The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

021 Oskar Potiorek and destination hospital

Oskar Potiorek

Oskar Potiorek

Austrians cannot bring Serbs to their knees

It is Sunday 15 November 1914. It is the 21st week after the shooting at Sarajevo

Snow falls on the western front.

The First Battle of Ypres is smothered in German frustration and the number of losses on both sides has increased to quarter of a million: dead, missing and wounded.

 Turks have to flee the British in Mesopotamia.

 The British also take Basra, thus getting control of the Persian Gulf.

 Goeben and Breslau, two German warships that have been added to the Turkish fleet, encounter a Russian squadron on the Black Sea.

 In Egypt a corps of Indian soldiers on camels fights the Turks.

 The Germans advance towards the Polish town of Łódź.

 British aviators bomb the Zeppelin factory in Friedrichshafen.

 The British navy announces to expand the minefield in The Channel.

 And the Austrians cross the river Kolubara, an offensive in Serbia which is bound to fail, led by Oskar Potiorek.

How differently the twentieth century would have passed, if corporal Adolf Hitler had run into a live bullet in the Great War? This is an intriguing but absurd question. History follows a capricious line, but she will absolutely refuse to deviate from it retroactively.

Another silly ‘what if’ question: what would have happened, if Oskar Potiorek had shown his driver the right way on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo. The chauffeur would not have had to turn the car, with the successor to the throne of Austria-Hungary as its passenger,  around. Then Gavrilo Princip would not have had the time to give the go-ahead for the First World War with a bullet for Franz Ferdinand. After which Adolf Hitler would not even have had to run into that live bullet.

Is it subtle but unavoidable processes that control history or do nitwits and accidental passers-by give it a twist? Oskar Potiorek might have prevented the First World War. If he had not called ‘Stop! Wrong! We have to continue along the Appel Kai’, the twentieth century would have been without a world war, according to Pascal’s reflection: ‘Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have been changed.’

The starting shot for which Potiorek created the conditions only triggered the First World War. The causality behind the war is of course much more complex than the capriciousness of some dignitary.

***

In 1914 we meet Oskar Potiorek as military governor of the Reichsland Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1878 it came under the flag of Austria-Hungary to the great dissatisfaction of the Serbs. In accordance with the Treaty of Berlin (1878) the Habsburgs start supervising the former provinces of the Ottoman Empire. After the Bosnian crisis of 1908 it comes to a downright annexation by Austria-Hungary.

All those years Vienna took great pains to convert the muslims, Serbs and Croats into Bosnians, completely in line with the multicultural Danube monarchy, but nationalism gets the upper hand more and more among the three groups. In Bosnia also the political parties are formed along ethnical lines.

These centrifugal forces get on Oskar Potiorek’s nerves. He himself is from Carinthia, Slovene being his native language. As military governor he has been the target of Serbian terrorists, just like his predecessor. He is determined to restore order through a military regime. As a hard-liner Potiorek finds the civilian authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina on his path. Leon von Bilinski, one of their representatives, is a man who has adopted a strategy of conflict avoidance. He cannot prevent, however, that Potiorek, backed by the army, assumes power with the aim to suppress Serbian nationalism. But by Potiorek’s repression the wind blows into the sails of terrorist groups such as The Black Hand, of which Gavrilo Princip is a member.

Another painful question is why this very man of discipline and authority loosened the reins in Sarajevo on 28 June. The protection of the heir to the throne and his wife, who were invited by Potiorek, was absolutely appalling. First a bomb is thrown at their car. When Franz Ferdinand, who is unharmed himself, wants to visit those who have been wounded in the attack, Potiorek has no objection. It would have been worth considering the advice to avoid the streets of Sarajevo for the rest of the day. ‘Do you really think the Sarajevo streets are full of murderers?’, Potiorek barked as a reply to that suggestion from his entourage. Yet Potiorek decided to join the archduke and his beloved Sophie in their car. With his own body he protected them both. Apparently he was so occupied by his task as body-guard that he forgot to tell the driver their new destination, hospital.

Could it have been Potiorek and his men’s intention to expose Franz Ferdinand to danger? However improbable this seems, there is something that supports such a conspiracy theory. Franz Ferdinand belonged to the camp in Austria-Hungary which wanted to avoid a war with Serbia, for fear that this would also lead to a conflict with Russia. Franz Ferdinand even wanted to give the Slavs within the Habsburg Empire a position equal to that of the Austrians and the Hungarians.

At odds with this is the ardent desire in army circles to get the Serbs in the Balkans back in the kennel, starting with the Serbs within the borders of the Austro-Hungarian empire. That was also a fervent wish cherished by Potiorek. And then the emperor-to-be with his weak knees is assassinated  by a Serb terrorist. All things considered this is killing two birds with one stone. An important opponent of the war with Serbia has been eliminated and the way in which this has been done is a perfect reason to start that war… It takes some believing.

In the month after the double assassination Potiorek shouts down criticism on his irresponsible hospitality in Sarajevo with a loud call for revenge. In Bosnia and Herzegovina he pulls in the reins even more. When war finally breaks out, Potiorek gets more elbow room. He is given command of the Austrian troops in the Balkans, chasing the Serb ‘pigfarmers’. Potiorek focuses his sight on Belgrade.

The Austrians see the Serbs as murderous barbarians. ‘The war leads us to a country whose population nurses a fanatic hatred against us’, Potiorek is recorded to have said. ‘The catastrophe in Sarajevo has proved that it leads us to a country where killing is considered an act of heroism, even by the upper classes. Humanity and friendliness to such a people are out of place.’ It is a kind of reasoning which leads to Austrian war crimes in Serbia, to be compared with those of the Germans in Belgium.

Barbarians in the eyes of Potiorek, the Serbs are mainly very motivated born fighters. Their highly experienced chief of staff is Radomir Putnik. The Serbs even owe it to the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph that Putnik again leads the troops. The elderly Putnik was recuperating in an Austrian health resort, when war broke out. The emperor considered it a matter of honour to give the old marshal free rein. After which Putnik started to capitalise his ample knowledge of warfare in the Balkans in a new conflict. Austria-Hungary has always been the shlemiel, the simpleton, of the Great War.

Putnik’s equal on the Austrian side is Conrad von Hötzendorf, just like Potiorek a hawk as far as Serbia is concerned. It is Potiorek’s plan to take over command from Conrad by means of a triumphal march in Serbia. Conrad, who is one year older, has been his rival for years. Small wonder that these two have great difficulty communicating and co-ordinating their plans.

In the beginning of the war Conrad also has to free himself from a difficult position. Serbia is not the only scene of battle for the Austrians, however much their hearts go out to this. Soon the Russians announce themselves in Galicia. This Polish front draws heavily on Potiorek’s range in Serbia. It turns into an extremely bloody fight which flows back and forth. In August the Austrians start with a smooth advance past the rivers Drina and Sava. But once the Serbs intensify their defence, Potiorek has to return to Bosnia in a hurry. The sun rising on 24 August does not see a single Habsburg soldier on Serbian soil any more. Potiorek, who has the rank of Feldzeugmeister, has lost 28,000 men, 4,500 of whom as prisoners-of-war in Serbian captivity. And he has to beg Conrad for extra troops.

In the beginning of September the Serbs invade Hungary. Later that month they also succeed in invading Bosnia itself. To make quite sure Gavrilo Princip is taken from Sarajevo to the fortress of Theresienstadt in Bohemia. Then the first week of November it is Potiorek’s turn again. His next offensive on 2 December results in the fall of Belgrade which he has been looking forward to so much. That victory, however, does not last long. Putnik starts a successful counteroffensive the following day. On 16 December Belgrade is in Serbian hands again. But the price Putnik pays is just as high as Pyrrhus’s for his victories against the Romans. The Serbian army has to sacrifice itself in order to defend the territory. The year after Serbia will yet be overrun.

First winter descends on the smouldering ruins of Serbia. Typhoid afflicts civilians and soldiers. And then Oskar Potiorek has to submit. Archduke Eugen is given command of the troops on the southern front, where all will be quiet until September 1915. Potiorek also has to step down as military governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although before the war he had become second in command within the general staff, Potiorek did not enjoy great trust in military circles. He was not less high-spirited than the highly esteemed Conrad. Yet Oskar Potiorek’s ambitions mainly aroused irritations. On horseback he did not live up to his promises. His unmarried status suggested a homosexual inclination, which did not do much good to his reputation.

Potiorek’s disclosure must have brought him to the edge of suicide. But death was not in hurry. Gavrilo Princip declared during his trial that the bullet which hit Sophie was meant for Potiorek. ‘I have been spared in Sarajevo, so that I can die taking revenge’, Potiorek is said to have called out repeatedly in the months after. That was another promise Oskar Potiorek could not deliver. He does not die until 1933, a bitter old man of 80 years old.

***

‘Stop! Wrong! We have to continue along the Appel Kai.’ It would have been better if the Master of History had given Oskar Potiorek some other lines on 28 June 1914.

Next week: Paul von Hindenburg

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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