The Assassination of the Archduke

The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance that Changed the World - Greg King, Sue Woolmans

"Debris flew, windows shattered, and the crowd erupted in screams at the unexpected explosion," Sophie raised a hand to her neck where a splinter left its mark. Franz commanded the vehicle to stop, amidst the panic and mayhem in the streets, while spectators caught up with the assailant shouting, "I am a Serbian hero!" All was well again, they thought, and the motorcade proceeded to their destination. On the second lag of the motorcade's procession through the streets of Sarajevo, nineteen year old Gavrilo Princip readied his pistol.....eeny, meeny, miney, moe..., "where I aimed I do not know." Three shots. One pierced straight through Franz Ferdinand's plumed helmet, and as Sophie turned to him, registering the blood trickling down his mouth, she too contorted and slumped over. It was fourteen years to the day of their marriage, on June 28th, 1914 when the heir apparent to the Hapsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Este and his wife, Sophie Duchess of Hohenberg were murdered in what was clearly a choreographed but badly executed series of attacks, considered to have been the catalyst that ignited the First World War.

The scar of culpability was branded into the Serbian government like original sin, guilty by its blatant disregard of constant rumors of a murder conspiracy and its inexcusable neglect in taking measures for high level security for the royals. Joint conspiracies across nations were suspected, trying to account for the incredible ease in which the government was blindsided by a young homicidal group of amateurs; even the Archduke had premonitions of his death prior to this very visit, but allowed his fears to be allayed by those he trusted. So utterly tragic too, was the accidental death of Sophie, who took a bullet meant for the Archduke - her death a regrettable mistake her assassin later confessed.


In this year of the 100th anniversary of the Sarajevo murders, biographers Greg King and Sue Woolmans have given a different view of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek, concentrating on their romance by painting a sympathetic story of a fairy-tale couple, who, against the disdain of imperial convention, were determined to be together in life and death - a tale that Princess Sophie von Hohenberg ( Franz's and Sophie's great granddaughter ) acknowledges has been long-awaited and a righteous, justified impression.


Historically, the Archduke's character and actions have been highly unpopular among many in both Vienna's and Budapest's circles. An aristocrat through and through, he was arrogant, militaristic, an openly vocal anti-Semite, harbored an unveiled hatred for the Magyars, and accused of political tyranny. What he personified was a prosperous but antiquated empire, a monarch-in-waiting whose politics and ideology were often contradictory, who held tightly to the reins of imperious power while his public feared he would become an extension of Emperor Franz Josef's iron rule, positioned obscurely between corruption and barbarism.

King and Woolmans focused on the personal side of Franz Ferdinand who suffered frail health since childhood, often plagued by 'bad lungs'. He was introverted, studious, isolated as a youngster and very much overshadowed by his siblings. He grew to be an attentive father and family man; married for love, a devoted husband and profoundly loyal to his 'dear Soph'. Sophie's tale is heartbreaking, and of the two, hers is the more captivating, human and realistic. Although born into nobility herself, her family was not considered an equal of the likes of the Imperial Hapsburg House, judged thusly as an inferior, incomprehensible ill-match for the archduke. Imperial decree demanded that, in order to marry Sophie: Franz Ferdinand had to swear that any offspring would irrevocably have no right to succession.

"... the consequences are that the marriage cannot be regarded as one between equals, and that the children springing from it can never be regarded as rightful children, entitled to the rights of members of Our House." - Emperor Franz Josef.


Almost daily since their morganatic marriage, Sophie was made to endure unspeakable humiliation, regarded with contempt and suffered constant, horrendous treatment by the imperial court. How she kept control of her self-respect through all that aristocrap is evidence of her indomitable fortitude and more than equal worth.

Their Cinderella story survived the most strenuously unnerving of imperial prejudices in an increasing politically unstable period for the empire, albeit to an unhappy ending one fateful midsummer's day, in the seminal event that triggered the most horrifying domino-effect of sequences, sadly leaving Franz's and Sophie's three children orphaned, to endure the condemned world their murder precipitated. Franz's prophetic and determined words declared years prior had finally come true: "even death will not part us!"


Part history, part romance: this biography was an illuminating view of the other side of Franz Ferdinand - although after reading more on the period that led to the tryrannicide, I'm not totally convinced that his character and politics were completely faultless. However, peering into the personal lives of the first fatal victims of WWI through King's and Woolmans's well-constructed scope was quite an intriguing and worthwhile learning experience.