David Sedley
David Sedley
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Parshat Ki Tavo – Reason without a cause

If Archduke Ferdinand hadn't been in the exact wrong place at the exact wrong time, would the Holocaust even have happened? (Ki Tavo)
A portrait of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
A portrait of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

On 28 June 1914, in Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip fired two shots. The first killed Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, and the second assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne. These two shots are often referred to as “The shots heard around the world” that propelled Europe and the rest of the planet to World War I.

Princip was a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb, a member of a terror group named Young Bosnia who sought an end to Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He teamed up with the Black Hand, another terror group, to assassinate the archduke. At his trial, he stated his goal very simply, “I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be free from Austria.”

But let’s go back to a few hours earlier on that summer’s day in Sarajevo.

Why was Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on that fateful day?

Sophie von Hohenberg and her husband, Archduke Franz Ferdinand Habsburg. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

His wife, Sophie, was from an aristocratic family but not from a dynastic family. The duke’s uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, only agreed to their marriage on condition that their descendants would never ascend to the throne. Furthermore, being of lower rank, Sophie could never sit by her husband’s side on any public occasion and never share in the honor he received.

However, there was one caveat – Sophie could accompany her husband when he was acting in his military capacity. So, on June 28th, 1914, Franz Ferdinand decided to inspect the army in Sarajevo. It was their 14th wedding anniversary on that day, and this was the only way the two of them could ride in public, side by side, in an open carriage.

So, Franz Ferdinand was in Sarajevo as a romantic gesture to his wife. There was no real political need for him to have been there. If he hadn’t been there that day for a date with his wife, the archduke would not have been assassinated and perhaps World War I could have been averted.

In fact, Franz Ferdinand almost didn’t make it to Sarajevo in 1914 because he was nearly killed a few months earlier. While in England visiting George V and Queen Mary, he spent a week with the Duke of Portland in Nottinghamshire. On Sunday, November 22nd, the duke and the archduke went to church and then went out game shooting. Franz Ferdinand was an avid hunter. In his diaries, he listed each of his 272,511 kills. He kept the taxidermist busy – he had about 100,000 stuffed animals in his castle.

But on this particular trip, things did not go so smoothly. As the Duke of Portland wrote in his memoirs:

One of the loaders fell down. This caused both barrels of the gun he was carrying to be discharged, the shot passing within a few feet of the archduke and myself. I have often wondered whether the Great War might not have been averted, or at least postponed, had the archduke met his death there and not in Sarajevo the following year.

So, a lucky escape for the archduke, but a terrible piece of luck for the rest of the world.

In fact, on that June day in 1914, Franz Ferdinand almost cancelled the trip, because his uncle, Franz Joseph, became ill, and he had to stay by his bedside. But the emperor recovered just in time for Franz Ferdinand and his wife to make the journey to Sarajevo.

Trifko Grabež, Milan Ciganović and Gavrilo Princip (l-r) in Kalemegdan, May 1914. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

As soon as they heard Franz Ferdinand was coming to town, the Black Hand terror group began planning his murder. Six armed men lined the route that the archduke was going to take. Along with Princip were Muhamed Mehmedbašić, Vaso Čubrilović, Nedeljko Čabrinović, Cvjetko Popović and Trifko Grabež.

Franz Ferdinand, Sophie, and his entourage came by train to Sarajevo. Six cars were waiting for them at the train station. Franz Ferdinand and his wife rode in the third car. There were only about 60 policemen on duty that Sunday to guard the route of the cavalcade and protect the archduke.

The motorcade passed the point where Mehmedbašić was armed with a bomb, but he panicked at the last minute and failed to act. Čubrilović was next along the route, armed with both a pistol and a bomb, but he too lost his nerve. A bit further along, outside the central police station, Čabrinović was waiting. As Franz Ferdinand’s car approached, he threw his bomb. The bomb bounced off the convertible into the street. The driver sped up, causing the bomb to detonate under the fourth car, injuring more than a dozen people.

When the bomb exploded, the other cars sped off, making it impossible for Princip, Popović or Grabež to do anything. Depressed, Princip went to a coffee house to consider his next move.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand arrive at the City Hall in Sarajevo. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Although stressed by the attempted assassination, the archduke continued to the Town Hall for the scheduled reception. He was agitated and angry, and only calmed down after his wife whispered something into his ear. He read his prepared speech from a paper still wet with blood. He thanked the people of Sarajevo for their ovations, “as I see in them an expression of their joy at the failure of the attempt at assassination.”

After the official event ended, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie decided to go and visit the injured men in hospital. Governor Oskar Potiorek decided that the motorcade should travel straight along Appel Quay to the hospital to avoid the crowded city center. However, the drivers were not informed of this plan.

The vehicles headed off to the hospital with the archduke and his wife once again in the third car. Unaware of the plan to continue straight down Appel Quay, the first two cars turned right at Latin Bridge, and Franz Ferdinand’s driver followed them. Potiorek, who was in the car with the archduke, called out to the driver that he was going the wrong way.

The Latin Bridge near the assassination site. (CC BY-SA, Baumi/ Wikimedia Commons)

The driver stopped and began reversing. But the car stalled. Exactly where Princip was standing outside the coffee house.

It must have seemed like fate. Here was his intended victim without protection, in a stalled vehicle, directly in front of him.

Princip stepped on to the running board of the car, pulled out his pistol, and shot both the archduke and his wife at point blank range. An hour and a half after stepping off the train at Sarajevo to celebrate their wedding anniversary, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were both dead.

If the archduke had not decided to visit the wounded men in hospital, if the entourage had not taken the wrong turning, if the engine had not stalled, perhaps World War I could have been averted.

And yet, even after the assassination, nobody wanted to go to war, and it was only a series of diplomatic and military escalations and blunders that led to World War I.

Austria wanted to retaliate against Serbia to stamp out Yugoslav nationalism but was wary of how the Russian Empire, headed by Tsar Nicholas II, would respond. So, Vienna asked Germany, under Kaiser Wilhelm II, to form an alliance. Berlin agreed, but urged Austria to attack quickly, while there was still world sympathy after the assassination of the archduke.

But Austrian leaders took a long time to deliberate and eventually decided to give Serbia an ultimatum on July 23rd.

Before the Serbs had a chance to reply, Russia decided it would defend Serbia against Austrian aggression. France was allied with Russia, and was concerned that its neighbor Germany, would invade, so strengthened its military along the border. Germany then grew alarmed at the French preparations for war.

Kaiser Wilhelm II (l) and King George V. (Public Domain/ Flickr)

Britain was allied with France and Russia, but also had friendly relations with Germany and was reluctant to get involved. London offered to mediate between the sides to avert war. After all, George V was first cousins with both Nicholas and Wilhelm – all three of them were grandsons of Queen Victoria.

However, on August 1st, Germany declared war on Russia, and invaded Luxembourg as a preliminary step to invading Belgium and France. At this point, Britain felt a moral obligation to defend Belgium. On August 4th, British Ambassador Sir Edward Goschen delivered Britain’s ultimatum to Gottlieb von Jagow, the German Secretary of State to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, ordering Germany to end the invasion of Belgium Germany rejected the ultimatum, and thus World War I began.

At the outbreak of war, Wilhelm is reported to have said, “To think that George and Nicky should have played me false! If my grandmother had been alive, she would never have allowed it.”

So, the cousins went to war, though by this time it was no longer anything to do with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. But if each of the countries had not misjudged the other in a series of diplomatic and military mistakes, World War I would not have happened.

Of course, it did not become a world war until the United States joined in 1917, a couple of years after Germany sank the RMS Lusitania, and after Germany secretly offered to help Mexico regain territories it had lost to the United States.

So many steps along the way leading to war. If any single piece of the puzzle had happened differently, or not taken place, perhaps World War I would never have happened, and 20 million lives could have been saved.

And if World War I hadn’t happened, the Ottoman Empire would not have fallen, World War II would never have occurred, nor the Cold War, nor Korean War, nor War in Vietnam. The Holocaust would not have taken place.

With so many details leading to each of these world-changing events, it seems so unlikely that they should have happened. They could so easily have been averted in so many different ways. Yet that is how history unfolded.

Tragedies like these cannot be understood as simple cause and effect — no one thing had to necessarily led to another.

Which is not to say that national events occur for no reason. This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, warns of the horrific disasters that will befall the Jewish people if they fail to follow the laws of the Torah (Deuteronomy chapter 28).

But, if you do not listen to the voice of the Lord, your God, to observe and perform all His mitzvot and laws that I command you today, then all these curses shall befall you… God will bring a nation against you from afar, from the ends of the earth… and God will scatter you among the nations, from one end of the earth to the other.

Furthermore, in a similar passage in Leviticus that lists tragedies that will befall the nation, the stated reason for the continued suffering is a refusal to see God’s hand in history, and ascribe everything to random chance (see, for example, Leviticus 26:21, and the rest of that chapter).

So, there was an ultimate cause for the tragedies that befell the Jewish people, but that does not mean that there was a reason (or at least not one that we can understand).

On Yom Kippur, in the Musaf service, we read of the Ten Martyrs who were killed by the Romans at the end of the Second Temple period and in the decades that followed.

The first two martyrs were Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha. Shimon was the Nasi, the political leader of the nation, and Yishmael was the High Priest.

Shimon was a fourth-generation leader, the great-grandson of Hillel. From an early age, he was trained in the art of diplomacy, and worked his whole life to understand and improve society. He understood the complexity of human society and how any small action could have far-reaching and long-term repercussions.

Yishmael would enter the Holy of Holies every year and see a vision of the Divine. He spoke with angels and saw the hand of God in everything. According to the liturgy, it was he who explained to the other rabbis God’s justification for their horrific martyrdom.

Avot d’Rebbe Natan (38:3) teaches that when these two great rabbis were being taken out for execution, Rabbi Shimon was only upset that they were being killed like common criminals and murderers.

Rabbi Yishmael tried to justify their deaths. Like Job’s friends, he questioned whether Rabbi Shimon had ever committed even a minor infraction that would lead him to deserve such a fate.

Rabbi Shimon rejected the attempt to find a specific cause for the tragedy. He said, “Yishmael, my brother, a person must be prepared to accept whatever happens to him.”

Midrash Eleh Ezkera relates that as Rabbi Yishmael was being tortured to death, the angels complained to God, “Is this the Torah and is this the reward?” God Himself is said to have replied that the only way to change the rabbi’s fate would be to return the entire world to chaos.

In other words, there were an infinite number of events that caused that moment of national tragedy to happen, and there was no way of altering history without starting over from the beginning.

When we see world-changing events unfolding around us, as we live through a turbulent age of upheaval and confusion, we would be short-sighted to look for a single cause for any event. Everything, from political upheaval to war to climate change, has an infinite number of causes.

Yet, we can still look for a reason. For that we should look at ourselves and at how we behave towards God and society.

As Moses said to the Children of Israel in the final line of the Torah reading, “You shall observe all the words of this covenant and do them. In order to become wise in everything that you do,” (Deuteronomy 29:8).

Beginning on August 24th, I will give a new, two-part online series of classes at WebYeshiva about The Ten Martyrs which are mentioned in the Yom Kippur musaf service. You can listen to the live or recorded Torah classes on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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