The Scandalous Love Affair That Started World War I

In the midst of a crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, General Franz Conrad von Hoetzendorf’s romantic obsessions may have fueled the flames of war.

After the first five months of World War I, the Austro-Hungarian forces, under the leadership, if that is the right word, of General Conrad von Hoetzendorf, suffered stupefying losses--189,000 dead, 490,000 wounded, and 278,000 missing and prisoners of war. Among those who fell was Hoetzendorf’s favorite son, Herbert, who was killed near Lviv in modern-day Ukraine in a botched battle planned by his father. A year later, in a letter to Virginia von Reininghaus, Conrad is still overcome by grief: “Erwin (his other son) and I can still not talk about Herbert because our words are suffocating in tears!” At the end of the letter, however, he reverts to his dearest subject—his longing for Virginia: “Could I just be with you! I am not well, our separation . . . farewell for today, be hotly and intimately kissed! Yours, Franz.” A few weeks later in 1915, in a conversation with a fellow officer, Conrad exclaimed in complete despair: “If this woman is not finally making a decision whether to become my wife, I am not sure what will become of me!”

The Chief of Staff of the Austro-Hungarian Army, the highest ranking soldier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, responsible for the lives of millions of soldiers and the survival of one of the oldest European powers at that time, appeared to have an unusual priority--winning the heart of a woman, a married Italian aristocrat named Virginia (“Gina”) von Reininghaus, while the old world around him was plunging into the abyss. In the midst of the slaughter in Central Europe, a love-crazed and heartbroken Conrad, branded the ‘architect of the apocalypse’ by one biographer, still managed to compose one letter a day, often two or three, to his inamorata; between 1907 and 1915 he would end up composing more than 3,000 letters to her—some more than sixty pages in length. This tumultuous relationship played the most important role in Conrad’s life and may have vicariously contributed to his prewar obsession with launching a preventive war against Italy and Serbia. Indeed, it may have contributed to the outbreak of the First World War, given Austria’s pivotal role in the conflict.

In his book, The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark states:

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this relationship; it was at the center of Conrad’s life throughout the years from 1907 to the outbreak of the war, eclipsing all other concerns, including the military and political questions that came to his desk.

It is an irony of history that the most important soldier in an already oscillating and directionless empire, owing to its exposed geographical location and multiethnic makeup, was himself in the critical years leading up to 1914 vacillating between fatalism and despair because he was besotted with Reininghaus.

The two first met in 1900 in Trieste, where Hoetzendorf was commanding an army brigade, but it was an encounter during a dinner in Vienna seven years later in 1907, where they both were seated next to each other, that lead to the beginning of his infatuation with her. Conrad’s first wife, Wilhelmine, had died of cancer in April 1905 in Innsbruck, and he only reluctantly forced himself to attend the soiree. However, after dinner he told his aide-de-camp: “I have to leave Vienna immediately . . . From now on this woman will be my destiny.” At that time, Virginia was married to a wealthy Austrian businessman from Graz and the mother of six children.

Despite Virginia’s marriage, a few days after the dinner Conrad appeared at her residence declaring his love: “I am namelessly in love with you and want you to become my wife!” She rejected him. After the rebuff, in a letter he sent from Berlin, he threatened to resign his army post: “If I don’t know where I stand with you, I shall resign my position, and you will never see me again!” As with military matters, he proved to be just as uncompromising in his pursuit of her.

Hoetzendorf had enjoyed a brilliant military career. Born in Vienna on November 11, 1852, into a military family—his father, Vincent, was a retired Colonel, who in 1813, along with his Chevauleger-Regiment had escorted Napoleon for parts of the way on his exile to Elba—he quickly ascended the promotion ladder as a general staff officer, and participated in the military occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878-79, his only real combat experience. From 1888-92, he taught at the prestigious Kriegsschule (War School), the highest academic institution within the military. The instruction manual for infantry combat, which he wrote at the Kriegsschule, was in use up until the First World War. Later on he commanded the elite Infantry Regiment Nr.1 Kaiser, an infantry brigade in Trieste, and created Austria’s Alpine Corps, the Kaiserschuetzen, in Tyrolia, while serving as a division commander in the Alps. In 1906, mostly due to the intervention of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, who saw him as a useful pawn in his quest for influence, Conrad became the chief of staff of the entire imperial and royal army, a position that moved him to the epicenter of power in the Dual Monarchy.

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