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15 minutes of fame | Tom Holland chooses Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás

As part of our series exploring lost or lesser-known figures from history who deserve their 15 minutes of fame, Rob Attar interviews Tom Holland about the life of Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás

Baron Franz Nopcsa in Albanian uniform.
Published: August 31, 2022 at 3:49 pm
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Who was Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás?

Baron Franz Nopsca von Felső-Szilvás was a Hungarian nobleman of Transylvania descent who lived through the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and beyond. He came from an aristocratic background, but is largely remembered for his role in palaeontology, explains historian Tom Holland.

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Nopsca was instrumental in developing ground-breaking research into European dinosaurs and evolution. This was not all he was famous for though, Holland explains. He also became an expert on Albania, during a time when Albania was still “rather a land of mystery”.

Historian Tom Holland
Historian Tom Holland.

Franz Nopcsa’s life

Nopsca’s interest in palaeontology was sparked by a discovery made by his sister, Holland explains. When he was 18 years old, his sister Ilona showed him some bones she had found, and he worked out they were fossils. This discovery intrigued him so much, says Holland, that he enrolled in a palaeontology course at the University of Vienna. Incredibly, within just a year of study, he had published a study on dwarfish dinosaurs. Following his studies, he continued to make key palaeontological discoveries – including the idea that the Balkans had once been an archipelago of small islands, which would have had a significant influence on the way dinosaurs had evolved.

Aside from his professional achievements, Nopsca had a remarkable life that is perhaps stranger than fiction. During an exploration of Albania in 1906, Nopsca met and fell in love with a shepherd named Bajazid Elmaz Doda, with whom he would spend the rest of his life. The following year, Nopsca was kidnapped by a bandit and had to concoct a convoluted plan to escape his captor. Even more interestingly, says Holland, in 1913 Nopsca proposed to the Austro-Hungarian authorities that he should be king of Albania. The start of the First World War put an end to these plans, and also marked a deterioration in Nopsca’s life.

Though his revolutionary study of dinosaurs was published in 1914 – a key moment in his life, says Holland – the war was detrimental to Nopsca. He continued to serve in Albania and worked as a spy in Transylvania (which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) throughout the war. But the conflict’s end brought bad news for Nopsca, as Transylvania was ceded to Romania, leading to the loss of his castle and being run out of his hometown by ex-serfs who had worked his land. As a result, Nopsca became quite impoverished. However, says Holland, the difficulties did not stop there though. During the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, Nopsca was trapped, and in a spectacular turn of events, he became the first person to ever hijack an aeroplane, as his means of escape.

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After all these difficulties during and after the war, Nopsca was appointed to run the Hungarian Geological Institute in Budapest. But as Holland explains, this desk job was “too boring for Nopsca”, and so he set off on a motorbike tour with his lover Bajazid. Running into financial difficulties, he funded his tour by selling his priceless collection of dinosaurs to the Natural History Museum, where they remain to this day.

This motorbike tour ended tragically in 1933, when Nopsca, who was suffering from depression and potential bipolar disorder, succumbed to these mental illnesses. After drugging Bajazid, shot both his companion and himself in a brutal murder-suicide.

Why does he deserve his 15 minutes of fame?

Franz Nopsca von Felső-Szilvás deserves his fifteen minutes of fame, says Tom Holland, because he was an extraordinary character. He was a talented and influential palaeontologist, who aspired to be king of Albania, and was also the first person to hijack an aeroplane.

“He’s just the most dramatically entertaining and flamboyant figure imaginable,” says Holland. “I can’t imagine anyone having led a more dramatic or eye-popping life”.

Tom Holland is a historian, author and broadcaster who has written numerous books on the ancient and medieval eras. He is also co-host, with Dominic Sandbrook, of The Rest is History podcast

You can listen to the full interview and find more episodes in our 15 minutes of fame podcast series

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Article compiled by Isabel King

Authors

Tom Holland
Tom HollandHistorian and broadcaster

Tom Holland is an award-winning historian, biographer and broadcaster. He is the author of a series of books on ancient and early medieval history, and has written and presented several TV documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4.

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