The Viennese Scholar Who Almost Became King of Albania: Baron Franz Nopcsa and His Contribution to Albanian Studies

By Elsie, Robert | East European Quarterly, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The Viennese Scholar Who Almost Became King of Albania: Baron Franz Nopcsa and His Contribution to Albanian Studies


Elsie, Robert, East European Quarterly


On 26 April 1933, the Neue Freie Presse in Vienna published the following article:

Bloody drama in the Singerstrasse. Scholar commits murder and suicide.

      "As we have already reported, the fifty-five year old lecturer Baron
   Franz Nopcsa shot his longtime secretary, the forty-five year old Albanian
   Bayazid Elmas Doda, yesterday morning in his fourth-story apartment in
   house No. 1 of Singerstrasse 12 and then committed suicide at the desk of
   his study by shooting himself through the mouth. The autopsy showed that
   the secretary received two gunshot wounds at almost the same spot on his
   left temple and that these bullets went right through his skull and came to
   rest in the upholstering on the back of the armchair.

      Nopcsa seems to have prepared the deed carefully. A number of sealed
   messages of farewell were found, as were a sealed will addressed to a
   Viennese lawyer and a few other documents. That material motives may also
   have been involved can be deduced not only from testimony from his maid,
   who had not received her salary for four months and from the fact that
   Franz Nopcsa, who was devoted to his books and collections, had been
   planning to sell off his extensive library containing many a unique volume.

      ... a letter to the police, `The motive for my suicide is a nervous
   breakdown. The reason that I shot my longtime friend and secretary, Mr.
   Bayazid Elmas Doda, in his sleep without his suspecting at all is that I
   did not wish to leave him behind sick, in misery and without a penny,
   because he would have suffered too much. I wish to be cremated'."

Thus ended the life of Baron Franz Nopcsa of Felsoszilvas (1877-1933), one of the most prominent researchers and scholars of his day. Nopcsa was born the son of a family of Hungarian aristocrats on 3 May 1877 at the family estate in Szacsal (Sacel) near Hatzeg in Transylvania. He was able to finish his schooling at the Maria-Theresianum in Vienna with the support of his uncle and godfather, Franz von Nopcsa, who was head master of the court of the Empress Elisabeth. The perhaps decisive event of his younger years took place during an outing near Szentpeterfalva in 1895. There he and his sister Ilona discovered some fossilized bones belonging to a dinosaur, which he sent to the geologist and palaeontologist, Professor Eduard Suess in Vienna. From graduation in 1897 to 1903, Nopcsa studied under Suess at the University of Vienna, which was a leading centre of palaeontological studies at the time.

Nopcsa developed quickly into a talented scholar himself. On 21 July 1899, at the age of twenty-two, he held his first lecture at the Academy of Sciences in Vienna on Dinossaurierreste in Siebenburgen (Dinosaur remnants in Transylvania) and attracted much attention with it. He is considered one of the founders of palaeophysiology, in particular because of his internationally renowned studies on reptile fossils. Well known were his hypotheses on the `running proavis,' on the warm-bloodedness of pterosaurs, and on the significance of a number of endocrine processes which he considered to have had an important influence on the evolution and extinction of dinosaurs. Not all of his theories were accepted at the time, but they did succeed in advancing and stimulating a wide range of fields of palaeontology. Equally important were Nopcsa's achievements in the field of geology, for example, his research into the tectonic structures of the western Balkan mountain ranges, where he defended some rather unusual theories.

In later years, he also became one of the leading Albania specialists of his times. His publications in the field of Albanian studies from 1907 to 1932 were concentrated primarily in the fields of prehistory, early Balkan history, ethnology, geography, modern history and Albanian customary law, i.e., the Kanun. His early works such as Das Katholische Nordalbanien (Catholic northern Albania), Budapest 1907, Aus Sala und Klement (From Shala and Kelmendi), Sarajevo 1910, and Haus und Hausrat im katholischen Nordalbanien (House and household in Catholic northern Albania), Sarajevo 1912, and Beitrage zur Vorgeschichte und Ethnologie Nordalbaniens (Contributions to the prehistory and ethnology of northern Albania), Sarajevo 1912, contain a myriad of fascinating observations, even though from a modern perspective the material may not always seem well organized. …

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