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The Conspiracy Forms

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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 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

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The Day Notre Dame Students Pummeled the Ku Klux Klan
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At first glance, there was nothing unusual about the men who stepped off the train in South Bend, Indiana on the morning of May 17, 1924. Dapper and mannered, they drifted from the station to the downtown area. Some headed for a nearby office that sported a red cross made out of light bulbs stationed in the window. Others roamed around looking for Island Park, the site of a planned social gathering.

A closer look at these visitors revealed one common trait: Many were carrying a folded white robe under their arm. Those who had arrived earlier were fully clothed in their uniform and hood, directing automobile traffic to the park.

The Ku Klux Klan had arrived in town.

Fresh off a controversial leadership election in Indianapolis, Indiana, there was no reason for Klansmen to have any apprehension about holding a morale booster in South Bend. Indiana was Klan territory, with an estimated one in three native born white men sworn members within state lines. Just a few months later, Klansman Ed Jackson would be elected governor.

It was only when Klansmen found themselves guided into alleys and surrounded by an irate gang of Catholic students from nearby Notre Dame University that they realized mobilizing in South Bend may have been a very bad idea.

The Klan wanted a rally. What they got was a full-scale riot.

Photo of KKK Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
By IndyStar, Decemeber 12, 1922 issue, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Politically-endorsed prejudice was the order of the day in the early part of the 20th century, when the Klan—first created in 1866 to oppose Republican Reconstruction with violent racial enmity and then revived in 1915—expanded its tentacles to reach law enforcement and civil service. No longer targeting people of color exclusively, the KKK took issue with Catholics, the Jewish faith, and immigrants. An estimated 4 million Americans belonged to the Klan in the 1920s, all echoing the group’s philosophy that only white, God-fearing citizens were worthy of respect.

Under the guidance of Indiana's Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, the group had attempted to shift public perception from the lynch mobs of the past to an orderly and articulate assembly. Rallies were held in KKK-friendly areas; propaganda material was becoming an effective weapon for their cause. Acceptance of the Klan’s ideology seeped into political office; Stephenson was a prominent Indiana politician.

To help continue that indoctrination, the Klan made plans for a parade in South Bend to be held on May 17, 1924. That it would be in close proximity to the Notre Dame campus was no mistake: At the time, 75 percent of the school's nearly 2000 students were Catholic, a religion the Klan found abhorrent. By pledging allegiance to the Vatican, their reasoning went, Catholics were acknowledging a foreign power. In the fall of 1923, they had persisted in setting crosses on fire near the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, a predominantly Catholic college, and were frequently chased off by angered football players. That December, the Klan set off firebombs in Dayton during Christmas break. While no one was seriously injured, the intent was to send a message—one they wanted to spread to Indiana.

In the weeks and months leading up to the parade, both students and faculty began to get a taste of that perspective. Copies of the Fiery Cross, the official Klan newspaper, circulated on campus; one Klansman showed up at an auditorium to broadcast that Catholics were not good Americans. He exited the stage when attendees began throwing potatoes at him.

If that public response was foreshadowing, the Klan either ignored or failed to heed the warning. Members began arriving the Friday evening prior to the rally and were met at the train station by irritated students, who scuffled with the early arrivals by ripping their robes. By Saturday morning, when more Klansmen arrived, hundreds of students were in town, a loosely organized anti-Klan task force.

Keystone Features/Getty Images

Klan members were used to breezing into towns without incident. Here, they were immediately confronted by young, ornery college kids proud of their Catholicism. Klansmen were led into alleys and tossed into walls; students who played for the school’s legendary football squad formed wedges, the offensive line-ups found on the field, and plowed into groups of Klan members like they were challenging for a state title.

The violence, swift and sudden, prompted the Klan to retreat to their headquarters in South Bend. The students followed, their blood pumping hot at the sight of the red cross lit in the office window. Below it stood a grocery store with barrels of fresh potatoes. The students lobbed them at the glass, smashing the bulbs inside.

The conflict had been uninterrupted by law enforcement, but not for lack of trying. Deputy Sheriff John Cully, himself a Klansman, tried to enlist the National Guard but was shot down by officials. Notre Dame president Matthew Walsh had already implored students not to go into town, but his words went unheeded.

Unencumbered by authority, the 100 or so students idling near the Klan’s office decided they wanted to seize the hideout. Dozens began running up the stairs but were greeted by a Klan member who produced a gun. Unarmed, the students backed off. Four seniors went back and came to an impromptu truce: The student body would disperse if the Klan agreed to hold their rally without weapons or their robes.

The agreement seemed to placate both sides until Stephenson finally arrived in town before the parade’s scheduled 6:30 p.m. start. Assessing the roughed-up Klansmen and their skittish behavior, he complained to the police, who posted officers on horseback around their assembly at Island Park.

But there would be no rally: A heavy downpour prompted Stephenson to call it off, although the potential for further violence likely weighed on his mind. Lingering students who still hadn’t returned to campus met departing Klansmen as they attempted to drive out of town, smashing windows and even tipping over one car.

By Sunday, things seemed to have settled down. Walsh cringed at newspaper reports of the incidents, fearing it would portray the students as thugs.

Unfortunately, neither side was done protesting. And when they met a second time, the robed men would be backed up by lawman Cully and a squad of 30 deputized Klansmen.

Denver News - The Library of Congress (American Memory Collection), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Students back on campus Monday had taken to hanging up seized Klan robes and hoods on their walls like trophies. It had been a rout, with the Klan barely putting up a fight.

Now, word was spreading through the halls that the Klan had captured or perhaps had even killed a Notre Dame student. Roughly 500 students jogged the two miles back into South Bend, eager for another confrontation.

When they arrived at the Klan’s headquarters, the light bulb cross had been rebuilt. It was an act of defiance, and the students moved forward. But the Klan was prepared: Many had been deputized, and uniformed officers joined the melee. Axe handles and bottles were brandished, and blood began to stain the street. It was a clash, with parties on both sides laid out.

When he got word of the conflict, Walsh rushed to the site and climbed on top of a cannon that was part of a monument. Shouting to be heard, he implored students to return to campus. His voice cut through the sounds of breaking glass, snapping the students out of their reverie. They returned to the school.

Absent any opposition, the Klan did the same. Stragglers from out of town returned home. With bombastic prose, writers for the Fiery Cross later recapped the event by accusing Notre Dame students of “beating women and children.” Later that summer, they declared they’d be returning to South Bend in greater number.

It never happened. Although the Klan maintained an aura of strength for several more years, the conviction of Stephenson for raping and murdering a woman in November 1925 extinguished one of their most enthusiastic leaders; the Depression dampened the ability of new recruits to pay dues. By 1930, the Klan was down to an estimated 45,000 members.

While Walsh never condoned the vigilante justice exacted that weekend, he never disciplined a single student for it.

Additional Sources:
Notre Dame vs. the Klan, by Todd Tucker (Loyola Press, 2004)
"Hearing the Silence: The University of Dayton, the Ku Klux Klan, and Catholic Universities and Colleges in the 1920s" [PDF], by William Vance Trollinger

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Why the Berlin Wall Rose and Fell
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One of history's most notorious barriers broke ground early in the morning on August 13, 1961, when East German construction workers, guarded by soldiers and police, began tearing up the Berlin streets.

As European history professor Konrad H. Jarausch explains in this video from Ted-Ed, the roots of the Berlin Wall can be found in the period of instability that followed World War II. When the Allies couldn't decide how to govern Germany, they decided to split up the country between the Federal Republic of Germany in the West and the German Democratic Republic in the East. Eventually, citizens (especially young professionals) began fleeing the GDR for the greater freedoms—and higher salaries—of the West. The wall helped stem the tide, and stabilized the East German economy, but came at great cost to the East's reputation. In the end, the wall lasted less than three decades, as citizen pressures against it mounted.

You can learn more about exactly why the wall went up, and how it came down, in the video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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