Germany has been in an uproar since the arrest last week of a thirty-one year-old employee of the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) who stands accused of spying for the United States. He reportedly began passing over 200 secret documents to the CIA back in 2012, receiving 25,000 Euros as payment. He was caught when he offered his services to the Russians as well, an email which German counterintelligence intercepted. While it cannot be denied that allied spy services do in fact spy on each other, this seems an unusually flagrant operation, given the already parlous state of U.S-German relations over intelligence matters.
The reaction to all this in Germany has been highly negative, since this scandal comes on top of months of allegations of NSA espionage against Germany, care of the defector Edward Snowden. This has become a major political issue between Washington, DC, and Berlin, and the revelation that a BND staffer was betraying secrets to the CIA has only worsened the situation. Reactions have been swift and harsh. Germany’s interior minister called for a new “360-degree approach” to intelligence, meaning treating the United States as a serious counterintelligence threat to Germany, on a par with Russia and China, while the justice minister hinted at criminal proceedings against the U.S., observing that “American intelligence services are obsessed with surveillance.” President Joachim Gauck was blunt: “If it actually happened that way — that a service probably employed one of our employees from a service in that manner, then indeed one must say: enough is enough, for once.”
And now things have gotten considerably worse. The German media today is filled with reports that a second German official is under investigation for espionage on behalf of the United States. The suspect is a member of the Bundeswehr, the German military, who is reported to have come on the radar of the military’s counterintelligence arm (MAD) due to his regular unreported meetings with U.S. intelligence personnel. Experts have already judged the case “more serious” than last week’s BND scandal. The soldier’s residence and office have been searched by police and prosecutors are preparing to act.
The timing of all this, given the fragility of U.S.-German relations on security matters, literally could not be worse. Already many Germans were wondering what sort of ally the United States actually is. In reaction to last week’s espionage debacle, the Left Party’s chair Katja Kipping stated, “There were enough apologies on the phone” — meaning the White House reaction to last year’s NSA brouhaha — “Now Obama should quickly get on a plane to Berlin and eat humble pie.” One wonders what will be required now to smooth all this over.
Watch this space, more is coming …
UPDATE [10 Jul]: German media, which is filled with denunciations of U.S. espionage by politicians across Germany’s political spectrum, is today reporting that the Bundeswehr espionage suspect, who has yet to be arrested, though is considered to be under “suspicion of being involved as an agent in intelligence activities,” worked in the MoD’s Policy Department and is reported to have been in charge of International Defense Cooperation.
One of the hardest things for normals – meaning those uninitiated to the world of espionage – to grasp is just how devious and nasty some intelligence agencies actually are, particularly if they are Russian or have been trained by Russians. For years, I’ve contended with uninformed people who simply cannot believe that the Kremlin’s special services, as they call them, actually do espionage, propaganda, sabotage, subversion, and terrorism, despite there being mountains of evidence that they do exactly that, most recently in Ukraine. And it’s not just the Russians doing these sorts of things.
You may recall the scandal that ensued back in the fall of 2012 when The Daily Caller, a right-wing news website, published sensational allegations that Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) had been cavorting in the Dominican Republic with underage prostitutes. The bombshell dropped just days before the senator faced reelection. In the months that followed, the story — which Menendez firmly denied — began to fall apart as sources recanted their accounts, and the mud began to sling inside the fishbowl of Washington, DC reporting. The damage to the senator’s reputation, however, had been done.
Some people smelled a rat from the start, and it seems that such doubts were well placed. A detailed new report in The Washington Post, which is based on solid research, makes clear that the effort to smear Sen. Menendez was actually a Cuban intelligence operation. What Havana, specifically its powerful Intelligence Directorate (Dirección de Inteligencia — DI), did here is a classic case of an Active Measure, to use the proper Chekist term. The Russians trained Castro’s spies, and their modus operandi is similar at many points, particularly in the dirty tricks department. Havana’s spies excel at espionage and political warfare, and they have successfully smeared many foes abroad over the decades, and the DI’s dislike for Sen. Menendez, a strong opponent of the Castro regime, is well known. So they engineered a complex propaganda operation to damage an enemy.
As elaborated in the Post‘s account, U.S. counterintelligence for some time has known that Cuban spies were behind the Menendez smear, which bears the hallmarks of a classic DI operation. They created a fake tipster, “Pete Williams,” who “told FBI agents and others he had information about Menendez participating in poolside sex parties with underage prostitutes while vacationing at the Dominican Republic home of Salomon Melgen, a wealthy eye doctor, donor and friend of the senator.”
None can say the DI, which as I’ve explained before is a very competent spy service that has customarily run rings around U.S. intelligence, didn’t work hard at this operation:
According to the former U.S. official familiar with the intelligence, the information suggested that Cuban operatives worked through business allies and lawyers in the Dominican Republic to create the fictitious tipster. The former official said the U.S. intelligence community obtained information showing that Cuban operatives allegedly attempted to lend credence to the timeline of the prostitution allegations by tracking flights on Melgen’s private plane that Menendez made for visits to the elite Casa de Campo resort, where the eye doctor has a home.
How this all got started is a textbook case of an Active Measure, using anonymous sources and cut-outs:
The FBI’s Miami field office began its probe into the Menendez prostitution allegations in August 2012 after receiving copies of e-mails that “Pete Williams” sent to a liberal watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. CREW said the tipster began corresponding with its investigators that spring, but they told the FBI they were unable to meet Williams in person or corroborate the claims.
“My duty as a US citizen obligates me to report what I consider a grave violation of the most fundamental codes of conduct that a politician of my country must follow,” the tipster, identified as Williams, wrote to CREW in an April 2012 e-mail, claiming “first hand information” about Menendez’s participation in “inappropriate sexual activities with young prostitutes.”
The FBI investigated these allegations for months, particularly after they exploded in the media in November 2012, only to find there was nothing to them. Instead, it bore the hallmarks of a DI operation, as was obvious to those who are familiar with their tradecraft. As explained by Enrique Garcia Diaz, a senior Cuban intelligence defector to the United States, “From the moment that article about Senator Menendez was published, I suspected that it was an invention of Cuban intelligence, because that is the way they work. It is their modus operandi … They fabricate lies. They look to create intrigue.”
Sen. Menendez has been briefed on the Cuban intelligence operation waged against him, and he is pressing the Department of Justice for a full investigation of the matter, and I hope DoJ does due diligence here. In response to the realization that he got played by Havana’s spies, Tucker Carlson, editor in chief of The Daily Caller, expressed skepticism: “I really can’t assess it without more information … It’s bizarre on its face, but also fascinating.” If he’s waiting for a personal brief by the DI on how they smeared Sen. Menendez, Mr. Carlson will be waiting a long time. In the interim, he should read up on the real world of espionage and learn the term Active Measure.
As I’ve reported recently, the Kremlin is taking full advantage of the Ukraine-Is-Fascist meme, with an enthusiastic embrace of propaganda taken straight out of the Stalinist playbook. Last week, Sergey Glazyev, a senior adviser to President Vladimir Putin who is known for controversial statements, flatly termed Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko a “Nazi.”
Now Glazyev has outdone even that vitriol in a remarkable interview with state-run RIA Novosti about Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU). Amid much denunciation of Poroshenko and Ukraine’s increasingly successful efforts to blunt Russian aggression, Glazyev described the SBU as “a criminal organization and its leadership is fully controlled by U.S. intelligence agencies. That is to say, this is an organization that creates lawlessness in Ukraine, commits crimes against the people of Ukraine,” adding that “the SBU performs essentially the same function in Ukraine today as that performed by the Gestapo in Nazi Germany.”
“There is no question of legal methods or legal culture,” Glazyev stated, accusing the SBU of mass killings of its own citizens in the anti-terrorist operation currently being waged by Kyiv against Russian-controlled militias in the country’s southeast. “It would be fully logical, based on extensive evidence given by citizens, to classify the SBU as a terrorist organization. Essentially, it is a criminal terrorist organization that operates lawlessly in Ukraine against its own citizens,” he added.
Mincing no words, Glazyev pointed his finger directly at Washington, DC: “We must understand that the SBU is now working under the direction of U.S. intelligence … Essentially, the SBU is a tool of the United States,” explicitly accusing America of “unleashing a war” in Ukraine so that it might “solve its economic and political problems at the expense of Europeans”.
Perhaps significantly, this interview, which says something about the mentality of those who are running the Kremlin today, does not appear on RIA Novosti’s English-language site. Also unsurprisingly, the SBU has opened a criminal inquiry into Sergey Glazyev.
The record number of jihadists leaving Europe to fight in Syria (and to a lesser extent in Iraq) has rapidly become one of the continent’s top security concerns. A major worry is that hard-pressed European intelligence services will be overwhelmed by the numbers of returning radicals and thus unable to cope effectively with the rising threat, and there is already evidence that this is happening.
It therefore caused a sensation at the end of June when the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (Algemene Inlichtingen en Veiligheidsdienst - AIVD) informed the public that, according to its analysis, there has been “huge growth” in local jihadism, with about 130 Dutch Muslims having gone to Syria to fight against the Assad regime, of whom almost thirty have already returned to the Netherlands and some fourteen have been killed. While most of the volunteers are of Moroccan descent, there are many converts among them as well, plus Dutch citizens of Turkish, Kurdish, Caribbean, Somali, and Afghan background. Most of the departing jihadists are between twenty and thirty years of age, though there are older volunteers and teenagers too.
Some twenty of the jihadists are women, most of them wives of fighters who have gone to support their men and the cause. AIVD Director Rob Bertholee said he is “flabbergasted” by the large number of Dutch women who have gone to Syria and Iraq. Concerns are rising in the Netherlands about what these jihadists will do when they return home, as most of them will. At best, they will serve as agitators and propagandists for radical Salafi causes, while it can be judged a near-certainty that some of them will attempt terrorism domestically. There seems ample room for concern, particularly because AIVD’s budget is being cut by nine million Euros (about USD 12 million).
But even the AIVD’s dire assessment of the threat may be too optimistic. Malika Elmouridi, a former local politician and activist among the Dutch Muslim community, warned that the government is undercounting the true number of jihadists by a considerable margin. To a large extent, AIVD relies on self-reporting from families whose children have left for Syria or Iraq but, Elmouridi notes, “It is only a very small group of parents who raise the alarm and say: ‘My child has gone to Syria’.” Many fear the stigma and shame of having produced radical offspring, and stay quiet. Very few have been radicalized at home, though those who fall sway to the Salafi jihadist message are “enormously suggestible,” she states, adding that many have troubled backgrounds.
The majority of the radicalization that leads young Dutch men and women to wage jihad in Syria and Iraq is happening neither at home nor in the mosque, but virtually, in the online world. Facebook and Twitter are the preferred venues of these would-be holy warriors, who demonstrate “no regard for religious or other leaders in the Muslim community,” observes Dutch journalist Hans Wansink. He adds:
The battleground in Syria is functioning as a catalyst; the caliphate is not a dream any longer but a genuine prospect. The successes of ISIS constitute appealing propaganda material. The number of Dutch-language websites glorifying jihadist violence and denouncing the West has multiplied many times over since 2013. As a travel destination, Syria is fairly easy to get to via Turkey. Returning veterans from the civil war are mentally and physically in a position to plan attacks and to carry them out. The terror threat has thus increased sharply in a short time, while the resilience of states and population groups has actually decreased.
Moreover, there is little under current laws that AIVD and Dutch authorities can do to prevent this process. “Programs for ‘de-radicalization’ have little effect,” notes Wansink, regrettably accurately, while much of this social media activity undertaken by Dutch extremists falls under the protections of free speech. AIVD counts several hundred active Salafi radicals in the Netherlands, as well as a few thousand sympathizers, a huge number of potential problems for the underfunded security service to contend with.
Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten has assured the public that “all available means” are being employed to prevent Dutch citizens from waging jihad abroad, adding that it is “not acceptable” for them to be doing this. The risk of domestic terrorism is “genuine,” he admits. Welfare payments of jihadis who have left the country have been stopped and some thirty people have had their passports revoked. But the Netherlands to date has done little more concrete to prevent its citizens from going to Syria and Iraq as fighters — and returning home more radical and more proficient at killing. Such are the dilemmas facing all free and democratic Western societies as they confront this rising threat. In truth, as long as Turkey continues to make it easy for European jihadists to reach Syria through its territory, this problem promises only to get worse.
For months, the most prominent meme pushed by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin as it wages Special War against Ukraine has been that the country is a nest of fascist vipers, and that Jew-hating Neo-Nazis are in power in Kyiv. As such, Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine is therefore defensive, indeed a replay of the Second World War, rather the Great Patriotic War that Russia continues to misrepresent for current political purposes. Just today, according to Interfax, Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Democracy and Rule of Law, stated that the problems of Nazism and anti-Semitism are “the most pressing ones” in Ukraine now. This meme has become pervasive among many in the West too, despite its fraudulence. A good guide to judging how close a person is to the Kremlin position on Ukraine is how often and how loudly s/he informs you that “fascists” are running that country.
In keeping with the Ukraine-Is-Fascist theme, we have an interesting new piece of propaganda from the Strategic Culture Foundation, a Russian far-right think-tank established in 2005 which is prone to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which explicitly compares the war being waged in eastern Ukraine today with Spain in the 1930s. “The International Brigades in the Donbas: Like Spain in 1936 – only volunteers!” is authored by Nikolay Malishevsky, a Belarusian who is a frequent contributor to SCF and possesses the ultra-nationalist views fused with Orthodox spirituality that are all the rage in the Kremlin these days. The article itself is pure agitprop, complete with vintage propaganda images from the Spanish Civil War – it should be noted that SCF has been warning about rising “fascism” in Ukraine long before the current war started – but it reveals several things about the not-so-secret secret war being waged by Russian intelligence in eastern Ukraine.
According to Malishevsky, the self-proclaimed Donbas People’s Republic has hailed the the establishment of new International Brigades to defend its territory against Ukrainian “aggression,” and its “Prime Minister” Aleksandr Boroday has said that the parallels with Spain in the 1930s are “obvious” and his government is “ready to accept the service of volunteers from all countries, without exception, in Europe, America, Asia and Africa.”
This, Malishevsky makes clear, is a deeply inclusive appeal to: “Men and women. Natives of Western, Central, Eastern and Southern Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East and Central Asia. Socialists and conservatives. Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims … all united in military brotherhood and the desire to stop the brown plague of the 21st century.” He is at pains to note that volunteers are not coming solely from Orthodox countries like Russia, Belarus, and Serbia, but from many places.
The reader is shown a purported picture of an unnamed Czech volunteer, while Malishevsky claims that a unit of Poles showed up to defend “Russian Donbas” in late May, led by one Bartosz Becker, a group of “free Polish people who object to the basing of NATO terrorists in Poland.” The author asserts that among the “antifascist volunteers” there is a Hungarian unit calling itself the “Legion of Saint Stephen,” made up of ethnic Hungarians and “traditionalists” who are fighting for “a New Europe, in which Hungary could become a key partner for Russia and Poland.” Given known ties between Russian intelligence and Hungary’s far-right, this is an interesting statement, if true. Malishevsky claims that some “antifascist” Italians are supporting the Donbas People’s Republic with humanitarian aid, but not (yet) with fighters.
There is allegedly also a unit of twenty Israelis serving with local Donbas militia in the “Aliya” Battalion, veterans of the Israeli and Soviet militaries, while there is a unit of German volunteers serving in Novorossiya calling itself the Ernst Thälmann Battalion (which, not coincidentally, was the name of the German unit in the International Brigades in Spain, circa 1936-39). Its leader is Alexander Kiefel, said to be a veteran of East German special forces, including a tour in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, and according to Malishevsky the Germans are there as volunteers, not mercenaries, and more are coming to defend “free” Ukraine. There is also a unit of Serbs commanded by one Bratislav Živković.
According to Malishevsky, these volunteers are fighting under the command of the Donbas mystery man and “Defense Minister” Igor Strelkov, who is known to be an an officer of Russian military intelligence (GRU). The author waxes romantically about recreating the International Brigades of “heroes like Hemingway” in Spain, adding that soon there will be more volunteers – “Russians, Serbs, Belarusians, Poles, Israelis, Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Canadians and many others.”
In truth, these new International Brigades seem to have hardly more than a handful of fighters of dubious provenance. But you can expect to hear more about them and their struggle against “fascism” in Ukraine in the days ahead. So far, the only obvious similarity between this effort and the iconic International Brigades in Spain in the 1930s is that both are the creation of the Kremlin’s intelligence apparatus, and fully under its control.
For years, the most important center for Salafi radicalism and terrorism in Southeastern Europe has been Austria’s capital Vienna, which is not actually in the Balkans. Thanks to liberal asylum laws and a generally permissive attitude about radicalism – as long as the terrorism is directed elsewhere – the picturesque city of the waltz and the Blue Danube has become a preeminent hub for the Salafi jihad.
Austrian officials have tried to keep this story quiet, since it hardly helps the country’s image, but security officials have long been aware of the extent of the problem, and that it is growing. Indeed it’s hiding in plain sight. The country’s most notorious Salafi mosque sits directly across the street from a major Defense Ministry facility in downtown Vienna. On occasion, press stories have popped up that indicate that something’s going wrong in this prosperous country. In April, two Austrian teenage girls of Bosnian heritage ran off to Syria to marry jihadists, after undergoing sudden radicalization – there was a media sensation. Mevlid Jašarević, the young man who shot up the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo in October 2011, though born in Serbia, actually grew up in Vienna, and was radicalized much more there than anywhere in the Balkans. Going back to the 1990s, many major cases of terrorism and radicalism in Southeastern Europe actually have significant ties to Austria, particularly Vienna.
This fact now seems to be something that Austrian officials are no longer hiding from publicly. In its just-released annual report for 2013, Austria’s domestic intelligence agency, the mouthful Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung - BVT for short), there is bureaucratic language but little mincing of words. Some choice quotes: “Religiously motivated extremism and terrorism – above all of Islamic character – as well as Salafi-jihadi groups continue to present a great potential threat…The number of young radicalized followers of violent Salafism continues to rise. In this context, the conflict in Syria is of urgent relevance for Austria, since systematic efforts are being made within [Austria] to radicalize and recruit people for the war in Syria…The conflict in Syria has become very popular among violent extremist Salafis. The spectrum of recruits to the conflict in Syria is broadly ethnically diverse. The motivation, however, seems to be uniformly jihadi.”
Moreover, the BVT’s report points a finger directly at the Western Balkans – meaning Bosnia, mostly – and its nexus to Austria as the critical connection in the rise of radicalism and the movement of young volunteers to Syria to join the jihad:
The Western Balkans security-related relevance for Austria is particularly due to the development of Islamism in the former Yugoslavian Republics and is nourished by a bad political and economic situation. In 2013, further radical-Islamist villages were founded, especially in Bosnia-Hercegovina, where the principles of a democratic and open society are strictly denied. During the past years it was found that people from various European countries, including Austria, were traveling to these villages. In this context, a potential threat is posed by the creation of subculture groups or strictly separate communities which could provoke indoctrination and the recruitment of new members. In 2013, it was established that Jihadist fighters from the Western Balkans travelled to Syria. The fact that activists on the Balkans are networking with and are concretely linked to groups in (Western) Europe, there is a significant reference to Austria. This reference becomes particularly evident in the recruitment and travelling of European or Austrian fighters going to Syria via the Western Balkans.
This unclassified statement leaves out any detail, but the plain fact is that years of playing insufficient attention to the problem have led to the situation today, where Salafi radicalism has been nurtured in Austria to cause serious problems in the Balkans, and now there is ample and dangerous cross-fertilization. Jihadi “villages,” whose members travel frequently between Bosnia and Austria, are a growing problem – the settlement near the Bosnian town of Gornja Maoča is the most notorious, but one of many – and represent a threat to peace and order in Europe and beyond. It is good to see Austrian authorities begin to openly state the extent of the problem they face.
(Note: the 2013 annual report focuses heavily on Salafi radicalism but also addresses a wide range of counterterrorism and counterintelligence issues that fall under the BVT’s purview, including left- and right-wing radicalism, espionage, including the Snowden-derived “NSA espionage affair,” as well as an executive summary in English.)
One hundred years ago, the most consequential assassination in modern times occurred. It was the most famous too, since the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo set off a chain of events that led, a month later, to the start of the Great War, a catastrophe that took ten million lives and pretty much destroyed European civilization. The effects of that live on today, in many places: in Iraq, jihadists right now are tearing up the borders of their country that were drawn up by the victors of the Great War, from the corpse of the Ottoman Empire, which suffered its final defeat in 1918.
Despite its infamy, the Sarajevo assassination remains shrouded in some mystery, and that’s what I seek to cut through today. But first, the personal tragedy. It is easy to forget that, behind all the conspiracy and resulting diplomacy and war-making, there is a murdered married couple at the center of this event, gunned down in broad daylight. Three children, aged ten to twelve, were left orphaned. Franz Ferdinand possessed a hard edge with some gruffness, and a bloodlust that was confined to killing animals – he took a staggering 275,000 trophies in his very active hunting career – but he was touchingly devoted to his children and his wife, the former Sophie Chotek, the Duchess of Hohenlohe. As heir to the Habsburg throne, Franz Ferdinand was expected to marry only high nobility, and on matters of protocol his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, was a stickler. Inconveniently, the Archduke, who had been heir to the throne since 1889, when Crown Prince Rudolf, Franz Joseph’s troubled son, died in a bizarre murder-suicide pact with his teenaged mistress, fell deeply in love with a “mere” countess. The price of this match, concluded at the altar after several years of secret courtship, was Sophie’s suffering countless indignities at court – they were forbidden from appearing together at most public events – and their children were not in line for the throne of Austria-Hungary. They died in next to each other; Franz Ferdinand’s last words, seeing his wife too had been shot, were: “Sopherl – Don’t die, live for our children.”
They were murdered by a misguided teenager who really was no more interesting or compelling than young spree killers are today. Had Gavrilo Princip been blessed with the Internet, one suspects that he would left us semi-coherent screeds explaining that this was all necessary to validate himself to a cruel world that somehow had failed to misunderstand his cosmic importance. Princip, a Serb, was a maladjusted yet fanatic nineteen year-old from a poor, one-horse town in western Bosnia, which had been a province of Austria-Hungary since 1878. He was radicalized into hatred of the Habsburgs during high school, and he drifted into a circle of radical young Bosnians, mainly but not exclusively Serbs, devoted to overthrowing Austro-Hungarian rule in their country. Their ideology was an amalgam of anarchism and South Slav nationalism, mixed with adolescent angst and anger.
This youthful yet ardent gang was under the influence, and eventually direction, of Serbian military intelligence, whose chief, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, colloquially known as Apis (The Bull), was a violent conspirator with impressive credentials even by high regional standards. He had played a key role in Belgrade’s 1903 palace coup, which saw the king and queen not merely murdered, but butchered with body parts cast onto the street below. Serbia thus earned a reputation as what would latterly be called a “rogue state,” and Apis was at the center of the secret cabal that actually ran things at the top of Serbia’s power structure. The members, mostly army officers, masked many of their activities through a front organization called the Black Hand. Dimitrijević ran extensive agent networks inside Habsburg territory, mainly Serbs – there were more Serbs living in Austria-Hungary in 1914 than actually in Serbia – who were used for espionage, subversion, and sometimes terrorism. Under Apis, Belgrade was waging its own version of Special War in Bosnia, which Serbian nationalists hoped to liberate from Habsburg rule.
To help bring that about, Princip and his motley gang received training and weapons from Apis’s men, including hand grenades and pistols direct from Serbian military stocks, bearing the stamp of the Kragujevac arsenal: there was little effort made to cover tracks. They infiltrated Bosnia in late May, crossing the Drina river with the help of the Serbian military, and made their way to Sarajevo, to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. Their target selection ranks as one of the worst failures of intelligence analysis in all history. Apis and his staff assessed that the Archduke was the head of the “war party” in Vienna that was itching to invade Serbia. The opposite was true. There indeed was such a group and its leader was General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Austria-Hungary’s top general since 1906, a hothead who had repeatedly counseled war on Serbia (and Italy) as salve for the multinational monarchy’s many ills. Conrad’s main opponent here was Franz Ferdinand, a confirmed reactionary who detested war, which he saw as ruinous of the traditional European order. The heir viewed the Austro-Hungarian Army primarily as a bulwark of domestic stability, while Conrad wanted to make it ready for a general European war.
Austro-Hungarian intelligence was aware of the state of ferment in Bosnia, having arrested several of Apis’s agents in recent years, and knew that terrorism emanating from Belgrade was a possibility, but there was no real “actionable intelligence” to speak of when Franz Ferdinand and his retinue set out for Sarajevo. Besides, the reputation of Habsburg spies was at a low ebb since the exposure in May 1913 of Colonel Alfred Redl, the most promising intelligence officer of his generation on the powerful General Staff in Vienna, as a traitor who had been selling all the secrets he could get his hands on to Russia (and, it turned out, Italy and France too) for years. In such a climate of mistrust, it seems doubtful that warnings from the intelligencers would have made much difference anyway.
Franz Ferdinand went to Sarajevo at the end of June to show off Habsburg power in the restless former Ottoman province, which Vienna had formally annexed only in 1908. The trip was pushed hard by Oskar Potiorek, the top general in Sarajevo and the province’s governor, who had excellent ties at court and expected this high-profile royal visit to boost his career and end his Balkan exile. Vain and restless, Potiorek felt he was robbed when Conrad was made General Staff chief since 1906 – the men had been rivals for decades – and in the embarrassing Redl debacle, Potiorek saw his chance at last to bump his nemesis from the army’s top job and take his place. His aide and factotum, Lieutenant Colonel Erik von Merizzi, played down the need for extra security for the trip, claiming this would be an insult to loyal Bosnians, an astonishing claim given that Potiorek’s predecessor in Sarajevo, General Marijan Varešanin, had nearly been assassinated four years before by a Black Hand assassin. Such blindness seems mostly attributable to the fact that Potiorek and Merizzi, who were inseparable, lived in the Konak, their Sarajevo headquarters, seemingly disconnected from reality – one general compared the isolated governor to the Dalai Lama – and unwilling to listen to contrary views. The Archduke’s visit had to be a success for Potiorek’s career to relaunch, therefore it would be, facts be damned.
Perhaps most seriously, the visit included observing major military maneuvers by XV Corps outside Sarajevo on June 26-27, followed by a royal visit to the city on June 28. That stopover was chosen by Franz Ferdinand’s military chancery, not by Potiorek’s staff, a fateful choice given that it was St. Vitus Day (Vidovdan), the holiest day in the Serbian nationalist pantheon that celebrated Serbia’s defeat in Kosovo in 1389, though there is no evidence that anyone in Sarajevo pushed back against something that hardline Serbs would inevitably see as a Habsburg provocation.
The actual story of how the assassination unfolded is tragicomic and riddled with so many absurdities that, were it presented as fiction, it would hardly seem plausible. As it was a long weekend, with the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul falling the next day, much of the court as well as many General Staff officers in Vienna had headed to the Alps on holiday. There was no special intelligence effort to support the visit. It made no difference anyway, as due to lax security in Sarajevo the assassins had no trouble getting close to their quarry. Fresh from observing two days of military exercises, the royal entourage set out from the nearby spa town of Ilidža, where they were lodging, and headed into the city. Franz Ferdinand was in good spirits throughout his Bosnian sojourn, and even Conrad found his interactions with the archduke more pleasant than usual during the maneuvers. The General Staff chief had headed to Zagreb the previous evening, to prepare for a staff ride, and was not present for the fateful visit to Sarajevo.
Although there were six would-be killers in position downtown that morning, the first two failed to act when the three-car motorcade drove right past them at no great speed. The third young assassin, Nedeljko Čabrinović, managed to throw a grenade at Franz Ferdinand’s car, but it bounced off and exploded under the following vehicle, wounding twenty bystanders but in no way harming the archduke. Čabrinović equally failed with his suicide attempt, his cyanide pill inducing vomiting rather than death, and his jump into the Miljacka river proved anticlimactic as the stream was only a few inches deep in summer. He was beaten by the crowd and saved by the police, who promptly arrested him; embarrassingly, Čabrinović’s father was a Sarajevo police official.
Leaving the damaged car behind, the convoy sped up to reach City Hall, where the next event was planned. As the two cars drove past them, with Franz Ferdinand in plain sight, the three remaining assassins, including nineteen year-old Gavrilo Princip, failed to react. Yet Čabrinović’s grenade had impact, as among the wounded was Erik von Merizzi, who was riding in the damaged car and had been taken to the hospital with shrapnel injuries. While Potiorek advocated a quick run to the security of the Konak after the archduke’s speech at City Hall, Franz Ferdinand wished to check on the wounded adjutant and, without guidance from Merizzi – who was the action officer for the entourage – the heir to the throne’s driver took a wrong turn on the way to the hospital. Correcting his error, he placed Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, directly in front of Princip, who was despondent about missing his chance to make history. With his quarry suddenly before him, the terrified teenager closed his eyes and fired two shots with his Browning 9 mm pistol: both fatal, one felled Franz Ferdinand while the other killed Sophie. Oskar Potiorek, from the car’s front seat, watched it all, helplessly. Within minutes both victims were dead. Princip was grabbed by police immediately, while five of the six assassins were in custody within hours. It made no difference now.
Conrad, who was on a train when the assassination happened, was informed of the news upon his arrival around 2:00 pm when he reached Zagreb. His assessment was a common one in Habsburg power circles: “the murder in Sarajevo was the last link in a long chain. It was not the deed of an individual fanatic…it was the declaration of war of Serbia against Austria-Hungary.” Conrad accepted that war with a surprising degree of resignation, given the many times as General Staff chief that he had enthusiastically counseled war on Serbia. Only hours after the assassination, he confided his deepest thoughts, as was his custom, in a letter to his mistress. There can be little doubt that Conrad’s judgment had become increasingly clouded by this long-term affair, with a married woman half his age to whom he constantly wrote anguished letters. He was filled with pessimism, seeing Russia, together with Serbia and Romania, attacking Austria-Hungary now: “It will be a hopeless struggle, but it must be pursued, because so ancient a Monarchy and so glorious an Army cannot perish ingloriously,” he wrote to his beloved Gina.
And indeed it would be. The double murder resulted in the famous July Crisis, the end of which would see most of Europe engulfed in the bloodiest conflagration the world had ever seen. By the close of the first week of July, once Vienna had received its “blank check” from Berlin giving Germany’s support for Austria-Hungary’s attack on Serbia, which was sure to drag in Russia too, Europe was going to war. Even the cautious old Emperor Franz Joseph had had enough of the Serbs and was willing to fight, while virtually the whole military and diplomatic leadership of the Dual Monarchy wanted revenge on the “murder boys” in Belgrade. The lone skeptic, Hungarian Prime Minister István Tisza, relented once it was clear they had firm German backing.
However, it was not until July 23 that slow-moving Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia demanding a thorough investigation of the roots of the assassination. Within two days of its receipt, Serbia rejected the ultimatum, as Vienna had anticipated, and Habsburg generals itching for war desperately hoped. There was never any chance that Belgrade, which understood some of its culpability in the assassination, would agree to all Vienna’s demands, especially the requirement that Habsburg investigators have a free hand to pursue leads in Serbia regarding the assassination plot.
Indeed, the question of who exactly stood behind the plot remains somewhat murky a century later. Little new has emerged in recent decades to flesh out the background to the Sarajevo assassination, mostly because relevant paperwork on the Serbian side, if it ever existed, was long ago destroyed. What is not in doubt is that Apis and his staffers were the drivers of the plot, making the assassination an unambiguous case of state-sponsored terrorism. Myths about alleged specific warnings given by Belgrade to Vienna, yet misplaced, have been debunked long ago, but significant questions remain about major aspects of the conspiracy.
While it has long been apparent that senior members of Serbia’s civilian government had foreknowledge of the plot, and the matter was discussed in some fashion en cabinet before Franz Ferdinand set out for Sarajevo, details are sparse, though it is evident that Prime Minister Nikola Pašić and Stojan Protić, his interior minister, were aware of Apis’s machinations by mid-June, yet they demurred from taking on the fierce colonel, who after all had overseen the brutal murder of Serbia’s king and queen a decade before. Civil-military relations in Serbia were marked by strong fears of mad colonels, and not wanting to know.
Less defined and more sensational still is the matter of Russian involvement. While none have questioned that Apis had a close relationship with Colonel Viktor Artamonov, the Russian military attaché in Belgrade, accessible records do not explain what role, if any, Artamonov had in the plot. To make matters murkier still, just before his execution by his own government at Salonika in June 1917, after being accused of involvement in yet another plot, this time against his own leaders, Dimitrijević boasted in writing of his role behind the Sarajevo plot and admitted that Artamonov funded the terrorist operation, something that Yugoslavia’s Communists revealed in 1953 to discredit the royal regime that preceded them in power in Belgrade. As Artamonov died in exile in 1942 without fully explaining his role in the assassination, the matter is likely to remain unresolved in perpetuity, especially the tantalizing question of whether Artamonov’s support to the plot was his own initiative or something undertaken by direction from St. Petersburg.
Given that Russian radio intelligence was able to read Austro-Hungarian diplomatic ciphers before the war, it seems likely that St. Petersburg was aware of what Vienna’s probable reaction to the assassination would be and, as Sean Meekin has recently observed, the Russians subsequently acted as if they have something to hide: “gaps in the record strongly suggest a good deal of purging took place after 1914,” to cover whatever tracks Artamonov left behind. The attaché conveniently managed to be out of Belgrade on the day of the assassination, yet it was well known in Serbian military circles that, in the weeks before the assassination, he and Apis saw each other almost daily. A Serbian colonel who was close to Apis conceded that Artamonov had encouraged the plot: “Just go ahead! If you are attacked you will not stand alone!” While the colonel later retracted his statement, it seems very likely that St. Petersburg knew more about the plot that it later proved politic to admit.
Given the sometimes discombobulated nature of the Imperial Russian system, with their penchant for obfuscation and provocation even inside their own government, it cannot be ruled out that spies and generals took it upon themselves to help their “brother Serbs” with financing the assassination plot without authorization from “the top.” Given the lack of evidence, there is room for speculation, but there is no serious doubt that Apis was behind the conspiracy and the Russians funded it. A century later, however, there is no reason to think the complete story will ever emerge.
Remembering the murders and their consequences remains freighted with historical baggage down to the present day. Gavrilo Princip died of tuberculosis in a Habsburg jail in Bohemia in April 1918. He did not get the death penalty, despite his obvious guilt, since “oppressive” Austria-Hungary that he so hated would not execute a teenager, the assassin having been a month shy of his twentieth birthday when he killed Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. The Habsburg Empire, whose destruction he sought, would outlive Princip by only half a year.
Franz Ferdinand and Sophie lie buried together at Schloss Artstetten, about an hour west of Vienna, not with the rest of the Habsburgs in Vienna’s famous Capuchin Crypt. In Austria, they are remembered as the first victims of the Great War, while Vienna’s grand Military History Museum has a room devoted to the assassination, including the royal limousine (complete with bullet hole), Princip’s pistol, Franz Ferdinand’s torn and blood-stained tunic, plus the couch where he was pronounced dead (which Potiorek, whose reputation never recovered from the events of June 28, 1914, strangely kept as a prized possession until his own death in 1931).
In his native land, the memory of their murderer is deeply conflicted. There is no shared history of this event, nor practically any others in Bosnia’s recent past. To Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats, Princip is simply a terrorist who heralded war, chaos, and decades of Serbian hegemony. Yugoslav Communists long lauded him as a revolutionary icon, and the place where Princip stood as he fired the fatal shots was commemorated with two bronze footprints. In 1992, when Bosnia was again plunged into war, locals tore them out of the concrete. Today, there is a small museum located where the cafe was where Princip was waiting, despondently, until his moment appeared.
For many Serbs, however, the assassin remains a hero who sacrificed for Serbdom. His defenders cite regicide as legitimate; on the killing of Sophie they have less to say. “Gavrilo Princip’s shot was a shot for freedom,” explained a top Bosnian Serb politician for the unveiling of a statue of the killer, just in time for the hundredth anniversary. While poor and decrepit Bosnia has more serious problems than this one, the hailing of Princip as an icon cannot be regarded as a sign of political health in that sad country, which has been deeply troubled, to one degree or another, for a century now.
[This article is derived from my forthcoming book The Fall of the Double Eagle, which has full source citations.]