Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Bad Ischl: backdrop to a monumental miscalculation

This afternoon I passed through Bad Ischl, a town in Upper Austria. A century ago the town hosted the summer residence of the Austrian Emperor, Franz Josef I. His villa is still there and is pictured above.

As in so many places, the fabric of the villa and of the town does not match the weighty historical decisions that were made here. Bad Ischl is pleasantly unassuming and breathes an air of civilised rusticality. But it was here that Franz Josef was spending the summer of 1914 as he mulled over the best response to the assassination in Sarajevo of his nephew and presumed successor, Archduke Franz-Ferdinand. 

In those days and secluded in this rural idyll, Franz Josef could never have fully envisaged the repercussions that would come from his decision to unleash his army against Serbia. His decision set off a chain reaction that became World War I. In turn, that war killed millions of people and brought an end to 600 years of Habsburg family rule as well as unseating almost all of Europe's major monarchies. 

Few miscalculations have been as momentous and as far reaching as those made in rustic Bad Ischl almost one hundred years ago. But at the same time how would our world be if not for those incredibly far-reaching decisions? World War I swept away a system of undemocratic regimes. I doubt Europe's ruling royal families would ever have relinquished power without some sort of violent upheaval, be it a world war or a revolution. As it was, it took two world wars to finally secure the path to democracy in much of Europe and this achievement was certainly not in the mind of Franz Josef. But while unleashing the "Great" War he unwittingly tolled the death knell of a corrupt and inherently exploitative political system that oppressed the vast majority of Europe's people.

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