The Chauffeur’s Turn
War was inevitable— ‘powder keg’, wasn’t it? I’d served empire, risked my neck, won Count Harrach’s favour. Summoned for manoeuvres, he goes, ‘We’ll drive!’
Creating the Centena
The book, by Jiří Skoupý, is a fascinating record—including letters, diaries, documents and photographs—of the people and events surrounding the assassination that sparked the first global war. The chauffeur in question, Leopold Lojka, was Czech—although that nation would not be founded until 1918.
In 1909, during his military service, on manoeuvres in the Bohemian-Moravian highlands, Lojka, a 22-year-old dragoon, risked life and limb to calm some frenzied horses. His commanding officer, the erudite and well-regarded Count Harrach, commended Lojka’s bravery. In need of a chauffeur, Harrach sent Lojka to Vienna on a driving course. Ordered to Bosnia for military exercises, Harrach eschewed the train for his own vehicle, undertaking a two-week journey through adverse weather, with multiple breakdowns and even an incident with a bear.
In Sarajevo, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, accompanied by his wife, Sophie, drew large crowds. Fearing assassination, he nonetheless chose Harrach’s open-topped car. Lojka was therefore not Ferdinand’s usual driver; he was also unfamiliar with the local streets. At strategic points along the route, half-a-dozen young men of the secret ‘Black Hand’ society were waiting with bombs and pistols. The first two chickened out; the third threw his bomb.
Reacting quickly, Lojka accelerated. The grenade bounced off their folded-down roof to explode under the next car injuring Lieutenant-Colonel Merrizzi and 16 bystanders. Continuing to the square, the apoplectic Archduke needed calming by Sophie before letting the mayor speak. After his own speech, he decided to visit the wounded.
Heading down the wrong street, Lojka was yelled at to back up. Manoeuvring the ungainly car, he stopped directly in front of a café where Gavril Princip, student and Black Hand member, was standing. Pinned in the crowd, unable to activate his grenade, Princip tugged out his Browning pistol and fired (he would later say in court) ‘almost without looking’ from five feet. Eyewitness accounts varied on who was shot first but Sophie died at the scene and Ferdinand later in hospital. The rest, of course, is history.
Leopold Lojka survived war service but ended up in debt, an alcoholic restaurant owner. An inveterate exaggerator, he once drove Emperor Karl I, Austria’s last monarch, but was never in his service. My piece imagines Lojka, buttonholing an unsuspecting customer for the nth time, proud of his presence in history but avoiding any personal responsibility.
A son, Alfred, died in infancy, and Lojka’s wife divorced him in 1923, although his older child, František, remained in his care. Both were named after Count Harrach. In Czech, the ‘Lojka-effect’, or ‘no one told Lojka’, became a phrase for a while. Lojka died in Brno, a broken man, not yet 40, on July 18, 1926.
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