Prague: two Sarajevo moments

somwehere in an old building at Prague castle, to my surprise, there was a window with a notice on it saying: this is where the Defenestration of Prague happened.

The what?

Took me back to when I was 17 and doing A-level history. Long story short: Prague was an important part of the Holy Roman Empire, which was ruled by Catholics, but the local people were Protestants. The Holy Roman Emperor decided in 1618 that he was going to take away Protestant rights; the Protestant leaders didn’t like it, walked into the castle and put the Emperor’s envoys on spontaneous trial, after which they sentenced them to death and, by way of implementation, chucked them out of this window:


Looked at from the bottom – the window is the one on the top floor – that’s a fair way to fall:


but they all survived. The Catholics put this down to divine intervention, while the Protestants claimed they had landed in a dung heap. Either way, the Emperor mobilized his armies, one thing led to another and that led to the next thing, and before you know it the whole of Europe is involved, the crops are ravaged from the land, and a quarter of the population of Germany is dead. The repercussions of this one defenestration ran to three decades of bloodletting, famine, disease and death: the Thirty Years War.

If that rings a more recent bell, it’s one that tolls 30km down the road amid gorgeous forests at the Bohemian castle of Konopiste. For the last 20 years of his life, this was the home of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, Franz Ferdinand:


That’s the one who was assassinated by Balkan nationalists at Sarajevo on June 28th 1914. And Austria invaded the Balkans, and one mobilization led to another, and so to the trenches of Flanders and the Somme and poison gas and the Russian revolution and Versailles and hyperinflation and depression and Hitler and Stalingrad and Dresden and Auschwitz and the gulags, and what percentage of Europe dead? And even after those thirty (one) years it wasn’t really finished because of Stalin and his successors, and by the time it was finally all over in 1989 there had been, for some, 75 years of it…

Franz Ferdinand’s palace is as impossible as his moustache. Can you imagine a world where people built stuff like this in all seriousness?


But at least that was benevolent. Inside the palace there are rooms and rooms full of armaments, and corridors and galleries and staircases bristling with trophy kills of wildlife, each one tagged with the place and date it died. The guide let drop the statistic that, during his life, Franz Ferdinand shot almost 275,000 animals, each one recorded and numbered. Do the maths on that. He died at 50; let’s assume he started at age five, and never took a day off. Put like that, he killed, every single day, an average of 15 animals, almost one per waking hour. That’s a murder rate almost worthy of the Nazis; in fact it makes you wonder where they got their models from. And this one-man animal genocide was the heir to the throne of one of the great European empires. It seems entirely appropriate that he was hunted to death by Balkan nationalists around the streets of Sarajevo like some kind of exotic big game.

If only the consequences hadn’t been so awful, for so long…

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