The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

Archive for the tag “Archduke”

001 Franz Ferdinand and a ferry in trouble

Download this episode (right click and save)

Franz Ferdinand

Franz Ferdinand

Europe surprised by attack in Sarajevo

It is Sunday 28 June 1914, the beginning of the first week after the shooting in Sarajevo.

German Emperor Wilhelm II is getting ready for his annual cruise in Norwegian waters on the imperial yacht Hohenzollern.

The French are under the spell of the lawsuit against Henriette Caillaux, wife of the former prime minister, who killed a journalist that was a nuisance to her husband.

In the Bosnian town of Sarajevo there is an attack on the Austro-Hungarian successor to the throne in which both he and his wife are killed.

The perpetrator, the young Bosnian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, and his conspirators are arrested on site.

Riots break out in Sarajevo and other parts of Bosnia.

From Belgrade the diplomatic service of Austria-Hungary announces to Vienna that the Serbians must be accessories to the attack.

Also the German foreign minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, is informed that his Viennese colleague, Leopold von Berchtold, is pointing an accusing finger at Belgrade.

The German emperor reacts stoically to all the news and his Austrian colleague Franz Joseph is not exactly grief-stricken either.

 After a most plain ceremony the couple are laid to rest on their own country estate in Austrian Artstetten,  Sophie and Franz Ferdinand

28 June 1914 is the day that the story of WWI begins. To the Serbians 28 June is a date with a much older history. Tucked away in time on 28 June 1389 Serbian armed forces were defeated by the army of the Ottoman empire. The Battle of Kosovo Polje, the Field of Blackbirds, hurt the Serbian soul permanently.

Franz Ferdinand should have chosen a better day in 1914 for his visit to Sarajevo. Sarajevo is the relatively unknown capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina,where for centuries muslims, both Croatioans and Serbians, have had to live together. Franz Ferdinand, who bears the title of archduke, is the future emperor of Austria-Hungary. To the annoyance of true Serbians, Bosnia and Herzegovina have also been part of this empire for six years. A visit to Sarajevo on 28 June is all in all an affront for which Franz Ferdinand is going to be sorry. The first shot of the First World War is fired on 28 June 1914, though no one will understand the significance.

Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie are also celebrating their wedding day on this very same 28 June. They are sitting side by side in an open car when the young Bosnian Gavrilo Princip thinks he should do the Serbian nation a favour. Princip’s main concern is Franz Ferdinand who he considers the oppressor of the Serbian people. The second bullet is meant for Oskar Potiorek, governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who is also in the car. Princip misses the target and accidentally hits Sophie in the abdomen. She is said to have cried out to her husband: ‘For God’s sake, what has happened?’. Then she collapses between her husband’s knees.

After being hit in the carotid artery he stutters: ‘Sopherl, Sopherl, stirb nicht! Bleibe am Leben für unsere Kinder.’(‘Sophie, Sophie, stay alive. Stay alive for the children’).

While the archduke himself is losing consciousness he goes on repeating several times that it’s nothing: ‘Es ist nichts, es ist nichts, es ist nichts…’. But the archduke is profoundly mistaken. In the governor’s residence the death of both spouses is established.


Let us return to the morning of 28 June 1914, when the world still looks completely different. Archduke Franz Ferdinand is the man to succeed the ancient emperor of the Austro-Hungarian double-monarchy. The future emperor is reputed to be a reformer. And decaying Vienna is horrified by the thought that the status quo is about to end for the Austrians and Hungarians.

Emperor Franz Joseph is almost 84. He will humanly spoken not live much longer. At the age of 50 Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Este, as is his title, is not exactly just out of the cradle. He has been warming up to the throne half of his life. In 1889 crown prince Rudolph commits suicide. Rudolph was the only son of emperor Franz Joseph and his ravishing but neurotic wife Elisabeth, better known as Sissi.

After that Franz Ferdinand’s father came on the screen as the eldest brother of the emperor, but senior soon declined the hereditary honour. Consequently Franz Ferdinand sees it as his task to continue the tradition of the Habsburgs as the central dynasty of Europe. Quite a task as the future of the court in Vienna does not look very good. The Habsburg empire and its ethnic communities are creaking and cracking everywhere. Franz Ferdinand, howevefr, does not seem to be burdened with this prospect. He lives an impassioned life travelling and hunting. He is said to have killed about 5,000 deer single-handedly in his life.

Meanwhile surrounded by advisors in the military chancellery of castle Untere Belvedere he is indeed preparing conscientiously for his task. Franz Ferdinand advocates modernization of the army and extension of the navy. He wants Austria-Hungary to regain its position on the world stage. First it should, however, put its domestic affairs in order. Franz Ferdinand does not share the desire to go to war as shown by chief-of-staff Conrad von Hötzendorf with regard to the ambitious kingdom of Serbia. His urge to reform provides him with a liberal image but a good observer will recognize in Franz Ferdinand a reactionary who wants to embed the monarchy in aristocracy, with his catholic God’s blessing of course.

For a time he has been willing to grant the Slav inhabitants of the empire their own status equal to the Austrians and the Hungarians. But in the final year of his life he is inclined towards a ‘United States of Great Austria’ consisting of fifteen member states. He most certainly distrusts the Magyars who were treated equally. He sees their nationalist sentiments as a threat to the dynasty. Franz Ferdinand cannot tolerate Hungarian being spoken in his presence.

Historian Michael Freund has called Franz Ferdinand a ‘man of uninspired energy’, ‘of dark appearance and emotions, exuding an aura of strangeness and casting a shadow of violence and ruthlessness.’ Contemporary Austrian writer and satirist Karl Kraus observed that Franz Ferdinand was not the type of person to greet somebody else, ‘he does not feel the urge to venture on the unexplored grounds that in Vienna is called heart.’

His own heart was stolen in 1895 by one Sophie Chotek. As duchess of Hohenberg she is of rather humble birth, Czech aristocracy come down. Emperor Franz Joseph, who is not al all fond of his self-willed nephew, does not accept the relationship. A future Habsburg emperor should present a lady of his own class.

The quarrel between the emperor and his successor culminates to such an extent that Wihelm II of Germany and Nicholas II of Russia call upon their Viennese equal to be a bit more accommodating. In 1899 Franz Joseph is willing to agree with the marital union, but he wants it to be a morganatic marriage. Children of such a ‘left-handed’ marriage should content themselves with the title of the lowest-born marital partner. In other words Franz Ferdinand will not be able to beget an heir to the throne  by his Sophie. And at official occasions Sophie will have to know her position, somewhere at the back.

The emperor’s entourage, including both Franz Ferdinand’s brothers, will see to it that the ‘dynastic discipline’ is respected. As Oberhofmeister (High Chamberlain) Alfred, the second prince of Montenuevo, does not pass any chance to deny Sophie the dignity of the Habsburg court. Franz Ferdinand hates him fort his. Sophie accepts all the insults in a dignified manner. Her serenity contrasts with the impulsive nature of her husband.

As Bosnia and Herzegovina are Reichsland (Imperial Territory), Sophie is allowed to sit next to her husband for a change on 28 June 1914. Franz Ferdinand has come to Bosnia to inspect the troops, a task which he has fulfilled for some years. To the Serbians this is a fateful sign.The tension between the small kingdom of Serbia and the big Danube monarchy has been so great for years that you can cut it with a knife. Bosnia is the centre. The Serbians see the army manoeuvres there as a sign that Austria-Hungary is about to invade and advance to Belgrade.

Today this is certainly not on the programme in Sarajevo, but there will be a visit to the town hall, a speech by the mayor, the opening of the new accommodation of the national museum, luncheon in the Konak (the old Turkish fortress), and visits to the mosque and the bazars. Sophie is convinced that it is going to be an enjoyable day. ‘Wherever we went, we were treated in such a friendly fashion – even by all Serbians – with so much cordiality and genuine warmth’, she said on the day before they left for Sarajevo.

However, when Franz Ferdinand and Sophie are driving along the Appel-Kai, there is a muffled bang. The young typographer Nedjelko Cabrinovic throws a bomb to the car of the archduke. It is a conspiracy. They are seven, Cabrinovic, Princip and five others. The bomb Cabrinovic throws misses its target. It rolls off the folding roof of the car after Franz Ferdinand has made a defensive gesture with his hand to protect his Sophie. Two officers in the car following the archduke get the full blast. Several bystanders are injured by fragments of the bomb.

Rather outraged than shocked Franz Ferdinand decides to continue his visit. In the town hall he snarls at the mayor. ‘I have come to Sarajevo and people throw bombs at me. It is a disgrace.’ Sophie pacifies him, after which Franz Ferdinand is said to have mumbled ‘I am sure bullets will be next’.

When Franz Ferdinand decides to go to the hospital to pay a visit to the people injured in the bomb attack, Gavrilo Princip, loitering by the side of the road, sees his opportunity. The car has to turn to go in the right direction. With his gun he will finish his comrade’s job. In Vienna old Franz Joseph, a dutiful but fossilized monarch, can heave a sigh of relief. The future of his dynasty will look much brighter without obstinate Franz Ferdinand.

Even when dead Sophie still has to know her position. Her coffin is placed on a lower pedestal than her husband’s. Two handkerchiefs and a fan are laid on it, as a reminder of her modest position as lady-in-waiting. Foreign princes are not invited for the funeral.

In his lifetime Franz Ferdinand had determined that he and his wife Sophie were not to be buried in the Kapuzinergruft in Vienna, where all highly placed Habsburgs are laid to eternal rest. He had his own ‘light and airy’ crypt built in his palace at Artstetten. In the dead of night the lifeless bodies are taken away from Vienna to the couple’s country estate. At Pöchlarn they have to take the ferry across the Danube. There is a thunderstorm. The ferry narrowly escaped capsizing.


Sopherl, Sopherl, stirb nicht! Bleibe am Leben für unsere Kinder’ (Sophie, Sophie, do not die! Stay alive for our children!) Franz Ferdinand was rightly worried, for the Habsburg family will be unconcerned about the three orphans. A hunting friend of Franz Ferdinand takes over their upbringing. And when the national-socialists come to power in Germany and Austria, to be on the safe side Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s children are locked up in Dachau concentration camp.

Next week: Wilhelm II

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

Post Navigation