Incompetence, Stupidity, and Cowardice: The Royal House of Savoy and the Governance of Italy, 1861-1946

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After Umberto I was assassinated, his oldest son came to the Italian throne as King Victor Emmanuel III. Purportedly, the only advice his father had given him about being a monarch was this: “Remember: to be a king, all you need to know is how to sign your name, read a newspaper, and mount a horse.” It isn’t altogether clear that Victor Emmanuel III knew how to do all of those things. Worse, instead of being a big, strapping man who could overawe others, he was only five feet tall. Other males of the Royal House had been considerably taller so it isn’t clear why he was so short. Given that a world war was on the way, Italy could have used a wise king. They didn’t get one.

World War One Begins

Before World War One broke out, the Balkan states were so unstable they were known as the “powder keg of Europe” – the thought being that if a European war began, it would begin in the Balkans. It did. And it began in Sarajevo, capitol of the two provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. These two provinces, which then contained a large number of Serbs, were ‘annexed’ by the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. The Ottoman, or Turkish Empire, had not the strength to contest this. Lest this sound like gratuitous bullying on the part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it bears remembering that in 1683, at their highest tide in their invasion of Western Christendom, the Ottoman Turks got all the way to the gates of Vienna before finally being stopped by Christian forces led by the Royal House of Hapsburg, which then went on to rule Central Europe for centuries.

The ethnic groups of Austria-Hungary in 1910

After annexing Bosnia and Herzegovina, there was (surprise, surprise) lots of conflict. A major issue was religion: the Austro-Hungarians were Catholic, the Serbs were Serbian Orthodox, and since the Ottoman Turks were Muslim, and had the annoying habit of putting to death Christians would who not convert to Islam (following the excellent example of the Christians who did the opposite), there were a large number of Muslims. If this sounds familiar, it is: the Balkans blew up again in the early 1990s with these two provinces in the middle of it. But the Austro-Hungarians brought something never before seen in these provinces when under the rule of the Ottoman Turks and that was efficient and relatively impartial government. This was probably the last time in history through the present day that such a thing has occurred.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria

On a state visit to Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated, along with his wife, by Gavrilo Princip, an undistinguished young man who was part of a movement to unite all Serbs under Austrian rule into the existing Kingdom of Serbia. He was part of a secret organization known as the “Black Hand,” thought by historians to have been controlled by the Serbian intelligence service – if they can be called that. If all this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Franz Ferdinand wasn’t killed immediately and in one of the curiosities of history, the physicians operating on the Archduke had to waste precious minutes cutting the man out of his uniform because he was sewn very tightly into his uniforms after he put them on so there wouldn’t be any wrinkles.

As an aside, the Archduke could be called “the accidental heir” since he only became heir presumptive after the suicide of Crown Prince Rudolph, the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph. Great mystery surrounds the suicide of Rudolph and his mistress, who were both found dead at Mayerling, the hunting lodge of the Crown Prince. This incident has been the subject of several movies, the best and most famous being Mayerling starring Omar Sharif, Catherine Deneuve, James Mason, and Ava Gardner. (Four stars)

The killing of the Archduke and his wife, set off a chain of events which led to the breakout of World War One. If you want to read just one book on this subject, then I highly recommend The Guns of August by Barabara Tuchman. This is the best popular history of those critical months. (Four stars)

[Images courtesy of Wikipedia.]