History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Tag: Italy

At the Brink of War – August 1, 1914

Ethnic Map Europe 1914
Ethnic Map Europe 1914

Ethnically, Europe was a complicated affair. Ethnicity had not been a primary political criterion in the Middle Ages within the original feudal system – especially in Central Europe – as the heterogeneity of not only the Holy Roman Empire but also of Italian city-states and Turkish suzerainty over the fragmented Balkan lands anteceded the rise of nationalism.

This changed in the second half of the 19th Century. After the defeat of liberal hopes and the failed revolutions of 1848, a lethal scourge of nationalism, chauvinism and anti-Semitism swept the continent.

Not only Germans realized after 1848 and 1871 that the political status quo had not truly changed. The princes remained in control of Europe, the bourgeoisie concentrated on economic progress and the developing socialist movement sought consolidation. The Congress of Berlin 1878 had attempted to set the remaining issues of European disharmony.

Anton von Werner, Congress of Berlin (1881): Final meeting at the Reich Chancellery on 13 July 1878, Bismarck between Gyula Andrássy and Pyotr Shuvalov, on the left Alajos Károlyi, Alexander Gorchakov (seated) and Benjamin Disraeli
Anton von Werner, Congress of Berlin (1881): Final meeting at the Reich Chancellery on 13 July 1878, Bismarck between Gyula Andrássy and Pyotr Shuvalov, on the left Alajos Károlyi, Alexander Gorchakov (seated) and Benjamin Disraeli

Nationalism had originally been a leftist cause – against the princes – but it was skilfully turned against the burghers and the evolving working class and most effectively reinforced by a strange new ideological concoction – anti-Semitism.

While xenophobia remains one of the apparently ineradicable hobbies of man, and persecution of Jews has happened in history alongside the persecution of every other minority one can imagine, anti-Semitism as a concept is of quite a recent origin. The word itself seems to have appeared here and there since the 1860s, notably in an essay Richard Wagner published anonymously 1850 (“Das Judenthum in der Musik” – Jewishness in Music), but only found general attention after 1879, when the German agitator Wilhelm Marr published a treaty named “Der Sieg des Judenthums über das Germanenthum. Vom nicht confessionellen Standpunkt aus betrachtet (The Victory of the Jewish Spirit over the Germanic Spirit. Observed from a non-religious perspective)” [German text] – the same year in which he also founded the “Antisemiten-Liga” (League of Antisemites).

Sarajevo, June 28, 1914 - Moments before the Assassination
Sarajevo, June 28, 1914 – Moments before the Assassination

Anti-Semitism found a number of prominent proselytes – Emperor Wilhelm II, the influential political author Heinrich Claß and various men of the cloth, but was by far not confined to Germany. France struggled fifteen years under the Dreyfus-Affair and in Imperial Russia pogroms on Jews belonged to the favourite entertainment of the masses.

Whole books have been written on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, an asinine fabrication cobbled together and first published in Russia in 1903 – a ludicrous conspiracy theory on Jewish world domination – however, the quackbook was taken as holy writ by such usual suspects as Wilhelm II or Henry Ford, who had 500.000 copies printed and distributed.

Nationalism and anti-Semitism were the two major fulcrums of aristocratic domination of political Europe in the second half of the 19th Century until the rise of the socialist movement created an even more suitable bogeyman. Hence, the burghers need not only to fear economic ruin by Jewish shylocks and rapine by illoyal border-dwellers – indeed their physical existence was now jeopardized by the threat of revolution by the masses of unwashed labourers who failed to properly profess their gratitude for the starvation wages they were receiving.

It is thoroughly understandable that so much existential peril left the burghers of the continent in a grave and present fear – which might best be mitigated by expanding self-defence. What were the numbers on which the glorious undertaking of arming the nation might be based on?

Panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar by William Lionel Wyllie - The fixed idea of British Naval Tradition
Panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar by William Lionel Wyllie – The fixed idea of British Naval Tradition

The following statistics, which give us an idea of Germany’s industrial and political developments versus her competitors, are provided by Paul Kennedy (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Vintage Books 1989, ISBN 0-679-72019-7 , pp. 200 ff.):

Kennedy1 Population

It is immediately visible that France is the odd man out in regards to her population growth; while the United States increased its population between 1890 and 1913 by 56.5%, Russia by 48.6%, Germany by almost 36% and Great Britain by a somewhat more modest 23%, the French population remained almost constant, growing only 3.5% in these twenty-three years. Another indicator for economic and industrial development is the percentage of urban versus rural population:

Kennedy 2 Urban Population


Great Britain, whose industrialization had started some fifty years earlier than that of any other country, not surprisingly leads the world, although percentagewise, her urban population grew only by 15.7% between 1890 and 1914, while Germany’s grew by 85.8% and that of the United States by 59.8% France looks better here, with 26.5% growth, while Japan more than doubles its urban population. Italy, Austria and Russia are in between as far as percentage change goes, but their low absolute shares of around or under 10% depict them as underindustrialized as of yet.

The following view centres on the sine-qua-non of early industrial development, the production of steel:

Kennedy 3 Raw Steel Production

These numbers depict the state of the respective country’s industrialization most consequentially, for without steel neither consumer goods nor arms could be built. Taking France’s small population growth into consideration, her increase of steel production between 1900 and 1913 is, percentagewise, an impressive 307%, although her total production of 4.6 million tons in 1913 is dwarfed by the USA’s 31.8 and Germany’s 17.6 million tons. Trendwise, both Great Britain and France lag behind them in industrial expansion, while Russian steel production is beginning to take off. It approximately doubles between 1890 and 1900, and again between 1900 and 1913, although, in absolute numbers, the 1913 output of 4.8 million tons was still meagre if compared to the country’s size. We now take a look at the total energy consumption:

Kennedy 4 Energy Consumption

If one were to combine the data above, and add a few other parameters, the result would describe the changes in relative industrial strength of the Great Powers:

Kennedy 5 Industrial Potential

This picture depicts the relative change in the potentials of the powers, which must be taken in their economic, as related to size and population, and geostrategic contexts, that is, related to their location. Italy and Japan remain struggling to catch up, while Russia is handicapped by her lack of infrastructure and Austria-Hungary by internal tension. If one compares the change of percentage over time, the USA expanded its capacity by 635%, Germany by 501%, and France by 228%, while Great Britain’s industrial power only grew 173%, an indication that her imperial splendour was beginning to fade even before 1914. We now shall compare the absolute market shares, which, over time, indicate relative ascent or decline:

Kennedy 6 Manufacturing Output

This table strikingly reveals the weakening of Western Europe, Great Britain and France, compared to the United States, across the Atlantic Ocean, and Germany, in the middle of the continent. England’s portion in 1913 is only 59% of her share in 1880, that is, a decrease of 41%. France fares a bit better but still loses 27% of her world market percentage of 1880, while the USA increase their ratio by 117, 6% and Germany by 74.1%. The quota of Russia, Austria and Italy remain largely unaltered. If a European war was in the cards, Germany’s continental enemies would be best advised to rush it before they fell further back. Speaking of war, we now shall turn our attention to the military:

Berlin - Unter den Linden 1914
Berlin – Unter den Linden 1914
Kennedy 7 Military Personnel
Army Strength 1914
Contemporary Comparison of Army Strength at the Outbreak of WW I

Even a cursory review of the table above sends the bells ringing for the burial of a few cherished prejudices. Not only is the German army, the presumptive menace of the continent, much smaller than Russia’s, which one might take for granted given the latter’s vastness, it is smaller than France’s, too. In the case of Austria-Hungary, her men, who are dispersed to cover a hostile border of some 1500 miles length, number only 100,000 more than Italy’s, who, after her entry in the war in 1915, had to defend or attack on a border of far less than a hundred miles; in essence the sites of a few Alpine passes. If we take the hostile coalitions of 1914, the Entente has 2,794 million men under arms, more than twice the number of the Central Powers’ 1,335 million men. All these numbers and many more will, of course, be discussed at length in “The Little Drummer Boy”, in the section on the Great War, from Chapter XIII on.

 A comparison of the great powers’ total military personnel in 1914 vis-a-vis 1890 shows us that, in less than a quarter century, the number of servicemen increased from 2,9 million to almost 5 million, by more than two thirds. How does this compare to the much-made-of naval races of these years?

Kennedy 8 Warship Tonnages
The High Seas Fleet at Kiel Harbour
The High Seas Fleet at Kiel Harbour

It would seem almost beyond belief, but the naval tonnage of the great powers more than quintupled from 1,533,000 tons in 1880 to 8,153,000 tons in 1914 – growing by 532%. Fish must have begun to feel claustrophobic. As the figures for Japan and the USA make clear, the naval race was not limited to the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea; the latter found it necessary to almost triple the size of her navy in the fourteen years between 1900 and 1914 from 333,000 tons to 985,000; that is, afterthe Spanish-American War and the annexations of the Philippine, Cuban and Hawaiian islands, not before it.

As it would be expected, the different geostrategic locations of the powers decided which service was to become the primary beneficiary of the increasing budgets: the naval power Great Britain had little use for much infantry; her temporary apex in 1900, with 624,000 men under arms, was a result of the ongoing Boer War, not of a sustained increase in army spending. Her senior service, the Royal Navy, primary power instrument and conditio-sine-qua-non of her imperial grandeur, launched into a protracted building spree against the German and American navies (1812 was by no means forgotten) that resulted in a quadrupling of her size between 1880 and 1914.                

There is a rule of thumb in history which holds that the more arms are being stacked upon each other the greater the probability that they will go off one day. It is true that this rule did not pan out during the Cold War, to our all survival, but this was more the result of the impracticability of nuclear warfare than of a sudden increase in human wisdom. In the early twentieth century, however, the focus of our inquiry, every new battleship launched and each new army corps established precariously challenged the balance of power – and one day, on August 1, 1914, the rule of thumb became grim reality.

German Mobilisation 1914
German Mobilisation 1914

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

Hits: 492

The Gothic Wars

Light Brown Line – Belisar AD 535 – 540 / Green Line – Totila AD 541 – 544 / Dark Brown Line – Narses AD 551 – 553 / Blue Line – Franks AD 540 / x = Battles / Numbers – Year of Conquest in Colour of Captor

Movie on YouTube: The big 1968 German production KAMPF UM ROM (“The Last Roman”), starring Laurence HarveyOrson Welles as Justinian, Sylvia Koscina as TheodoraHonor Blackman as Amalaswintha, Robert Hoffmann as Totila, and Lang Jeffries; with Englisch Subtitles; based on Felix Dahn’s novel “A Struggle for Rome“.

Part I (720p)

Part II (480p)


Related Post: Theodora

Related Post: Procopius – The Secret History

Related Post: The End of the Legions

Related Post: Clovis – The Rise of the Franks


Background: What really changed in these years after AD 476, which is commonly cited as the “end” of the Roman Empire – a custom which seems to overlook the fact that the eastern part of it survived for another thousand years – was the basic structure of the western societies in favour of particularism – a fundamental change of structures.

But one could take any of the neighbouring decades and claim an “end” all the same; indeed, it is a mistake to see Roman and Barbarians as either/or, when in reality the cultures mingled; in the words of Chris Wickham, “Crisis and Continuity” were both present between AD 400 and 550. (43) The most significant change was the end of the centralization of politics, economy and culture that the great empire had provided; particularism set in, perhaps necessarily.

The end of political unity was not a trivial shift; the whole structure of politics had to change as a result. The ruling classes of the provinces were all still (mostly) Roman, but they were diverging fast. The East was moving away from the West, too. It was becoming much more Greek in its official culture, for a start. Leo I was the first emperor to legislate in Greek; under a century later, Justinian (527-565) may have been the last emperor to speak Latin as a first language. But it is above all in the West that we find a growing provincialization in the late fifth century, both a consequence and a cause of the breakdown of central government. … Building became far less ambitious, artisanal production became less professionalized, exchange became more localized. The fiscal system, the judicial system, and the density of Roman administrative activity in general, all began to simplify as well. (44)

The decisive challenge, and indeed the most “taxing” matter, for any community that would endeavour to follow the Roman example, was how to pay for a standing army, which had been the instrument of Rome’s expansion and maintenance. It is true that in ancient Rome the farmer was expected to perform military service if the need arose, quite like in ancient Gaul or beyond the Rhine. But that had changed at the latest with Marius’s army reform around 100 BC. The Imperial decline and the decrease in political stability six hundred years later resulted in a corresponding shrinking of manufacture and commerce, which, at length, destroyed the Imperial tax base. It seems that the change from a paid to a landed army occurred in the West at the same time as Emperor Justinian I in the East embarked on his Imperial reconquista (which depleted his own treasury, too), that is, at the time of Theodoric’s Ostrogoths reign in Italy.

Beginning in the fifth century, there was a steady trend away from supporting armies by public taxation and towards supporting them by the rents deriving from private landowning, which was essentially the product of this desire for land of conquering elites. In 476, according to Procopius, even the Roman army of Italy wanted to be given lands, and got it by supporting Odovacar. Procopius may well have exaggerated; the Ostrogoths state in Italy certainly still used taxation to pay the army, at least in part, probably more than any other post-Roman polity did by the early sixth century. Overall, however, the shift to land was permanent. After the end of Ostrogothic Italy, there are no references in the West to army pay, except rations for garrisons, until the Arabs reintroduced it in Spain from the mid-eight century onwards; in the other western kingdoms, only occasional mercenary detachments were paid … .

The major post-Roman kingdoms still taxed, into the seventh century. But if the army was landed, the major item of expanse in the Roman budget had gone. The city of Rome, another important item, was only supplied from Italy after 439, and lost population fast, as we have seen. The central and local administration of the post-Roman states was perhaps paid for longer, but in most of them the administration quickly became smaller and cheaper. Tax still made kings rich, and their generosity increased the attractive power of royal courts. But this was all it was for, by 550 or so.

Tax is always unpopular, and takes work to exact; if it is not essential, this work tends to be neglected. It is thus not surprising that there are increasing signs that it was not assiduously collected. In ex-Vandal Africa after 534, the Roman re-conquerors had to reorganize the tax administration to make it effective again, to great local unpopularity; in Frankish Gaul in the 580s, assessment registers were no longer being systematically updated, and tax rates may only have been around a third of those normal under the empire. Tax was, that is to say, no longer the basis of the state. For kings as well as armies, landowning was the major source of wealth from now on. (45)

The differentiated Roman structures of administration and command could no longer be maintained. For centuries Rome had continued to grow by her arms while providing reasonable security and the general advantages to the annexes of being a province of the Imperium Romanum. The tax base that had provided for the maintenance of the legions was evaporating, and consequently no large standing armies could be maintained for the next thousand years. We will see in the following, that armies had to be assembled for each of Belisar’s and Narses’ campaigns, of varying size. Standing troops were too expensive, except for guards and border points.


Clovis I (Chlodwig, Chlodowech), the first man resonably called “King of the Franks” (Rex Francorum) did not hesitate long in his desire for the geographic expansion of his realm. Chris Wickham relates (in The Inheritance of Rome, Viking Books 2009, ISBN 978-0-670-02098-0, p.92) that “in 507 he attacked the Visigoths, defeating and killing Alaric II at the Battle of Vouillé, and virtually drove them out of Gaul (they only kept the province of Languedoc, on the Mediterranean coast). The Burgundians held on for a time, but in the 520’s Clovis’s sons attacked them too, and took over their kingdom in 534.” Before long, Clovis accepted from Emperor Anastasius the honour of the Roman consulship, as a sign of Imperial support for his Catholic associates. But Clovis died soon, only four years after Vouillé [AD 511] and Italy remained beyond Frankish reach.

Statue of Theodoric by Peter Vischer the Elder

That particular trophy went to an initially obscure warlord, who governed the Ostrogoths, a people who numbered perhaps less than one hundred thousand heads and lived along the plains of Pannonia at the middle Danube River. This duke, Theodoric, one day received an embassy from the Eastern Emperor Zeno, Anastasius’ successor, who, at length, did want to punish the rebellious upstart Odovacar in Italy. In the missive, Zeno invited the Ostrogoths to subjugate Italy in his name and to destroy Odovacar’s regime of mercenaries. Theodoric accepted, and the greatest part of the nation set forth from their Pannonian pastures and Illyrian meadows in the direction of fabled Italia.

Zeno, however, got more than he had bargained for; belatedly he realized that the precious Italian provinces were now in hands much more capable than those of the comparatively simple soldier Odovacar. Theodoric’s gifts did not include much literacy, but a keen sense of political feasibility, of justice and fairness, honour and honesty, and in the murderous centuries of the age of migration, his name is one of the very few for whom the appellation of “the Great” is perhaps justified. His Goths swiftly closed in on Odovacar, who had no choice but to gain the security of Ravenna, where he resisted the Gothic siege for almost three years.

Yet in the commission of his duty, Theodoric committed, with his own hand (it is said), the only crime of his life. When, in March of AD 493, the situation became unbearable for both besiegers and besieged, a diplomatic mission succeeded with the proposal that Odovacar and Theodoric were to govern Italy and some neighbouring provinces [Sicily, Dalmatia, Noricum and Bavaria] together, like the original consuls had ruled the early Imperium Romanum. Edward Gibbon reports on the outcome of the deal:

Liebig Tradecard S824 - Invasion of the Ostrogoths (Liebig's Beef Extract The Migration of People Belgian issue, 1905 Theodoric, leader of the Ostrogoths
Liebig Tradecard S824 – Invasion of the Ostrogoths (Liebig’s Beef Extract The Migration of People Belgian issue, 1905 Theodoric, leader of the Ostrogoths

A treaty of peace was negotiated by the bishop of Ravenna; the Ostrogoths were admitted to the city, and the hostile kings consented, under the sanction of an oath, to rule with equal and undivided authority over the provinces of Italy.

The event of such an agreement may be easily foreseen. After some days had been devoted to the semblance of joy and friendship, Odoacer, in the midst of a solemn banquet, was stabbed by the hand, or at least by the command, of his rival.

Secret and effectual orders had been previously despatched; the faithless and rapacious mercenaries, at the same moment and without resistance, were universally massacred; and the royalty of Theodoric was proclaimed by the Goths, with the tardy, reluctant, ambiguous consent of the emperor of the East. The reputation of Theodoric may repose with more confidence on the visible peace and prosperity of a reign of thirty-three years, the unanimous esteem of his own times, and the memory of his wisdom and courage, his justice and humanity, which was deeply impressed on the minds of the Goths and Italians. [March 5, AD 493 – August 30, AD 526].

Zeno’s mounting anxieties were completely justified when, after the death of Alaric II at Vouillé, Theodoric was invested with the regency over the kingdom of the Visigoths in Spain, as the warden of Euric, Alaric’s eldest son [There seems to be some confusion, on Alaric’s sons see Amalaric]. Should Theodoric succeed to reunite the Goths and lead them against Constantinople, the continued existence of the Eastern Empire might well be in peril. Yet Theodoric did not strive at further conquests, which, he believed, could not be gainfully controlled with the limited number of troops available to him. Instead, he emphasized in embassies, who he directed at his German neighbours, the necessity of unity against their enemies; that is, against Byzantium.

Theodoric had diagnosed this enmity correctly, and it eventually resulted in unintended consequences for the Eastern Empire. Therefore, we shall have a more detailed look at the events of the second quarter of the sixth century. Significant changes on the political map around the Mediterranean Sea in the generation after Zeno and Theodoric were provoked, in these decades, by Emperor Justinian and his Imperial reconquista, which, one might argue, ran against the Empire’s best interests. Theodoric had brought stability to the remaining core provinces of the West; stability that Justinian could have utilized instead of hazarding it. Chris Wickham explains:

Theodoric ruled Italy from Ravenna, the western Roman capital, with a traditional Roman administration, a mixture of senatorial leaders from the city of Rome and career bureaucrats; he was (as Odovacar had also been) respectful of the Roman senate, and he made a ceremonial visit to the city in 500, with formal visits to St. Peter’s, to the Senate building, and then to the imperial palace on the Palatine, where he presided over games, like any other emperor. … The administrative and fiscal system had changed little; the same traditional landowners dominated politics, besides a new (but partly Romanizing) Gothic or Ostrogothic military elite.

At the height of power in AD 523

Ostrogothic Italy was the most “Roman” of all Germanic kingdoms in the West, and might have remained so. Tom Holland (In the Shadow of the Sword, Doubleday Books 2012, ISBN 978-0-385-53135-1) summarizes the effect of Theodoric’s long reign in that …

“…whether addressing crowds in the Forum, slaughtering armies of savages beyond the Alps, or building palaces, aqueducts and baths, he demonstrated to glorious effect just how Roman a king of foederati might truly be. By the time of his death in 526, he had ruled as the master of Italy for longer than any Caesar, with the exception of Augustus himself. As a result, it seems barely to have crossed the minds of most Italians that they might not still belong to a Roman Empire.”

Yet the emergence of new characters on the stage of Byzantium changed the political picture completely within a single year: in 527, one year after Theodoric’s death, the powers of the Empire were invested upon the new emperor Justinian, nephew of the previous emperor Justin, whose reign was long assisted by the famously wicked (says Procopius) Empress Theodora, the general Belisarius and the talented eunuch Narses.

Justinian, whom the dutiful laudations of his courtiers soon labelled “the Great”, was the son of a Bulgarian shepherd who nourished his flock on grazing grounds somewhere near today’s Sofia. The youth eventually headed to Constantinople, under the tutelage of his uncle Justin and two fellow villagers, the three of whom enlisted in the legions upon their arrival. The uncle proved an industrious if not exceedingly gifted soldier: but in an age when average performance, by the old standards, stood out as heroism had in days of yore, he was promoted steadily: to tribune, count, general, senator; finally to the command of the palace guard. He did not only retain his life and fortune at the delicate occasion of Anastasius’ death in AD 518, but emerged from the momentary confusion in possession of the diadem and purple that Anastasius had to relinquish the previous night.

Justin’s age, at this most mournful occasion, was already sixty-eight, and since he had been a brave but not an educated man and governed the realm without the benefit of literacy, he had to rely on the counsel of his Quaestor Proclus in affairs of the empire, and had long groomed his nephew Justinian as heir apparent.

A few years passed without remarkable advents, and an old wound which persistently festered despite the mobilisation of all the doctors of the capital at length deprived Justin of his life. His last act of state was to affix, in the presence of the senators and excellencies of the realm, the diadem of the Imperial dignity upon his nephew’s head, who was forty-five years of age at the beneficial occasion. The subsequent reign of the Emperor Justinian has been accounted for in copious detail by the quill of the historian Procopius of Caesarea, who lived in Constantinople as a patrician and senator during Justinian’s government. He has provided us with comprehensive descriptions of his sovereign’s activities as legislator, builder, especially of churches, warlord – relating to the campaigns of his generals – and bane of mankind.

Theodora by Giuseppe de Sanctis
Theodora by Giuseppe de Sanctis

The latter particularity, described in his Secret History, Procopius attributes to a large degree to the nefarious influence of the famous Theodora, whom Justinian promoted from most popular ecdysiast of the theatre and most expensive strumpet of the capital to the dignities of First Lady, Empress, and, post-mortem, Saint. The story is simply too juicy to be disregarded, and here is Tom Holland’s take on it:

Even her bitterest critics – of whom there were many – grudgingly acknowledged that Theodora, consort and beloved of the emperor, was a woman of exceptional abilities. Shrewd, far-sighted and bold, she ranked, in the opinion of Justinian’s cattier critics, as more of a man than her husband ever did.

Rumour had it that at the height of the deadly riots of 532, Constantinople ablaze and Justinian twitchily contemplating flight, she stiffened the imperial backbone by declaring, with a magnificent show of haughtiness, that “purple makes for an excellent shroud.”

Steel of this order, in a woman, was unsettling enough to the Roman elite; but even more so were the origins of the empress. Theodora, like an exotic bloom sustained by dung, had her roots, so it was darkly whispered, deep in filth. Dancer, actress and stand-up comic, she had also – long before puberty – been honing on slaves and the destitute a career even more scandalous.

Her vagina, it was said, might just as well have been in her face; and, indeed, such was the use to which she put all three of her orifices that “she would often complain that she did not have orifices in her nipples as well.” The gang-bang had never been held that could wear her out. Most notorious of all had been her trademark floor-show, which had seen her lie on her back, have her genitals sprinkled with grain, and then wait for geese to pick the seeds off one by one with their beaks. Such were the talents, so her critics sneered, that had won for her the besotted devotion of the master of the world. Yet, this sorely underestimated both husband and wife.

Related Post: Theodora Related Post: Procopius – The Secret History

In our context, the foreign policies and advantages and deficiencies of Justinian’s warlordship are of greater interest than his private pleasures. He had the fortune, yet, in hindsight, the empire perhaps the liability, to have at his command the military genius as well as the civil cowardice of the great general Belisarius.

It was Justinian’s desire to restore the lost provinces of the West to the imperial fold: Britannia, Gallia and Hispania, perhaps, later, but as soon as possible Africa, for its grain, and Italy, the original imperial treasure. But other business, that is, the perennial Persian wars, had to be dealt with first. The eastern border of the Empire had been fixed for centuries at the Upper Euphrates, but the boundless approaches through the Arabian Desert could not possibly be guarded effectively.

Parthian and Persian kings and their armies had overstepped the borders regularly, and sometimes with impunity. From the fourth century on, a time of military decay, the Romans had frequently replaced counter-attacks with financial considerations for the peace-loving Persian kings; in the year AD 532, for example, following five years of borderline rapine, Justinian’s contribution to the Royal Persian Exchequer amounted to 11,000 pounds (ca. 5 tons) of gold; this quantity was to secure, as the treaty document specified, nothing less than a perpetual peace between the two empires.

As the future was to show, perpetuity had to be reinforced every decade or so by additional remunerations. But the peace secured in AD 532 (which held until AD 540) allowed Justinian his first move in the West. He was assured of the services of a general whose military deeds were to rank him with Caesar and Alexander, but whose civil timidity placed him among the meek and mendicant of this earth.

The soldier Belisarius was born, not far from where the emperor’s father had kept his sheep, on the plains of Thrace. His military career proceeded timely and peaked in the command of the private guards of prince Justinian. When the prince was elevated to the royal dignity, the soldier was promoted to general.

When Justinian sought a commander whom he could entrust with the first step in rebuilding the glory of the Empire, he was unable to find a suitable candidate. At length, perhaps for the intimate counsel Belisar’s wife Antonina retained with the empress Theodora, her husband was chosen to lead the glorious enterprise. Due to his sovereign’s unwillingness to spend substantial sums upon the renovation of the Empire, Belisar was given only a small fleet and a few legions, yet, nonetheless, commanded to wrest Africa from the Vandals.

The Vandalic War
The Vandalic War

Against the odds, the mission succeeded: it was the first occasion in which Belisarius proved exceptional generalship. But to replace the money in the imperial treasury that had been spent on Belisar’s army, a “rapacious minister of the finances closely pursued the footsteps of Belisarius” and the unhappy province not only had to pay the regular dues but a special liberation tax.

The Vandals had destroyed the old tax registers, and when new ones were created, the quaestors did not forget to add another fee, to secure a just compensation for their own labours. Financial ruin was followed by depopulation, and Edward Gibbon cites Procopius, who, upon his first landing in Africa with Belisar in AD 534 “admired the populousness of the cities and country, strenuously exercised in the labours of commerce and agriculture. In less than twenty years, that busy scene was converted into a silent solitude; the wealthy citizens escaped to Sicily and Constantinople”; and the secret historian Procopius has confidently affirmed that “five million Africans were consumed by the wars and government of the Emperor Justinian.”

Although Procopius was not above the common tendency of antiquity’s historians to exaggerate his numbers, the fact remains that the wealth of Africa Provincia from then on constantly declined and the area lost its former status as the empire’s grain chamber. Belisar was not a politician, and it may be doubted whether he was even aware of the dangerous side effects of his conquest. He had to contemplate a different distraction.

That a victory afar, in particular if not necessarily expected, may induce a measure of suspicion at the court of a doubting monarch is, perhaps, a quite common occurrence. Hardly had the news of the triumph over the Vandals reached Byzantium when the subaltern officers who had preferred to remain in the safety of the capital instead of courting the danger or the glory of the battlefield, informed the emperor that the reliable rumour had arrived that Belisarius was about to declare himself King of Africa.

When the distrustful monarch inquired of his general whether he was to return to Constantinople soon or whether some urgent business would keep him in Africa, the general understood his master’s voice and recognized the portents of Justinian’s vindictiveness. He appeared in Constantinople tout de suite, where a grateful and elated Justinian sponsored a triumph for Belisar, the first for a non-emperor since the days of Tiberius.

An optimistic Justinian then planned his next stroke, and a somewhat bigger fleet and army were prepared for Belisar’s subsequent task: to deliver Italia and Dalmatia from the hands of the Arian, that is, heretic, Ostrogoths. That his predecessor Zeno had personally invited the Goths to Italy, well aware of their beliefs, Justinian resolved to overlook.

Indeed, it is hard to say, and the opinions of historians have clashed on whether the restoration of the Western Empire per se was Justinian’s aim or the destruction of the heretics, or whether both points of view happened to coincide. He had theological problems in his own house, for Theodora was a fervent Monophysite, and the emperor was driven to allow her, and hence her community, the licence that his strong Catholic convictions would not have granted otherwise. A glimpse into these complications of Christian doctrine is here provided by Tom Holland:

In 451, a year after the death of Theodosius II, the largest ecumenical council that the Church had ever seen, attended by a full six hundred bishops, was held at Chalcedon, directly across the straits from the imperial palace, in a conscious effort to rein in this tendency [of Christian communities’ theological independence]. The new regime’s aim – just as Constantine’s had been at Nicaea – was to muzzle a taste for bickering that had come to threaten, in the opinion of the authorities, not only the unity of the Church but the very security of the Roman people.

At stake for the delegates, however, was no longer the relationship of the Son to the Father, an issue long since triumphantly resolved, but a no less awesome mystery: the identity of the Son Himself. How, Christians wanted to know, had His divine and human natures coexisted? Had they been wholly intermingled, like water and wine in a goblet, to constitute a mone physisa “single nature”? Or had the two natures of Christ in fact coexisted within His earthly body as quite distinct entities, like water and oil? Had both His human and His divine essence experienced birth, suffering and death, or was it the most repugnant blasphemy to declare, as some bishops did, that God Himself “was crucified for us”? Knotty questions – nor easily unpicked. The Council of Chalcedon, nevertheless, did its level best. A determinedly middle road was steered. Due weight was given to both the divine and the human elements of Christ: “the same truly God and truly man.” This formula, devised by a bishop of Rome and graced with the approval of the emperor himself, struck the Christians of both the West and Constantinople as eminently reasonable – so much so that never again would they attempt to revise or reverse it.

In practice, the result of the council worked against the Monophysites and in favour of a Catholic Church that, with the emperor’s support, intensified the prosecution of apostates. While the privacy of his palace allowed Justinian religious tolerance and urged him moderation in the matter of the Monophysite error, the public Arianism of the Goths and Vandals challenged not only his Catholic beliefs but, indirectly, his profane authority as well. Belisar was summoned and given a second command: not only to regain Italia, the glory of the Empire, and Rome, its seed, but to liberate millions of souls from religious oppression by their errant masters.

The target of the renewed offensive, Ostrogothic Italy plus its appendices, had suffered from dynastic complications since the great king’s death, and “infighting between Theodoric’s heirs in 526 – 36 led to a more serious alienation of some of the aristocratic elite from the Ostrogothic regime, many of whom ended up in Constantinople.” Belisar’s second western campaign, begun in AD 536, was another success, it would appear: the Gothic arms were defeated at three different occasions and their authority diminished quickly, although they remained in possession of a few strongholds.

Belisarius leads the Roman army against the Goths, 540 AD. Flavius Belisarius, c. 505 – 565. General of the Byzantine Empire. From Ward and Lock's Illustrated History of the World, published c.1882.
Belisarius leads the Roman army against the Goths, 540 AD. Flavius Belisarius, c. 505 – 565. General of the Byzantine Empire. From Ward and Lock’s Illustrated History of the World, published c.1882.

The news of Belisarius´recapture of Italy spread swiftly through the realm, and fed Justinian’s suspicions for a second time. The hero was recalled again but brought with him, as his captives or guests, the royal pair of the Ostrogoths, who proceeded to sign a comprehensive treaty [Vitiges, a military man and his wife Matasuntha, Theodoric’s Granddaughter]. The agreement emphasized the Goths’ future and unconditional obedience to the emperor and introduced a great number of their youth to service in the legions. A delivery of Gothic hostages substantiated, as usual, the validity of the compact.

But since “the jealousy of the Byzantine Court had not permitted Belisarius to achieve the [complete] conquest of Italy … his abrupt departure revived the courage of the Goths [AD 540].” What happened next was much to Justinian’s chagrin. One thousand or so Gothic warriors, who had held the town of Pavia, received word from another small garrison, that still held Verona, and from another one that still controlled Teriolis (Tyrolia). The Byzantine army had been left, at the departure of Belisar, to the command of eleven equal-ranked generals, and the disaster this policy caused may easily be imagined.

Messengers from the Gothic garrisons remaining in Italy meanwhile had met, undisturbed, with their comrades that still guarded the northern borders of the Danube and the Alps, and before long the war the empire believed won was rekindled. The banner of the Gothic monarchy was resurrected by the young Baduila, called Totila, and the cause of the Goths profited greatly from the avarice and the appalling methods of Justinian’s fiscus. Edward Gibbon compares valour and corruption, in the tradition of Tacitus:

The rapid success of Totila may be partly ascribed to the revolution which three years’ experience had produced in the sentiments of the Italians. At the command, or at least in the name, of a Catholic emperor, the pope [Silverius], their spiritual father, had been torn from the Roman church and either starved or murdered on a desolate island.

The virtues of Belisarius were replaced by the various or uniform vices of eleven chiefs, at Rome, Ravenna, Florence, Perugia, Spoleto, etc., who abused their authority for the indulgence of lust and avarice. The improvement of the revenue was committed to Alexander, a subtle scribe long practised in the fraud and oppression of the Byzantine schools, and whose name of Psalliction, the Scissors, was drawn from the dexterous artifice with which he reduced the size without defacing the figure of the gold coin. Instead of expecting the restoration of peace and industry, he imposed a heavy assessment on the fortunes of the Italians.

The subjects of Justinian who escaped these partial vexations were oppressed by the irregular maintenance of the soldiers, whom Alexander defrauded and despised; and their hasty sallies in quest of wealth or subsistence provoked the inhabitants of the country to await or implore their deliverance from the virtues of a Barbarian.

Totila was chaste and temperate; and none were deceived, either friends or enemies, who depended on his faith and clemency. To the husbandmen of Italy the Gothic king issued a welcome proclamation, enjoining them to pursue their important labours and to rest assured that, on the payment of the ordinary taxes, they should be defended by his valour and discipline from the injuries of war. … The Roman captives and deserters were tempted to enlist in the service of a liberal and courteous adversary; the slaves were attracted to the firm and faithful promise that they should never be delivered to their masters; and from the thousand warriors of Pavia, a new people, under the same appellation of Goths, was insensibly formed in the camp of Totila.

Totila, by Francesco Salviati
Totila, by Francesco Salviati

It is obvious where Gibbon’s sympathies lay, but indeed, “most of the non-Gothic Italians were at best neutral about Justinian’s armies.” The Emperor now faced the pro-Belisar faction of the court, who argued that only the recall of the hero had made the renewed Gothic insurrection possible. There was not really a way to counter the postulation, and at length Justinian had no choice but to send Belisar back to Italy. The imperial frugality, however, restricted the general to such troops as he could support by his own means. Thus, Belisar arrived at Ravenna with his personal guards, but little else. Procopius relates a letter the fettered hero wrote to his master:

“Most excellent prince, we are arrived in Italy, destitute of all the necessary implements of war, men, horses, arms, and money. In our late circuit through the villages of Thrace and Illyricum, we have collected with extreme difficulty about four thousand recruits, naked and unskilled in the use of weapons and the exercises of the camp.

The soldiers already stationed in the province are discontented, fearful, and dismayed; at the sound of an enemy, they dismiss their horses and cast their arms on the ground. No taxes can be raised since Italy is in the hands of the Barbarians; the failure of payment has deprived us of the right to command, or even of admonition. Be assured, dread Sir, that the greater part of your troops have already deserted to the Goths.

If the war could be achieved by the presence of Belisarius alone, your wishes are satisfied; Belisarius is in the midst of Italy. But if you desire to conquer, far other preparations are requisite: without a military force, the title of general is an empty name. It would be expedient to restore to my service my own veteran and domestic guards. Before I can take the field, I must receive an adequate supply of light and heavy armed troops; and it is only with ready money you can procure the indispensable aid of a powerful body of the cavalry of the Huns.”

Belisar’s own words reveal that, almost ninety years after the general retreat of the Huns following Attila’s death in AD 453, large bodies of their mercenaries still infested the continent. At length, the hero gathered some troops and supplies on the opposite coast of the Adriatic Sea, in Dalmatia, and launched an expedition to deliver Rome from the Goths. Rome and Ravenna were the last two places in Italy still held by Justinian’s troops and had consequently been blockaded and beleaguered for years. The Byzantine fleet landed at the port of Ostia, five leagues from Rome, but the news of Belisar’s reappearance reached the town too late to prevent the famished garrison’s release of Rome to the charity of the king of the Goths [December 17, AD 546].

Saint Benedict receiving Totila, King of the Ostrogoths
Saint Benedict receiving Totila, King of the Ostrogoths

Totila’s soldiers requested permission to raze the walls and houses of the sinful city to the ground, but, swayed by a message from Belisar, who appealed, on Procopius’s counsel, to the king’s mercy for the eternal town, Totila spared Rome from devastation, on the condition of her future neutrality in the war and obedience to his and his successors’ directives, as a part of the new Romano-Gothic kingdom. The clemency of Totila forewent the institution of a garrison within the city: a single regiment of guards was stationed in a camp, perhaps five leagues away, epitomizing a protection of the town against pirates or meandering mercenaries rather than against a regular army.

The king’s leniency was ill rewarded, and Totila’s generosity became the cause of his downfall. The Gothic army had barely left Latium when Belisar assaulted and annihilated the Gothic sentinels and moved into Rome for the second time [February, AD 547]. Totila returned post-haste, but three successive attempts to take the city by storm failed and the newly formed Gothic and Italian army lost the flower of their men. Eventually, exhaustion paralysed both sides, until Belisar was, once again, recalled to Byzantium and Totila, once again, conquered Rome in AD 459. During the Gothic wars, the town changed hands five times.

It had been Justinian’s policy to deny the Goths a formal peace, but not to burden the treasury with the expenses of war either, and for years the Gothic war boiled on a small flame. But his resolve was injured when Gothic raids invaded the provinces of Epirus and Macedonia, in the Balkans, and Constantinople itself seemed in the reach of the Barbarians. Justinian realized the urgency of the situation, and, belatedly, the treasury was opened, but not to Belisar’s support.

The emperor was not a father, but he had a niece, who had married the young prince Germanus, a nobleman of whom public opinion held that this marriage was his sole accomplishment.

This is the way the story used to be told, somewhat of a cliché – and I repeated it for Edward Gibbons’s sake – in actuality Germanus was a nephew of Justin I and hence a cousin of Justinian. He was Magister militum in various campaigns, with varying success, and before setting out to Italy had the amorously as well as politically most excellent idea of taking for his second wife – with Justinian’s blessing – the fabled beauty Matasuntha, granddaughter of Theodoric and now widow of Totila’s predecessor Vitiges – a match that sought to entice Goth and Italians alike to switch sides.

The young man was promoted to the post of general-in-chief of the Gothic war, and put on a ship to Sicily, where he was to muster the troops assembling for the glorious enterprise of subduing Italy again. The solemn inspection, however, had to be postponed when the youth suddenly expired.

Totila

The empire awaited, naturally, the return of the Gothic command to Belisar, when “the nations were provoked to a smile by the strange intelligence that the command of the Roman armies was given to a eunuch,” the domestic Narses, who “is probably the sole representative of his peculiar sex in the annals of military history.” Narses was the complete opposite of Belisarius: weak of body and unfamiliar with the use of weapons, he was probably the only man, so to say, at the court of Constantinople, who dared to speak his mind.

He declined to accept a command without the means to enforce it, and “Justinian granted the favourite what he might have denied to the hero: the Gothic war was rekindled from its ashes, and the preparations were not unworthy of the ancient majesty of the empire. The key of the public treasure was put into his hand, to collect magazines, to levy soldiers, to purchase arms and horses, to discharge the arrears of pay, and to tempt the fidelity of the fugitives and deserters.”

The expedition of Narses [AD 552-554] was the last military effort of the Empire that stood up in comparison with the distinguished past. It is said that the Romans numbered 80,000 or more, mostly mercenaries, against which Totila, after the bloody losses at Rome between AD 546 and 549, could field probably less than twenty thousand.

Battle on Mons Lactarius by Alexander Zick
Battle on Mons Lactarius by Alexander Zick

At length, the Gothic arms were defeated: Totila died on the Battlefield of Taginae in July 552 and his successor Teja lead the remnant of the troops to a last stand at the Battle of Mons Lactarius on Mons Vesuvius. The remainder of the Goths from the northern garrisons retired past the Alps, where they reorganized and, with the assistance of a few mercenaries, attempted a return to Italy [AD 533]. They were defeated a second time by Narses, who, after a timely visit to Constantinople, was dispatched back to Italy to govern her, as Exarch, or lieutenant of the emperor, for the next about fifteen years [AD 554-568].

Yet something worse than the Vandal and Gothic wars was inflicted on the people around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. A horrific attack of bubonic plague was reported in Alexandria in the fall of AD 541, and the grain ships that emerged from its harbours in the spring of AD 542 spread the disease over the world. Constantinople was ravaged by the epidemic through which, as Procopius wrote, “the whole of humanity came close to annihilation.”

The Bubonic Plague - by Nicolas Poussin
The Bubonic Plague – by Nicolas Poussin

The emperor, too, was caught by Yersinia pestis but recovered. The disease travelled from Constantinople, over the Bosporus, to Asia Minor, and from there to Syria and Palestine. There it reversed direction westward, and by AD 543 it had spread over the provinces of the West, Africa, Italy, Gaul and Spain. Two years later, it struck the Far East, and devastated the Persian Empire: large parts of Mesopotamia, Media and Persia were depopulated. [FN1]

Article on recent research on the plague by medievalists.net

Overall, the results of Justinian’s anachronistic efforts to rebuild the empire were not only short-lived, but, for the worse, a financial catastrophe.   

The destruction of Africa’s and Italy’s tax base in the wake of the military occupations meant that the monarchy never even recovered its expenses. And since the Eastern Empire could not make the step to replace an army paid for by taxes to that paid by a landed gentry, losses of revenue implied losses of military power. Justinian’s escapades had almost bankrupted the realm and the net result of Emperor Heraclius‘ [r.AD 610-641] war against the Persians between AD 610 and 628 was that, a decade later, he lost everything he had gained and more to the assault of the recent Islamic Caliphate, which, ironically enough, “was itself built on Roman foundations (as also Sassanian Persian foundations),” and “it arguably preserved the parameters of imperial Roman society more completely than any other part of the post-Roman world, at least in the period up to 750.”

No happy end there was for the hero Belisar, as legends report – it is said that he was blinded by Justinian for the one or other infraction, and condemned to beg for alms at the Pincian Gate of Rome – while the story has long held to be apocryphal, Belisar’s biographer Philip Stanhope believed the story to be true based on some primary sources.

François Joseph Kinson – The Death of Antonina, the wife of Belisarius
Belisar as beggar in Rome - painted by Jacques-Louis David
Belisar as beggar in Rome – painted by Jacques-Louis David

Soon after Narses’ death Italy was taken over by the Lombards, who had, under their original name of Langobards, dwelt around the lower Elbe, near today’s Hamburg, before they joined the southward migration of the Germanic tribes. They had been employed, among other mercenaries, by Narses against the Goths, but in the aftermath of the Gothic war conquered most of rural Italy between AD 568 and 570, without encountering much resistance from the exhausted locals.

But the Gothic Wars were over.


[FN1] It was the effect of the plague of the 540s and its reoccurrence in much of Syria, Palestine, and Upper Mesopotamia from AD 600 on, and the eternal Romano-Persian border wars, that reduced the populations around the Eastern Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent (and hence the availability of soldiers) to a degree which permitted the eventual expansion of the Arabian Caliphate in the seventh century.

Related Post: Theodora

Related Post: Procopius – The Secret History

Related Post: The End of the Legions

Related Post: Clovis – The Rise of the Franks

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19) [Quotes, except where noted, from Edward Gibbon]

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Adolf Hitler in Munich before the War (1913/14)

Preceding Post: Down and out in Vienna


THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, Chapter XII


“Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

William Blake “Auguries of Innocence”, L. 119


Then as now, the town of München is the capital of Bavaria, one of the oldest German self-governing states – first a duchy, then a kingdom. As European states go, she is of fair to middling size, about 27,000 square miles or 70,000 square kilometres big, slightly smaller than modern Austria or South Carolina but larger than Belgium, Switzerland or West Virginia, and forms the southeastern part of modern Germany. She shares borders with the Czech Republic, Austria and Switzerland, and reaches, in the north-west, close to Frankfurt in Hesse. In the south, she harbours a part of the great central European mountain range, the Bavarian Alps, with the Zugspitze peak, at 9270 ft. or 2960 metres her highest elevation (Germany’s too), where, as the saying goes, only eagles dare to fly. . . .

The 19th Century bestowed on the somewhat sleepy town a protracted period of modernization, a side effect of the industrialisation that much accelerated from the 1830s on. The land changed within two generations from its former almost exclusively rural character into a modern industrial state. The first German railway line had been opened between the Bavarian towns of Nuremberg and Fürth in 1835, and only half a century later, in Baden and Württemberg, slightly to the west, Nikolaus Otto, Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz worked on building horseless carriages. The company founded by the latter two, Daimler-Benz, is still one of the finest names in automobile manufacture; Bavaria, of course, is home to the fast cars of BMW and Audi.

Munich around the turn of the century … sheep grazing at the Theresienwiese, place of the annual Oktoberfest …

Cultural cross-fertilization and a strong artistic inheritance from the Italian Renaissance gave München an almost Italian charm: compared to Prussia, Bavaria was almost an anarchy (the royal family was proof enough, as we will see), but a lovely one and people from near and far came to settle there. The Bavarians still pursue an almost southern tradition of easiness of living, a very un-Prussian flair of dolce far niente. The country prides herself, reminiscent of her tradition, as the purveyor of Libertas Bavariae, Bavarian Liberty; and the land honoured her commitment when, although staunchly Catholic, she provided refuge to over ten thousand French Huguenot, i.e. Calvinist, families, who fled France and the wrath of Catharina de Medici in the seventeenth century after the Edict of Nantes – guaranteeing freedom of worship – had been revoked. The industrious newcomers were an important gain for Bavaria in general and München in particular; a number of streets named after prominent Huguenot families remind of the benefits they brought to town.

In the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, the early reign of Ludwig I, the town began to lose her provincial character; before he had met and fallen for Lola Montez, the King had sponsored a public building program in neoclassical style – the results can still be seen on the boulevards of Ludwig Street and Maximilian Street. The genius of architects Leo von Klenze and Friedrich von Gärtner remains visible in the great number of their designs adorning the town which we all rebuilt according to the original plans after the bombing damage of the Second World War.

With Bavarian charm and a much more gregarious social climate than stiff-necked Prussia, provincial Berlin or mercantile Hamburg, München became a centre of international art and culture by the end of the nineteenth century, second only to Paris; leaving Vienna’s imperial fatigue and London’s faux Westminster grandeur easily behind. . . .

Second only to Paris, München, then harbouring about 600,000 inhabitants, attracted artists from all countries and walks of life, and became, in particular, a vortex for the avant-garde. As far as painting goes, the year 1909 alone had witnessed the establishment of four new artist groups, one of which called itself simply the ‘New Artists Association‘ and included Alexej von Jawlensky and Wassily Kandinsky. In the Café Stephanie at Amalienstraße, one could meet, at any time of day or night, radical intellectuals like Kurt Eisner, Erich Mühsam or Ernst Toller, all of whom rose to prominence after the war. While these artists and philosophers were far too progressive for Hitler’s bourgeois taste, they brought to München artistic flair and fervour unsurpassed until, twenty fateful years later, Berlin entered into the Roaring Twenties. But in 1910 Berlin was a cultural graveyard. Ian Kershaw [Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris (London, 1998), ISBN 0-393-32035-9]observed:

Schwabing, the pulsating centre of Munich’s artistic and Bohemian life, drew artists, painters, and writers from all over Germany and from other parts of Europe as well. They turned Schwabing cafés, pubs and cabarets into experimental hothouses of “the modern”. “In no city in Germany did old and new clash so forcefully as in Munich,” commented Lovis Corinth, one celebrated artist who experienced the atmosphere there at the turn of the century.

Lovis Corinth - The Three Graces
Lovis Corinth – The Three Graces

The theme of decline and renewal, the casting off of the sterile, decaying order, contempt for bourgeois convention, for the old, the stale, the traditional, the search for new expression and aesthetic values, the evocation of feeling over reason, the glorification of youth and exuberance, linked many of the disparate strands of Munich’s modernist cultural scene.

Schwabing Carnival 1900

The Stefan George circle; the scourge of bourgeois morality, playwright and cabaret balladeer Frank Wedekind; the great lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke; and the Mann brothers – Thomas, famous since the publication in 1901 of his epic novel of bourgeois decline, Buddenbrooks, and whose vignette of homosexual tension, Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice) had been published the year that Hitler arrived, and his elder, more politically radical brother Heinrich – were but some among the galaxy of literary luminaries in pre-war Munich.

In painting, too, the challenge of “the modern” characterized the era. Around the very time that Hitler was in Munich, Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Alexej von Jawlensky, Gabriele Muenter, and August Macke were leading lights in the group Der Blaue Reiter, revolutionizing artistic composition in brilliant and exciting new forms of expressionist painting. The visual arts would never be the same.

Munich City Centre
Marienplatz – City Centre

Here revolutionaries of any ilk and calibre peddled their doctrines and, at the Ludwig-Maximilian University, moved to München in 1826 from Landshut (whither it had been moved from Ingolstadt where it had been founded in 1472), a complete spectrum of political designs was brought to the attention of students and burghers alike. The main campus happened to be in Schwabing as well, providing the students – always on the prowl for new and exotic sensations – with a stage for every imaginable and some unlikely forms of artistic impression. The light-hearted spirit in which even the most outrageous or ridiculous doctrines of art or politics found an attentive audience became the modern articulation of Libertas Bavariae. In the juxtaposition of William Blake‘s verse, Schwabing was clearly born to sweet delight, and unconventional souls from all over the globe flocked to München.

One such unconventional soul was Herr Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, who was hearing law and politics at the university, where he had inscribed himself as Herr Meyer. Herr Meyer was domiciled in Schleißheimerstraße 106, only a few blocks west of the campus and was better known in his native Russia under the alias ‘Lenin’.

Another unconventional soul, Adolf Hitler, soon frequented the same cafés, pubs and beer gardens in Schwabing, reading newspapers while slowly sipping on a cup of coffee, or peddling his paintings in art shops or simply on the street. Opposite the main University building, a hundred yards past the Siegestor, a quarter-mile of the Leopoldstraße serves as the artists’ outdoor gallery, and until this day the resident painters sell their works there. Adolf was, as we will find out, a bit of a revolutionary himself, but the year 1913 saw him half-frightened and half-intoxicated by the sheer rush of the artistic scene. . . .

Munich Central Railway Station before the war …

Adolf Hitler and his friend Rudolf Häusler arrived from Vienna on Sunday, May 25, 1913, and immediately set out to find accommodation. They walked down Schleissheimer Straße, north-west of the railway station, and, in the window of a small tailor shop at # 34, noticed a small sign advertising a room to let. They went in, and quickly closed a deal with the tailor’s wife, Frau Anna Popp, to rent a tiny mansard on the third floor. On May 26 respectively 29, they registered with the Munich police, with Hitler estimating the duration of their visit at two years. In Vienna, Hitler had alerted the police to his leaving, as he was required to do, but had left no forwarding address; the police file dryly states “destination unknown”, indicating that Hitler was not keen on his whereabouts becoming known. This would concur with the fact that his earlier ‘disappearance’ in the autumn of 1909 magically coincides with the exact period in which he was obliged to report to the Austrian army. He left Vienna, Sechshauserstrasse 56, c/o Frau Antonie Oberlechner, on September 16, 1909, without providing a forwarding address, and did not re-register with the Vienna police until February 8, 1910, the day he resurfaced and moved into the men’s hostel at Meldemannstrasse. . . .

Schleissheimer Straße 34 during the Nazi Era, with a memento (Hitler’s room window marked)

Preceding Post: Down and out in Vienna

Adolf Hitler had now arrived in the town that would become his principal residence for the next twenty years; the town he was to christen later the ‘Hauptstadt der Bewegung’, the Capital of the [Nazi] Movement.” For a while, the Popps’ became his family; Robert Payne gives us a mise en scène of life at Schleißheimerstraße 34:

Many years later, when the National Socialists were in power, Frau Popp was asked what she remembered about her lodger. Naturally, she remembered many things to his advantage: he was kind to the children, Peppi and Liesel, and was modest, well-mannered, and self-effacing. He spent the day painting and drawing, and he studied every evening and every night. …

She was one of these inquisitive landladies who examine the possessions of their tenants, and she remembered that his books were “all political stuff and how to get on in Parliament.” She also remembered something that others had observed: his solitude.

He seemed to have no friends, lived completely alone [as mentioned above, for reasons unknown, nobody mentioned Rudolf Häusler before Thomas Orr investigated the neighbourhood in 1952, ¶], refused the Popps’ invitations to share their supper, rejecting all their overtures, and spent whole days in his room without stirring outside. He lived on bread and sausages and sometimes knocked politely on their kitchen door to ask for some hot water for his tea.

“He camped in his room like a hermit with his nose stuck in these thick heavy books,” she said. It puzzled her that he should be both a painter and a voracious reader, and one day she asked him what all this reading had to do with his painting. He smiled, took her by the arm, and said: “Dear Frau Popp, does anybody know what is and what isn’t likely to be of use to him in life?” (4)

The Little drummer boy, p.279-80

The Popps liked him. He knew how to behave, which impressed them, for it seemed to imply that, in reality, beyond the mask they were sure he was wearing, he was someone different, someone better than who he professed to be. He lived on his own planet, not necessarily in the known universe, and had no contacts we know about except that a former resident of the men’s hostel claimed to have met him once in München, in a chance encounter at the railway station. [FN 1] He did paint, though, and he did sell his works; we have a good handful of reports by his customers. The physician Dr Hans Schirmer remembered:

[FN 1]: The name of the man was Josef Greiner, who seems to have been a welsher and a blackmailer. In 1939 and 1947, he published books describing his supposed friendship with Hitler in München and Vienna. Both books were banned, 1939 by the Nazis themselves and the 1947 opus by the occupation authority. Cf. Joachimsthaler (8)

… I was sitting one summer evening in the garden of the Hofbräuhaus, nursing my beer. Around 8 p.m. I noticed a very modest and somewhat coarsely clad young man, who looked to me like a poor student. The young man went from table to table, offering a small oil painting for sale.

Time lapsed, and it was around perhaps 10 p.m. when I saw him again and realized that he still had not sold the picture. When he came near me, I asked him whether I could but it, since his fate troubled me somewhat. He answered: “Yes, please,” and when I asked for the price, he put it at five Marks.

My fortunes at that time … were not great, and since I had in my pockets only the little cash one needed to buy the beer, I gave the young man three Marks and my address, on a prescription form, and asked him to come back, with the painting, to my practice the next day, where I would give him the rest.

He handed me the painting right away and told me he would see me tomorrow immediately after the transaction was finished, he went to the buffet and bought two Frankfurters and a roll, but no beer.” (5)

Munich tramway scene, by Adolf Hitler

A merchant in hats, Josef Würbser, was visited in his store.

“It was in April 1914. I was manning the cashier post, in the hat shop Zehme at Marienplatz and Dienerstraße, when a young man came in and asked me whether I would be interested in buying two of his paintings. He needed to sell them in order to buy books for his studies.

Since I dabbled in painting a bit myself, my interest was immediately aroused, and I studied the two paintings, one of which showed the “Old Mayor’s Office” and the other “The Old Courtyard”. I liked the pictures, which showed the beautiful motives in the brightest of colours and bought both of them. I cannot recall the price exactly, but it must have been between fifteen and twenty-five marks.” (6)

The jeweller Otto Paul Kerber recalled:

“A young man came into my store one day in 1912 [it must have been 1913 or early 1914, ¶] and offered me a watercolour of the Munich Residence. I liked the painting and bought this and subsequently a few more paintings of the young man, who came by regularly. As far as I remember, I paid, depending on size and quality, between 15 and 20 Marks per picture.” (7)

The “Siegestor”, Victory Arch, Munich, by Hitler

Little did they know it then, but most of his customers made the deal of their life, for, in the Third Reich, the paintings sold for up to 5,000 Mark. It remained clear, however, that the attraction was the artist, not the work. Joachim Fest remarks about Hitler’s artistic fancies and idols:

His standards had remained unchanged since his days in Vienna when he paid no heed to the artistic and intellectual upheavals of the period. Cool classicist splendour on the one hand and pompous decadence on the other – Anselm von Feuerbach, for example, and Hans Makart – were his touchstones. With the resentments of the failed candidate for the academy, he raised his own taste into an absolute.

He also admired the Italian Renaissance and early Baroque art; the majority of the pictures in the Berghof belonged to this period. His favourites were a half-length nude by Bordone, the pupil of Titian, and a large coloured sketch by Tiepolo. On the other hand, he rejected the painters of the German renaissance because of their austerity.

Paris Bordone, Venus and Amor – one of Hitler’s favourites

As the pedantic faithfulness of his own watercolours might suggest, he always favoured craftsmanlike precision. He liked the early Lovis Corinth but regarded Corinth’s brilliant later work, created in a kind of ecstasy of old age, with pronounced irritation and banned him from the museums. Significantly, he also loved sentimental genre paintings, like the winebibing monks and fat tavern keepers of Eduard Grützner. In his youth, he told his entourage, it had been his dream someday to be successful enough to be able to afford a
genuine Grützner. Later, many works by this painter hung in his Munich apartment on Prinzregentenstraße.

Alongside them, he put gentle, folksy idylls by Spitzweg, a portrait of Bismarck by Lenbach, a park scene by Anselm von Feuerbach, and one of the many variations of Sin by Franz von Stuck. In the “Plan for a German National Gallery,” which he had sketched on the first page of his 1925 sketchbook, these same painters appear, together with names like Overbeck, Moritz von Schwind, Hans von Martes, Defregger, Boecklin, Piloty, Leibl, and, finally, Adolph von Menzel, to whom he assigned no fewer than five rooms in the gallery. (9)

His business increased slowly, he obtained steady customers, and some actually ordered in advance. The chemist Dr Schnell, who had a shop at Sendlinger Straße 42 near the city centre and a chemical factory in the northern district of Milbertshofen, (10) remembered that one day a poor young painter came in…

… who apparently had been told by somebody that I had previously helped poor artists. He asked for a bit of support. “I am an architectural painter,” the young man said and offered to paint a small picture for me. On inquiry, he stated his name as Hitler, he was Austrian and in town to become a painter.

“Well then, please paint me the Asam Church next door,” Dr Schnell said. “After eight or ten days, Hitler brought a small painting of the Asam Church, which was surprisingly well done. I paid him the agreed-on Twenty Marks and bought a few more of his paintings, which he always delivered on time. I was also able to pass on further orders, which I received from my acquaintances that saw the picture of the Asam Church. … Then the First World War intervened, and Hitler and the paintings were forgotten. …

When Hitler entered the political scene after the Great War, I wanted to find out whether the politician Adolf Hitler was indeed identical with the pre-war painting student. So once I briefly went to the Hofbräuhaus, where Hitler was addressing a rally and established that he was indeed the same man whose paintings I had bought. …

Much later, after the Nazis came to power, I was once invited by Hitler to the Four Seasons Hotel. He asked how I was doing and how the paintings were, and whether he could do me a favour. One time, between 1934 and 1936, a man from the staff of the “Führer’s Deputy” Hess visited me in the office by the shop, in which Hitler’s town paintings hung, and inquired whether Hess, who was interested in the paintings, could come and see them. Hess then did show up, with two or three other gentlemen, and viewed the pictures. … Later some party office asked for my permission to make photocopies of the paintings, for the party archive, which I granted.” (11)

Maximilianstraße around 1900

Based on the testimonies of Hitler’s customers and Frau Popp, who said that he produced a painting every two or three days, Anton Joachimsthaler computed that if he sold, say, ten paintings a month, he could live rather well. In his municipal sales licence, which he needed to peddle his paintings legally and which doubled as a tax form, he entered sales of approximately one hundred Mark per month, which probably was the lowest number he could get away with. Even if he initially earned less than the fifteen or twenty marks that seem to have become the norm after a few months, he must have earned between 150 and 200 Marks per month soon. This was rather decent, compared to the wages of a normal worker, who at this time in München earned between 96 and 116 Marks but had to provide for his family, too. (12)

As in Vienna, it seems that Hitler had more money than he let on, and his professions of poverty in “Mein Kampf” ought to be taken with a large spoonful of salt. Even if it is true that he, as he later claimed, often had only one Mark for his lunch or dinner, this amount must be set in relation to the prices of the time, which were very low. A litre of beer, approximately two pints, was 30 Pfennige (pennies), one egg 7 Pfennige, a pound loaf of bread 16 Pfennige and a litre of milk 22 Pfennige. One Mark went a long way.

As far as we know, his way of life did not deviate much from that of Vienna, which may teach us caution about the tales Hitler later spun of his studies of politics, philosophy and history in pre-war München. In one of the table monologues during the Second World War, he professed art, not politics, as his reason to go to München.

“[I wanted to continue] … to keep working as an autodidact and to add on a period of practical work once I was in the Reich. I went to Munich happily: I had set my goal to learn for three more years and then, at 28 years of age, to apply as a designer at Heilmann & Littmann [a Munich construction firm, ¶].

I would have entered their first competition, and, I believed, they would realize my talent and acknowledge my faculties. I had contributed, privately, to all the current architectural competitions, and when the designs for the new Opera House in Berlin were publicized, my heart started beating, and I told myself, that they were much worse than what I had delivered. I had specialized in stage design.” (13)

None of the orderly archives of these competitions preserved any of the entries Hitler had – privately – contributed, so that, alas, we are precluded from a proper judgement of their artistic value.

His repose in München provided him with a less conspicuous benefit: that he, as he believed, has escaped being drafted into the Austrian army. It was the standard in Austria as in all other European countries, that the young men of a
certain age, twenty, in Austria, were called up for the military which kept them, after two or three years of active service, at the beck and call of the reserve units for the next twenty years or so. Hitler had been required to register in the autumn of 1909, exactly when he disappeared. Even if he had had a valid excuse, say, illness, he was required to re-register in 1910 or 1911. Given Hitler’s unfavourable opinion of the Habsburg state, it cannot surprise us that he felt no urge to serve it.

On August 11, 1913, the Linz police issued a warrant for Hitler, alleging draft-evasion. From Hitler’s remaining relatives, perhaps the Schmidts, they found out that he lived in the men’s hostel in Vienna. On inquiry, Vienna reported back to Linz that Hitler had flown out, leaving no forwarding address, but that a few occupants of the hostel remembered that Hitler had spoken of going to München.

Linz thus inquired at München, and on January 8, 1914, was notified that Hitler was indeed registered in München, c/o Popp, Tailor, Schleißheimerstraße 34/111. In the afternoon of January 18, 1914, a troop of the Munich police was sent there to serve Hitler with an Austrian summons for military inspection.

“Herr Adolf Hitler, born 1889, domiciled Linz an der Donau, presently staying in Munich, care of Popp, Schleißheimerstraße 34/111, is hereby summoned to present himself for military registration in Linz, at 30 Kaiserin Elisabeth Quay on January 20th, 1914, and in the event of his failure to comply with this summons, he will be liable to prosecution under Paragraphs 64 and 66 of the Law regarding Military Service of the Year 1912.” (14)

the little drummer boy, p. 282

This was no joke. According to the Austro-Bavarian Extradition Treaty of 1831, he could be arrested and delivered to the authorities in Linz in iron fetters if he did not heed the call. Hitler talked to the officer in charge of the delegation, Constable Herle, who demanded a signature for the receipt of the summons. For the benefit of the constable and his crew, Hitler composed an impromptu apology:

“I missed to register myself in the autumn of 1909 but corrected this oversight in February 1910. At this time I reported to the Conscription Office IB in the Mayor’s Mansion, and from there was directed to my home precinct, the XXth. I asked to report right there in Vienna [instead of Linz], signed some protocol or affidavit, paid one Krone and never heard again of the affair. It never entered my mind, however, to evade registration, neither is this the reason for my residing in Munich. I was always registered with the police in Vienna, [FN 2] as I am here in Munich.” (15)

[FN 2] This was an outright lie; we know he was not registered from September 16, 1909, to February 8, 1910. He repeated the lie in the letter to the Austrian authorities (see below), but, luckily, nobody checked the false claim.

The Austrians must have forgotten him, he said, for he was clearly no deserter. We do not know what Herle thought of the story, but in all probability, it was not the first time in his career that he encountered a suspect blaming an error on the authorities. The story Hitler concocted was fishy in itself, and maybe he counted upon the Bavarian officer’s ignorance of Austrian military laws and procedure; the European nations of this age very carefully kept track of their prospective recruits and did not simply “forget” them; the requirement of registering every change of address had been, in fact, created exactly for this military purpose.

Herle arrested Hitler and took him to the police headquarters. On the next morning, the prisoner was presented to the Austrian Consulate General. It appears that he was assisted there by a consular officer or perhaps a paralegal, for he was allowed to present his case in a written statement. This was not quite the normal procedure; perhaps Hitler’s sangfroid began to work.

By then he had fleshed out his tale. First, he claimed, untruthfully, that he had received the summons too late; then he contended that the problem was the fault of the Austrians, who had mistakenly looked from him in Linz when he was actually in Vienna or vice versa. Eloquent in excuse, and strangely lachrymose in tone, his statement reminds the reader of the wheedling style of his father’s letter to the bishop of Linz in the marriage affair, when it describes his toilsome life in München. Fortuna has conserved the document, which allows us a look into the young man’s vexations:

… In the summons, I am described as an artist. I bear this title by right, but it is only relatively accurate. I earn my living independently as a painter, being totally deprived of an income (my father was a civil servant), and I work only in order to further my education. Only a small portion of my time can be spent in earning a living, for I am still educating myself to become an architectural painter.

My income is therefore very modest, just enough to cover my expenses. As testimony, I refer you to my income tax statement, which is enclosed, and I would be grateful if it could be returned to me. It will be seen that my income is estimated at 1200 Marks, which is rather more than I really earn, and does not mean that I actually make 100 Marks a month. Oh no. …

With regard to my failure to report for military service in the autumn of 1909, I must say that this was for me an endlessly bitter time. I was then a young man without experience, receiving no financial assistance from anyone, and too proud to accept financial assistance from others, let alone beg for it. Without support, compelled to depend on my own efforts, I earned only a few Kronen and often only a few farthings from my labours, and this was often insufficient to pay for a night’s lodging. For two long years, I had no other mistress than sorrow and need, no other companion than eternally unsatisfied hunger. I never knew the beautiful word youth.

Even today, five years later, I am constantly reminded of these experiences, and the remainders take the form of frost blisters on my fingers, hands and feet. And, yet I cannot remember those days without a certain pleasure, now that these vexations have been surmounted. In spite of great want, amid often dubious surroundings, I nevertheless kept my name clean, had a blameless record with the law, and possessed a clear conscience – except for that one constantly remembered fact that I failed to register for military service. This is the one thing I feel responsible for. It would seem that a moderate fine would be an ample penance, and of course, I will pay the fine willingly.

I am sending this letter independently of the testimony, which I have signed today at the Consulate. I request that any further orders should be transmitted to me through the Consulate and beg you to believe that I shall fulfil them promptly.

All the declarations made by me concerning my case have been verified by the Consular authorities. They have been exceedingly generous and have given me hope that I may be able to fulfil my military duties at Salzburg. Although I cannot dare to hope for such a thing, I request that this affair may not be made unduly difficult for me.

I request that you take the present letter under consideration, and I sign myself, Very respectfully,

ADOLF HITLER

Artist
Munich
Schleißheimerstraße 34/111 (16)

This letter is an early and excellent insight into the mind of a person who would go on to become a professional deceiver. It is not only the sheer bending of the facts that surprises, but it is also the style of the missive; it reveals that Hitler knew exactly what to write and how.

The letter reeks of the specific style of the age, of the servile lachrymosity employed when one has a problem with the authorities. The submissive, sometimes brown-nosed and sometimes cajoling tone is, by today’s standards, an all too obvious attempt to induce sympathy for one’s pleadings in the face of a stern bureaucrat, who has the power to take drastic measures. It may well be true that bureaucrats, in general, expect Byzantine flattery, and antecedent obedience from the public they serve (and which pays their salaries), but Hitler’s letter almost sounds as if he were trying to poke fun at the addressees. The style is hither awkward and yonder familiar, eerily intimate at times, as if to beg money from a rarely-seen uncle.

Strikingly effective, however, is his argumentation: even before the judgement is cast, he appeals to a higher court, beyond the transient character of Austrian military justice. His crime is not desertion, he claims, his bane was poverty. He will be using a very similar tactic of confessing to a non-existent charge eleven years later when facing trial for the Beer Hall Putsch. As he will then, he now proclaims his guiltlessness; in the words of Robert Payne, “the higher court will pronounce him innocent, for his only crime is poverty; his name is clean, his record blameless, his conscience clear. He claims that his sole ambition in life is to serve the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and as we read the letter we know that he despises this monarchy and all its works, and has not the least intention of abiding by its orders.” (17)

In the event, his attempts to enlist the sympathies of the consular staff were successful: the consul himself agreed to forward Hitler’s letter to Linz, along with one of his own, in which he states that he personally as well as the Munich
police believe that Hitler was honest and missed the registration by mistake, not criminal intention. Furthermore, the Herr Consul recommended that Hitler should be allowed to face the military examination board in the border town of Salzburg rather than to have to travel all the way to Linz. Showing rare generosity, the consulate even paid for Hitler’s train fare.

The military command in Linz agreed, and on February 5, 1914, Hitler took a train to Salzburg. In a brief examination, the doctors found Hitler unfit for combat or auxiliary duty and dismissed him without further obligations.
That was exactly what Hitler had hoped for, and he went back to Schwabing and his books and paintings with a lighter heart. In “Mein Kampf”, he later claimed that the lively political discussions in the cafes and beer gardens trained his intellect and improved his adeptness of argument. Of paramount importance, he wrote, was his repeated study of Marxism.

“I again immersed myself in the theoretical literature of this new world, attempting to achieve clarity concerning its possible effects, and then compared it with the actual phenomena and events it brings about in political, cultural and economic life. Now for the first time, I turned my attention to master this world-plague.” (18)

Three considerations may cause us to doubt the veracity of the statement. Since Hitler had never been “employed” in the sense that a factory worker is employed, one may doubt how much he truly understood of the realities of collective bargaining, of accident insurance, workman’s compensation, health care or pension plans, the bread-and-butter tasks of labour unions. Second, at the time he supposedly “immersed” himself in the study of Marxism, the Russian October Revolution or any other communist revolution was still years in the future, and no country in the world had a socialist government yet. Thus, one may wonder how exactly Hitler formed his opinion of the “world-plague” and where the “actual phenomena and events” occurred which he said he observed. It appears much more likely that these parts of “Mein Kampf” –
written not before 1924 – represent hindsight, and that he afforded himself prescient clairvoyance of the evils of Marxism as early proof of his political genius. Thirdly, it is questionable how much free time painting and selling the pictures left him.

But he came to like Munich as much as he of late despised Vienna. The townspeople had an easy way of living, Hitler liked the Bavarian dialect, which he had picked up as a child in Passau, and the racial and lingual hodgepodge of
Vienna that he had learned to detest was completely absent. Even in the very cold winter of 1913/14, when fewer customers than usual could be found on the snow-covered streets and empty beer gardens, he was still high in spirits;
Munich continued to shine. [FN 3] Yet it is clear that he did not partake in the social or political life of the town; not a single document, no newspaper clip mentions his name. With the exception of Rudolf Häusler, we know of no other acquaintances. In the last sixty years, all likely archives have been searched: we have, for example, even a letter of a friend, Fritz Seidl, who knew Hitler during the one year at the boarding-house of Frau Sekira in Linz, when they were in first grade at the Unterrealschule; but nothing from Munich – but not a single photograph. (19) In a well-known paragraph of “Mein Kampf”, Hitler praised the town:

[FN 3] “Munich Shines!” was the title of a popular cabaret program.

“If today I am more attached to this city than to any other spot on earth in this world, it is partly due to the fact that it is and remains inseparably bound up with the development of my life; if even then I achieved the happiness of a truly inward contentment, it can be attached only to the magic which this miraculous residence of the Wittelsbachs exerts on every man who is blessed, not only with a calculating mind but with a feeling soul.” (20)

Oktoberfest 1910

But when he sat in the cafés and read the newspapers, he could not fail to become informed of the latest international tensions. The Balkans occupied the headlines again, as they had when wars had erupted there in 1912 and 1913. In one of the literary more recommendable passages of Mein Kampf, Hitler describes the peculiar atmosphere of early 1914:

“As early as my Vienna period, the Balkans were immersed in that livid sultriness which customarily announces the hurricane, and from time to time a beam of brighter light flared up, only to vanish again in the spectral darkness. But then came the Balkan War and with it, the first gust of wind swept across a Europe grown nervous. The time which now followed lay on the chests of men like a heavy nightmare, sultry as feverish tropic heat, so that due to constant anxiety the sense of the approaching catastrophe turned at last to longing: let Heaven, at last, give free rein to the fate which could no longer be thwarted. And then the first mighty lightning flash struck the earth; the storm was unleashed and with the thunder of Heaven there mingled the roar of the World War batteries.” (21)

The steady worsening of Europe’s international relations since about 1906 will properly be the subject of the following chapters. But in a strange way, all the accounts we have of June and July 1914 agree on its perfect weather, which contrasted so starkly with what was to follow. On these long summer nights, Hitler was still selling the fruits of his brush and pencil in the beer gardens unless he was busy painting the glow of the sunsets. But he was in his mansard, alone, immersed in a book, on the afternoon of June 28, 1914, when his landlady stormed up the stairs and entered his room without knocking on the door.

In tears, Frau Popp informed her lodger that earlier in the day the heir apparent to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Habsburg and his wife Sophie had been assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, by a young man called Gavrilo Princip, an anarchist with presumed connections to Serbia.

The archduke, a nephew of Emperor Francis Joseph, had arrived in Bosnia three days earlier to inspect the annual military manoeuvres. After the conclusion of the exercise, the prince insisted on paying a visit to the Bosnian capital, although the local administration had received warnings of a plot. Half a dozen conspirators, dispersed over the town’s main thoroughfares, had been waiting for the royal couple, but it was only dumb luck that Princip met the open royal carriage backing out slowly from the wrong end of a one-way street, unguarded. He fired a pistol twice and killed both the archduke and his wife.

Hitler ran down the staircase and joined the crowds that assembled on the streets. In Vienna, a mob already beleaguered the Serbian Embassy. The news from Sarajevo was the sensation of the year.


Next post: The Assassination of the Archduke

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

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