The Great War – 1914: Assassination Before Lunch

ASSASSINATION BEFORE LUNCH was my contribution to 2014’s commemorations to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Most events concentrated on the experiences of ordinary British people in the war, and especially of the tommies and the famous pals’ battalions; however, as a historian, I wanted to address some of the bigger questions. Above all, I wanted to look at the question of why the war broke out in the first place. Everyone has heard of how the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and how this somehow set in motion the train of events that led to the outbreak of European war in August 1914, but most people don’t really know what the connection between the events actually was. After all, even the most notorious assassinations don’t usually actually lead to war, so what was so different about the Archduke Franz Ferdinand? (and who was he anyway?)  To answer this, I decided against trying to tell the whole story and to concentrate entirely on events in Vienna, where the government had to decide how to respond to the assassination by Serbian terrorists of the heir to the throne. This is the decision that torments Count Berchtold, the foreign minister, under pressure on the one side from the fire-eating General Conrad von Hötzendorf, who desperately wants a short war to prevent the situation slipping out of hand, and the much more cautious and urbane Hungarian prime minister, Count Tisza, who needs far more convincing of the need for war. Also playing an important role are the women in the story, Berchtold’s wife, Nandine, and Conrad’s secret married amour, Gina von Reilingen.

One of the great ironies of the history, which I try to bring out in the play, is that the figure most consistently opposed to launching a war was Franz Ferdinand himself. I bring this out in the play by giving the Archduke much more than a walk-on role and even bringing him back into the story after his death.

The play was performed to full houses in the Mumford Theatre, Cambridge, as part of the 2014 Cambridge Festival of Ideas. As part of the Festival, the first performance was preceded by a talk on the history from me, and the second by an interview I conducted with Professor Gary Sheffield of Wolverhampton University, one of the country’s leading historians of the First World War. A review of the play was published in Local Secrets.

ASSASSINATION BEFORE LUNCH is the first of what I hope will be a series of six plays telling the story of the First World War through a series of key decisions.

Scene Tasters

CONRAD:   But why won’t you listen?

BERCHTOLD:   General Conrad, you cannot – you simply cannot – propose war as the solution to each and every problem that arises.

CONRAD:   If we had crushed the Serbs when I said we should have done –

BERCHTOLD:   There is no guarantee that it would have made a blind bit of difference. They could have got him here in Vienna or in Sarajevo or in Budapest or anywhere.

CONRAD:   Yes, but they wouldn’t have been armed by the Serbian government, would they? That’s the difference.

BERCHTOLD:   We don’t yet know that.

CONRAD:   Of course we do. It’s obvious.

BERCHTOLD:   That doesn’t make it true. When I receive the magistrate’s report I will decide on an appropriate course of action.

CONRAD:   You’re going to wait?

BERCHTOLD:   I need time and I need information.

CONRAD:   God damn all civilians. We must act!

BERCHTOLD:   By act you mean fight?

CONRAD:   Of course I do. Oh, come on, man. We march into Serbia, arrest the government, hang a few terrorists – and we’re back home toasting our toes in front of the fire within a matter of weeks. The problem is solved.

BERCHTOLD:   And what if it turns out the assassins had no link whatever to the Serbian government?

CONRAD:   So what? They came here from Serbia didn’t they? Serbia is responsible for them and everything they did. You’re the foreign minister, damn it. Act like it!


NEDJO:   Have you seen your family, Veljko?

VELJKO:   They won’t let them come.

NEDJO:   Why not?

VELJKO:   Why should they make it easy for me? Maybe it’s better this way.   I wouldn’t want them to see me like this. Not here.

NEDJO:   Of course it’s not better. It’s only common decency. Don’t they know you have a family?

VELJKO:   That’s probably what they’re saying about you, Nedjo. The Archduke and his wife were parents too, you know.

NEDJO:   It’s different. They were legitimate targets.

VELJKO:   In their eyes, so am I.

GAVRO:   Everyone is a legitimate target. This is all-out war we’re waging here.

VELJKO:   Here, let me tell you something, Gavro. A couple of years ago, during the war with the Turks, I was in Serbia visiting family, and I saw some corpses. Five of them, lying by a roadside. Would you believe I’d never seen a dead body before? Someone had laid them out neatly, waiting to be collected I suppose. Robbed them too: you could tell. There were three Serbs and two Turks. And you know what? They all looked as dead as each other. You couldn’t tell just by looking which of them had died in a good cause and which in a bad, because they all looked the same. Now I’m going to die, for the cause of Serbian unity. That may be a good cause, I don’t doubt it, but right now, Gavro, right now, as I consider the cost it is demanding of me, you know what? It doesn’t feel quite good enough.

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