The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

Archive for the tag “Austria-Hungary”

021 Oskar Potiorek and destination hospital

Oskar Potiorek

Oskar Potiorek

Austrians cannot bring Serbs to their knees

It is Sunday 15 November 1914. It is the 21st week after the shooting at Sarajevo

Snow falls on the western front.

The First Battle of Ypres is smothered in German frustration and the number of losses on both sides has increased to quarter of a million: dead, missing and wounded.

 Turks have to flee the British in Mesopotamia.

 The British also take Basra, thus getting control of the Persian Gulf.

 Goeben and Breslau, two German warships that have been added to the Turkish fleet, encounter a Russian squadron on the Black Sea.

 In Egypt a corps of Indian soldiers on camels fights the Turks.

 The Germans advance towards the Polish town of Łódź.

 British aviators bomb the Zeppelin factory in Friedrichshafen.

 The British navy announces to expand the minefield in The Channel.

 And the Austrians cross the river Kolubara, an offensive in Serbia which is bound to fail, led by Oskar Potiorek.

How differently the twentieth century would have passed, if corporal Adolf Hitler had run into a live bullet in the Great War? This is an intriguing but absurd question. History follows a capricious line, but she will absolutely refuse to deviate from it retroactively.

Another silly ‘what if’ question: what would have happened, if Oskar Potiorek had shown his driver the right way on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo. The chauffeur would not have had to turn the car, with the successor to the throne of Austria-Hungary as its passenger,  around. Then Gavrilo Princip would not have had the time to give the go-ahead for the First World War with a bullet for Franz Ferdinand. After which Adolf Hitler would not even have had to run into that live bullet.

Is it subtle but unavoidable processes that control history or do nitwits and accidental passers-by give it a twist? Oskar Potiorek might have prevented the First World War. If he had not called ‘Stop! Wrong! We have to continue along the Appel Kai’, the twentieth century would have been without a world war, according to Pascal’s reflection: ‘Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have been changed.’

The starting shot for which Potiorek created the conditions only triggered the First World War. The causality behind the war is of course much more complex than the capriciousness of some dignitary.


In 1914 we meet Oskar Potiorek as military governor of the Reichsland Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1878 it came under the flag of Austria-Hungary to the great dissatisfaction of the Serbs. In accordance with the Treaty of Berlin (1878) the Habsburgs start supervising the former provinces of the Ottoman Empire. After the Bosnian crisis of 1908 it comes to a downright annexation by Austria-Hungary.

All those years Vienna took great pains to convert the muslims, Serbs and Croats into Bosnians, completely in line with the multicultural Danube monarchy, but nationalism gets the upper hand more and more among the three groups. In Bosnia also the political parties are formed along ethnical lines.

These centrifugal forces get on Oskar Potiorek’s nerves. He himself is from Carinthia, Slovene being his native language. As military governor he has been the target of Serbian terrorists, just like his predecessor. He is determined to restore order through a military regime. As a hard-liner Potiorek finds the civilian authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina on his path. Leon von Bilinski, one of their representatives, is a man who has adopted a strategy of conflict avoidance. He cannot prevent, however, that Potiorek, backed by the army, assumes power with the aim to suppress Serbian nationalism. But by Potiorek’s repression the wind blows into the sails of terrorist groups such as The Black Hand, of which Gavrilo Princip is a member.

Another painful question is why this very man of discipline and authority loosened the reins in Sarajevo on 28 June. The protection of the heir to the throne and his wife, who were invited by Potiorek, was absolutely appalling. First a bomb is thrown at their car. When Franz Ferdinand, who is unharmed himself, wants to visit those who have been wounded in the attack, Potiorek has no objection. It would have been worth considering the advice to avoid the streets of Sarajevo for the rest of the day. ‘Do you really think the Sarajevo streets are full of murderers?’, Potiorek barked as a reply to that suggestion from his entourage. Yet Potiorek decided to join the archduke and his beloved Sophie in their car. With his own body he protected them both. Apparently he was so occupied by his task as body-guard that he forgot to tell the driver their new destination, hospital.

Could it have been Potiorek and his men’s intention to expose Franz Ferdinand to danger? However improbable this seems, there is something that supports such a conspiracy theory. Franz Ferdinand belonged to the camp in Austria-Hungary which wanted to avoid a war with Serbia, for fear that this would also lead to a conflict with Russia. Franz Ferdinand even wanted to give the Slavs within the Habsburg Empire a position equal to that of the Austrians and the Hungarians.

At odds with this is the ardent desire in army circles to get the Serbs in the Balkans back in the kennel, starting with the Serbs within the borders of the Austro-Hungarian empire. That was also a fervent wish cherished by Potiorek. And then the emperor-to-be with his weak knees is assassinated  by a Serb terrorist. All things considered this is killing two birds with one stone. An important opponent of the war with Serbia has been eliminated and the way in which this has been done is a perfect reason to start that war… It takes some believing.

In the month after the double assassination Potiorek shouts down criticism on his irresponsible hospitality in Sarajevo with a loud call for revenge. In Bosnia and Herzegovina he pulls in the reins even more. When war finally breaks out, Potiorek gets more elbow room. He is given command of the Austrian troops in the Balkans, chasing the Serb ‘pigfarmers’. Potiorek focuses his sight on Belgrade.

The Austrians see the Serbs as murderous barbarians. ‘The war leads us to a country whose population nurses a fanatic hatred against us’, Potiorek is recorded to have said. ‘The catastrophe in Sarajevo has proved that it leads us to a country where killing is considered an act of heroism, even by the upper classes. Humanity and friendliness to such a people are out of place.’ It is a kind of reasoning which leads to Austrian war crimes in Serbia, to be compared with those of the Germans in Belgium.

Barbarians in the eyes of Potiorek, the Serbs are mainly very motivated born fighters. Their highly experienced chief of staff is Radomir Putnik. The Serbs even owe it to the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph that Putnik again leads the troops. The elderly Putnik was recuperating in an Austrian health resort, when war broke out. The emperor considered it a matter of honour to give the old marshal free rein. After which Putnik started to capitalise his ample knowledge of warfare in the Balkans in a new conflict. Austria-Hungary has always been the shlemiel, the simpleton, of the Great War.

Putnik’s equal on the Austrian side is Conrad von Hötzendorf, just like Potiorek a hawk as far as Serbia is concerned. It is Potiorek’s plan to take over command from Conrad by means of a triumphal march in Serbia. Conrad, who is one year older, has been his rival for years. Small wonder that these two have great difficulty communicating and co-ordinating their plans.

In the beginning of the war Conrad also has to free himself from a difficult position. Serbia is not the only scene of battle for the Austrians, however much their hearts go out to this. Soon the Russians announce themselves in Galicia. This Polish front draws heavily on Potiorek’s range in Serbia. It turns into an extremely bloody fight which flows back and forth. In August the Austrians start with a smooth advance past the rivers Drina and Sava. But once the Serbs intensify their defence, Potiorek has to return to Bosnia in a hurry. The sun rising on 24 August does not see a single Habsburg soldier on Serbian soil any more. Potiorek, who has the rank of Feldzeugmeister, has lost 28,000 men, 4,500 of whom as prisoners-of-war in Serbian captivity. And he has to beg Conrad for extra troops.

In the beginning of September the Serbs invade Hungary. Later that month they also succeed in invading Bosnia itself. To make quite sure Gavrilo Princip is taken from Sarajevo to the fortress of Theresienstadt in Bohemia. Then the first week of November it is Potiorek’s turn again. His next offensive on 2 December results in the fall of Belgrade which he has been looking forward to so much. That victory, however, does not last long. Putnik starts a successful counteroffensive the following day. On 16 December Belgrade is in Serbian hands again. But the price Putnik pays is just as high as Pyrrhus’s for his victories against the Romans. The Serbian army has to sacrifice itself in order to defend the territory. The year after Serbia will yet be overrun.

First winter descends on the smouldering ruins of Serbia. Typhoid afflicts civilians and soldiers. And then Oskar Potiorek has to submit. Archduke Eugen is given command of the troops on the southern front, where all will be quiet until September 1915. Potiorek also has to step down as military governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although before the war he had become second in command within the general staff, Potiorek did not enjoy great trust in military circles. He was not less high-spirited than the highly esteemed Conrad. Yet Oskar Potiorek’s ambitions mainly aroused irritations. On horseback he did not live up to his promises. His unmarried status suggested a homosexual inclination, which did not do much good to his reputation.

Potiorek’s disclosure must have brought him to the edge of suicide. But death was not in hurry. Gavrilo Princip declared during his trial that the bullet which hit Sophie was meant for Potiorek. ‘I have been spared in Sarajevo, so that I can die taking revenge’, Potiorek is said to have called out repeatedly in the months after. That was another promise Oskar Potiorek could not deliver. He does not die until 1933, a bitter old man of 80 years old.


‘Stop! Wrong! We have to continue along the Appel Kai.’ It would have been better if the Master of History had given Oskar Potiorek some other lines on 28 June 1914.

Next week: Paul von Hindenburg

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

003 Count Leopold von Berchtold and the stick to hit Serbia

Count Leopold von Berchtold

Count Leopold von Berchtold

Austria-Hungary wants war

It is Sunday 12 July 1914, the third week after the shooting in Sarajevo.

Demonstrations in Northern Ireland seem to foreshadow civil war.

French president Raymond Poincaré and his prime minister René Viviani who has recently taken offfice set sail for Russia on battleship France for a most friendly state visit.

The French senate is trying to tackle the backlog in weaponry.

Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill has his navy standing by.

King George V of Great Britain proceeds to inspect 260 Royal Navy ships.

On the Berlin Exchange prices of Canadian Pacific Railway shares are rocketing.

Hungarian prime minister István Tisza resigns himself to a tough way of dealing with Serbia.

According to an Austro-Hungarian report the Serbs are drafting their reservists.

 In Sofia Austro-Hungarian diplomats try to set Bulgaria against Serbia.

The Vienna government decides to give Serbia an ultimatum, prompted by Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Count Leopold von Berchtold.

In the July crisis of 1914, which drags on for over a month after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Count Leopold von Berchtold und Ugarschitz, Fratting und Pullitz plays a crucial role. Has the Foreign Minister been egged on by the war party in his country? Is he conscious of the dangers of a punitive expedition against Serbia? The ultimatum which is finally given to Serbia is indeed signed by Berchtold. Thus the Sarajevo fire is fanned into a world-wide inferno.

The charming Berchtold is of high aristocratic descent. His ancestry is rooted in Tirol. In 1859 a biography with the catching title ‘Der Menschenfreund’ is dedicated to an earlier Count Leopold von Berchtold. With German, Czech, Slovak and Hungarian blood flowing through his veins young Count Leopold von Berchtold represents the multicultural Danube monarchy itself. He has a sophisticated taste. His heart rather  seems to go out to the arts, literature and horse racing than to politics. Although he seemed to be a career diplomat, he made it to ambassador in St Petersburg because of the fact that he was one of the richest men in the empire. In his Russian period he is a true advocate of a relaxed relationship with the tsarist empire, but he lacks the understanding which is needed to take the sting out of the conflict in July 1914. That sting is embodied by the German-Slavic differences.

Under the responsibility of Berchtold, who is easily frightened, things in the Balkans derail in the summer of 1914. Even though Russia is not committed by treaty to come to the rescue of Serbia in case of war, yet the small kingdom in the Balkans can feel supported by its big Slavic brother. Berchtold is bound to realize that, still he is convinced that he can force the Serbs on their knees without the help of the Russians. On top of this he was warned in February 1913 by the German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg that things might escalate in the Balkans. ‘According to me it would be an error with extremely grave consequences if we rushed into a solution with violence’. After all, France supports Russia, too.

In order to truly understand the rivalry between Russia and Austria-Hungary we need to go back to September 1908. The scene of the action is Buchlau castle, in the present-day Czech republic. Lord of the castle is Count Leopold von Berchtold. In all secret he receives the foreign ministers of Russia and Austria-Hungary, Alois Lexa von Aerenthal and Alexander Izvolski. The Austrian Aerenthal is the cunning one. He worms the promise out of Izvolski that Russia will let the Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina pass. In exchange Aerenthal promises to support Russia’s claim to gain access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea via the Dardanelles, without changing the status of Constantinople. This has been the ultimate desire of the Russians for centuries, free passage to the world seas.

In the margin of the talks which are completed without any reports, thereby allowing various interpretations, Aerenthal also leaves space in the Balkans for expansion of Serbia and Montenegro, in case these two small states accept the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Vienna loses no time. The day after Bulgaria has officially declared itself independent of the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary annexes Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Vienna this is merely seen as formalizing what had been laid down in 1878 in the Treaty of Berlin. As of that year Austria-Hungary was to govern the Ottoman province.

Grabbing Bosnia and Herzegovina leads to international tensions thirty years later. The indignation is especially noticeable in neighbouring Serbia. This self-confident  kingdom sees the road to the Adriatic Sea  blocked by the annexation. It mobilizes its troops and turns to its big brother Russia for help. Russia, however, gives priority to its own agenda in the spirit of Buchlau, which means free passage from the Black Sea via the Aegean to the Mediterranean. Poor Izvolski. His ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with Aerenthal turns out to be soft as butter. Austria-Hungary leaves the Russians out in the cold in the international playing-ground. Especially the British secretly value barbaric Russia to be deprived of hot water.

Germany is the only country that has not openly declared to be against the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In that sense the Bosnian crisis of 1908 with its Germanic bond of brothers resembles a dress rehearsal of WWI. But first two smaller wars will have to be fought in the Balkans in 1912 and 1913.

In the First Balkan War the Ottoman Empire, known as the ‘sick man of Europe’, will have to face a League of Balkan States, consisting of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece. The Turks are defeated and have to withdraw from Europe, but afterwards the victorious Balkan states are left divided about Macedonia. In the ensuing confusion the Ottomans manage to retaliate. Remarkably, however, Serbia appears to have taken a much stronger position on the map when the fog has lifted. The recently created state of Albania may have closed the road to the Adriatic sea for the Serbians, the contours of a South Slavic state in the Balkans are clearly taking shape.

This is quite a setback for Count Leopold von Berchtold, the new Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister. Berchtold finds it difficult anyhow to follow in Aerenthal’s footsteps. His cunning predecessor, in whom emperor Franz Joseph had put a blind trust, died in 1912.

In the heart of Europe the Slavs are rattling the doors of Austria-Hungary. Among other things Berchtold has to cope with pro-Russian sentiments among Ukrainian speaking Ruthenians. In June 1914 he writes to the Austrian prime minister Karl von Stürgkh. ‘I am not exaggerating when I say that our relations with Russia, which are so very important, will in future be determined by the question if we succeed in preventing Russification of the Ruthenians.’ But that’s where Berchtold is wrong. The Russian danger is to come from the Serbian corner that very same month.

On 28 June 1914 Serbian terrorists even dare to eliminate the Habsburg descendant to the throne. Berchtold appeared rather hesitant at earlier crises in the Balkans, but he knows that he cannot let the Serbians get away with it this time. Within the many-headed decision making structures of the Habsburg monarchy Berchtold had a powerful ally in Franz Ferdinand. His assassination is the perfect opportunity to avert the Serbian threat. By analogy with the Italian unification this small kingdom is quickly growing into the ‘Piedmont of the South Slavs’.

Besides Berchtold feels hawks like Conrad von Hötzendorf, chief of the general staff of the army, breathing down his neck. Von Hötzendorf would gladly have invaded Serbia the day after the assassination. But there are also moderates, particularly count Tisza, prime minister of Hungary. Tisza warns the old emperor Franz Joseph for the collision course Berchtold is taking. But on14 July Tisza, too, eventually agrees with the ultimatum that Berchtold will present to the Serbians nine days later. This ultimatum is preceded by a free hand of the German emperor. On its way to Belgrade Vienna is finally supported by Berlin.

The list of ten demands presented by Austria-Hungary in Belgrade should be read as an ostentatious attempt to create a ‘casus belli’, an act to justify war. Before the strict deadline of two periods of twenty-four hours has expired, Serbia gives in. The answer to the ultimatum carries an appendix containing the results of the police investigation of the assassination in Sarajevo. The answer to this ultimatum is truly a diplomatic tour de force. Belgrade humbly promises to stop making hostile statements to the address of Austria-Hungary. To that end it is willing to work together with Vienna. The smuggle of weapons and explosives between Serbia and Austria-Hungary will also be ended.

There is, however, one condition that Serbia cannot accept as a sovereign state. The condition dictated by Austria-Hungary to look in Serbia itself for the conspirators behind the assassination. This downright violation of Belgrade’s own jurisdiction is the stick Berchtold has found to hit Serbia with. Vienna declares war on Belgrade on 28 July with disastrous consequences. The attempt to compromise of the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey is too late.

To many this declaration of war comes like a bolt from the blue. Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was already a month ago. Europe had passed to the order of the day. In France in July for example the front pages carried many stories about the court case against one Henriette Caillaux. She is the wife of the minister of finance, Joseph Caillaux, who got into political trouble as a result of articles published in Le Figaro. Henriette revenged her husband in March 1914 by shooting Gaston Calmette, the editor of that newspaper, in cold blood. She stands trial mid July. That dominates the news in France. And certainly not the outbreak of a war that might cover the entire world.


Berchtold does not survive the war politically. Already in January 1915 count Tisza convinces emperor Franz Joseph that his minister of foreign affairs is but a feeble-minded character. He has not succeeded in getting Italy to side with Austria. To that purpose Rome has made the necessary territorial demands to Vienna. Initially Berchtold braces himself against concessions in the Trentino, but German pressure makes him reconsider. In order to evade a war with Italy, he advises his colleagues also to give up parts of the Albanian coastline. Both Tisza and chief of staff Conrad von Hötzendorf do not want to know about this.

Berchtold disappears from the centre of power, the Ballhausplatz in Vienna, into the background. In 1916 he is appointed Obersthofmeister  at the court in Vienna. Later he is allowed to advise the new emperor Karl as Oberstkämmerer. In 1942 Berchtold dies in Hungary at the age of 79. The man who walking around with his eyes shut took up the shovel to dig the first mass grave of the First World War is himself buried in the family tomb at Buchlau.

Next week Sir Edward Grey

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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