The heir to an ancient royal house marries a commoner over the furious opposition of his sovereign, his family, the church, the political establishment and the palace cabal. Today, such an event would be a tidbit for the tabloid press. Exactly one hundred years ago this Saturday it provided the spark that ignited World War I.
The heir was Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, nephew of Emperor Franz Joseph, who had ruled since 1848. Franz Ferdinand was a reluctant heir. “The Habsburg crown,” he once said, “is a crown of thorns, and no one who is not born to it should desire it.”
Initially, it seemed that Franz Ferdinand had not been born to inherit the ill-fated crown at all. By rights, it belonged to his cousin, Archduke Rudolph, Franz Joseph’s only son. But in 1889, tragedy intervened. Rudolf’s body was found with that of his teenaged mistress at the royal hunting lodge of Mayerling. Thwarted in life, the illicit couple had apparently sought their happiness in death.
Mayerling cleared Franz Ferdinand’s path to the throne, but ten years later the tragedy threatened to repeat itself. He became hopelessly enamored with the beautiful Sophie Chotek, a Bohemian countess. Sophie was intelligent, refined and of aristocratic birth. But her family was of minor nobility and poor. She herself had been forced to obtain employment as a lady in waiting. In the eyes of a hidebound autocrat like Franz Joseph, that made her a “servant”—hence utterly unsuitable as a bride for a Habsburg heir. Only when the emperor was warned that his continued opposition to his nephew’s marriage would make “another Mayerling” inevitable did he reluctantly give way.
But Franz Joseph’s consent came at a steep price. Franz Ferdinand could marry Sophie, but the marriage had to be morganatic. In other words, Sophie would be Franz Ferdinand’s wife but nothing more. She would not share his royal rank and his titles. She would not reign as empress beside him when he ascended the throne. Any children she bore him would be excluded from the succession; they would not even be considered Habsburgs.
Nor was that all. When the couple married, the emperor, the Habsburg family and the entire court closed ranks in a spiteful campaign to ensure that Sophie never forgot for one moment her status as a morganatic wife. She was barred from the imperial box at the theatre, opera, ballet, symphony and even the race course. She could not stand at her husband’s side at any official function, nor could Franz Ferdinand acknowledge her presence in any official speech. If she attended a palace ball, she entered on the arm of a court chamberlain, walking behind even the most junior female members of the House of Habsburg. If she approached a double door, a liveried footman opened one panel only.
Against the multitude of these petty slights to his beloved Sophie, Franz Ferdinand could respond only with impotent rage. Not surprisingly, the morganatic couple avoided the snooty atmosphere of Vienna as much as possible, taking refuge in their private estates of Artstetten in Lower Austria and Konopiste in the present-day Czech Republic.
Franz Ferdinand and Sophie would produce three children—a girl and two boys. In private, they enjoyed a loving, happy and conventional family life. But their seclusion spawned fantastic rumors and malicious gossip. To make matters worse Franz Ferdinand, who was naturally stiff and reserved in public, disdained any effort to court public approval.
Franz Ferdinand’s reclusiveness and unpopularity have colored assessments of his character to this day. But he was in fact a complex man who seems to have been equally happy blasting away at stags and game birds on the hunt and cultivating one of the most famous rose gardens in Europe at Konopiste. His political views were equally complicated. He was a born autocrat like his uncle, but he saw clearly that the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire would have to change in order to survive. A visit to the United States suggested to him a model for a federated empire that would better accommodate the aspirations of the Dual Monarchy’s various nationalities.
In the end, it was the nationalities problem that would spell doom for the empire, for himself and his wife, and for the millions who would die in World War I.
The story of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie at Sarajevo has been told countless times. Sarajevo was the capital of the former Turkish provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which Austria-Hungary had annexed in 1908 over the vigorous protests of the neighboring kingdom of Serbia. Bosnia-Herzegovina had a significant Serb population that wanted union with Serbia. Serbian secret patriotic societies, backed by Serbia’s powerful ally, Russia, stirred up these ethnic Serbs against Habsburg rule. Austria-Hungary, backed by its own powerful ally, Germany, itched to put the pesky Serbs in their place.
Thus, the visit of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie to observe army maneuvers in Bosnia in 1914 was seen by the Serbs as a deliberate provocation, especially since the date of the visit—June 28—was also St. Vitus Day, the Serbian national holiday.
So why did Franz Ferdinand and Sophie go to Sarajevo in spite of the obvious danger? The commonly accepted explanation is that Franz Ferdinand did it for love. He is supposed to have insisted on the visit because on this occasion at least, protocol would allow him to appear with Sophie at his side to receive royal honors.
Yet this explanation is contradicted by the facts. Franz Ferdinand did not instigate the visit. On the contrary, he tried twice to have it canceled. He was no coward; assassination attempts were accepted by royals of the time as occupational hazards. But something about this official appearance filled him with the direst forebodings. Little over a month before departing for Sarajevo he told his nephew, Archduke Karl, who was next in line for the throne, “I know I shall soon be murdered. In this desk are papers that concern you. When that happens, take them, they are for you.”
Franz Ferdinand had good reason to feel uneasy. He knew that he and Sophie were unpopular. He knew that there were many people in the empire—from the emperor on down—who would prefer that Karl succeed rather than himself. He knew that the Austrian Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, was eager to seize on the slightest pretext to invade Serbia. Was that why he had been ordered to Sarajevo, to create a casus belli?
His concerns would scarcely have been allayed had he known of the security arrangements—or rather the lack of them—that had been made for his visit. Security was in the hands of Gen. Oskar Potiorek, the governor-general of Bosnia. Potiorek had personal reasons for disliking Franz Ferdinand. The archduke had twice intervened to prevent his promotion. Although Piotorek was well aware of that Sarajevo was dangerous (he himself rarely appeared in public, and then only with a strong bodyguard), he took no special measures to protect Franz Ferdinand and his wife. He refused an offer from the army to line the streets with soldiers, lest this offend the local populace, and instead relied on Sarajevo’s inadequate police force. He placed no suspects under surveillance. And he brushed aside all warnings of potential danger.
Given the shockingly weak security measures, it is not surprising that a handful of Serbian-trained assassins were able to position themselves along the route announced for the archducal motorcade.
When the open car carrying Franz Ferdinand and Sophie appeared, one of the assassins threw a bomb. It bounced off the folded convertible cover at the rear of the vehicle, but exploded under the next car, wounding some 16 to 20 people. The remaining cars immediately sped off to the next stop on the couple’s itinerary–Sarajevo’s town hall, where the mayor was waiting with a speech of welcome. Franz Ferdinand’s narrow escape had unsettled him. “One comes here for a visit,” he berated the mayor, “and one is greeted with bombs.”
After the reception at town hall, the party decided to call at the local hospital and visit those who had been wounded by the bomb. This humanitarian gesture also had the advantage taking the party by a different route than the one that had been previously announced. Unfortunately, by oversight or accident, the driver of the archducal car stuck to the original itinerary. Pioterek, who was riding in the car with Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, angrily ordered the driver to change direction. To do that, the driver had to bring the car to a stop just five feet from where 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, another member of the band of Serbian assassins, was standing on the sidewalk. At that range, it was impossible to miss. Princip drew his Browning .32 caliber pistol and fired twice.
The assassinations of Franz Joseph and Sophie set in motion the terrible machinery of great power alliances that had been building for years. A month later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia mobilized to defend the Serbs, which brought a declaration of war from Austria-Hungary’s ally, Germany. France and Britain, which were allied with Russia, were quickly drawn into the conflict. War engulfed Europe.
Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, unequal in life, were unequal even in death. Court etiquette dictated that Franz Ferdinand’s coffin be elevated a full 20 inches above his wife’s at the shamefully abbreviated funeral service that was held for them in the chapel of Vienna’s Hofburg palace.
As heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand should have been buried in the Habsburg family crypt. But, knowing that his wife would not be allowed a place beside him, he prepared them a tomb at Artstetten. There they rest to this day, two people whose love for each other would inadvertently lead to a global cataclysm and millions of deaths. It is entirely appropriate that the local war memorial at Artstetten lists Franz Ferdinand and Sophie as the first casualties of World War I.