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Wikimedia Commons

Conrad Urges War Against Serbia

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Wikimedia Commons

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 69th installment in the series.

May 20, 1913: Conrad Urges War Against Serbia

On the death of Austro-Hungarian chief of staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (above) in 1925, the Austrian socialist leader Otto Bauer delivered a bitter eulogy: “If we are listing the five or six men in all of Europe who bear the primary guilt for the outbreak of the war, one of these five or six men would be Field Marshal Conrad.”

Bauer’s condemnation was based in fact. Conrad was an old-school Austrian German who viewed southern Slav nationalists as existential enemies of the Dual Monarchy, with Serbia in the lead. The huge expansion of Serbian territory and population in the First Balkan War alarmed Conrad, who warned the Serbs would now turn to liberating their ethnic kinsmen in Austria-Hungary. It was imperative, Conrad said, to break the momentum of Slavic nationalism by crushing Serbia and reducing it to a vassal state—maybe even absorbing it. Of course he realized this might bring war with Serbia’s patron Russia—but he believed Austria-Hungary stood a fair chance as long as it had Germany at its side.

Conrad's call for war against Serbia became louder and more urgent over the course of the First Balkan War. On January 9, 1913 he told the foreign minister, Count Berchtold, that Austria-Hungary had “lost its position in the Balkans” because of the rise of Serbian power under Russian protection, adding that “Russia must be overthrown,” and repeated the advice in a memorandum prepared for Emperor Franz Josef on January 20. On February 15, 1913, he warned the German chief of staff Helmuth von Moltke that Slavic nationalism was a threat not only to Austria-Hungary but Germany as well, which would “in the end penetrate through to the very marrow of Germany.” At a meeting of the Dual Monarchy’s ministers on May 2, 1913, during the Scutari crisis, Conrad called for the defeat and annexation of Serbia’s sidekick Montenegro, which would probably lead to war with Serbia as well.

The peaceful resolution of the Scutari crisis seemed to remove any justification for war against Serbia and Montenegro, but Conrad remained convinced the Slavic kingdoms had to be crushed militarily, not just contained diplomatically—and also saw another chance for Austria-Hungary to act in the impending Second Balkan War. On May 20, 1913, he wrote to Franz Josef: “Fate once more today would offer us the opportunity for a solution; it was not impossible that Serbia and Greece might get involved in a war with Bulgaria. Then we must not hesitate to intervene against Serbia.” In fact, Conrad urged Berchtold to conclude an alliance with Bulgaria directed against Serbia, taking advantage of Bulgarian anger at Russia (which failed to protect Bulgarian interests against Serbia and Romania) to upend the balance of power in the Balkans. But Austria-Hungary’s German ally was skeptical about a Bulgarian dalliance, and Berchtold let the idea drop.

Ironically, Conrad’s main opponent in the debate over the Dual Monarchy’s Serbian policy was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who wielded a great deal of influence as the heir to the throne and inspector general of the armed forces. The archduke made his views known in no uncertain (and often abrasive) terms: The real long-term threat to Austria-Hungary came not from the small Slavic kingdoms in the Balkans, but rather from Austria-Hungary’s supposed ally Italy. While they were technically partners in the Triple Alliance with Germany, it was common knowledge that Italian nationalists loathed Austria-Hungary, which included areas they considered historically Italian in Trentino and Trieste; although the Italian government tried to conciliate Austria-Hungary, the nationalists wanted to liberate these irredenta (“unredeemed” areas) and unite them with Italy. They were also infuriated by the oppressive, discriminatory policies Austria-Hungary directed against its restive Italian population.

Franz Ferdinand felt war with Italy was probably inevitable, and therefore opposed any policy that threatened to distract or weaken Austria-Hungary by embroiling it in conflicts elsewhere—especially in the Balkans, with the attendant risk of confrontation with Russia. And although he originally supported Conrad’s appointment as chief of staff because they agreed about the Italian threat, the two men soon fell out over the issue of war with Serbia (typically, Conrad wanted war against Italy and Serbia). As often as Conrad brought up the idea, the archduke would shoot it down: After rejecting Conrad’s proposal for war with Serbia in a personal conversation on December 14, 1912, on March 15, 1913 he scolded Conrad for mentioning the idea to Franz Josef and ordered him to drop the subject. Later, in September 1913, Berchtold told Conrad his hands were tied, citing Franz Ferdinand’s opposition to the idea. It is one of the ironies of history that the archduke’s assassination by a Bosnian Serb nationalist removed the one person who might have been able to prevent Austria-Hungary from declaring war on Serbia.

Great Powers Scheme to Grab Ottoman Territory

While the Great Powers struggled to keep the peace in the Balkans, to the east they were all jockeying to claim their share of the ailing Ottoman Empire, whose demise they expected at any moment. The main threat came from Russia, whose designs on Constantinople and the Turkish straits were well known, and which was also greedily eyeing Anatolia. Here St. Petersburg was using the Armenians and Kurds as pawns in a devious gambit to build its influence there: Essentially, the Russians were arming the Muslim Kurds and encouraging them to attack the Christian Armenians in order to have a pretext for Russian intervention on Christian “humanitarian” grounds, while simultaneously fostering Kurdish and Armenian nationalism in the hopes that both groups would rebel against Turkey—thus clearing the way for Russia to scoop up the Ottoman Empire’s Kurdish and Armenian territories for itself. The Russians sought to further weaken Ottoman control by forcing Constantinople to implement decentralizing reforms in eastern Anatolia.

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Of course, Russia’s designs on Anatolia set off alarms in other European capitals—especially in Berlin, where Germany’s leadership feared they would get left out in a general scramble for Turkish territory. On May 20, 1913, German anxieties were heightened by a report from the German ambassador in Constantinople, Baron Hans von Wangenheim, stating that the Russians had succeeded in uniting the Kurdish tribes in Ottoman territory—no easy feat—as a preamble to a general rebellion. Not coincidentally, the next day diplomats from all the members of Triple Alliance hurriedly met to discuss how to maximize their gains in a division of the Ottoman Empire’s territories in Asia. Previously, on April 30, 1913, Kaiser Wilhelm II vowed that when the Ottoman Empire disintegrated, “I will take Mesopotamia, Alexandretta, and Mersin!” (referring to two Mediterranean ports in southeast Turkey). Little could he have predicted that the Great War would find Germany on the Ottoman Empire’s side, helping protect Turkish territory against British, French, and Russian imperialists.

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing


1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.


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