The Assassination of the Archduke by Greg King and Sue Woolmans

What do we know about World War I, much less about how it started? I remembered from some long ago history class that somebody got shot in Sarajevo, all the European countries were bound by alliances and had to fight each other, and the Tsar and his family were shot. Maybe I got some of that last from Dr. Zhivago (what a movie!).

However, like most of history, the situation was much more complicated than that and – surprise – people, real people, were involved. In this case, two people were assassinated by Serbian terrorists. Two people who loved each other deeply and had defied the very imposing, very petty, and very obsolete Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, Apostolic King of Hungary, King of Bohemia, King of Croatia, King of Galicia and Lodomeria and Grand Duke of Cracow, by marrying. It was a morganatic marriage, a marriage between people of unequal social rank, which prevents the passage of the husband’s titles and privileges to the wife and any children born of the marriage. Probably the most famous example in modern times, the marriage took place in 1900 marriage when the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, wed Bohemian aristocrat Countess Sophie Chotek von Chotkowa. The marriage was initially resisted by Emperor Franz Joseph I, but after pressure from family members and other European rulers, he relented in 1899 (but did not attend the wedding himself). The bride was made Princess (later Duchess) of Hohenberg, their children took their mother’s new name and rank, and were excluded from the imperial succession.

The Hapsburgs, once one of the most powerful families in Europe, were in decline by the end of the 19th century. Inbreeding, separation of branches of the family, and disunity among countries all contributed to the “Twilight of the Habsburgs” (title of a biograph of Franz Joseph by Alan Palmer). The last Habsburg, Otto von Habsburg, died in 2011. At age 98, von Habsburg brought to a close 640 years of European history.

Sophie was treated as though she was invisible by the Hapsburgs and was omitted from most royal events. Deeply religious (Catholic), she seems to have been able to forgive this and find comfort and love with her husband and three children. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie profoundly loved each other and their children.

Franz Ferdinand was the Emperor’s nephew and would not have been heir to the throne if it had not been for the scandalous murder/suicide of Franz Joseph’s son, Rudolf, at Mayerling in 1889. According to official reports their deaths were a result of Franz Joseph’s demand that the couple end the relationship: the Crown Prince, as part of a suicide pact, first shot his mistress in the head and then himself. Rudolf was officially declared to have been in a state of “mental unbalance” in order to enable Christian burial in the Imperial Crypt (Kapuzinergruft) of the Capuchin Church in Vienna. Mary’s body was smuggled out of Mayerling in the middle of the night and secretly buried in the village cemetery at Heiligenkreuz. Whether this is what actually happened is still unsettled 124 years after the event.

The continuing theme in this book is that Franz Ferdinand was misunderstood; the foreword was written by the Archduke’s great-granddaughter who quotes the Archduke’s daughter explaining why she answers questions posted by journalists: “But I must defend him,” “him” being her father. He was not a personable man and was reclusive to a great degree. Some of this can be explained by the treatment given his wife, Sophie. He preferred to be with her than attending official events to which she was barred. On the other hand Franz Ferdinand was a great friend of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and had an excellent relationship with King George V.

Why did the Archduke and his wife go to Sarajevo? Why was there so little military or police protection for them? Oskar Potiorek, an officer of the Austro-Hungarian Army, who served as Governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was responsible for Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s stay in Sarajevo. He was clearly negligent in providing adequate protection for the royal visitors. He rejected numerous recommendations for providing safety for the two. Was this incompetence or part of the conspiracy to assassinate the couple? These are questions that perplex historians 100 years after the fact.

Franz Joseph was completely uninterested in the deaths. He gave every impression of pleasure at the death of his nephew and heir. However, as the Emperor of Austria-Hungary he had to do something. Austria-Hungary, like many in countries around the world, blamed the Serbian government for the attack and hoped to use the incident as justification for settling the question of Slav nationalism once and for all. As Russia supported Serbia, an Austro-Hungarian declaration of war was delayed until its leaders received assurances from German leader Kaiser Wilhelm that Germany would support their cause in the event of a Russian intervention–which would likely involve Russia’s ally, France, and possibly Britain as well. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the tenuous peace between Europe’s great powers collapsed. Within a week, Russia, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Serbia had lined up against Austria-Hungary and Germany, and World War I had begun.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s children suffered greatly after their parents’ death. Unrecognized by the Hapsburgs, they were shuffled among Sophie’s family, never knowing stability. When Hitler came to power, the sons were sent to Dachau where they almost died. Their lives after World War II saw more loss.

The causes and consequences of World War I remain with us today. For example, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and its divisions by the European nations are with us even now in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the other countries of the Middle East. This is history that we need to know. I recommend this book as one element of the history of the 20th and 21st centuries.


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Filed under History, Literary Genres

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