).

See all entries here.

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(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
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Animals
The Time Carl Akeley Killed a Leopard With His Bare Hands
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.

Carl Akeley had plenty of close encounters with animals in his long career as a naturalist and taxidermist. There was the time a bull elephant had charged him on Mount Kenya, nearly crushing him; the time he was unarmed and charged by three rhinos who missed him, he said later, only because the animals had such poor vision; and the time the tumbling body of a silverback gorilla he'd just shot almost knocked him off a cliff. This dangerous tradition began on his very first trip to Africa, where, on an otherwise routine hunting trip, the naturalist became the prey.

It was 1896. Following stints at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment and the Milwaukee Public Museum, Akeley, 32, had just been appointed chief taxidermist for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and he was tasked with gathering new specimens to bolster the 3-year-old museum's fledgling collections. After more than four months of travel and numerous delays, the expedition had reached the plains of Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia, where Akeley hunted for specimens for days without success.

Then, one morning, Akeley managed to shoot a hyena shortly after he left camp. Unfortunately, “one look at his dead carcass was enough to satisfy me that he was not as desirable as I had thought, for his skin was badly diseased,” he later wrote in his autobiography, In Brightest Africa. He shot a warthog, a fine specimen, but what he really wanted was an ostrich—so he left the carcass behind, climbed a termite hill to look for the birds, then took off after a pair he saw in the tall grass.

But the ostriches eluded him at every turn, so he returned to camp and grabbed the necessary tools to cut off the head of his warthog. However, when he and a “pony boy” got to the spot where he’d left the carcass, all that remained was a bloodstain. “A crash in the bushes at one side led me in a hurry in that direction and a little later I saw my pig's head in the mouth of a hyena travelling up the slope of a ridge out of range,” Akeley wrote. “That meant that my warthog specimen was lost, and, having got no ostriches, I felt it was a pretty poor day.”

As the sun began to set, Akeley and the boy turned back to camp. “As we came near to the place where I had shot the diseased hyena in the morning, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be another hyena about the carcass, and feeling a bit ‘sore’ at the tribe for stealing my warthog, I thought I might pay off the score by getting a good specimen of a hyena for the collections,” he wrote. But that carcass was gone, too, with a drag trail in the sand leading into the bush.

Akeley heard a sound, and, irritated, “did a very foolish thing,” firing into the bush without seeing what he was shooting at. He knew, almost immediately, that he'd made a mistake: The answering snarl told him that what he’d fired at was not a hyena at all, but a leopard.

The taxidermist began thinking of all the things he knew about the big cats. A leopard, he wrote,

“... has all the qualities that gave rise to the ‘nine lives’ legend: To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that, a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish practically every time, no matter how many chances it has to escape. Once aroused, its determination is fixed on fight, and if a leopard ever gets hold, it claws and bites until its victim is in shreds. All this was in my mind, and I began looking about for the best way out of it, for I had no desire to try conclusions with a possibly wounded leopard when it was so late in the day that I could not see the sights of my rifle.”

Akeley beat a hasty retreat. He’d return the next morning, he figured, when he could see better; if he’d wounded the leopard, he could find it again then. But the leopard had other ideas. It pursued him, and Akeley fired again, even though he couldn’t see enough to aim. “I could see where the bullets struck as the sand spurted up beyond the leopard. The first two shots went above her, but the third scored. The leopard stopped and I thought she was killed.”

The leopard had not been killed. Instead, she charged—and Akeley’s magazine was empty. He reloaded the rifle, but as he spun to face the leopard, she leapt on him, knocking it out of his hands. The 80-pound cat landed on him. “Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her forepaws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards,” Akeley wrote. “However, happily for me, she missed her aim.” The wounded cat had landed to one side; instead of Akeley’s throat in her mouth, she had his upper right arm, which had the fortuitous effect of keeping her hind legs off his stomach.

It was good luck, but the fight of Akeley’s life had just begun.

Using his left hand, he attempted to loosen the leopard’s hold. “I couldn't do it except little by little,” he wrote. “When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch.”

He felt no pain, he wrote, “only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast.” When his arm was nearly free, Akeley fell on the leopard. His right hand was still in her mouth, but his left hand was still on her throat. His knees were on her chest and his elbows in her armpits, “spreading her front legs apart so that the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear my shirt.”

It was a scramble. The leopard tried to twist around and gain the advantage, but couldn’t get purchase on the sand. “For the first time,” Akeley wrote, “I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight.”

He called for the boy, hoping he’d bring a knife, but received no response. So he held on to the animal and “continued to shove the hand down her throat so hard she could not close her mouth and with the other I gripped her throat in a stranglehold.” He bore down with his full weight on her chest, and felt a rib crack. He did it again—another crack. “I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first.”

Slowly, her struggle ceased. Akeley had won. He lay there for a long time, keeping the leopard in his death grip. “After what seemed an interminable passage of time I let go and tried to stand, calling to the pony boy that it was finished.” The leopard, he later told Popular Science Monthly, had then shown signs of life; Akeley used the boy’s knife to make sure it was really, truly dead.

Akeley’s arm was shredded, and he was weak—so weak that he couldn’t carry the leopard back to camp. “And then a thought struck me that made me waste no time,” he told Popular Science. “That leopard has been eating the horrible diseased hyena I had killed. Any leopard bite is liable to give one blood poison, but this particular leopard’s mouth must have been exceptionally foul.”

He and the boy must have been quite the sight when they finally made it back to camp. His companions had heard the shots, and figured Akeley had either faced off with a lion or the natives; whatever the scenario, they figured Akeley would prevail or be defeated before they could get to him, so they kept on eating dinner. But when Akeley appeared, with “my clothes ... all ripped, my arm ... chewed into an unpleasant sight, [with] blood and dirt all over me,” he wrote in In Brightest Africa, “my appearance was quite sufficient to arrest attention.”

He demanded all the antiseptics the camp had to offer. After he'd been washed with cold water, “the antiseptic was pumped into every one of the innumerable tooth wounds until my arm was so full of the liquid that an injection in one drove it out of another,” he wrote. “During the process I nearly regretted that the leopard had not won.”

When that was done, Akeley was taken to his tent, and the dead leopard was brought in and laid out next to his cot. Her right hind leg was wounded—which, he surmised, had come from his first shot into the brush, and was what had thrown off her pounce—and she had a flesh wound in the back of her neck where his last shot had hit her, “from the shock of which she had instantly recovered.”

Not long after his close encounter with the leopard, the African expedition was cut short when its leader contracted malaria, and Akeley returned to Chicago. The whole experience, he wrote to a friend later, transported him back to a particular moment at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which he’d visited after creating taxidermy mounts for the event. “As I struggled to wrest my arm from the mouth of the leopard I recalled vividly a bronze at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, depicting the struggle between a man and bear, the man’s arm in the mouth of the bear,” he wrote. “I had stood in front of this bronze one afternoon with a doctor friend and we discussed the probable sensations of a man in this predicament, wondering whether or not the man would be sensible to the pain of the chewing and the rending of his flesh by the bear. I was thinking as the leopard tore at me that now I knew exactly what the sensations were, but that unfortunately I would not live to tell my doctor friend.”

In the moment, though, there had been no pain, “just the joy of a good fight,” Akeley wrote, “and I did live to tell my [doctor] friend all about it.”

Additional source: Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

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Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
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crime
Meghan Markle Is Related to H.H. Holmes, America’s First Serial Killer, According to New Documentary
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network

Between staging paparazzi photos and writing open letters to Prince Harry advising him to call off his wedding, Meghan Markle’s family has been keeping the media pretty busy lately. But it turns out that her bloodline's talent for grabbing headlines dates back much further than the announcement that Markle and Prince Harry were getting hitched—and for much more sinister reasons. According to Meet the Markles, a new television documentary produced for England’s Channel Four, the former Suits star has a distant relation to H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.

The claim comes from Holmes’s great-great-grandson, American lawyer Jeff Mudgett, who recently discovered that he and Markle are eighth cousins. If that connection is correct, then it would mean that Markle, too, is related to Holmes.

While finding out that you’re related—however distantly—to a man believed to have murdered 27 people isn’t something you’d probably want to share with Queen Elizabeth II when asking her to pass the Yorkshire pudding over Christmas dinner, what makes the story even more interesting is that Mudgett believes that his great-great-grandpa was also Jack the Ripper!

Mudgett came to this conclusion based on Holmes’s personal diaries, which he inherited. In 2017, American Ripper—an eight-part History Channel series—investigated Mudgett’s belief that Holmes and Jack were indeed one in the same.

When asked about his connection to Markle, and their shared connection to Holmes—and, possibly, Jack the Ripper—Mudgett replied:

“We did a study with the FBI and CIA and Scotland Yard regarding handwriting analysis. It turns out [H. H. Holmes] was Jack the Ripper. This means Meghan is related to Jack the Ripper. I don’t think the Queen knows. I am not proud he is my ancestor. Meghan won’t be either.”

Shortly thereafter he clarified his comments via his personal Facebook page:

In the 130 years since Jack the Ripper terrorized London’s Whitechapel neighborhood, hundreds of names have been put forth as possible suspects, but authorities have never been able to definitively conclude who committed the infamous murders. So if Alice's Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll could have done it, why not the distant relative of the royal family's newest member?

[h/t: ID CrimeFeed]

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