1914: The Last Days Before the Global Conflagration (1931): Gavrilo Princip in Film

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By Carl Savich

An early film portrayal of Gavrilo Princip was by German actor Carl Balhaus in the 1931 German movie 1914, die letzten Tage vor dem Weltbrand, 1914: The Last Days Before the Global Conflagration, released on January 20, 1931 in Germany. The film was also released in France, as 1914, fleurs meurtries, and in the U.S. in 1932. The movie was directed by Richard Oswald whose production company made the film. It was distributed by the Capitol Film Exchange in the U.S. Carl Balhaus had appeared as a student in The Blue Angel in 1930 with Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings.

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Carl Balhaus in the role of Gavrilo Princip has limited screen time and no dialogue in the movie. He appears in two scenes. The brief opening shot of the film shows him firing his gun at the Archduke and the Duchess. The other scene shows him under arrest at the police station after the assassination. Nevertheless, he is the source and the catalyst for all the events that follow.

1914, die letzten Tage vor dem Weltbrand was produced and directed by Austrian born Richard Oswald. The screenplay was written by Heinz Goldberg and Fritz Wendhausen. It was distributed by Atlas Film GmbH Berlin and featured an introduction by historian Eugen Fischer.

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Richard Oswald had made the silent movie Der Doppelmord von Sarajewo (The Double Murder of Sarajevo) in 1920 and Brandstifter Europas (The Arsonists of Europe) in 1926 on Russia during the period of the 1917 Revolution in Austria.

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The film had its premiere on January 20, 1931 in Germany at the Tauentzienpalast in Berlin. It was released in the US on September 3, 1932 by Capitol Film Exchange in New York City. It was released in France on March 20, 1931 as 1914, fleurs meurtries, 1914: Dead Flowers. It was also released in Sweden as 1914 on February 20, 1932.

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Historian Eugen Fischer, who later added the name Baling to distinguish himself from the eugenicist of the same name, appears in the introduction to the film, in a six minute lecture presentation. The thesis of his speech: Russia started World War I because Czar Nicholas I ordered the mobilization of Russian troops. Germany only reacted to this initial act of aggression, and, is, therefore, not guilty of starting the war. Russia bears full guilt. This section was added to the film after its completion.

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German actor Carl Balhaus as Gavrilo Princip, center, in 1914 (1931).

Reinhold Schünzel played the key role of Russian Czar Nicholas II. Nicholas is depicted as wavering and reluctant to go to war. His wife is also antiwar. He is persuaded to go to war by his military advisors, who are hawkish. Kaiser Wilhelm II does not even appear in the film. The focus of the film is on Czar Nicholas II and Russia. The leaders of France and England also do not appear in the film. The movie attacked the Guilt Clause of the 1919 Versailles Treaty. The film was presented to the Foreign Ministry of the Weimar Republic for its review and also to the German government censorship. Cuts and changes were made to the film. The Eugen Fischer introduction was one of the changes. The message: Why is everyone blaming Germany for causing the war? Russia caused the war. Here is the proof.

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Carl Balhaus as Gavrilo Princip, second from right, in custody at the police station after the assassination.

Reinhold Schünzel is effective and convincing as Russian Czar Nicholas II. He received favorable critical reviews of his performance at the time. Schünzel was most famous for writing and directing the original version of Viktor und Viktoria in 1933, a comedy about a woman who pretends to be a man playing a woman on stage. The movie was remade in 1982 in an American version directed by Blake Edwards as Victor/Victoria starring Julie Andrews, James Garner, and Robert Preston, distributed by MGM.

Eugen Klöpfer was effective as Franz Josef. Otto Torday was convincing as Count Istvan Tisza, the Prime Minister of Hungary, or ungarischer Ministerpräsident.

Oskar Homolka played the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov. Fritz Alberti portrayed the British Ambassador to Russia Sir George Buchanan, who was stationed at St. Petersburg. Hans Peppler was Count Graf Friedrich von Pourtales, the German Ambassador to Russia.

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Oskar Homolka as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov and Hans Peppler as Count Graf Friedrich von Pourtales, the German Ambassador to Russia.

Albert Bassermann portrayed Count Theobald Theodor Friedrich Alfred von Bethmann Hollweg, the Chancellor of Germany.

Heinrich George played French Socialist and antiwar activist Jean Jaures. Jean Jaures, portrayed by Heinrich George, after he is assassinated. Fritz Odemar played Prince Karl Max Fürst von Lichnowsky, the German Ambassador in London. Paul Mederow portrayed Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary. Lichnowsky opposed the war. He sent a cable on July 29 to the German Foreign Office that stated: “If war breaks out it will be the greatest catastrophe the world has ever seen.” He also argued that Germany could not win the war.

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Bernhard Goetzke portrayed King Peter of Serbia. Olaf Fjord played Crown Prince Alexander who was shown reading the Austrian ultimatum with Prime Minister Nikola Pasic played by Adolf Klein standing in the background obscured by Goetzke.

The opening scene of the film shows Carl Balhaus as Gavrilo Princip firing the shots in Sarajevo, killing Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. Princip steps forward, aims his gun, and fires two times, as spectators react in shock. This scene follows immediately after Eugen Fischer’s spoken introduction delivered as a speech.

The next scene shows Eugen Klopfer as Emperor Franz Joseph reading reports of the assassination. Eduard Graf Paar, his adjutant, played by Viktor Jensen, has presented him the news of the assassination. Then Princip is shown under arrest being questioned by the police. Two police officers bring Princip in handcuffs before a magistrate to the station. He is wearing a suit and tie. The scene is brief with no dialogue. This is the only screen time that Gavrilo Princip has in the film. But they are pivotal scenes. They are the events that trigger and propel the events that follow.

The film then features European diplomats responding to the crisis, known as the July Crisis, showing the major diplomatic maneuverings that took place within a 39 day time span from the day of the assassination to full-scale world war. There is little variation in the scenes or film technique. The characters are shown in rooms in long, steady shots. There is no action. The only action in the film is the opening scene of the assassination in Sarajevo and the assassination of Jean Jaures near the end of the film. There is only dialogue. The editing consists in jump cuts between scenes with no transition.

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The cover of Illustrierter Film-Kurier, Nr: 188: 1914 – Die letzten Tage vor dem Weltbrand, 1931. On the cover, Carl Balhaus as Gavrilo Princip, right, center, Reinhold Schünzel as Russian Czar Nicholas II, top left, and Eugen Klöpfer as Emperor Franz Joseph on the bottom left.

The film opens on June 28, the last Sunday in the month in 1914. Sarajevo residents are shown cheering the Archduke and the Duchess when an assassin steps forward and fires two shots. Smoke from the shots shrouds the crowd as the assassin is seized by police. The crowd reacts in horror. There is no dialogue. We see Gavrilo Princip fire the shots and his arrest amidst a billowing cloud of smoke from the gun. The Archduke and the Duchess are not shown at all.

An hour later the report of the assassination is given to the 84-year old Kaiser Franz Josef by his adjutant-general. Franz Josef is shocked by the murder of the heir to the Habsburg throne. This scene takes place in the Privy Council in Bad Ischl, in Austria, with a shot of Franz Josef at his desk. Count Berchtold, the Austrian foreign minister, demands speedy military action against Serbia, which Austria blames for the assassination. Serbia was accused of being the backer and sponsor of the assassination. The Chief of Staff of the Austro-Hungarian Armed Forces, Conrad, supports an immediate military strike against Serbia. He had been a hawk calling for war against Serbia for years before the assassination. Count Tisza, however, is against war. Franz Josef also does not want war.

Berchtold then leaves for Berlin to determine if the German Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg will back Austria based on its treaty obligations. Bethmann Hollweg, like Franz Josef, seeks to localize the conflict. Count Berchtold seeks to issue an ultimatum to the Serbian government. Bethmann Hollweg is unsatisfied with the demands in the ultimatum. His goal is to mitigate the note and make changes to its demands. His efforts do not succeed. The ultimatum is quickly posted and the following day is presented to the Serbian government in Belgrade.

In Belgrade, there is perplexity and confusion. King Peter wants to accept the conditions of Austria, even though they are harsh. Crown Prince Alexander and  Prime Minister Nikola Pasic disagree with the King. They recommend that Czar Nicholas II and the Russian government be consulted before they act.  Alexander sends a telegram to the Czar in the then capital of Russia, St. Petersburg.

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Reinhold Schünzel, left, as Russian Czar Nicholas II in a scene from 1914 (1931).

In St. Petersburg, Czar Nicholas asserts that he will back Serbia, diplomatically, politically, and militarily. He is advised by Sazonov. The Serbian government waits eagerly for the Czar’s telegram. The decision on how to respond to the Austrian ultimatum will depend on the support from Russia. Now having backing from Russia, the Serbian government can be more forceful in its reply. The Austrian Minister, Baron Giesl, finds the response unsatisfactory and leaves Belgrade. Austria mobilizes.

In Berlin, the reaction is different. Kaiser Wilhelm II assesses the Serbian reply “a brilliant performance for the short term.” He would have “never ordered mobilization and Giesl could have remained quietly in Belgrade”. Berlin acts as a mediator in the dispute. The focus has now shifted to St. Petersburg.

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Albert Bassermann as Reichskanzler Theobold von Bethmann-Hollweg, Reinhold Schünzel as Russian Czar Nicholas II, and Hans Peppler as Count Graf Friedrich von Pourtales, the German Ambassador to Russia, on the cover of Illustrierter Film-Kurier, Nr. 1525, 1931, Berlin.

Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich requests that Czar Nicholas order mobilization. He does not propose a partial mobilization against Austria only, but a general mobilization of all Russian forces. The Czar does not accept this conclusion. A general mobilization would be seen as directed against Germany. Germany would be threatened. Nikolai, Sazonov, and the Russian generals are determined to strike first whatever the cost or consequences. The Empress attempted to restrain the Czar but is unsuccessful. The Czar receives telegrams from the Kaiser. He is hesitant. He was aware of the costs in human life if he mobilizes for wart: “Remember, it’s a question of sending thousands and thousands of men to their death.” Nevertheless, the views of his advisers convince him to ultimately order a general or full mobilization.

Germany has no other choice but to reply in kind, to implement a full mobilization of its own. The threat of war is now palpable and real. The German government seeks at the last hour to have Russia reconsider and to rescind the mobilization order. A twelve-hour grace period is given Russia to withdraw its mobilization. On August 1, at 12 clock noon, the German Ambassador to Russia, Count Pourtales, made a last ditch effort to convince Sazonov to give his word that he would change the order and prevent a world war and conflagration. Sazonov does not relent. Pourtales then leaves St. Petersburg.

France announced that it would support the Russian decision. France ordered the mobilization of its forces. England is persuaded to join Russia and France.

In the last scene, which takes place in a Paris café, Jean Jaures, the anti-war and Socialist activist, is assassinated. He is shot twice by an assailant as he begins eating with a companion. The first shot of World War I was directed at a victim who only desired peace. The final scene has bells ringing.

The major dramatic tension in the film centers on Czar Nicholas, who is pressured by his pacifist wife Alexandra Feodorovna, played by Lucie Hoflich, on the one hand, and the hawkish, pro-war military advisors such as his uncle Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich, played by Ferdinand Hart. In the introduction, Eugen Fischer places the blame for starting World War I on Czar Nicholas II and on Russia: “Nikolaus und somit den Befehl zur Mobilmachung des gesamten russischen Heeres gab.” “And thus Nicholas gave the command for the mobilization of the entire Russian land forces.” This is the overarching or overriding theme of the film: Russia was responsible for starting World War I. Fischer had written the 1928 book The Crucial 39 Days, Die kritischen 30 Tage, in support of this thesis.

The film was made in 1930. The context of the film is crucial. The War Guilt Clause of the Versailles Treaty and German reparations continued to have a stranglehold on German society and on the economy. With rising unemployment and economic collapse, extremist groups gained in popularity in Germany. By 1930, the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler had risen in stature in inverse proportion as the German economy collapsed. As the German economy began to hit rock bottom, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party were becoming the top political party in Germany. The 1929 US stock market crash resulted in the further collapse of the Germany economy because US banks loaned money to the German government to pay the war reparations. German unemployment rose by 2.1 million in 1930. In the September, 1930 elections, the Nazi Party received 6.5 million votes, or 18.3%. The Nazi Party had 107 seats in the Reichstag or German parliament, they were now the second largest party. They went from 12 seats to 107 seats. The Nazi Party was now the rising political party in Germany. It became even more popular as unemployment reached 6 million in 1932. The film was made in this context, to show that Germany was not guilty of the war. Reparations were, thus, unjustified and unfair. It was a case of victor’s justice imposed on the losing power.

On July 27, 2014, in conjunction with the hundred year anniversary of the assassination, the film was released on DVD by Filmjuwelen in Germany. The DVD cover featured a reproduction of the 1931 German movie poster. Heinrich George received the top billing on the DVD release cover.

The film highlighted Gavrilo Princip’s central place as the spark for the greatest conflicts of the 20th century. He fired the first shots in a century that witnessed the most destructive wars in history. Although the film does not explore his motives in depth, it acknowledges his seminal and pivotal role in setting the subsequent events in motion. Carl Balhaus gives a realistic and convincing portrayal as Gavrilo Princip even though his screen time is brief. Princip is portrayed as determined and unwavering.

The film was reviewed positively in the September 5, 1932 New York Times when it played at the Europa Theatre in a version with added parts in English. The conclusion was that “the picture is well done and follows the developments subsequent to the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne.” The performances were praised: “An excellent cast gives reality and interest to what might be classified as a gigantic news reel. Herr Schuenzel is good as the vacillating Czar, Frau Hoeflich is a sympathetic Czarina, Herr George looks and acts like Jaurès, and Oskar Homolka makes Sazanof sufficiently hard-hearted.” The fault they find is that Berchtold and Sazonov are painted as cunning and conniving while Czar Nicholas, Wilhelm II, and Franz Josef are presented as guileless and sincere champions of peace duped and cajoled into a war they did not want. Does the film answer the question of who is guilty for causing the war? Do we find out the origins of the war? The film only presents one perspective, the German side. The review noted this failure: “Persons going to the Europa Theatre with the expectation that ‘1914: The Last Days Before The War,’ the German language film being shown there, will give them any definite information as to the real causes of the World War are doomed to disappointment.” According to the review, the screenwriters failed because they did not delve beneath the surface of the pronouncements and platitudes to “devote a little time to the economic rivalries, profiteering armament makers and chauvinists of the leading European nations now generally recognized as the forces responsible for the world holocaust.” The conclusion is that there is no “absolute knowledge extant on these matters, regardless of the endless discussion of the ‘war guilt question’ that has raged for the last eighteen years.” The screenwriters, thus, “have as good a right to their interpretation as anybody else.”

The historiography on the origins and responsibility for the war has changed and evolved over time. The 1919 Versailles Treaty determined that Germany was guilty for starting the war and assessed reparations and was forced to cede territory. During the interwar period, the origin of the war was determined to be the failure of the alliance systems then in effect. The war started through misunderstanding, confusion, and ignorance. All the countries stumbled into the war. All the nations of Europe had self-serving motives and thus all are responsible for causing the war. The “Fischer thesis”, enunciated by German historian Fritz Fischer in his 1961 book Griff nach der Weltmacht: Die Kriegzielpolitik des kaiserlichen Deutschland 1914–1918, later translated in English as Germany’s Aims in the First World War, placed responsibility back on Germany for causing the war. Fischer argued and demonstrated through documents that Germany planned to go to war for years and that the assassination was only a pretext. This view has been attacked and challenged.

The interpretation that Russia was responsible for staring the war by the order for a general mobilization has also been advanced before and after the movie. Czar Nicholas had sent a telegram to Wilhelm that the mobilization was aimed at Austria-Hungary and not at Germany. Moreover, the Russian government was determined to continue the peace process through negotiations and diplomacy. It was Germany that declared war on Russia on August 1. This is an issue that continues to be debated and discussed. The film is one attempt to present the issue from the German perspective.

The film remains relevant because there is still an ongoing debate and discourse on who started the war and its genesis. How did events progress to the point of a world war? What were the decisions that led to war? What were the motivations of the political and military leaders? There has never been a single, uniform and consistent explanation for how the war started and who was responsible. The film offers one interpretation of those events. The conclusions are from the German perspective or viewpoint. On the one hundred year anniversary of the start of the First World War, the film is one attempt to explain how that war began.