CLOSE
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The Conspiracy Forms

Wikimedia Commons
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 97th installment in the series. 

December 31, 1913: The Conspiracy Forms

The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 was the culmination of a conspiracy that began forming six months before. But conspiracies have a tendency to mutate or evolve, and this plot was no exception: In fact, it initially targeted a different person altogether.

The man who set the ball rolling was Vladimir Gaćinović, well known in Serbian nationalist circles as the author of a pamphlet lionizing Bogdan Zerajic, who in 1910 tried unsuccessfully to assassinate General Varešanin, the Austrian governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina, then killed himself, becoming a martyr to the cause. Gaćinović was also a member of Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia), a revolutionary group inside Bosnia, and Ujedinjenje Hi Smert (Unity or Death, also called Crna Ruka, the Black Hand), an ultranationalist cabal led by the chief of Serbian military intelligence, Dragutin Dimitrijević, codename Apis (above, left).

In autumn 1913, Dimitrijević’s right-hand man Major Vojislav Tankosić (above, center) instructed Gaćinović, who was then living in Lausanne, Switzerland, to convene a meeting of Mlada Bosna members to plot the assassination of a high-ranking Austrian official. At this stage it wasn’t quite clear who the target would be, and frankly it didn’t really matter; the most important thing was that the murder should inspire violent resistance by Slavic nationalists inside the Austro-Hungarian Empire, hopefully leading to a general uprising.

Towards the end of December 1913, Gaćinović invited several members of Mlada Bosna to a secret meeting in Toulouse, France, in January 1914. Participants included Gaćinović himself; Mustafa Golubić, another member of the Black Hand who later became a Soviet agent in Yugoslavia in the interwar period; and Muhamed Mehmedbašić, a cabinetmaker from a minor Bosnian Muslim noble family which had fallen on hard times.

According to Mehmedbašić, the plotters discussed a number of potential targets, including Franz Ferdinand, but finally agreed that the victim should be Oskar Potiorek (above, right), the Austrian governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who succeeded Varešanin in May 1911 and earned the hatred of Slavic nationalists by declaring a state of emergency in the restive province in May 1913. Mehmedbašić was supposed to carry out the assassination using a dagger dipped in poison provided by Gaćinović—but it didn’t take long for this plot to fizzle out. According to his own account, on the way back to Bosnia Mehmedbašić panicked and threw the dagger and poison away when Austrian police boarded the train and began searching the compartments (it later turned out they were looking for a thief).

Still hoping to strike a blow against Austrian tyranny, back in Sarajevo Mehmedbašić got in touch with his friend Danilo Ilić, a Bosnian schoolteacher and journalist who volunteered in the Serbian army during the Second Balkan War in 1913, joined the Black Hand while living in Belgrade, and later returned to Sarajevo to work with Mlada Bosna. Ilić was in contact with Gaćinović in Switzerland and was also best friends with a young Bosnian Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip, who’d been drifting back and forth between Sarajevo and Belgrade—where he was supposedly attending high school but actually spent most of his time in grimy cafes frequented by radical nationalists and anarchists. As a matter of fact, Ilić and Princip had discussed their own plan to assassinate Potiorek in 1912, but this also came to nothing.

Lurking in the background of these overlapping, often half-baked plots was always the puppet master Apis, pulling strings through his Black Hand henchmen including Tankosić and another man, Milan Ciganović—a Bosnian Serb who’d served as a paramilitary commander in the Balkan Wars and now worked for the Serbian state railroad (as it happened Ciganović and Princip came from the same district in Bosnia and briefly lived together in the same house in Belgrade in 1912).

Not long after the Toulouse meeting, in February or March, 1914, Apis learned that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was planning to attend military maneuvers in Bosnia in June 1914, and would even have the audacity to visit Sarajevo on the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389—a key event in Serbian history, symbolizing Serbia’s long history of foreign oppression. Now a new plot began to take shape. 

A Look Back at 1913, the Last Year of Peace

As 1913 drew to a close, ordinary Europeans could look forward with relief to the New Year: after a series of crises Europe finally seemed to be recovering its equilibrium, and there was every reason to hope for lasting peace. But all the apparent successes of diplomacy, negotiation, and compromise were in fact setting the stage for disaster.

The Year 1913 had been born in crisis, with Austria-Hungary and Russia facing off in the wake of the First Balkan War, in which Bulgaria and Serbia conquered the Ottoman Empire’s European territories. Austria-Hungary’s Foreign Minister Count Berchtold correctly viewed Serbia as a magnet for the nationalist aspirations of the Dual Monarchy’s Southern Slavs, and was determined to force the Serbs to give up their conquests in Albania, thus denying Serbia access to the sea (which would have bolstered Serbian prestige). This put Austria-Hungary on a collision course with Serbia’s Slavic patron Russia, where Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov was under pressure from “Pan-Slav” ideologues to support their ethnic kinsmen in the Balkans. This crisis was eventually resolved by the Hohenlohe Mission, a personal appeal from Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef to Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II that paved the way for a compromise at the Conference of London, including the creation of an independent Albania.

But this wasn’t the end of the Balkan crises—not even close. While Serbian forces began withdrawing from Albania, in April 1913 Serbia’s sidekick Montenegro captured Scutari, an important city that had also been granted to Albania at the Conference of London. This second crisis was resolved when Europe’s Great Powers offered Montenegro’s King Nikolai the choice of a carrot (a sweetheart loan from Britain and France) or a stick (war with Austria-Hungary); Nikolai wisely chose the carrot and the Montenegrins withdrew from Scutari.

And still the turmoil continued with the Second Balkan War from June to August 1913, when Bulgaria attacked Serbia and Greece over the spoils of the First Balkan War—then swiftly reaped the whirlwind as Romania and the Ottoman Empire piled on from the rear. Defeated on all fronts, Bulgaria turned to Russia for protection, but Sazonov, indecisive as ever, dithered, delayed and finally ended up cutting the Bulgarians loose in favor of the Serbians and Romanians, leaving the Bulgarians understandably embittered—and Serbia as Russia’s only remaining ally in the Balkans. This meant Russia would have to back up Serbia in future crises unconditionally, or risk losing all its influence in the region.

The final Balkan crisis of the year came about in September, when ethnic Albanians in the southern Serbian territory of Kosovo rebelled and the Serbs responded by invading Albania proper, threatening to undo all Austria-Hungary’s recent efforts to create the new nation. Ultimately the Serbs backed down in the face of a unilateral threat from Austria-Hungary—another alarming development, as it convinced the Austrians they could go it alone in the Balkans, without having to consult the other Great Powers.

Indeed, this was probably the closest Europe came to war during the past year: By autumn 1913, the hawks in Vienna, led by chief of staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, had persuaded Austrian Foreign Minister Count Berchtold (and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II) that war was the only way to deal with the obstreperous Serbs. Ironically the only person standing in their way was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who warned that an attack on Serbia would bring war with Russia. If the Archduke were somehow removed from the scene, the hawks would be in the ascendant.

See the previous installment or all entries

arrow
History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
arrow
History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios