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April 09-April 16, 2016

2016 Danube Waltz Itinerary 

   April 09: Day 01   Saturday Passau, Germany
   April 10: Day 02    Sunday Passau, Germany
   April 11: Day 03   Monday Linz and Český Krumlov, C.R.
   April 12: Day 04   Tuesday Melk and Dürnstein, Austria
   April 13: Day 05  Wednesday Vienna, Austria
   April 14: Day 06   Thursday Bratislava, Slovakia
   April 15: Day 07   Friday Budapest, Hungary
   April 16: Day 08   Saturday Budapest, Hungary
  April 17: Day 09   Sunday Budapest, Hungary
  April 18: Day 10   Monday return home


Written by Rick Archer 
May 2016

So how did this year's river cruise turn out?  Marla and I both gave our trip an A+.  It was a very wonderful experience.

Everything worked close to perfection... perfect weather, no travel hitches, great friends, efficient staff, beautiful scenery and interesting places to visit.

Table of Contents

 01- Regrets
 02- About the Danube River
 03- The Last Laugh
 04- Watching the World Go By
 05- The Habsburg Empire
 06- The Fall of the Austrian Empire
 07- Who was to Blame for World War I?
 08- The Sad History of Hungary
 09- Living in America
 10- Friendship



Unfortunately, when I say 'close to perfection', please keep in mind there is no such thing as a perfect trip.

First of all, I promised Waltz to everyone.

"There will be Waltz on the Danube Cruise.  You have my word on it.  I don’t know when and I don’t know where, but I am not about to travel 5,000 miles to Eastern Europe and miss dancing the Waltz in Austria.  That would be totally wrong.  So you can assume I intend to deliver on my promise."

I made quite sure to get my own Waltz in.  On the first night of the trip, I requested Englebert Humperdinck's Last Waltz.  Marla and I enjoyed our Waltz on the Danube thoroughly.

And then for good measure we waltzed again at two restaurants that had small trios to serenade the guests.

However I did not get the chance to Waltz with the other ladies on the trip and now I feel guilty.

My second regret is for a friend's misfortune.  As usual, Air France was a jerk. They like to play games with carry-on luggage.  For some reason, the standard size for carry-on luggage in Europe is smaller than America. 

So we get over there just fine only to face harassment on the way back.  In particular, I am not a big fan of Air France... they played this same game with us last December.

Sure enough, they made two of the ladies in our group check their carry-on bag.  However, this time Air France added insult to injury when one of the baggage handlers stole the jewelry out of one woman's LOCKED carry-on. How despicable is that??  I am sure the lady is heartsick and I don't blame her a bit. 

The final sad note came when Marla fell and hurt herself during one of our long walks.  She broke three ribs.

During the year, Marla and I try to walk three miles every day.  We go over to the lovely Houston Arboretum in Memorial Park.  In addition to the health benefits, the purpose of walking every day is to train for long walks on our travels.  Often times Marla finds hotels right in the middle of everything so we can see many of the key places simply by walking over there. 

Over the years, I have noted that Marla and I have completely opposite styles of walking... she looks up and I look down.

I stare at the ground much of the time.  This is a habit I developed from walking my dog on the grass as a little boy. I noticed when I looked down it was easier to avoid stepping in dog stuff. On the other hand, Marla likes to look up in the trees for the pretty red cardinals.  This is what led to her downfall.

In Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, we were taking a walk on a paved trail alongside the Danube. For some reason, our walking trail had raised bumps in the middle.  Why those bumps were necessary on a walking path escapes me.

Looking up as she walked along, Marla unexpectedly caught the toe of her foot on one of those raised bumps and tripped badly.  Unable to break her fall, she stumbled forward several steps, then she fell hard on her right side.

Marla has been in considerable pain ever since.  However, I have to hand it to her. For the next four days, Marla kept walking.  On her final day, Marla covered sixteen miles.

Marla refused to let the pain prevent her from seeing everything she possibly could.  Marla gets my Amazon award for toughness.  I could not be more proud of her.

This was the bump that tripped up Marla


About the Danube River


In the case of the fabled Danube River, it is the second longest river in Europe after the Volga in Russia.  The Danube starts in the Black Forest mountains of southwestern Germany and flows for some 1,770 miles (2,850 km) to its mouth on the Black Sea.

Along its course it passes through 10 countries: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine. 

From its first recorded history as the northern border of the Roman Empire, the Danube has formed the boundary between great empires.  One need only look at its banks lined with castles and fortresses to know the Danube has long served an important military purpose.  In addition, its waters have served as a vital commercial highway between nations.

So here's a question.  Which is longer, the Danube River or the Mississippi River?  Take a guess; I will answer in a moment.


Thanks in large part to the incredible natural beauty of the river, the Danube’s majesty has long been celebrated in romantic music.  The famous waltz An der schönen, blauen Donau (1867; The Blue Danube), by Johann Strauss, became the symbol of imperial Vienna and has remained emblazoned there ever since. 

In case you are interested, I wrote a story about the origin of the Viennese Waltz as well as the background of the Blue Danube.  The Blue Danube is practically the national anthem of Austria.  In fact, this Waltz is traditionally broadcast by all public-law television and radio stations exactly at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and on New Year’s Day it is a customary encore piece at the annual Vienna New Year’s Concert.

You might be surprised to discover the song was a total flop when it was first introduced in Vienna.  So what made the song so popular?  You can find out here:  The Blue Danube

So what is with this "River Cruise" concept?

One highly effective way to explain the "River Cruise Phenomenon" is to let you read Watching the World Go By

This is an article I wrote three years ago after our first river cruise. You will love the pictures. However, one word of warning... the temptation to join us on our next river cruise will become overwhelming.  Read at your own risk.

For many, their interest in a river cruise usually starts with an advertisement on TV. No doubt you have seen the ads for Viking River Cruises on TV.  One South Carolina couple we met on the ship said they saw a Viking cruise commercial each week when they watched Downton Abbey.

This couple said they found the images utterly irresistible. They could not help but notice the romantic pictures of classic European landmarks seemed especially pretty when viewed from the perspective of the river. 

Those advertisements are legitimate.  Marla and I have seen every location pictured and we can attest these landmarks are just as stunning in person as they are in the promotions.

Marla and I have now taken four river cruises with Viking. Previously we did the Rhône in France (2014), the Rhine in Germany (2015), the Bordeaux wine countryside in southern France (2015), and now the first leg of the Danube in 2016.

Our previous favorite river was the Rhône in France. I thought the Rhône had to be the most beautiful river imaginable.

I was wrong... the Danube is even prettier.

Notre Dame in Paris situated on the lovely River Seine


The Danube River begins in the heart of Germany's Black Forest in southern Bavaria. From Bavaria, the Danube flows east. 2,000 miles later, the Danube ends up in the Black Sea on the border of Romania and Ukraine.

Oddly enough, the source of the Danube is located only a mere 20 miles north of the mighty Rhine River. It seems unlikely that two of Europe's greatest rivers pass each other so closely yet go in opposite directions.  

On any given winter day, a snowfall could blanket both the Rhine and Danube at the same time. Depending on where the wind takes the snowflake, the droplet could end up in the North Sea (Rhine) or the Black Sea far to the east (Danube).

The Danube River is so long that Viking Cruise Line has divided the river into two different trip segments. Viking uses Budapest, the capital of Hungary, as its midpoint.

Our trip started in Passau, a German town on the Danube one mile west of the Austrian border. Our trip took us through Austria, Slovakia, and on to Budapest in Hungary.

During our trip, I learned that the second leg of the Danube stretches from Budapest to Bucharest, Romania. For those of you unfamiliar with Eastern European geography, Viking's second leg of the journey consists of Hungary, Serbia, and Romania.  The map below will make this more clear.

This particular area of the world is home to the Balkan and Carpathian mountains. There is one place where the Danube slices through giant mountains onwards to the Black Sea. As one can imagine, the river passes through canyons reminiscent of our own Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. The scenery is said to be unbelievable.

I don't need to be convinced of how beautiful the second part is. The first leg of the Danube proved to my satisfaction that this is the most beautiful river I have ever seen.

Rolling hills, quaint villages, clock towers, lovely churches, stunning mountaintop castles, and beautiful forests line both sides of the Danube throughout.  As our ship gently drifted down the river, I could almost hear Maria singing the hills are alive with the sound of music.

Incidentally, the Mississippi is 33% longer than the Danube.


The Last Laugh


This river cruise was especially satisfying to me on for a very unusual reason. The trip gave me the chance to settle the score with a former girlfriend over a silly argument.  Yes, indeed, it gave me immense satisfaction to prove that Janet Gunthrie, my girlfriend back in the late Eighties, was wrong wrong wrong about a lingering debate from 2009.

Janet moved to Australia twenty years ago, but we have stayed in touch via email.  Over the years, I have enjoyed matching wits with her.  Ridiculously smart and smart-mouthed to boot, Janet has long derived immense fun from needling me about my Newsletter mistakes. Unfortunately, I have to admit that I might make a mistake every ten years or so.  Since Janet is a born proof reader, she catches everything.  Consequently Janet has had the upper hand way too many times.  Over the years I have been forced to admit more mistakes than I would prefer.

However, there was one particular debate that has long stuck in my craw. It bothered me because I made a DELIBERATE MISTAKE and Janet would not take my word that I was just kidding.

So what was the issue?  Seven years ago, I concluded a story by saying I wanted Marla to schedule a cruise to Austria.  Hey, I was just kidding... I knew full well that Austria had no port.

Janet refused to take my word for it.  Instead she pounced. Janet took great delight pointing out the absolute stupidity of my suggestion. Janet's precise word for my folly was 'IMPOSSIBLE!!'

Here is how it all started.  One day in May 2009 I received a request from a couple named Richard and Mary to help them learn the Viennese Waltz in preparation for their vacation trip to Vienna, Austria.  Teaching that lesson turned out to be a bad mistake.  During our lessons, I had to listen to Richard and Mary talk with excitement about their trip. These two were going to an actual Ball featuring the Waltz!  Richard had their tux and Mary had her fancy dress. 

Now they wanted to be the best dancers as well.  All they needed was the footwork.


The thought of Waltzing at a Grand Ball in Vienna sounded like the coolest thing imaginable.  In addition, they were going to travel the countryside and see places like Salzburg, the Austrian city made famous in the Sound of Music.

Their excitement drove me absolutely nuts. Each time I saw them, images of Mozart, Strauss, Viennese Waltz, Blue Danube, the Emperor's Waltz, fancy gowns, and swirling dancers floated in my head. At the time, I could barely contain my envy. The thought of NOT seeing a glamorous place like Austria, a mountain paradise considered one of the most spectacular countries in the world, was more than I could bear.

Just thinking about it all made me feel sick. I decided the only way I could deal with my frustration would be to share my pain in the SSQQ Newsletter.

So I wrote something that got me in trouble with Janet.

The May 2009 SSQQ Newsletter:  Issue Three


From: Mary
Sent: Wednesday, May 06, 2009 4:27 PM
To: Rick Archer
Subject: Private Lessons - Austrian type of Waltz

Rick, after enjoying our two months of East Coast Swing lessons at SSQQ earlier this year for our daughter's wedding, my husband Richard and I could be considered advanced beginner or intermediate level swing dancers.

Now we are traveling to Austria in mid June of this year to attend a Ball. We wanted to have some private Waltz lessons to get us up to speed in short order. Is there anyone who can help us out in this regard? Thank you for your help, Mary & Richard


Now doesn't that sound like fun?  Richard and Mary are going with a group to Austria. On one of the nights, they are supposed to have a dance class in Viennese Waltz with a trip to the Grand Ball on the following evening.

Richard and Mary decided the smart thing to do was to get a head start, so they asked for my help.

I enjoyed helping them get ready to Waltz, but now I am really envious! I want to go too.  In my opinion, Marla needs to schedule a cruise to Austria!

Please pester her to do so.

The Viennese Waltz

Swirling gowns and beautiful dancing


As a bit of background, I am a Geography buff.  That is one of the reasons I like to travel.  I have memorized every capital in the world.  I also know that modern Austria is a land-locked country.  However, it wasn't always that way.  The Austrian border once extended all the way to Venice.  However, when Prussia under Chancellor Bismarck attacked Austria from the north, Italy saw its chance and wrested control of Venice away from Austria in 1866.  Austria was forlorn... gone was their Venetian pearl. 

So of course I was just teasing about a cruise to Austria.  

I assumed everyone would give me the benefit of the doubt!

I never expected anyone would bother to reply.

But I was wrong.  Indeed, someone did reply.


From: Janet
Sent: Friday, May 15, 2009 12:11 AM
To: dance@ssqq.com
Subject: get out your atlas, dodo

A cruise to AUSTRIA???  Are you out of your mind? 

Did you know that Austria is landlocked and not a cruising destination?????

Get out your atlas, babe, because you made a slight blunder on that one!

Hint to Rick....here's a word for you: IMPOSSIBLE!

Cruise destinations all have large bodies of water associated with them...you know, so that a REALLY big boat can dock there.

Even Noah's Ark isn't going to make it to Vienna!!

Go sit in the corner.


When I got Janet's email, I rolled my eyes.  Only Janet from another Planet would be goofy enough to challenge me on GEOGRAPHY, my forte.

I could not believe Janet seriously believed I had made a mistake.  Well, some things never change.  Obviously Janet was still the same old pain in the butt as always. 

Truth be told, I missed our sparring days.  Back when we dated, Janet could never resist giving me a hard time. Janet was exceptionally good at finding ways to tease me.  This note showed that Janet had not lost her touch.

However, this time her teasing really got under my skin.  The nerve of her to think I was that stupid!   Feeling the rankle, I decided to argue with her.

So I resumed our sparring for old time's sake.


From: Rick Archer
Sent: Friday, May 15, 2009 11:18 AM
To: Janet
Subject: RE: get out your atlas, dodo

Dear Janet,

Give me a break!  Regarding the cruise to Austria, why do you have so little faith in me? I just said that to provoke people and have some fun.

I never thought you of all people would believe I was that stupid.  I not only know where Austria is, I know that it is surrounded by Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic plus a couple Balkan countries nearby.  However, with a skeptic like you I doubt I will convince you of anything.

I assume you believe me when I say I know where Austria is?

On the other hand, knowing you, maybe not. ;-)


From: Janet
Sent: Monday, May 18, 2009 10:31 PM
To: Rick Archer
Subject: Re: get out your atlas, dodo

Okay, okay, okay, I'll give it up. I was only trying to yank your chain anyway. However, a wee bit of me still suspects that you momentarily mistook Vienna for Venice or Austria for Australia.

Not that I doubt your geographic brilliance, but we all make mistakes sometimes...especially as we get older. And God knows you are getting older.

Methinks you mistook Viennese Waltz for Waltzing Matilda, you know, Austria for Australia.  So any time you want to come clean on that obvious flub, let me know. I won't think any less of you.  Well, maybe a little.

Very good on the knowledge of Austria's surrounding countries... but I remain skeptical.  We all know you could have checked it out a bit on any map.

Therefore it does not count as real genius or any conclusive measure of your geographic intelligence. You will have to blow me away with something better than that.

By the way, did anyone else call you on this glaring error?  Or did everyone just think you knew what you were talking about given your superior abilities at naming capitals of the world?

And, by the way, is anyone pestering your wife for a cruise to Vienna?


From: Rick Archer
Sent: Tuesday, May 19, 2009 11:05 AM
To: Janet
Subject: RE: get out your atlas, dodo

No one to my knowledge is pestering Marla for a cruise to Vienna.

That said, Janet, I promise you if Marla ever figures out how to schedule a cruise trip to Vienna, I will get down on my knees and worship her even more than I already do now.

By the way, you are a pain in the ass, but don't ever change.  You are perfect just the way you are.


Well, Janet won that round. 

But you know how they say life is long.

Back when I was arguing with Janet in 2009 I had never heard of a 'River Cruise'.  That all changed when the Viking Cruise line began running Sunday morning commercials on CNN in 2013.

Those advertisements showed a long, slender ship sailing down lazy European rivers amidst stunning scenery.  A picture is certainly worth a thousand words... I immediately put down my crossword puzzle and took notice.  That vision opened my eyes to ideas I had never before imagined.  Maybe Noah's Ark was a possibility after all.

Unbeknownst to me, from her comfy chair four feet away, Marla was watching that same ad with an equal amount of interest.  At the time, neither of us knew what the other was thinking.

This went on for three more Sundays. Each Sunday I forgot about Wolf Blitzer and stared at those Viking ads with intensity. Finally I couldn't take it anymore. I had to say something or go crazy.

"Marla, have you ever considered taking us on one of these river cruises?"

Marla nodded.

"Of course, Rick.  I think about it all the time!  Unfortunately, the problem is the cost. When one adds in the cost of air travel to Europe, these trips are not cheap.

I have no idea if our cruise customers would be willing to support this new concept." 

Then Marla paused for a moment.

"But you know what?  I am more than willing to try!"

Marla's answer made me grin. Marla had just committed to an exciting new gamble. That's my girl!! I deeply hoped Marla would be as successful with this new feature as she had been with her cruise intuition in the past.

I really wanted to try one of those Viking river cruises!

As it turned out, Marla's instincts were right on the money. In addition to Marla and me, a lot of our friends were watching those same commercials. These ads on river cruising were capturing the imagination of a lot of people. Marla caught the surge of interest just as it was breaking with our first river cruise in France back in 2014.

So here we are in April 2016 and this Danube trip marks our fourth river cruise.  In particular, this trip was dramatically enhanced by its destination... Austria!

In 2009, Janet said: "Impossible!!"

In 2016, Rick replied: "River Cruise to Austria"

Never say Never.

Heroes Square in Budapest. 

Buda Castle in Budapest

Rear view of the Budapest Parliament building


Watching the World Go By


Back in 2009, I told Janet I would get down on my knees and worship Marla if she ever scheduled a cruise to Austria. 

Well, consider it done. At the end of the trip, I got down on my knees and kissed her feet.

I am so fortunate to ride Marla's coattails.  Her river cruises have opened up an entire new world for me.  These cruises have allowed me to explore Europe in a way that my imagination could have never have anticipated all those years ago.

If you have never been on a river cruise, I can say there is something very special about these trips.  On a river cruise, you can sit in a chair at the front of the ship and prepare for a spectacle.  Gaze in awe as a neverending tableau of beautiful landscape unfolds before your very eyes!! 

There is nothing to spoil your view or your concentration.  No billboards, no sounds of the city, and no litter exist to irritate.  Instead, there is strictly peace, beauty and serenity.  If you wish, you can turn on your head set and listen to the musical strains of Mozart and Strauss as you float merrily along. 

Some say a river cruise might be the most perfect vacation of all.  You won't get any argument from me.  A 300 mile sail along the most lovely river in Europe is incredibly inviting.

To me, a river cruise is so relaxing. The ship has a viewing deck complete with rocking chairs. While I gently rock back and forth, I am treated to scenery that is unbelievably pretty.

And perhaps a glass of wine??  I enhance my experience with a choice of Austrian wine such as Riesling or Prosecco.  As I watch the rolling hills and endless forests pass by, friendly waitresses make sure my wine glass is never empty for long.

By the way, did you know the wine is free?  I can have as much as I want.  Comforted by occasional sips of sparkling Riesling wine, I sit there smiling in a dreamlike trance.

We all work very hard for 40, 50 years or so.  Many of us have reached that magic moment when it is time to receive a reward for all our hard work.  To me, this trip is the perfect reward.

As they say, there are no pockets in shrouds.  Now is the time to find that elusive quality known as joy.  And that is exactly how I feel on these river cruises. 

When I am on these trips, I feel a contentment very close to what one might describe as 'Heaven on Earth'. 

Marla is watching the world go by in Lyon, France

I am not the only one who enjoys watching the world go by


Rick Archer's Note:

The next four chapters are related to the
history of Germany, Austria, and Hungary.

If you prefer to skip the History of the area,
then clic

Table of Contents

 01- Regrets
 02- About the Danube River
 03- The Last Laugh
 04- Watching the World Go By
 05- The Habsburg Empire
 06- The Fall of the Austrian Empire
 07- Who was to Blame for World War I?
 08- The Sad History of Hungary
 09- Living in America
 10- Friendship

The Habsburg Empire


In addition to my transcendent rocking chair moments, I always make sure to use these trips as opportunity to learn something. Every one of my river cruises have had a serious side to it. These trips are extremely educational because they allow me to visit remote areas that were previously inaccessible.  I learn so much about history and politics this way. 

On this trip, I learned that Austria and Hungary have been linked for hundreds of years.  It turns out that as Austria goes, typically so goes Hungary.  The Danube connects Vienna to its nearby neighbor Budapest 130 miles downstream. 

My guides in both cities talked in detail about the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Habsburg dynasty.  American history books concentrate on England, France, and Spain, the countries that fought over control of North America.  However, I discovered it is impossible to understand Europe without grasping the enormous influence of the Habsburg Empire. 

Using Austria as its power base, members of the giant Habsburg family guided European destiny for 600 years until World War I put a permanent end to their reign.

In particular, I developed an interest in Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria.  Few people have had as much influence on modern European history as Maria Theresa, the only female who ruled the Hapsburg empire.  

Maria Theresa, the eldest surviving child of Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, was born in 1717 in Vienna.  Succession rights in those days were complicated.  However, the untimely death of her brother and selective blindness to another claim to the throne set Maria up as the presumptive heiress.  She reigned as absolute sovereign for 40 years beginning when she was 23.  At one point, Maria Theresa ruled over the territories of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Mantua, Milan, Lodomeria and Galacia, the Netherlands, and Parma.

From what I read, Maria Theresa was an effective monarch.  However, Maria Theresa is probably better known for her incredible fertility and skill at marrying off her children. 

Maria is one of the few royals in European history who actually got to marry the one she loved instead of the ones her father picked for her.  One betrothed prince died of smallpox. Religious differences disqualified another match.  Political unrest ended another potential mate.  Eventually she married Francis Stephen, the son of the Duke of Lorraine in France.

Francis came to visit the royal family in Vienna when he was 15.  Apparently Francis and Maria were strongly attracted.  The ensuing teenage romance somehow overcame all the usual obstacles and politics to become a powerful marriage.

They say that Charlemagne of France is the Father of Europe.  Maria Theresa of Austria is either the Mother of Europe or perhaps the better term would be 'Mother-in-law' of Europe. 

Maria Theresa and her husband Francis I had sixteen children.  There were eleven daughters, including Marie Antoinette, and five sons.  Of the sixteen, ten survived to adulthood.

These various children went on to become the Queen of France, the Queen of Naples and Sicily, and the Duchess of Parma.  Not to be outdone, two of the boys, Joseph II and Leopold II, became the Holy Roman Emperor as well as rulers of Austria. 

One thing the Hapsburgs were really, really good at was marrying off their children.  This is how Maria Theresa became known as the Mother-in-law of Europe.  At the time of her death, Maria Theresa had over two dozen grandchildren.  Her unusual penchant for marrying off her children had much to do with expanding the immense Habsburg influence across Europe, but, as we shall see, it would come with a horrible price.

Despite the neverending European wars such as the Thirty Years War, War of Austrian Succession, Seven Years War and a host of other conflicts, Maria Theresa and her relatives did a pretty good job of keeping the peace by making alliances with others.  They made these alliances through marriage. 

Austria was never a particularly effective military power.  So, as they say, if you can't make war, make love.  Austria's main defense seemed to be intermarriage with European royalty.  Eventually every ruling family of Europe had Habsburg cousins or second cousins.  The theory was it is harder to go to war with family than people you didn’t play with as kids.  

There were two sides of the family.  Charles V of Spain (1500-1558) was responsible for that.  Charles was the most famous Habsburg.  Through inheritance, Charles brought together under his rule extensive territories in western, central, and southern Europe, and the Spanish colonies in the Americas and Asia. 

At one point he was simultaneously the Holy Roman Emperor, ruler of Austria, the Spanish Empire and the Netherlands.  His domain covered the earth.  Of Charles V, it was said he ruled over "the Empire on which the sun never sets".

Charles was the man who made Spain rich.  He sanctioned the conquest by conquistadors of the Aztec and Inca empires, thereby extending Spanish control across South and Central America.  This vast expansion of territory and the influx of South American silver brought Spain to the height of its power. 

Due to his control of Austria, Spain, parts of France and the Netherlands plus his control of Germany territory as the Holy Roman, Emperor Charles came closer than anyone in history to being the universal ruler of Europe. 

At the end of his reign, Charles decided his realm was too big for one man.  He handed off Austria and the Holy Roman Empire to his younger brother Ferdinand and gave Spain to his son Phillip II.  From this point the two sides of the family remained allies, but went their separate ways. 

So with all those Habsburgs running Europe, what put an end to the Habsburg Dynasty?  Now that is an interesting story. 

The most obvious answer is that Austria picked the wrong ally... Germany.  However, a less obvious answer is that quality of the leadership had been greatly diminished by in-breeding. 

By the time World War I put an end to the Habsburg Dynasty, the family had basically in-bred the brains out of the ruling class.  Due to weak leadership, they couldn’t figure out how to avoid killing each other in the trenches. 

So what happens when you marry your relatives?  Sigmund Freud believed incest was the only universal human taboo alongside with murdering your parents. 

As it turned out, this widely-held superstition became actual science when studied in the Twentieth Century.  For example, a study of children born in Czechoslovakia between 1933 and 1970 found that nearly 40% of those children whose parents were first-degree relatives were severely handicapped. 

The Habsburgs were said to have a proverb: 'The best spouse for a Habsburg is another Habsburg.'  The ruling Habsburgs deliberately practiced close-relation marriages with the goal of keeping their bloodlines pure.  One can only surmise they were unaware of the cruel law of genetics that would seal their fate.

The Hapsburg Empire of Austria started in a small canton in Switzerland way back in the 13th century.  Once the family moved to Austria they began to make strategic family alliances.  Eventually Hapsburg monarchs ruled Austria, Hungary, Germany, France, Croatia, Belgium, England, Italy, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Switzerland and other spots as well.  Their empire grew exponentially until the 18th century.  Strangely enough, the secret of their success - marriage - led directly to their downfall. 

The Habsburgs were strong proponents of inter-familial marriages, preferring to avoid mixing with the dirty blood of lesser people.  When one family rules all these different countries, each country required its own Hapsburg monarch.  This meant that each Habsburg generation was under pressure to generate 10-20 new leaders, preferably all men. 

A major problem was illness.  Medicine was no match for many scourges of the day.  Smallpox, tuberculosis and plague were just as feared by the royals as by the peasants.

Take, for example, the huge tragedy that led directly to the eventual downfall of the French monarchy.  Dauphin Louis had been groomed from birth to take the place of his father, King Louis XV.  ('Dauphin' is the French word for 'Prince')

A handsome, strapping man, Dauphin Louis was in many ways the exact opposite of his womanizing father, King Louis XV.  A devout, well-educated man with a keen sense of morality, Louis was very much committed to his wife, Marie-Josèphe, as she was to him.  Marie had 13 pregnancies, four of which were stillborn.

The first surviving child was a girl born in 1750, died in 1755.  The second surviving child was a boy, Louis Joseph, born 1751.  Louis Joseph was said to be brilliant and energetic.  The third child was a boy, Xavier, born 1753 and died a year later.  The fourth surviving child was Louis Auguste, born 1754. 

It was now 1761.  Louis Joseph was 10.  Louis Joseph was the favorite child of his parents, very handsome and very bright.  His parents poured their heart and soul into him.  Tragedy struck when the poor boy was pushed off a toy horse by a friend.  Complications arose from a broken hip.  The boy developed tuberculosis in the hip and died. 

France had lost a promising heir. Fortunately they still had Dauphin Louis, the boy's father.  Four years passed. It was now 1765.  At age 36, Louis was extremely popular in France.  The entire country eagerly awaited the rise of this handsome, clean-cut Prince to ascend to the throne.  Then suddenly Dauphin Louis fell sick.  He had tuberculosis, the scourge of Europe. 

When Louis died quickly, all of France was in shock.  The pain from his loss was nearly unbearable.  To see a man who was so vibrant and held so much promise die without warning made no sense.  The cruelty of the loss left the country in despair. 

Worst of all, France had just lost the man they hoped would be their next King!!  Who was next in line for the throne?

France was stuck with Louis Auguste, a young man who was totally unprepared to become the next king.  Louis Auguste was 11 when his beloved father died.  Sad to say, but this boy had been badly neglected by his parents.  When compared to his deceased brother, Louis Joseph, it was obvious the talent wasn't there, so this kid had been ignored since birth. 

At this point, Louis Auguste was painfully shy and lacked confidence.  More ominously, to date he had received next to no training in leadership.  Unfortunately, his mother was so distraught at the death of her husband she never recovered.  With his father dead and his mother crippled with grief, Louis Auguste was forced to fend for himself as best he could.

Nevertheless, Louis Auguste became King at age 20.  Unfit for the job, he made mistake after mistake. Sad to say, at age 38, Louis Auguste was executed.  Oh, did I forget to mention his wife was Marie Antoinette?  Ill-prepared to lead his country, King Louis XVI received the guillotine for his mistakes.

One can only imagine a different ending had his father or older brother been in charge.  The point of this story is to explain just how difficult it was in those days to produce a strong male heir.  Even when successful, injury and illness often ruined the best efforts of the Royal families to maintain their lineage.

So what was the solution?  That's simple... have as many children as possible and hope for the best.  The Habsburgs understood the need to reproduce at all costs.  But they took it too far.  Although inbreeding was common among all European royalty, the Habsburgs had the worst possible luck with it.  Over time the evidence of serious genetic issues began to show.

Some highly undesirable family traits were intensified.  As generations of family members intermarried, the Habsburgs became prone to epilepsy, gout, dropsy, and depression. The most prominent sign of their familial connection was the Habsburg jaw, a lower jaw that jutted out from the face.  One would assume they would figure it out, but apparently not.

At one point, the jaw problem led to dark humor.  Whispers suggested the reason the Habsburgs all married each other was because they were too ugly for any other royalty to marry them.

Over time, the mutations kept piling on.  In the 16th century and beyond, the family began producing non-viable or non-fertile offspring. The branches of the family tree began dying out. 

Being a very strong Roman Catholic family (the head of the senior branch of the family was the Holy Roman Emperor), they blamed their deformed children on themselves for angering the Lord with their sinful behavior. 

One cannot help but feel sorry for these people.  They believed a curse had been placed upon their family when in reality the Habsburgs unknowingly carried on with the very behavior that caused the problems.  Still, it is hard believe that some priest didn't quietly point out that incest and intermarriage was clearly outlawed in the Bible.  Maybe they didn't listen.

Charles II (1661-1700), the Spanish King, was the last of the royal Habsburg Spanish line.  This poor man had a jaw so large that he couldn't chew and he had a tough time speaking. 

As if that wasn't enough, Charles had other profound disabilities.  He was mentally disabled and infertile. 

Charles did not learn to speak until the age of four.  He did not walk until eight.  He was treated as an infant until he was ten years old.  Fearing the frail child would be overtaxed, his caretakers did not force Charles to attend school. 

Young Charles was indulged to such an extent that at times he was not expected to be clean. Whenever his half-brother Don Juan José came to visit Charles, he covered his nose and insisted that the King at least brush his hair. 

Take a look at the picture of Don Juan José.  Handsome man, yes?  Don Juan José got his good looks from his mother María Calderón, a popular actress who became the mistress of Philip IV, King of Spain.  By the way, Philip IV was also the father of Charles II.  Staring at the pictures of the two men, it is hard to believe that Don Juan José and Charles II had the same father. 

So who was the mother of Charles?  Maria Anna was the daughter of the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand.  The royal marriage was guided by politics and Philip's desire to strengthen his relationship with Habsburg Austria. 

Perhaps it helps to know that Maria Anna was Philip's niece...

One child was in-bred, the other child was the issue of a beautiful woman whose 'dirty blood' mixed well with the King.

Inadvertently, sad, pitiful Charles II became the eternal poster boy for the dangers of inbreeding.  Charles II died in 1700, childless and heirless, with all potential Habsburg successors having predeceased him.  It was a blessing in a way. Seriously, if ever there was a royal line that needed to die off, this was it.

The only thing that saved the Austrian side of the family was Maria Theresa.  By defying her father and marrying someone outside the family, she inadvertently injected some much-needed new blood into the family tree. 

Thanks to Maria Theresa, the Austrian Habsburgs held onto power two hundred years longer than the Spanish side of the family line. 

Maria Theresa (1717-1780), Empress of Austria

Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, the summer home of the
Hapsburgs.  This rear view shows some of the gardens.

Buda Castle in Budapest, a place Maria Theresa visited frequently

Charles V (1500-1558).  Take note of that prominent jaw

Maria Theresa rebuilt Prague Castle in the 18th century.

Habsburg Grand Ball in Vienna

The great tragedy of France - the handsome prince dies young.
Had this talented man lived to become King, France might still be a monarchy today.


The Habsburg Jaw.  Not a pretty picture

Charles II of Spain... the last of the Spanish Habsburg line

Don Juan Jose, illegitimate half-brother of Charles II

Maria Theresa and family


Entry of the Bride   (The 1760 Vienna Marriage of Joseph II to Isabella of Parma)   by Martin van Meytens

Rick's Note:  I explained that the Habsburgs took marriage seriously, but I never knew 'how seriously' until I saw this picture.   It took me five minutes just to figure out that the bride was in the white coach in front.  She got lost in the parade.


The Fall of the Austrian Empire


Each time I take a trip to Europe, I learn a different slice of history. 

It all started with our first European cruise in 2008.  To my surprise, I discovered that Italy was not even a country until 1848.  That was my first clue that I didn't have any idea how modern Europe was formed.  Curious, I dug a little deeper into Italian history when I returned home.  I added a brief synopsis of Italian unification as part of my write-up of the trip.

On our 2012 cruise to the Baltic Sea, I learned the fascinating history of Russia.  The story about Napoleon blew me away.

On our 2014 Rhône trip, I learned about the history of France.  In particular, a stopover in Paris following the river cruise allowed Marla and me the chance to see the Palace of Versailles.  This visit was so inspiring that I spent an entire week back at home researching the French monarchy.  If you are curious, I wrote two excellent stories:  Versailles and Marie Antoinette

On our 2015 Rhine cruise, I learned about the intense history of Germany.

A similar thing happened on the 2016 Danube River Cruise.  I used this trip to fill in the remaining gaps in my education of European history.  When I was in Vienna, my tour guide spoke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Then when I went to Budapest, my tour guide also spoke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Every day I would listen to the tour guides and try to make more sense of it all.  Then I would go back to my room and use my Kindle plus the ship's free Wifi to Google my way to one history lesson after another.  Slowly but surely I began to comprehend the alliances between the countries that caused the domino effect leading up to World War I.

Considering I am far from an expert, the history of Austria and Hungary is far too complex for me to be completely confident in my explanation.  Nevertheless I will do my best.  

To understand Hungarian history, it is first necessary to understand Austrian history.  To understand Austrian history, one must understand the Habsburg dynasty.  We will start with the House of Habsburg.

The House of Habsburg was responsible for the creation of the Austrian Empire.  It started with Rudolf I of Habsburg (1218 – 1291) who was elected King of Germany in 1273.  Rudolf I acquired the duchies of Austria by defeating his mighty rival, King Ottokar of Bohemia, in the 1278 Battle on the Marchfeld.  His new territory would remain under Habsburg rule for more than 600 years, forming the core of the Habsburg Monarchy and the present-day country of Austria.

Due to its location in central Europe, Austria seems to have been left pretty much alone by the Great Powers of Europe for the next 400 years.  Austria's main enemy was the Ottoman Turks who attacked Austria on twenty different occasions.  While fending off the Turks, Austria gained further territory through the familiar Habsburg technique of marriage. 

Hungary came under Austrian control through battle in 1699.  This was a strange time for the Habsburg family.  Just as the Spanish side of their family came to a bitter end with the death of pitiful Charles II in 1700, the Austrian side of the empire was hitting its stride.  This is about the time when Maria Theresa took over.  Unfortunately, Maria Theresa was the first to suffer the lash of Prussia, the country that would become Austria's longtime nemesis.  In 1742, Prussia's Frederick the Great lopped off Austria's huge northern province of Silesia.  It was a painful loss.

It was now 1800.  The turn of the century marked Napoleon's reign of terror.  Napoleon badly embarrassed Austria's generals time and again.  He beat them on four separate occasions.  In particular, Napoleon won a stunning victory against much larger forces at the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz fought on Austrian soil.  From that point, Napoleon waltzed into Vienna so to speak.  Austria was subjugated by France and told to cease all fighting 'or else'.

Rudolf I


However, ten years later Austria had the last laugh.  19th Century Europe resembled a game of Risk where territories changed hands after every move.  Following Napoleon's disastrous trip into Russia, Austria took a gamble and jumped back in the fight now that Napoleon was on the ropes. 

English, Prussian, Austrian, and German armies cornered Napoleon at Waterloo (Belgium) and finished off the Devil.

Following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1814, Austria made out like bandits.  All the territory Austria had lost was returned.  After all the shame heaped on it by France, suddenly Austria was a multinational empire and one of continent's four great powers.

Geographically Austria was now the second largest country in Europe after the Russian Empire and the third most populous after Russia and France.  Austria was the largest and strongest country in the German Confederation.

So Austria was poised for greatness, yes? 

Well, yes, but they blew it. 

Wellington at Waterloo.  Napoleon is finally defeated


The unaligned German States were the Grand Prize of 19th Century Europe.  This situation is very confusing, so some explanation is in order.  Germany had such a strange past, I think the easiest way to explain it would be to use an American analogy.

Let's pretend that one day early in 1776 America's original 13 Colonies received word from England explaining King George was fed up with all the discord, but didn't want to go to war over it.  So the Colonies could take a hike... they were all on their own.  Since this message came shortly before the American Revolution, now there was no real reason for the colonies to discuss uniting.  Although everyone in the colonies spoke the same language and had a similar culture, each colony felt like it was quite capable to handle its own affairs.  Over the next two centuries, each colony turned into a 'country' of its own. 


If Virginia ruled its own affairs for two hundred years, it might feel differently about being asked to join the "United States" in 1976.  That is sort of what happened in Germany, except that in its case, the separate states had been on their own for two thousand years.

The Germanic people had never been conquered by Rome.  Rome got so fed up trying to conquer these fierce barbarians, they basically told to barbarians to stay on their side of the Rhine and there would be no more fighting.  Hence the various tribes were allowed to develop without any sort of central authority.  Over time the tribes developed into city-states.  The more powerful city-states grew larger and became provinces.  The more powerful provinces became territories similar in size to the smaller American colonies.

By the Middle Ages, the Germanic area consisted of 300 entities.  Some were large territories, some were small provinces and some were city-states with a wall around the town.  Each entity had its own leader, its own law and its own army.  In addition, there were many pockets of land that belonged to the Catholic Church.  The map was a huge jumbled mess.

Charlemagne had come close to unifying the area, but upon his death the Germanic territories, provinces, and city-states slowly regained their autonomy.  Each city-state and province had a king-like "Prince" who was in charge.  Recognizing a common bond, the Princes of the larger provinces periodically came together to elect a German King.  However, they never gave the German King much authority.  This meant each province pretty much continued to do want they wanted.  Mostly the German King kept the peace by preventing the larger states from gobbling up the smaller ones.

The main link between these city-states/provinces/territories beyond common language and culture was Christianity.  In time, the title of German King and the title of Holy Roman Emperor became synonymous.  In addition, what we now call "Germany" became referred to as the Holy Roman Empire, a political group that consisted of three or four dozen German provinces that defied central authority whenever it suited them. 

The position of the Holy Roman Emperor was strange... he had to answer to the Pope and he had to answer to the German Princes.  In that position, it was pretty tough to tell anyone what to do.  Furthermore the Holy Roman Emperor had no army to enforce his wishes.  It was a highly ineffective position that relied on political skills to achieve consensus to get anything done.  More often than not, nothing got done.

Over time, the larger provinces kept acquiring some of the small pockets of land around them through marriage or purchase or strong-arm tactics.  Eventually their borders began to touch each other.  These larger areas became known as the German States with names such as Hanover, Brandenburg, Saxony, Bavaria, Mainz, Baden-Württemberg and so on. 

Out of all these different German States, Austria was by far the largest.  The next nearest in size was Brandenburg controlled by Prussia.

This is the Holy Roman Empire.  What a mess.

This is how Germany looked "Before Napoleon"

Note that this map is more disorganized than the map below.  The map below is "After Napoleon"


This is a map of 19th century Europe following Napoleon's defeat.  It helps to explain the situation in the early 1800s.  For the moment, forget about France and forget about Denmark.  France was still licking its wounds from Napoleon's defeat and Denmark was too small to cause much trouble. 

Instead concentrate on everything Orange.  Those Orange areas were territories controlled by Austria.   Then concentrate on everything Light Blue.  Those Blue areas were territories controlled by Prussia.

Then concentrate on everything else.  All those different areas on the map were independent states who belonged to no one but themselves.

Yes, as hard as it is to believe, back in those days, Germany did not yet exist.

These small, diverse territories were just begging for a super-power to come in and sweep them up one by one.  In fact, Napoleon had done just that.  The armies of the different provinces were so disorganized that they became easy pickings for Napoleon's highly disciplined troops.  The German armies were mowed down like bowling pins... one or two at a time.

Now Napoleon put an end to the complicated Holy Roman Empire.  Thanks to him, the 300 city-states were consolidated down to about 30 or so.  They were now referred to as the German States.

Austria wanted those unaligned German states for its Empire.  So did Prussia.  The Game was on and Austria was in the lead.



There is, in political geography, no Germany proper to speak of.

There are Kingdoms and Grand Duchies, and Duchies and Principalities, inhabited by Germans, and each separately ruled by an independent sovereign with all the machinery of State.

Yet there is a natural undercurrent tending to a national feeling and toward a union of the Germans into one great nation, ruled by one common head as a national unit.

New York Times, July 1, 1866

So what exactly does this New York Times statement mean? 

Using an American analogy, recall that Texas became a separate nation in 1836 following its independence from Mexico.

Now a debate began over what to do next.  Some Texans wanted to remain Texans and some Texans wanted to become Americans.   The majority wanted to become Americans, so in 1845 Texas joined the Union. 

However, every now and then some Texans still talk about seceding from the Union.  They said Texas did it once (Confederacy), so what is stopping Texas from doing it again?  Is anyone ever happy? 

Studying history, people go back and forth.  Some groups want to be part of something larger, some groups want to be on their own.  Take Yugoslavia for example.

Following the breakup of the Austrian Empire after World War I, the Great Powers of Europe created Yugoslavia out of thin air.  All sorts of different ethnic people who didn't like each other were thrown together. Each group yearned for freedom.

Following World War II, the iron fist of the Soviet Republic made all these groups behave whether they liked it or not.  However, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, ethnic strife broke out almost immediately.  War ensued in the Balkans and many innocent people died needlessly. 

In place of Yugoslavia, we have Montenegro, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Croatia.  Are they happy now? Considering all those fresh graves, one can only hope so.

The point is that in the 1800s the German States were in the same place as Texas.  Some wished to maintain their freedom, others wished to be part of something larger.


To be honest, Napoleon really shook everyone up, especially in the German region.  How was it possible that this monster had beaten every single German army?  Could it happen again?  That, of course, was the fear.  If it wasn't France, maybe next time it would be the Russian giant.  The lack of security surely acted as a powerful incentive to form a union.

In the wake of Napoleon's demise, the German-speaking people were conflicted.  On the one hand, they enjoyed their freedom in their own little municipalities.  Many preferred to maintain Germany as the current quilt-like patchwork of independent, monarchical states.  On the other hand, they also wondered what it would be like if they joined together and became big and strong like their neighbors in France and England. 

But just who exactly was going to call the shots?  Who would be their leader?  Austria and Prussia raised their hands.

For the first half of the 1800s, Austria and Prussia played a cat and mouse game to win the loyalty of the different German states.  Austria clearly had the inside track.  For centuries, "Germania" was split into a few large states and hundreds of tiny entities, each maintaining its independence with the assistance of outside powers, particularly France.  However, France was no longer to be trusted.  Not after Napoleon.

Austria, the personal territory of the Habsburg Emperors, was traditionally considered the leader of the German states.  Austria had been in charge during the thousand year era of the Holy Roman Empire.  Now Austria wanted to be in charge again.  Prussia had other ideas.


On paper, Austria and Prussia were allies.  As recently as 1795, they made an agreement to slice up Poland, each taking a fair share for themselves.  The two powers fought Napoleon together.  They worked together to prevent Russian dominance.  However, once their eyes turned to the German States, both powers knew there would be trouble someday.   


The question of using force was out of the question.  Force might work for Napoleon, but these German people were their friends and relatives.  Furthermore, these States were no military pushovers.  After Napoleon had shown the German States the danger they were in, the States had begun to form a German Confederation using treaties for mutual defense. 

Austria and Prussia were both part of this confederation.  To directly attack another German state would be like Texas attacking Louisiana.  No, using force to conquer the other German States was a bad idea. Austria and Prussia didn't want to conquer these territories, they just wanted to dominate in much the same way the USA throws its weight around in the Caribbean. 

So the two powers used different tactics.  As usual, Austria used marriage.  Prussia used diplomacy.  However, this was a very slow process.  Prussia decided to speed things up.  Prussia was willing to use force as long as it could manufacture a "reason".  Although using force to conquer all of Germany was out of the question, why not use a gradual approach and pick off one territory at a time?  That is when the perfect opportunity presented itself... Prussia was able to find a common enemy to attack and show everyone what its military could do.

Earlier I said to forget about Denmark.  Well, change that.  Think about Denmark again.  During the 1850s Denmark fought to maintain control of Schleswig-Holstein (see map), an area with many German-speaking inhabitants.  There was a movement in that territory for independence from Denmark.  That was just the excuse the two powers needed.  In the 1860s, both Prussia and Austria leapt to the defense of this territory and started a war against Denmark.

Denmark was easily crushed.

So here's a question.  After Denmark was defeated soundly in 1864, did Schleswig-Holstein gain its independence?  You have to be kidding.  That's not how things worked in Europe.  Just as they had sliced up Poland together, Prussia took Schleswig for its own and Austria took Holstein


Now the two superpowers eyed each other again.  Austria wasn't worried.  Austria was huge!!  Even better, virtually all the various German states greatly preferred Austria, the established power in the region, over the aggressive upstart Prussia. 

For one thing, the German states were very happy keeping their independence.  Some people might want a larger Germany, but the leaders of the separate States didn't want to be demoted and dictated to by a superpower.  However, Napoleon's shadow still loomed large.  His conquests had made it clear just how vulnerable they were.  None of the German states wanted to fight either Austria or Prussia, especially when they would be the underdog. 

So the German states played the two superpowers against one another.  Like a pretty girl with two suitors, the German states made it clear that if one boyfriend got a little too fresh, the other boyfriend would come to her aid.

So what was Prussia to do?  Prussia realized that the German states were aligned with Austria.  Austria had been the traditional leader for centuries during the days of the Holy Roman Empire.  Furthermore, Austria acted like a well-behaved suitor.  The German states understood that Austria was so big that it had grown soft and had little desire to expand its borders further by force.  On the other hand, Prussia was the Big Bad Wolf.  Prussia seemed quite eager to expand its borders and cause war.

Austria told everyone to relax.  If Prussia started playing rough, the armies of the German states combined with the Austrian army would far outnumber Prussia. 


Modern readers might be confused about Prussia.  After all, there is no such thing as 'Prussia' on today's world map. 

Originally Prussia was a small territory located in what is now the corner of northeastern Poland.  Through marriage, Prussia gained ownership of the valuable Germanic territory known as Brandenburg (Berlin).

In 1742, Frederick the Great expanded Prussia's strength and size by dramatically seizing Silesia, a large Polish territory which belonged to Austria.  This easy victory was informative because it revealed to Prussia just how weak the Austrian army was.  This message was then reinforced several times by Napoleon.  Prussia suspected it had Austria's number.

Prussia's star began to rise the moment Otto von Bismarck came to power in 1862.  It was Prussia's Bismarck who put the eventual stake in Austria's heart.  When Bismarck came on the scene, Prussia was strong, but unproven.  The odds makers suggested Prussia was at best the fifth strongest European power behind England, France, Russia, and Austria.

Austria may have had the upper hand on paper, but Prussia had two things that Austria didn't.  Prussia had a far superior military and Prussia had the ultimate weapon: the genius of Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck. 

As we shall see, what a difference leadership makes.

Prussia started in the far right corner of the map.  Its big break came when it acquired Brandenburg through marriage in 1618.  Frederick the Great and Otto von Bismarck did the rest.


So how would Bismarck persuade the German States to choose Prussia over Austria?

Although Bismarck (1815-1898) had not been born when Napoleon wreaked havoc, his first break was handed to him by Napoleon.  The total conquest of all the German areas by Napoleon not only put an end to the Holy Roman Empire, it created the growing mindset for unity that Bismarck would be able to take advantage of.

United we Stand, Divided We Fall... never was this axiom more true in the case of Germany.   Bismarck was a political genius who understood that all the small, divided German territories could belong to Prussia if he made the right moves.  Furthermore Bismarck understood that he did not need to conquer these territories.  Bismarck realized he could unite them by political means.  All he had to do was secure their loyalty.  However, that wasn't going to be easy because Austria had the inside track.

Prussia was the new kid on the block and Austria was the reigning bully.  So how does one conquer the playground?  You go and punch the bully in the nose.  Bismarck realized his first task was to demonstrate Prussia's superiority over Austria.

The Schleswig-Holstein situation was the gift that kept on giving. In 1866, Prussia claimed that Austria reneged on a territory agreement regarding HolsteinBismarck immediately sent Prussian troops to occupy Austria's Holstein in upper Germany.  

Most observers agreed Austria had done nothing to justify Prussia's occupation of Holstein.  The general consensus was that Bismarck was deliberately trying to provoke Austria.  That said, Bismarck's ploy worked like a charm.  Austria over-reacted and immediately called for the aid of other German states loyal to Austria to defend Holstein against Prussia. 

Now Bismarck claimed that Austria had attacked Prussia!  Bismarck used the Holstein hostilities as the excuse he needed to directly invade Austria.  Out of nowhere Prussian troops streamed south into Austrian territory. 

Let's face facts... both countries were spoiling for a fight.  Austria was fully prepared for the attack.  Prussia had rattled its sabers enough times to give ample warning.  Not only was Bismarck trying to pick a fight with Austria, Austria was totally convinced it would put Prussia in its place once and for all.  For one thing, there were 600,000 Austrians and German allies facing 500,000 Prussians.  Furthermore the Austrians were fighting on their home turf against the Prussian invasion and had well-prepared defenses.  Victory against the foolhardy Prussian invaders seemed inevitable.

Only one problem... Prussia had Bismarck and Austria didn't.

Unbeknownst to Austria, Bismarck had made a secret alliance with Italy, who desired Austrian-controlled Venetia (Venice).  Just when Austria began to move northward to take on Prussia, Italy's surprise entry into the war from the south forced the Austrians to divide their forces.  Italy's entrance into the war changed everything.  Now it was 600,000 Austrians and German allies facing 500,000 Prussians plus 300,000 Italians!   Austria was forced to split its men to fight on two fronts.  It was a master stroke on Bismarck's part.

Meanwhile, thanks to the work of Chief of Staff Albrecht von Roon, the Prussian army was better trained and possessed superior guns. In addition, the strategic genius of Roon had envisioned a new fighting technique known as Blitzkrieg ("lightning war")

"Lightning war" it was.  It only took seven weeks.  Austria never knew what hit them.  After Prussia won the decisive Battle of Königgrätz, the war was over.  Prussia was supposed to be the underdog, but it certainly didn't perform like an underdog.

Now Bismarck performed his next master stroke.  Victory in hand, Bismarck persuaded the Prussian emperor to call off the dogs.  Prussia chose not to seek Austrian territory for itself.  Always thinking ahead, Bismarck made it possible for Prussia and Austria to perhaps one day ally in the future.

In the aftermath, Prussia annexed many of Austria’s former German allies and permanently excluded Austria from German affairs.  This left Prussia free to incorporate  all the German states north of the Main River into a unified group controlled by Prussia.

Now Bismarck moved swiftly.  In 1870, he provoked a war with France.  Amazingly, France underestimated Prussia just as Austria had.  Prussia blew France out of the war and even marched into Paris to make its point.  Fortunately Paris was left unharmed.  Again Bismarck intervened with the military to make sure that France was beaten, but not ruined.

Bismarck was not done yet.  Prussia’s defeat of Austria in the Seven Weeks War in 1866 had confirmed Prussian leadership in the northern German states.  Now the 1870 Franco-Prussian War won the support of the southern German states for Prussia.  

Austria was gone and Prussia's crushing victory over France marked the end of French dominance in continental Europe.  Thanks to Prussian supremacy, Prussia was looking pretty good as a suitor.  So now Bismarck began the sweet talk.  Let's get married! 

The German states blushed.  Sure, Prussia was a nasty bully, but he's big and strong and he will keep us safe.  So they said yes, let's get hitched.

In 1871, Bismarck presided over the political negotiations that resulted in a unified German Empire.  German Reich was the official name for the German nation state from 1871 to 1943.  Informally, this nation became known simply as Germany As it goes with mergers, someone has to give up its name, so over time, the Prussian name slowly died out. 

Although Germany was the name of the new nation, make no mistake about it... the Prussian leaders were in charge. 

Unfortunately, as history would have it, the Prussian military mindset would have dire consequences in the 20th century. 

But that's another story...

 Bismarck with Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of Staff of the Prussian Army, and Albrecht von Roon, Minister of War


And what about Austria??  For every winner, there has to be a loser.  The seesaw tipped.  Prussia was up, Austria was down.  The Seven Weeks War of 1866 forced Austria to withdraw inside its borders.  Austria's dreams of European dominance were gone forever. Austria had lost Venice, Austria had lost Germany and Austria had lost its pride.  Austria would never be the same again.  

Following the disastrous 1866 war, Austria was badly weakened.  Fortunately, Bismarck was more interested in creating the German nation, so Austria was left alone to lick its wounds. 

All the Habsburg Empire had left were Bohemia (Czech Republic) plus its territories to the south and east of Austria.  Habsburg emperor Franz Joseph took a major step intended to consolidate the most important remaining territory: Hungary.  Hungary looked like it was ready to fight a war for its own independence.  To conciliate Hungary, in 1867 Franz Joseph granted equal status to Hungary with the Austrian Empire.  Now, for the first time, Hungary got equal billing.  It was now the Austro-Hungarian Empire

For a while, this move paid off very well as both nations entered a period of prosperity and peace.

However, threats abounded everywhere.  There were all sorts of ancient resentments surfacing in this part of the world.  Slavs, Croats, Czechs, Poles, Rusyns, Bosnians, Serbs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Italians, Ukrainians, Magyars, Romanians, Bulgarians...

Once all these different groups of people saw that Hungary had its freedom, now they wanted their freedom as well. 


For the remainder of the Nineteenth Century, Austria and Hungary had their hands full trying to suppress the constant uprisings in the Bohemian, Balkan and Black Sea areas. 

Plus Russia ominously began to meddle in these areas as well.  Russia was the giant bear that everyone feared. 

Thanks to centuries of domination by its Mongolian conquerors, Russia was a slow starter on the European scene.  Russia was still largely uneducated, overwhelmingly agricultural and backwards, but it had manpower galore. 

Those overwhelming numbers were what made Russia so scary.  Furthermore, the combination of Napoleon and Prussia had destroyed Austria's confidence in its military strength. 

Austria was very worried about Russia.


Meanwhile German chancellor Otto von Bismarck had become the Father of modern Germany.  The area was unified for the first time in history. 

Now Bismarck wanted peace so he could consolidate this diverse group of states.  Bismarck understood that the main threat was Russia.  In 1878, Russia defeated the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War.  This victory gave Russia strong influence in the Balkans, the same area that had been giving Austria and Hungary fits. 

Noting that relations between Russia and Austria-Hungary had quickly soured, Bismarck saw an opening.  In 1879, he suggested an alliance with Austria.

Now why would Austria become Germany's ally?  Austria hated the German Empire!  Well, it wasn't that complicated... the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  Austria was more afraid of Russia than it was of Germany.  Bismarck pointed out that Germany was quite content with its new borders and Austria agreed that made sense. 

So Austria agreed to enter into the Austro-German Alliance of 1879.  The two powers promised each other support in case of attack by Russia.  This surprising alliance reunited the two arch enemies from the 1866 Seven Week's War.

This was another brilliant move by Bismarck.  Bismarck was successful for two reasons.  First, he had spared Austria from mass destruction following their war.  Second, Bismarck exploited Austria's growing fear of giant Russia.  Their mutual dislike for Russia brought the two nations together for a common cause.

Germany’s Otto von Bismarck was thrilled.  Bismarck knew if Austria-Hungary were ever to fall to the Russians, the Russians would soon be at the German door.  He saw this alliance as a way to prevent the isolation of Germany and to preserve peace, as Russia would not dare wage war against both empires.  Or would it?

Three years later, Italy joined the Alliance.  Italy was seriously angry over losing control of Tunisia to France.  Meanwhile, Bismarck and Italy were old friends from the 1866 war that delivered Venice to Italy.  Italy's sour grapes plus Bismarck's sweet talk sent Italy running into Germany's arms. 

Watching carefully were England, France, and Russia.  In 1907, the Triple Entente was formed.  This treaty linked the Russian Empire, the French Third Republic, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  The countdown to war had begun. 

The Triple Alliance:
Germany, Austria, and Italy


So Who Was to Blame for World War I?


As it turns out, I have a favorite board game known as Diplomacy Diplomacy is best described as Risk for big kids.

In this game, each player pretends to be one of the seven major powers of Europe at the turn of 1900.  Each player negotiate treaties.  What I like about Diplomacy is that "chance" does not play a factor.  The person with the best negotiating skills or the most evil person always wins. 

One very unique feature of Diplomacy is the "Agreement" stage.  In this stage, each player makes alliances and promises to back his allies.  However, when each player writes down their orders in secret, they have the chance to stab their partners in the back and support a different player instead.

So how do I fare?  Alas, I finish second or third most of the time.  My problem is that I am too loyal by nature.  It turns out I have trouble stabbing my allies in the back. 

I have learned three things by playing.  First, the easiest way to win is to betray your allies at certain key points.  Once you get the upper hand through deception, it is too late for them to retaliate.  Second, this game is a good way to ruin friendships.  I recommend inviting people you don't like.

Third, and most interesting of all, I have learned that Germany and Austria never win (that goes for Italy too).

It turns out that because Germany and Austria are surrounded, Turkey, Russia and France and England take great delight in carving them up.  

So which country usually wins?  England.  That is because England with its "Splendid Isolation" is so hard to attack.

Bismarck once said that the United States and Britain were the two luckiest great powers on the planet.  America was protected by two oceans and friendly, non-aggressive neighbors.  Britain had the English Channel to act as a giant moat.  Invasion by a large army was a daunting task.

Bismarck envied the United States because Germany was surrounded by enemies.  With Great Britain, France and Russia as ongoing threats, Bismarck understood that no matter how powerful Germany had become, it had enemies on all sides.

Due to my experience with Diplomacy, on my 2016 Danube River cruise, I decided once and for all to figure out which country was most responsible for starting World War I.

It turns out that assigning blame for World War I has been a favorite riddle for historians for the past century. 

Germany caused World War I, correct?  After all, that was what I was taught in high school. I grew up thinking the Germans started the war.  My 10th grad history teacher told me that Germany was a belligerent nation that was always looking to start another war. 

However, while doing my research for this story, the more I read, the more confused I got on which country carries responsibility for World War I.  My early research led me to feel a certain sympathy for the tough position Germany was in.  To begin with, one must take into direct account the German paranoia.

Germany believed everyone was out to get them... and it was true. Germany had few friends.  Germany had pushed its weight around in the latter half of the previous century and alienated practically the entire continent.  France in particular still nursed a grudge from its 1870 licking and was itching to get even.  Russia was looking to flex its muscles.  Britain was building up its navy in case of a showdown. 

The loss of Bismarck in 1890 was a huge blow.  It was the loss of his leadership that put Germany one step closer to a perilous war... a war which Bismarck not only predicted, but had worked hard to prevent. 

To be honest, I had long believed Russia was the most responsible. 

The 1892 Franco-Russian Entente sent a huge bolt of fear into the German high command.  France and Russia had just upset the system of alliances established by Bismarck to protect Germany against a potential “two-front” threat.

German General Helmuth von Moltke immediately began to war-game the plans for the invasion of its dangerous neighbors.  Known as the Schliefen Plan, his strategy was based on conducting a two-front war using high-speed rail.

Build no more fortresses, build railways,” von Moltke said.

It was a comforting thought for Germany that Russia had a poorly-developed rail infrastructure.  The Tsar could not possibly deploy his forces to the German borders as fast as the Kaiser could.  The Schlieffen Plan plan called for the destruction of France within 40 days followed by the rapid transfer of troops to meet the oncoming Russians.

That is when the German high command had a heart attack. On the eve of World War I, they discovered Russia was building brand new railroads right up to the German border subsidized by French money!!  In addition there were troops being moved closer to the border.  An ominous sign indeed.

It was this knowledge that increased Germany's pressure on an already jittery trigger finger.  If Germany waited much longer, Russia would be strong enough to decimate German defenses.  This knowledge explains Germany's decision to rush to war when the opportunity presented itself.  

To my surprise, I discovered that while the Germans had their share of the blame, it was easy to point the finger at the Serbians, Austrians, Russians, the French and the British. 

Let's review the circumstances leading up to World War I.  For Austria and Hungary, the Balkan area was a ticking time bomb.  The country known as Serbia was pushing for independence of all the southern Slavic people from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. 

The advantage of these alliances was that it gave the Great Powers a sense of security.  The downside was that if the powers stuck blindly to their alliances, then a small-scale local dispute involving one power might drag the other powers in and turn into a major war. 

There can be no doubt that all the Great Powers were armed and on alert.  On the other hand, the experience of the early 1900s seemed to suggest a wider war would not happen.  For example, in 1905 and 1911, there were heated disputes between the Great Powers over colonies in North Africa, but no war.  Nevertheless, the tension in Europe was so great that all it might take was a spark. 

The Balkans had given previous warning that the fire might start there.  The Serbians had some new best friends... the Russians.  The sleeping bear had awakened.  The Balkan area was so unstable that the Russians believed they could extend their influence into the area.  So they encouraged Serbia to foment the unrest.

In 1908, Austria-Hungary took over the province of Bosnia, which contained many Serbs.  Serbia and her ally Russia were furious, but there was no war as a result.  In 1912-13, there was another series of wars in the Balkans. Serbia emerged from these wars as the main victor and appeared to be a possible threat to Austria-Hungary.  Even so, there was still no major war.  Unfortunately, this changed in 1914.  This time Serbia went too far.  The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the trigger that set off the Great War. 

Austria was certain the brutal assassination of the Austrian crown prince was done by a terrorist organization sponsored by the Serbian government.  Austria took the flagrant assassination as an insult that could not be overlooked.  If they backed down from Serbia, then there would be hell to pay with all the other Balkan countries.

There was also a feeling that the moral effects of military action would breathe new life into the exhausted structures of the Habsburg monarchy. Perhaps putting Serbia in its place would restore to Austria the vigor and virility of a once glorious past.  Therefore, Serbia must be dealt with harshly.

Only one problem... Russia had one million troops sitting in Ukraine 500 miles away with a fleet of Black Sea ships prepared to carry them to the area.  The moment Austria declared war on Serbia, much to the alarm of Austria and Germany, Russia mobilized those million soldiers.

This was not a complete surprise.  Germany had known for some time that Russia was absolutely drooling over the chance to fight.  Thanks to funds supplied by its ally France, Russia had recently built transport railroads right up to the German border.  In addition, Russia had egged on Serbia to thumb its nose at Austria to provoke Austrian over-reaction.

Germany learned through its spy network that Russia had implemented mobilization.  The Germans assumed correctly that Russia's mobilization put Germany in great danger. Germany's attitude was that it was better to have the fight now before Russia got any stronger. 

The moment Russia mobilized its army ready to help the Serbs against Austria-Hungary, the alliances came into play.  Everyone knew that if Russia attacked Austria-Hungary, then the alliance system meant that Germany and France could be pulled into the war as well.

On the brink of war, Britain was the Wild Card.  In 1839 Great Britain had signed a treaty to protect Belgium.  Given the German aggression against Belgium, what should it do?

Britain was often described as being in 'Splendid Isolation' from the rest of Europe.  Britain had a huge empire and ruling this empire was its priority. The key to Britain's power was India with its vast resources of manpower. Britain relied heavily on Indian troops to control the empire. The highest priority for Britain was protecting the trade routes between Britain and India. Britain's large navy protected trade links with India and with the rest of the world.

Despite this focus on the empire, Britain was interested in events in Europe. To start with, other European countries had rival empires. Belgium and France both had large empires in Africa. There was strong rivalry between Britain and France over possessions in North Africa. By the early 1900s, Germany also had colonies in Africa and was beginning to show an interest in North Africa.

Another concern was Russia. For much of the 19th century, Russia wanted to take control of the Dardanelles, the area where the Black Sea opened out into the Mediterranean Sea. This would allow Russian warships and trading ships to sail easily around Europe.  Russia had other ports in the north, but these tended to freeze over in winter. The problem was that the Dardanelles were owned by Turkey. Turkey and Russia had long been enemies. Britain supported Turkey against Russia. This was because Britain did not want Russian ships in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean was part of Britain's most important trade route to India.

Until the early 1900s, relations between Britain and Germany were very good.  Britain was far more concerned about Russia and France than Germany.  Although the rise of Germany in both industrial and military terms alarmed Britain,  the British policy makers correctly ascertained that Bismarck intended to keep Germany a status quo power. 

This benign attitude changed quickly when Kaiser Wilhelm II, ironically the grandson of Britain's Queen Victoria, took control of Germany.  Crowned in 1888, Wilhelm II dismissed Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1890.  He then launched Germany on a bellicose "New Course" in foreign affairs

Wilhelm was anxious for Germany to be a great power. He felt that Russia to the east and France to the west were encircling Germany. As a result, he built up his armed forces forcing France, Britain and Russia to do the same.

British policy in Europe intended that no country in Europe should become completely dominant. If Russia, France, Germany and Austria-Hungary worried about each other, then they would be less of a threat to Britain.  By about 1907 it was becoming clear to Britain that the greatest potential threat to Britain was going to be Germany.

Once the Russians had mobilized, the Germans weren't going to wait.  The Schlieffen Plan called for the Germans to attack France through the poorly defended plains of Belgium, a neutral country.  On August 3, 1914, the first wave of German troops assembled on the frontier of neutral Belgium.  The day before, Germany had presented King Albert, Belgium's sovereign, with an ultimatum demanding unrestricted passage for the German army through its territory.

King Albert contacted Britain and made a concerted appeal for help.  Now Prime Minister Herbert Asquith had a tough decision to make. 

Asquith could turn a blind eye to war in mainland Europe.  If he did so, the war would stay limited and have little impact on Britain if she stood as a neutral.  Countless British lives would be saved. 

Or Asquith could resist the perceived bullying of Germany and stand up for righteousness and decency.  If so, he risked a cataclysmic death toll on the youth on Britain.  What to do?

Asquith gave Germany an ultimatum to back away from Belgium by midnight 'or else'. 

The Germans had miscalculated British intentions.  They knew full well this wasn't Britain's fight so they fully expected Great Britain would sit this one out.  They were wrong.  The furious German ambassador to Britain referred to the 75-year old Treaty between Britain and Belgium as insanity.  

Why go to war over a mere “scrap of paper”?

Angered by Britain's demand to back off, the Germans ignored Asquith's ultimatum and continued the push toward France.

Soon after, Britain entered the war.  The Great War was on.

So who was to blame? 

Having studied the story, my vote was on Russia.  One scholar said it best:

"The resulting war, with France backing Russia and Russia backing Serbia and Britain backing everyone against the two Central Powers, was Russia's fondest dream come true." 

That is when I learned a very interesting lesson... the more I know, the less I know.  It turns out that my first hunch was correct to some extent, but wrong.  The moment I stumbled on another article, that is when my eyes really opened.

In a very entertaining article titled Ten Interpretations of Who Started World War I, on the hundred anniversary of the war, the BBC asked ten prominent English and German international historians who they assigned the blame to.

The consensus laid most of the guilt at Germany's feet.  Here were the votes:

  1. Germany
  2. Serbia
  3. Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia
  4. Austria-Hungary and Germany
  5. Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France, Britain and Serbia
  6. Austria-Hungary and Germany
  7. Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France, Britain and Serbia
  8. Austria-Hungary and Germany
  9. Austria-Hungary and Germany
  10. Germany

As one can see, Germany was cited by 9 of the 10 professors including the German writers.   My favorite explanation was written by John Rohl, professor emeritus of history, University of Sussex.  He identified Austria-Hungary and Germany as the main culprits.

WW1 did not break out by accident or because diplomacy failed. It broke out as the result of a conspiracy between the governments of imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary to bring about war, albeit in the hope that Britain would stay out.

After 25 years of domination by Kaiser Wilhelm II with his angry, autocratic and militaristic personality, his belief in the clairvoyance of all crowned heads, his disdain for diplomats and his conviction that his Germanic God had predestined him to lead his country to greatness, the 20 or so men he had appointed to decide the policy of the Reich opted for war in 1914 in what they deemed to be favorable circumstances.

Germany's military and naval leaders, the predominant influence at court, shared a devil-may-care militarism that held war to be inevitable, time to be running out, and - like their Austrian counterparts - believed it would be better to go down fighting than to go on tolerating what they regarded as the humiliating status quo.

In the spring of 1914, this small group of men in Berlin decided to make "the leap into the dark" which they knew their support for an Austrian attack on Serbia would almost certainly entail.

The German and Austrian leaders took criminal risks with world peace.

Besides Germany, the biggest loser of the war was Russia. One can only wonder why Russia was so eager to fight Germany at the start of the war.  At the start of the war, only half their troops had a rifle of their own. 

Russia sent waves of helpless farmers brandishing pitchforks up against German machine guns.  It was a horrible slaughter as the Germans decimated the Russian troops.  Russia not only lost nearly 2 million men, an amazing total.

Of course this absurd death toll had its consequences.  The Bolsheviks took advantage of the intense dissatisfaction and misery in their country to start the 1917 Russian Revolution. Once the Czar of Russia was executed, the Bolsheviks turned around and begged Germany for peace. 

This cost Russia vast amounts of territory.  After the 1918 cease fire agreement between Germany and Russia, Germany took possession of Russian territory in Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania. 

However, Russia wasn't the only big loser.  After Germany surrendered, Germany lost its Empire and huge chunks of territory.  Austria lost its Empire and huge chunks of territory.

Poor Hungary was literally ripped to shreds.  Both Hungary and Austria paid dearly for joining Bismarck's defensive alliance.

We now know that the punitive conditions imposed upon the losers were so harsh that the seeds of discord had been laid for World War II. 

Adolf Hitler would soon skillfully exploit the deep-seated resentment and thirst for revenge to create World War II.

Where was Bismarck when Germany needed him?

Betrayal is the name of the game in Diplomacy


Who do you think was most to blame??

The French had built an impressive defense along its
shared border with Germany.  So the Germans used Belgium instead.

This is a very interesting Russian Poster titled 'Agreement'.

It shows a very determined Russian woman bent on fighting the war going on behind her with France (heart) and England (anchor) looking on skeptically.  England and France were not at all enthusiastic about this war.

Russia went to great lengths to cause WW I, yet ironically was forced to drop out to fight its civil war following the 1917 Russian Revolution. 

Now that Germany had only one front to worry about, Germany almost won the war.  It took the last-minute entrance of the USA into the fight to save the day.

 Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I and Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II

The German ambassador was full of contempt when the British Prime Minister informed him that Britain would go to war if the Germans did not back off. 

The assassination of Austria's Francis Ferdinand
set off an amazing chain reaction

The consensus was that Germany was to blame

At the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, the wrath of Europe was unleashed upon Germany.

Russia paid a heavy price for its role in World War I

The harsh conditions imposed upon Germany following
World War I created world-wide depression.  The overwhelming resentment felt by the German people opened the door for Hitler





As I have said earlier, my visits to Europe have allowed me to visit remote areas and learn about the history of the region.

Before the Danube cruise, one area of the world that I knew virtually nothing about is the Balkan region north of Greece and south of Hungary.  This trip helped me figure it all out.  

I am now thoroughly convinced that Hungary has probably suffered more than any other country in Europe.

For one thing, this Danube River Cruise allowed me to better understand what caused World War I.  Until this trip, I never quite understood why the assassination of an Austrian prince on a visit to Serbia would cause an entire world war. Indeed, twenty different countries participated the Great War including Japan and Siam. Japan? Siam?  Good grief.

Unfortunately, I don't always like what I see on these trips.

On the 2015 Rhine trip, the guides hinted at the World War II struggles between France and Germany, but it was mostly in passing.  Not so on the 2016 Danube trip.  On this trip, I learned quite a bit about Ottoman (Muslim) atrocities, German atrocities, and Russian atrocities.  Trust me, it wasn't pleasant.

A major feature of this visit was the chance to understand just how powerful Religion has been in shaping European history.  For centuries, Europe has been the battleground for an unbelievable amount of bloodshed based on religion.  Fighting for God... it doesn't really make a lot of sense, does it?

I knew of the brutal battles between the Catholics and the Protestants, but what I did not know about is that the Muslims were in on the battles as well. I had no idea the extent of the Muslim influence in the Balkan region of the world until this trip.

Apparently the Muslims were pretty ruthless. For example, one of the Ottoman subjugators of Hungary was Sultan Mehmed III.

Taking a page out of the Josef Stalin playbook, Mehmed III was notorious for having nineteen of his brothers and half-brothers executed to secure power.  If a man would do that to his own family, one can only imagine what he did to his enemies.

I knew about the Crusades, but I thought those battles took place in the Holy Land.  I did not realize the Muslim invasion made it all the way to Vienna and Budapest several times. 

Austria was able to repel the Muslims, but Hungary was less fortunate. The Ottomans achieved a decisive victory over the Hungarian army at the Battle of Mohács in 1526.  Following its defeat, the southern part of Hungary would languish under Ottoman rule for 150 years while the northern half belonged to Habsburgs of Austria.

During my visit to Budapest, I noticed the Ottoman influence is still there. For example, I had the chance to visit Matthias Church in Budapest. I was curious why this church lacked the charm I had seen in similar churches during this visit.

My guide informed me that the Muslims had come in and painted everything white. All the painstaking detail inside the church was lost. What I was seeing now was a rather mediocre job of restoring the cathedral after they kicked the Muslims out.

This story was my introduction to the dark past of Hungary. If ever there was a nation with a hard-luck story, it has to be Hungary.

Back in college, I had a professor who said, "The major problem with Revolution is that typically all you accomplish is to change the boot on the back of your neck."

In the case of Hungary, no words were ever more true. In order to rid Hungary of the Muslims, around 1700 the Habsburgs put together an army strong enough to kick the Ottomans out of Hunagary. The next thing they knew, now Austria had its boot on Hungary's neck.  Hungary was now under Austrian rule.

Hungary and Austria enjoyed an uneasy peace for the next century.  However, things changed at the start of 1800.  That is when Napoleon came knocking.  Napoleon took special delight in bringing once proud Austria to its knees.  The Austrians were serious gluttons for punishment.  Four different times they challenged Napoleon and four times Napoleon emerged victorious.  In 1809, as terms of victory, for good measure,  Napoleon demanded the hand of an Austrian princess.  Just like that, Napoleon had a wife.  Napoleon was royalty now.

After Napoleon, Hungary tried very hard to free itself from Austria.  In the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848, the Magyars came close to regaining independence.  Hungary was defeated by the Austrian Empire only with the aid of the Russian Empire.

In 1866, the Prussians humiliated Austria in the Seven Weeks War.  Austria would never be the same.  One year later in 1867 Austria offered to elevate Hungary to equal status.  It was either that or lose Hungary completely.  Hungary accepted the opportunity to become a Dual Monarchy.  This was the start of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a good move for both nations as it created prosperity for the next decade.  

Then came the alliance with Germany in 1879.  Big mistake.  Now Hungary's fortunes were tied to Germany.  At the time, the move made sense.  As long as Bismarck was calling the shots, Austria and Hungary could have no better ally.

But when Kaiser Wilhelm II took over in 1890 and fired Bismarck, Austria-Hungary was in trouble.  If ever there was a loose cannon, that would be the imperialist Kaiser Wilhelm.

Keep in mind that it was the Austrian Crown Prince that was assassinated in Serbia in 1914, not the Hungarian Prince. Unfortunately, with Hungary's fortunes tied to Austria's fortunes tied to Germany's fortunes, Hungary was reluctantly sucked into World War I on the side of Austria and Germany.

We all know how that turned out.

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919, officially ended the war.  The subsequent 1920 Treaty of Trianon was greatest catastrophe to ever fall on Hungary.  Hungary got complete independence, but at a price more severe than any other nation. 

Hungary, founded in 896, was a peaceful multi-ethnic state for over 1100 years with borders that were virtually unchanged. For some strange reason, in 1920 Hungary was mysteriously decimated by the Allies.

A thousand years of nation building based on culture, religion, geography, and other attributes were dissolved in a flash.  No one can explain why Hungary was punished so severely. 

The Treaty of Trianon in 1920 was extremely harsh on Hungary. The Treaty cost Hungary an unprecedented two-thirds of her territory and two-thirds of her total population. 

Compared with the former Kingdom of Hungary, the population of post-Trianon Hungary was reduced from 20.8 million to 7 million and its land area decreased by 72%.   Adding insult to injury, Hungary lost all of her seaports.

Millions of Hungarians saw borders arbitrarily redrawn around them, without plebiscites, ignoring President Wilson's lofty goal of national self-determination.  The absurd treaty created a millennium of social unrest that led directly to World War II and the ethnic cleansing in the Balkan area during the 1990s.

So why did Hungary participate on the German side during World War II?  Good question. 

Hungary was an independent nation that was no longer beholden to Austria.  Unfortunately, the Great Depression in the 1930s saw Hungary suffer greatly.  The Kingdom of Hungary became economically dependent on increased trade with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany to pull itself out of the Great Depression.

Germany preceded World War II by annexing its neighbors - Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.  However Hungary was just slightly out of Germany's reach and declared itself neutral. 

Germany did not threaten to use force to bring Hungary under its umbrella.  Germany was on friendly enough terms with Hungary.  Therefore the Nazis did not wish to invade Hungary, but rather "persuade" it to become its ally.   Germany could be very persuasive.  If Hungary would collaborate with Germany, Hitler promised to restore to Hungary the gigantic slices of territory lost in the 1920 Treaty of Trianon. 

Amazingly, Hungary still refused to ally with Germany.  Moreover, Hungary protected the massive influx of Polish Jews that streamed into Hungary.  However, Germany refused to take no for an answer.  Germany kept up the pressure on Hungary to participate for three years.

In 1941, Germany decided the time had come to attack Yugoslavia on Hungary's southern border.  Germany asked permission to send its troops through Hungary.   Hungarian Prime Minister Pal Teleki said no.  Teleki had signed a non-aggression "Treaty of Eternal Friendship" with Yugoslavia only five months earlier.  Teleki would not assent to assist the invasion.

Teleki's enduring desire was to keep Hungary non-aligned, yet it could not ignore Nazi Germany's dominant influence.  Teleki was now faced with two bad choices. He could continue to resist Germany's demands for their help in the invasion of Yugoslavia, although he knew this would likely mean that after Germany conquered Yugoslavia, it would next turn its attention to Hungary—a repeat of what had happened to Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Or he could allow German troops to cross Hungarian territory, even though this would betray Yugoslavia and lead the Allies to declare war on Hungary.

The decision was made for him... without Teleki's knowledge, the Hungarian minister of defense wired permission to Germany.  When Teleki found out that German troops had just crossed Hungary's borders on the way to Yugoslavia, he shot himself in the head.

Things did not go well for Hungary during World War II.  The Hungarians hated the Germans before World War II even started.  The longer the war continued, the more Hungary despised Germany!! 

Hungarian officials became so appalled at Nazi atrocities that the leaders began to seriously think about changing sides in 1944.

Unfortunately, Hitler got wind of cease-fire talks between Hungary and the AlliesHitler wanted to prevent Hungary from following the example of Italy and deserting the war effort.  He quickly dispatched German forces to occupy Budapest.

Now the boot on the neck changed again.  Basically Hungary had just been subjugated by Germany.  Furthermore, Hungary's Jews were in serious trouble.  They would soon discover Nazi Germany was barbaric when it came to Jews.

The Ottoman Invasion of Hungary

The Ottoman Empire included Hungary for 150 years

Napoleon accepts the surrender of Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I after the 1809 Battle of Wagram

Prussia annihilated Austria in the Seven Weeks War in 1866. 
This defeat marked the end of Austria as a first-tier world power. 

Following Austria's 1866 defeat at the hands of Prussia,
in 1867 Austria offered to make Hungary a co-partner.

"Shoulder to shoulder inseparably united... in and in song"

In 1879, Bismarck persuaded Austria and Hungary to join the
Triple Alliance.   This alliance obligated Hungary to participate with Germany and Austria in World War I

Here is Hungary at the start of World War I. 
Hungary would lose 72% of its territory after being defeated.

Here is Hungary at the end of World War I. 
No one can explain why Hungary was treated so harshly


Hungary had long been a haven for Jewish people.  Indeed, the contributions of the Jews to business, education and the arts had long helped make Hungary one of Europe' points of light.  Up to this point, the Jews had been oppressed by anti-Jewish legislation, but the majority of Hungary's Jewish community lived in relative security.

In the meantime, throughout occupied Europe, the Holocaust was already in full swingSS mobile extermination units swept through the eastern territories, death- and forced labor camps were operating and the Jewish communities of Europe were being destroyed one after the other... all except for the Hungarian Jews.  Then came March 1944

That is when the Nazis moved into Budapest.  The Germans were just as ruthless as the Muslims had once been, probably worse. The Germans quickly made up for lost time.  Quickly many of the Jewish citizens were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.  The remaining citizens were forced into a ghetto in Budapest.  Every day the Nazis would come to round up more Jews and put them on a train to Auschwitz.

At least 400,000 Hungarian Jews were eventually murdered by the Nazis, quite possibly many more.


Sometimes there were just too many Jews.  Why bother sending them to a concentration camp?  The storm troopers found another way. In order to save ammunition, a favorite trick was to tie 15 Jews together and make them take off their shoes.

Then they would shoot one in the head and push all the rest into the freezing Danube River.  The Nazis would laugh as the victims screamed in horror. It had to be oh so terribly amusing to watch these helpless, miserable people die agonizing deaths from drowning and freezing.

The story of Budapest at the end of World War II left me completely mind-boggled. During World War II, Hungary was mainly responsible for fighting the Soviet Union. Hungary lost at least 200,000 men in the process.

Towards the end of the war, Stalin was about to meet with Roosevelt and Churchill. Stalin decided the conquest of Budapest would increase both his stature and bargaining position, so he ordered his commander to conquer Budapest at all costs.

This led to intense fighting that lasted over 50 days. It was an incredible battle fought right on the Danube River in Budapest. The Hungarians and Nazis resisted the Russian advance as best they could. However, the Russians outnumbered the defenders 2 to 1. Given Stalin's orders to take the city at all costs, the Russians came in wave after wave till ultimately they prevailed.

The Germans were so angry over their defeat that a furious General sent some soldiers over to the Jewish synagogue. On the spot, the Germans gunned down 250 defenseless Jews right there in the courtyard just out of spite. Then the Germans fled the city in a mad every man for himself dash.

During the brutal fighting, both sides lost countless numbers of soldiers. The Russians claimed losses above 100,000. The combined German and Hungarian forces lost 40,000-50,000 men.

For weeks afterward, bloated bodies piled up against the destroyed bridges in the Danube. This led to a terrible joke... the Blue Danube was now the Bloody Red Danube.

This row of shoes along the Danube in Budapest serves as a
heart-rending memorial to German atrocity

A hungry dog pulls a corpse out of the Danube


And get this... the City of Budapest lost 38,000 citizens as well!! Plus the city was practically leveled to the ground in the process.

When the Soviets finally claimed victory, they initiated an orgy of violence. This included the wholesale theft of anything they could lay their hands on and random executions. Then came the mass rape. An estimated 50,000 women and girls were raped. Hungarian girls were kidnapped and taken to Red Army quarters, where they were imprisoned, repeatedly raped and sometimes murdered.

As if this wasn't enough, for good measure, half a million Hungarians were taken as prisoners to the Soviet Union to work as slaves in their mines and factories.

This began the Russian occupation of Budapest. The Hungarians didn't quite know what to make of the Russians. Hungary hated the Nazis so much that many citizens were secretly happy when the Russians arrived to liberate them from Nazi tyranny in 1945. But then on the other hand, it didn't take long to begin despising the Russians as well.

There was one irony that I never quite figured out.  Atop Gellert Hill in the center of the city, in 1947 a magnificent statue was erected right where the fiercest fighting had taken place. They called it "The Liberty Statue".

This impressive statue was prominent in the same way that the Eiffel Tower is prominent in Paris. Situated atop that hill, the Liberty Statue could be seen from a hundred miles away with a good telescope.

My guide said this statue was erected by the people of Budapest out of gratitude to the Russians for 'liberating' Budapest from the Nazis. The Liberty Statue was dedicated it to the brave Russian soldiers who had defeated the hated Germans.  What a relief to get rid of the hated Nazis!!

To me, this majestic statue made no sense.  After the destruction of the city, the murder of 38,000 citizens, the rape of 50,000 women, and the abduction of a half million Hungarians, why on earth would Budapest feel an ounce of 'Gratitude' to the Soviets?

Perhaps someone can explain it to me. Why would the citizens of a conquered city erect a statue thanking these barbarians who had pillaged their city?

The Rape of Budapest

Liberty Statue on Gellert Hill rising above Budapest


Perhaps what the Hungarians did not realize at the time was that they had simply exchanged the Nazi boot on their neck for the Communist boot.  

Hungary had just fallen on the Dark Side of the Iron Curtain. Once the Soviets took over, they dominated Hungary with practically the same ruthlessness as the Germans.  Communism robbed Hungary of its spirit just when its citizens thought they were finally free.

In 1956, Hungary staged a peaceful march asking for more freedom. Russian troops took to the streets and murdered countless unarmed demonstrators. Now the Hungarians decided to fight back. Bad move. The USSR sent in the tanks and put down the resulting rebellion with ruthless efficiency.

It was not until 1989 that Hungary finally enjoyed true independence for the first time in over 500 years.

I was overwhelmed to learn the facts of this neverending story of Hungarian subjugation and suffering.

Soviet tanks sent to Budapest to quell the uprising


Deportation of Hungarian Jews

During my trip, I learned the story of a hero I had never heard of before. I would like to share the story of a Swedish man named Raoul Wallenberg.

In a manner similar to Oskar Schindler (Schindler's List), Wallenberg worked relentlessly to save Jewish lives.

After the Nazi takeover in 1944, the citizens of Budapest were horrified to see what the Nazis were doing to the Jewish population. Many of the citizens tried to help in whatever way they could. Raoul Wallenberg was the bravest of all.

In cooperation with the Swedish embassy, Wallenberg rented 32 buildings in Budapest and declared them to be 'extraterritorial'. This meant the buildings were protected by diplomatic immunity. He put up signs such as "The Swedish Library" and "The Swedish Research Institute" on their doors and hung oversized Swedish flags on the front of the buildings to bolster the deception. 

At one point, the Swedish buildings housed almost 10,000 people.

Wallenberg displayed considerable personal courage on several occasions.  Here is one remarkable story told about him.

Sandor Ardai was one of the drivers who worked for Wallenberg. Ardai recounted what Wallenberg did one day when he intercepted a trainload of Jews about to leave for Auschwitz:

Raoul Wallenberg climbed up on the roof of the train and began handing in protective passes through the doors which were not yet sealed. He ignored orders from the German Arrow Cross Guard for him to get down. When Wallenberg failed to cooperate, the Arrow Cross Guard began shooting and shouting at him to go away.

Wallenberg ignored them and calmly continued handing out passports to the hands that were reaching out for them. The Arrow Cross men deliberately aimed over Wallenberg's head.

Not one shot hit him.

To miss with so many shots would have been impossible.  Most likely the Germans did this because they were so impressed by his courage.

After Wallenberg had handed over the last of the passports, he ordered all those who had one to leave the train and walk to the caravan of cars parked nearby, all marked in Swedish colors.

Wallenberg saved dozens off that train. Meanwhile the Germans and the Arrow Cross were so dumbfounded they let him get away with it. 


Here is another story about Raoul Wallenberg. 

In the second week of January 1945, Raoul Wallenberg found out that Adolf Eichmann planned a massacre of the largest Jewish ghetto in Budapest. The only person who could stop it was the General Gerhard Schmidhuber. As the commander of the German troops in Hungary, Schmidhuber was given the responsibility to carry the massacre out.

Wallenberg sent Schmidhuber a note. The note promised that he, Raoul Wallenberg, would make sure the General was held personally responsible for the massacre and that Schmidhuber would be hanged as a war criminal when the war was over.

Schmidhuber knew that the war would be over soon and that the Germans were losing. The massacre was stopped at the last minute thanks to the courage and daring action of Wallenberg.


And what was Wallenberg's reward?

At the end of the war, Wallenberg was kidnapped by Soviet police. Wallenberg was never seen again. It is very likely that Wallenberg was either executed or died in a Russian prison. Oddly enough, Wallenberg wasn't even Jewish. He just couldn't bear to let innocent people die without doing something.

I was astonished to learn the extent of Raoul Wallenberg's bravery.

It was a great honor to add a rock to the pile next to Mr. Wallenberg's memorial at the Budapest Synagogue.  Trust me, I had large crocodile tears in my eyes. 


Living in America


I do not know if Americans truly realize how lucky we are.

The first miracle of life is to be lucky enough to born here in America.  The odds are about 1 in 30.

The second miracle of life is to be given the chance to receive a quality education.  Not only does education open our eyes, it gives us an incalculable advantage over our counterparts.

One of our guides made a very controversial statement about education. In her opinion, the turning point in Western civilization came when the Christians and the Jews began to emphasize education over religion.  Meanwhile countless Muslim children were being hindered by the amount of time spent learning Arabic and Islamic theology.

I could not agree more that Education is the bedrock of civilization. Education is what lifted Europe out of the darkness and it is what keeps America strong.  Well-informed minds make better decisions and innovations.

I might add that 'Travel' is a form of education in its own right. They say that Travel is fatal to Bigotry. I believe this statement is true. Wherever my travels with Marla take me, I am struck by the fact that we are all the same. We all want peace. We all want security. We all want to raise our children without fear.

At the start of my trip, the story was the unbelievable beauty of the Danube River and the lands that it touches. Then I was impressed by the splendor of modern Budapest. Budapest is a truly beautiful city. I put it right up there beside Paris, Barcelona, and Rome as my four favorite cities to date.

However, underneath the shining veneer of progress, I saw evidence of fear... fear of terrorism, fear of migration, fear of renewed Russian domination.

Unfortunately all it takes is a few monsters to make life miserable for us all. If anyone would understand the fear of domination by outside forces, it would be the citizens of Hungary.

I can see now why people love America so much in this part of the world.  America is a mighty country that seeks to use its power for good, not evil.

I am not saying our leaders always use their power wisely, but at least our nation is trusted not to seek world domination.  Our friends do not fear the United States.  After what a place like Hungary has been through, that is quite a relief.

This river cruise to Austria and Hungary got me in touch with the true meaning of freedom in a way that history books will never accomplish. The story of the human race is the story of every man's struggle for independence.

Here in America, we are unbelievably blessed to have so much freedom. We truly are the Land of the Free. However, I worry that many of us take this freedom for granted because we have never suffered.

America is a living symbol for hope among oppressed people. That is the message I took away from this trip.




In conclusion to my story, I would like to speak of friendship.  A trip to such far-off places often brings people closer.  This trip was certainly no exception to that rule. 

Marla and I have long been friends with Bill and Sharon Shaw.  In fact, Bill and Sharon were at our wedding in 2004 and we were at their wedding in 2005.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to touch base with them these days because half the time they live at their lake house in the Texas pine forest.

Therefore it was a real treat to be able to spend 10 days with Bill and Sharon on this trip.  Yes, Sharon beat me like a drum at Casino, her beloved card game, but I didn't care because it was fun to have her company and Bill's.  In particular, one day we took a long walk together that ended up at the amazing Melk Abbey built so high one could touch the clouds.

Marla and I did not know Trish and Bruce Patterson very well before the trip, but that changed in a hurry.  We spent many an evening drinking wine and exchanging stories together.  Once I found out that Bruce went to St. John's here in Houston, my oh gosh, the tales we shared!! 

Trish has some very interesting theories about wealth.  She says it only takes three generations to lose a fortune.  Interesting.  I wouldn't know... I haven't made my fortune yet.

Nevertheless, I was curious so I looked it up when I got home... sure enough, Trish was right. 

Going from rags to riches is the popular story, but the full story should be rags to rags in three generations. 

That's because children and grandchildren of the fortune-building super wealthy typically squander the family's riches.

Statistics show that 65 percent of family wealthy is lost by the second generation and 90 percent gone by the third generation, according to tax lawyer and investment advisor Tim Voorhees of Wealth Counsel.

Isn't it interesting all the things you can learn when you share meals with interesting people??

Two other guests on the trip who made quite an impression on me were Ann Wasp and Vivian Wang. 

We had great fun playing the Liar's Game... name two things about yourself that are true and one that is false. 

I did pretty well on the first round, but once Ann and Vivian honed in on me, they had my number.  I can't fool anyone.

On the other hand, Vivian and Ann fooled me repeatedly.  Despite my lack of cleverness, I had a good time.  I now know where all the tattoos are hidden on Ann's body and how Vivian exchanged a smooch for getting her tire changed. 

See how much fun these trips are??

Ann in particular has a mysterious way of drawing people out.  Each night Ann got turned our table into a group therapy session. 

And what exactly was Ann's technique?  Ann knows how to ask good questions.  That skill plus copious amounts of wine got us all to talking about a lot more things than we should have.

Unfortunately, their secrets are safe with me.  By the next day I had forgotten everything.  Now I am worried that they remember what I said.  Uh oh.

So why is Mary Pena frowning?  Poor Mary.  Mary worried about everything.  You may wonder what Mary is so worried about.

Do you see my hand on Mary's shoulder?  I am being affectionate.  The problem is that Mary thinks that Marla will get mad at her if I put my arm around her... just as I did in this picture.  That explains Mary's worried look. 

For the record, Marla couldn't care less.  But don't tell Mary... I enjoy watching her squirm needlessly.  That's just the kind of person I am.

I always give Mary a hard time. 

Sometimes I muss up her hair.  Mary hates that, but her mistake was letting me know how much she hates it. 

However my favorite activity on the trip was asking Mary which waiter she currently had a crush on. 

Mary can't seem to make up her mind.  One day it is Goran.  The next day it is Marko.  The next day it is Milan.  Then there is Zoltan the maitre d' or Borat.  Another day, another crush.

It didn't help Mary at all that her buddies Barbara and Jan were perpetually reminding her just how cute the handsome waiters were.  Mary is just too much fun to tease. 

By the way, Mary wasn't the only troublemaker on the trip. 

Linda Ingalls (in blue) is my buddy from back in the days when my hair was still brown.  Yeah, we go way back.  Linda is currently encouraging her awesome husband Stephen to learn how to waltz.  Stephen is getting pretty if I can say so myself.

So why isn't Stephen in this picture?  Unfortunately Stephen stayed at home so he could make enough money to send Linda on this river cruise.  Where does a girl find a husband like that?

Linda was very cute... she took notes at everything our tour guides said.  I have been on 38 cruises and I have never seen anyone take notes before.  Linda is definitely one of a kind.

Speaking of rare birds, Jan Thomas, the one with the red Viking sticker on her forehead, was quite a character.  I have never seen a woman with more energy in my life.  Jan was also a bit on the talkative side.  Jan hung out with Barbara and Mary a lot.  With each new glass of wine, the giggles increased.  Jan kept her table in stitches every night. 

I did not get to know Debbie Edison very well, but she definitely enhanced my picture of the beautiful Austrian countryside. 

Notice the plastic shield behind Debbie.  That shield serves as a wind breaker and keeps people comfortable as they sit out on the viewing deck.

So what color was the Danube?  Was the Danube blue?

No, for the record, the Danube was olive green.  Let me add that the Danube was crystal clear and very lovely.

Debbie told me the story of how she met her husband John at the Longhorn here in Houston several years ago.  How many times do I have to say the easy way to meet someone is to learn how to dance?

One morning as we took a walk into Passau, Germany, I managed to persuade Ana Davis, Patrice Kight, and Cheryl Simoneaux to smile for me.

Those strange things around their necks are called the Quiet Boxes.  It isn't obvious, but there is an earpiece attached to those boxes.  This system allows the tour guide to speak to everyone without anyone having to strain to hear her. 

These boxes also allow people like me to wander around and still listen into the conversation. 

By the way, that is Jimmy White with the camera.  Jimmy and his wife Helen Kinnamon were with our group as well.

So here we have a picture of Mary finally smiling for the camera.  So why is Mary smiling?  Probably because I am nowhere in sight... Marla took this picture.

Seated with Mary is her friend Barbara Dailey.  Barbara was also with us on last year's Rhine River cruise, so it was great to have her back with us this year as well.

I apologize that I didn't get pictures of everyone.  The problem was that the battery to my camera conked out after the first day and I could not get it to recharge.

Oh well.  Very frustrating.  Fortunately Marla took up the slack with her cell phone, so we got the important pictures after all.

So why is Marla smiling? 

I will tell you why... Marla had an outrageous amount of fun on this trip.  Yes, she broke three ribs, but she still managed to have a great time. 

This was our 36th cruise trip together.  Yes, sometimes it gets old, but then we take a trip like this one and all the magic comes back. 

For one thing, we really enjoyed the people in our group.  Every night we had a fun conversation with someone.  Having friends enhances a trip so much.  For one thing, I love having the chance to tell a naughty joke once a while.  The problem is that Marla knows all my jokes... so it is so great to have new people to shock.

It was having having Bill and Sharon along.  I liked taking our walk in the woods with them and it was fun playing cards with them as well.  It was fun sitting out on the viewing deck watching castles with them.  I think Marla really appreciated their company as well. 

In particular, Marla and I both love Europe.  There are so many things we saw on this trip that I haven't even bothered to write about.  So let me give a simple example.

That set of ruins up on top of the large hill is known as Durnstein Castle.  This is the castle where King Richard the Lionheart was kept imprisoned for a year following his return from the Crusades.

Okay, just so everyone understands... I have a real affinity for King Richard.  That is because my mother told me I was named for the guy.  In addition, I got seriously hooked on the legend of Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest.  Don't forget that my last name is Archer.  So forgive me for being such a sap, but as a kid named Richard Archer, I used to daydream all the time about being in Robin Hood's band of archers.  I even had my own bow and arrow and green Robin Hood cap. 

We all know the story of how evil King John terrorized England in the absence of his brother King Richard.  We also know that Robin Hood drove King John crazy with his band of Merrye Men.  Who can forget Little John and Friar Tuck?

When I was a little boy, I saw a movie where King Richard returns to England after being freed from Durnstein Castle.  King Richard deliberately goes to Sherwood Forest and thanks Robin Hood in person for keeping his evil brother under control.

Therefore it was a real treat to see an actual place where my hero had once been.  History came alive for me. 

I salute my talented wife.  Thanks to her, I have seen the world and I have learned so much.  I know for a fact that my life has been enriched dramatically by our many travel experiences together.  I think my recap of the Danube trip has made this abundantly clear.

Guess what?  We aren't done yet.  During the trip, Marla indulged some fantasies of her. 

It turns out that Marla was just as inspired by this trip as I was.  In fact, Marla talked openly about scheduling a return visit to see the second part of the Danube River in 2017.

In addition, she had a very unique idea. Marla noted that that end of the second leg of the Danube takes us very close to a place known as Transylvania in the mountains of Romania.  Transylvania was once home to Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (1431-147677).

As a member of the powerful House of Dracula, Vlad had a special hatred for the Ottoman Turks who constantly sought to invade his land. He made it a practice to behead his enemies at the end of battles and place their heads on stakes to warn off further incursions. He became known as 'Vlad the Impaler'.

During his lifetime, Vlad's reputation for excessive cruelty spread abroad to Germany and elsewhere in Europe. When Bram Stoker wrote his classic novel Dracula in 1897, he based Count Dracula on Vlad the Impaler as well as the disturbing folklore of mysterious Transylvanian Vampires.

Marla suggested we don Vampire costumes and visit the Castle of Vlad the Impaler at Halloween. I would imagine this would make for a most interesting evening of Trick or Treat.  I wonder who will greet us at the door?

You might assume I am teasing. Wrong. Marla is completely serious.  There is never a dull moment with Marla around. 

Whatever you think about her idea, don't say 'Impossible'.

Barbara, Bruce, Trish, Vivian, Marla and Ann, Marla's soul mate


Rhône 2014

Rhine 2015

Bordeaux 2015

Watching the World Go By

Blue Danube and Viennese Waltz

 Versailles 2014


Table of Contents

 01- Regrets
 02- About the Danube River
 03- The Last Laugh
 04- Watching the World Go By
 05- The Habsburg Empire
 06- The Fall of the Austrian Empire
 07- Who was to Blame for World War I?
 08- The Sad History of Hungary
 09- Living in America
 10- Friendship



2016 Danube Waltz Itinerary 

   April 09: Day 1   Saturday Passau, Germany
   April 10: Day 2    Sunday Passau, Germany
   April 11: Day 3   Monday Linz and Český Krumlov, C.R.
   April 12: Day 4   Tuesday Melk and Dürnstein, Austria
   April 13: Day 5  Wednesday Vienna, Austria
   April 14: Day 6   Thursday Bratislava, Slovakia
   April 15: Day 7   Friday Budapest, Hungary
   April 16: Day 8   Saturday Budapest, Hungary
  After the trip concludes, why not extend your trip with a two-day stay in Budapest?


About the Danube Waltz River Cruise


Austria, Land of the Castles

The magnificent Hohenwerfen Castle

The incredible Hochosterwitz Castle


Schlögener Loop


is a look at the spectacular Schlögener Loop

Although the picture shows an amazing U-Turn, if one looks down from above, this is actually a gigantic S-Turn. 

This amazing formation is about 20 miles east of Passau, the starting point for our trip.  The beauty of a river cruise is that it gives a perspective that cannot be appreciated from a car or a land point.  There are simply places a highway can't reach.

Similar to a trip through the Panama Canal, the Danube River cuts through a constant maze of unfolding scenery that is virtually inaccessible by car.  So why bother renting a vehicle?

Fortunately, there is a much better option.  Why not sit back on the viewing deck of your river boat?  From the comfort of a rocking chair, you can take in the amazing scenery with your friends, your camera, and a glass of wine for accompaniment. 



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