Eyewitness to History
Archivist Jonathan Casey's Dispatches from Sarajevo and Vienna
National World War I Museum Archivist Jonathan Casey travels to Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Vienna, Austria, between June 23-July 3. Join us each day during this remarkable journey as Jonathan reports from these two cities at the heart of the World War I conflict as the Centennial commences.
Friday, July 4
I thought I would share some final comments from my Eyewitness to History tour.
Dr. Hans Petschar, Director of the Picture Archives and Graphics Collection at the Austrian National Library, shared some insight about how Austrian views World War I, how the country is observing the Centennial and how the press is covering the event. He said that the official commemoration of the war occurred on June 18 at the National Library, which was also the Centennial of the death of Bertha von Suttner, who was an Austrian pacifist. The Austrian President, Dr. Heinz Fischer, in a speech one June 18 referred to Suttner as a modern "Cassandra" (a Trojan woman in the "Iliad" who warned of the fall of Troy but was not listened to), who in vain warned about the catastrophic consequences of war. The President offered examples of political crises since WWI, including the current Ukrainian crisis, that at have led to war or nearly so. Dr. Petschar said that maintaining dialogue in a time of crisis seems to be the personal position of the Austrian President and also the official Austrian position as a lesson learned from World War I.
When the taxi was close to the hotel in Vienna on my first day of the tour, June 23, I noticed part of the street blocked off, vans parked along the side and cameras/lights set up on a side street, presumably for filming. As I was walking around the hotel area that afternoon I saw more of the film set up, which included a World War I period military vehicle with a German SS license plate and persons dressed as German SS soldiers, with helmets, rifles and wearing swastika armbands. I watched for a while as close as I could and took a few pictures. A crew member told me to move back just before the action started. In Austria, it is illegal to display the swastika except for in a movie or a historical exhibit. The movie set with swastika-wearing soldiers was ironic as Adolf Hitler, the person who took over the fledgling Nazi party in the early 1920s, became ruler of Germany and orchestrated the annexation of Austria, was actually an Austrian native.
The Centennial of the first declaration of war as part of World War I is on July 28, but in the shadow of this monumentally destructive, world-changing event is the 75th anniversary of a second, even more destructive world war on Sept. 1.
Tuesday, July 2
Today was my last day in Vienna – I fly back to the U.S. tomorrow. Though I’ll be back in the U.S. soon, I’m still processing things.
Today, I visited the Heersgeschitelichesmuseum HGM (the army history museum) to see its World War I exhibition that opened on June 28. The museum is in a large brick building inside a fortress structure and it’s appropriate because it was the Vienna arsenal. Like so many public buildings in Vienna, it was built in the late 19th century during Franz Joseph's reign. Joseph led the empire for 68 years, witnessing a significant amount of history, peace and conflict.
The museum interprets the entire sweep of Austrian military and naval history, from the middle ages to the 20th century. The primary reason for me visiting is that the museum houses the car that Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek were riding in when they were shot in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The car looks just like the photos I've seen (as it should), but to see it in person is riveting knowing who rode in the vehicle and the magnitude of the event surrounding it. The car itself is a character in the assassination drama. You can see two bullet holes and, from what I know of where the couple was wounded, I think Gavrilo Princip may have fired more than twice. I read an online article about the car being cursed and coincidences surrounding its history, one being its license plate reads “AIII 118,” which could refer to 11/11/18 – the last day of World War I.
Across from the vehicle is another June 28 touchstone, the bloodstained, sky-blue tunic of an Austro-Hungarian cavalry general that Franz Ferdinand was wearing. The tunic has long cuts in the left breast where it apparently was cut by someone trying to save his life by massaging his heart. Franz Ferdinand was hit in the neck and the inside collar is completely stained. Nearby is his white undershirt that is stained with the cuffs folded across the front looking out of place. There are mementoes of Sophie's dying moment – flower petals and lace that looks blood stained. Between the couple's personal objects and the car are three pistols used by the conspirators and an unexploded bomb.
There are portraits of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie on the wall as well as a video of the event and immediate aftermath, showing non-Serb Bosnians rioting against Serbs and destroying property because of Princip's actions. This made me think of a connection of hate and violence between these groups that festered from 1914 to the civil war in the 1990s in which thousands were killed and Sarajevo destroyed.
These objects are in a room by themselves following a gallery with an exhibition about the pre-war Austro-Hungarian army with many resplendent uniforms and 19th century sensibilities about war. It’s followed by the new World War I exhibition with camouflaged field uniforms, steel helmets, trench weapons, aerial warfare, multiple campaign fronts and multiple weapons systems. The most stunning is the 35cm Skoda siege howitzer, a massive piece of firepower that fired huge projectiles that had to be moved on a cart. The gun moved into position by electric motors and took a whole day to set up for firing. When used in the Italian front mountains, it took days of setup.
Overall, it is an excellent exhibition that interprets the diversity of the war, the nationalities/ethnic groups involved covering Eastern, Southern Europe (from Russia to Italy to the Balkans), the Western Front where they put the Skoda howitzer to good use and even to Turkey to China. I was surprised that Austro-Hungarian forces were in Turkey and Palestine and supporting the German colony Tsingtao with a naval force.
Tomorrow, I’ll some final thoughts and comments about this incredible trip.
SARAJEVO & Return to Vienna
Tuesday, July 1
Monday, June 30
SARAJEVO & the Centennial
Saturday, June 28
Friday, June 27
Thursday, June 26
Wednesday, June 25
Tuesday, June 24
- A statue of Franz Joseph, the long reigning monarch who created so much of the "gilded age" of imperial Vienna, solitary in a park adjacent to the Hofburg serving as a legacy of his imperial grandeur
- The Imperial War Ministry, finished in 1913, a year before it must have been filled with 24/7 activity trying to cope with a war incessantly expanding and spinning out of control
- The oldest church in Vienna, St. Ruprecht's, built in the 11th century
- Named because of a platz, construction began on St. Stephan's church in the 13th century and spanned many centuries. It was never finished as planned.
- The city hall at sunset
The journey begins
Monday, June 23
Monday, June 16