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Franz Ferdinand Wants Peace in the Balkans

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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 August, 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 121st installment in the series. 

June 13, 1914: Franz Ferdinand Wants Peace in the Balkans

Depending who you ask, the meeting on June 12-13, 1914 between Kaiser Wilhelm II and Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the thrones of Austria and Hungary, was either a war council—or the exact opposite. Actually it was probably a little bit of both. 

The German emperor was supposedly just paying a friendly visit to the Archduke’s beautiful chateau in Konopischt, Bohemia (today Konopiště, Czech Republic, above), where they could go hunting and stroll in the estate’s enormous rose gardens. But the real purpose was to get Wilhelm—and thus Germany—on board for Austria-Hungary’s new strategy in the Balkans. 

Like all good strategies, this involved a number of contingency plans, including the possibility of war against Serbia, should the truculent Slavic kingdom refuse to bend to Austria-Hungary’s will. Thus Franz Ferdinand asked Wilhelm if Germany would support Austria-Hungary if she moved against Serbia, and probably received assurances that Germany would stand by her ally, in line with Wilhelm’s previous statements (the record here is unclear).

But whatever Wilhelm’s response, the June 13 exchange was hardly evidence of a plot to attack Serbia in the near future, as some historians later interpreted it. For his part the Archduke still opposed war with Serbia, and only inquired about Germany’s attitude at the request of Emperor Franz Josef, who in turn was probably prompted by Foreign Minister Berchtold and chief of the general staff Conrad. If Franz Ferdinand had anything to say about it, this scenario would remain strictly hypothetical.

In fact the Archduke was sympathetic to Austria-Hungary’s Slavic peoples, and hoped to reconcile them to Hapsburg rule (thereby neutralizing the Serbian threat) by reforming the empire—either by adding a third monarchy representing the Slavs, or reinventing it as a federal state with more autonomy at the local level. The obstacle in both cases was certain opposition from the Hungarians, who wielded disproportionate power in the Dual Monarchy and refused to grant their non-Hungarian subjects more rights.

Indeed Franz Ferdinand warned Wilhelm that the Hungarians weren’t just antagonizing the Slavs: the powerful Hungarian Premier István Tisza was also creating a huge foreign policy headache with his repressive measures against Hungary’s ethnic Romanian population, which in turn alienated the neighboring Kingdom of Romania—long associated with the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, but now drifting to the Triple Entente of Russia, France, and Britain. In fact the Romanians were about to host Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II and Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov in a state visit to the Black Sea port of Constanța—yet another ominous development.

The main message the Archduke communicated to the Kaiser on June 13 concerned this complicated situation and what Germany could do to help solve it. Vienna was cultivating an alliance with Bulgaria as a counterweight to Romania, he confided, but the best thing would be to keep Romania in the Triple Alliance, reconcile her with Bulgaria, and thus form a new balance of power that would intimidate Serbia and lock Russia out of the Balkans. To accomplish this, however, the Hungarians had to stop mistreating their own Romanians—and Franz Ferdinand believed the only way Tisza might yield on this issue was if Austria-Hungary’s powerful ally, Germany, sent a clear message that Hungary needed to moderate its domestic policies in order to keep Romania friendly.

The Kaiser promised he would speak to Tisza when he saw him next, but the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 changed everything—clearing the way for war against Serbia and putting the Romanian question on the back burner, where it remained until it finally boiled over in the middle of the Great War.

Meanwhile, Russian intelligence caught wind of the meeting and passed on selected details—specifically, Wilhelm’s promise to support Austria-Hungary if it attacked Serbia—to the chief of Serbian military intelligence, Dragutin Dimitrijević (codename Apis), who would later try to justify the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on the grounds that he was a warmonger preparing a surprise attack on Serbia. Of course this was the exact opposite of the truth, and anyway the plot had been put in motion long before the meeting at Konopischt; in short Dimitrijević was probably just looking for excuses after the fact. 

New French Government Upholds Three-Year Service Law

In France, June 13, 1914 brought the resolution the worst political crisis experienced by the Third Republic since the infamous Dreyfus Affair. Following the victory of the leftist Radicals and Socialists in elections held in April and May, 1914, the stage was set for an all-in battle over the controversial Three-Year Service Law of 1913, which aimed to increase the size of France’s standing army by extending the term of service for army conscripts from two to three years. The leftists were determined to overturn the law but President Poincaré, a conservative, was equally determined to preserve it. 

In the first weeks of June 1914 Poincaré tried again and again to find someone in the new left-dominated Chamber of Deputies who could form a new government that would uphold the law—but failed repeatedly. On June 12 his most recent candidate for Premier, the moderate Alexandre Ribot, was hooted down in the Chamber amid calls for the end of the Three-Year Service Law. But the amusement was wearing off and French public opinion was starting to turn against the entire political class, which seemed incapable of fulfilling even the most basic tasks of government—a feeling familiar to 21st century Americans. As newspapers across the political spectrum heaped ridicule on the Chamber of Deputies, opposition among the Radicals (who despite their name were actually moderate compared to the Socialists) began to crumble, raising hope of a compromise.

It fell to René Viviani, Poincare’s first choice for premier a few weeks before, to form a new government through some political sleight-of-hand, otherwise known as lying. On June 13, 1914 Viviani formed a new cabinet dominated by moderate leftists who told their constituents they were committed to overturning the Three-Year Service Law – but then reversed their position as soon as the Chamber voted to approve the cabinet. Indignant, the Socialists withdrew their support, but the Radicals were able to muster enough votes to keep the government in power. The Three-Year Service Law was safe … for now. 

“Russia is Ready, France Must Be Ready Too!”

Upholding the Three-Year Service Law was crucial to preserving France’s alliance with Russia, the cornerstone of French national security. Just in case anyone forgot was at stake, on June 13, 1914 the Russian war minister, Vladimir Sukhomlinov, published an anonymous op-ed in Birzheye Vedomosti, a Russian newspaper that often served as an official mouthpiece, titled “Russia is Ready, France Must Be Ready Too!” 

The article pointed out that Russia was building strategic railroads and preparing to increase its standing army to 2.3 million men and urged France to maintain the Three-Year Service Law, raising the French standing army to 770,000 men. Only then could would they have a decisive advantage against Germany and and Austria-Hungary, with standing armies of 880,000 and 500,000, respectively.

Sukhomlinov’s opinion piece sent a clear message to friend and foe alike, including Germany, where its inflammatory rhetoric only stoked paranoia about encirclement. When Kaiser Wilhelm received a translated version he scribbled angry notes in the margins, noting that Russia’s strategic railroads were “All against Germany!” and concluding “Well! Finally the Russians have shown their hand. Any person in Germany who does not now believe that the Russo-Gauls are not working together at high tension for a war with us very soon and that we should take corresponding counter-measures deserves to be sent to the lunatic asylum…” 

A few days alter Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg passed the article along to the German ambassador to London, Prince Lichnowsky, with this gloomy note: “The reaction on German public opinion has been unmistakable and serious. Whereas formerly, it was only the extremists among the Pan-Germans and militarists who urged that Russia was making systematic preparation for a war of aggression upon us very soon, even moderate public men are now inclined to this view…”

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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Pop Culture
Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
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Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

Key for hidden image puzzle.
Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]

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