Franz Ferdinand was the Austrian archduke of Austria-Este whose assassination in 1914 is generally considered to have begun World War I. He lived most of his life as a privileged nobleman before becoming involved in the politics of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, eventually incurring the disfavor of the Serbian nationalists who killed him. At the time of his death, he was heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Early Life and Royal Upbringing
Franz Ferdinand Karl Ludwig Joseph Maria was born on December 18, 1863, in Graz, Austria. His father was Archduke Karl Ludwig, brother of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, and his mother, Maria Annunziata, was a Sicilian princess linked to the Austrian throne by central Europe's then vital web of royal marriages. He had two younger brothers, Otto Franz and Ferdinand Karl, as well as a younger sister. His full name of Franz Ferdinand Karl Ludwig Joseph Maria reflected various facets of his ancestry. As Franz Ferdinand grew toward adulthood, he became third in line for the throne of what became, due to an 1868 agreement between Austria and Hungary, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ahead of him were his father, Karl Ludwig, and the emperor's own son, Rudolf.
Franz Ferdinand was by many accounts an unremarkable child, and the most significant event of his early years was his inheritance of a large fortune that came from a distant Italian cousin, Duke Francis V of Modena. The aging Italian nobleman had no direct heir, and he offered his vast riches to one of his young Austrian relatives on two conditions: that the young man take the noble title Duke of Este as part of his own name, and that he learn Italian. At age 12, Franz Ferdinand managed to obtain a shaky grasp of Italian from his coterie of private tutors, with two results: he was henceforth financially set for a life of leisure, and as an adult he would be officially known as the Archduke of Austria-Este.
With what seemed to be only a slight chance of becoming emperor, Franz Ferdinand as a young man lived a carefree life as a lieutenant in the Fourth Dragoons company of the monarchy's army (a dragoon was skilled as both a foot soldier and a cavalry fighter). He began seeing Mizzi Caspar, a well-known Austrian stage actress of the 1880s, and wrote letters describing her as wunderschön, (wondrously beautiful) with the word underlined three times. Even as a teen he had had a passion for hunting, and in his twenties he had the time and money to indulge it in fully. In the late 1880s he spent two years with a Hungarian regiment and got his first taste of the nationalistic passions that threatened the Austrian Empire's unity. "The officers spoke in Hungarian even in front of me," he wrote home to Vienna, as quoted by biographer Gordon Brook-Shepherd in Archduke of Sarajevo: The Romance and Tragedy of Franz Ferdinand of Austria, "and the simplest German question produced the answer ånem tudom' (åI don't understand'). Military terms were translated into long-winded Hungarian phrases. In short, throughout the regiment, not a word of that German language so detested by the Hussars."
World Tour and Romance
In 1889 the mentally unstable Prince Rudolf shot his 16-year-old mistress and then himself, bringing Franz Ferdinand a step closer to the throne. After his father renounced his own right of succession, Franz was regarded as the heir apparent. He was then sent on a round-the-world military inspection tour, beginning on the Austrian battleship Empress Elizabeth. Setting off from Trieste in December of 1892, he stopped in Egypt and modern-day Sri Lanka before sojourning in India. There, despite a limited command of English, he hobnobbed with British nobility and made a point of combining business with pleasure. During a seven-day tiger hunt (involving 1,793 men, 25 elephants, 148 horses, and 39 dogs), he shot his first tiger. "I cannot describe my joy," he wrote, according to Brook-Shepherd. The trip finally took Franz Ferdinand across the Pacific to Canada and the United States, a country he found drab and dispiriting.
In 1895 Franz Ferdinand's smooth path through the corridors of power was interrupted by love. At a dance in Prague he met Countess Sophie Chotek, a 27-year-old Czech woman from a family of long, noble background in Bohemia, but not, as custom required of a marriage within the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, descended from royalty. Fully aware of this, the pair saw each other in secret while maintaining a public image of innocent friendship as they played on the same side of the net in doubles tennis matches. Sophie was a lady-in-waiting (an aristocratic assistant to a noblewoman) in the retinue of the Archduchess Isabella in Teschen, now in the Polish province of Silesia. Isabella hoped that Franz Ferdinand would become enamored of one of her own unmarried daughters. Indeed, he often visited and seemed to be friendly with them.
The secret affair was exposed in spectacular fashion in 1898 when Franz Ferdinand left his pocket watch, an elaborate model that opened to reveal a photograph, on a tennis court at Isabella's residence. Isabella opened it, hoping to find a picture of one on her daughters, but instead she found Sophie's picture inside. The resulting scandal erupted in ramifications that went to the top of the Austro-Hungarian government. A group of ministers, with the approval of Emperor Franz Joseph himself, tried to talk Franz Ferdinand out of marrying Sophie, whereupon he announced that he was not only going to marry her but would also make her his empress when the time came. Among his few backers was the emperor's wife, Maria Theresia.
Because it involved the fragile legitimacy of Austro-Hungarian rule, the issue was loaded with political significance beyond pure custom: the empire was a patchwork of small fiefdoms, all with restive populations speaking more than a dozen different languages, and all with a greater or lesser degree of nationalistic sentiment. The compromise eventually reached, with the assistance of top leaders from within the empire as well the Vatican, the Russian Tsar, and the German Emperor, was that the marriage could proceed but would be "morganatic," meaning that Sophie and her children would have no claim upon the Austro-Hungarian throne or any of its royal privileges. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were married in 1900, but this did not end the controversy.
"The sumptuous setting of the couple's Vienna residence also needs to be borne in mind," noted Brook-Shepherd, "to appreciate to the full the pain inflicted by the famous protocol pin-pricks the couple had to suffer whenever they visited the capital." Sophie was not supposed to appear in public with her husband or ride in a carriage or car with him. Franz Ferdinand's personality, which tended to be sarcastic and standoffish, also worked against him, and the Emperor himself continued to give his nephew the cold shoulder. The Viennese began to refer to Franz Ferdinand as the loneliest man in the city, and he took refuge in hunting and gardening. Yet the love story of Franz Ferdinand and his "Sopherl" had its admirers. Some newspapers in the empire's more remote corners hailed the archduke as an independent man who could stand up to the stodgy old monarchy, and as the couple's three children grew, so did Sophie's reputation. She was given the rank of Duchess and began to appear more often at Franz Ferdinand's side--with ultimately fatal results.
Political Sphere and Assassination
As he neared the seat of power, Franz Ferdinand began to plunge into the Austro-Hungarian Empire's complex and perpetually crisis-ridden relationships with its satellite provinces. The government's Austrian and Hungarian halves experienced conflict, sometimes centered on Hungary's increasing repression of the ethnic minorities, including various South Slav groups, within its borders. Franz Ferdinand espoused a concept known as Trialism (as opposed to dualism), under which a confederation of groups in the Balkan region would form a third major power center in the empire, as a counterweight to Austria and Hungary. In general he favored stronger safeguards for the rights of the empire's many minorities, ultimately aiming toward a federal-style government that would replace the moribund central monarchy. These positions aroused the ire of hardliners in Vienna who argued for a tougher military stance against restive regions.
Franz Ferdinand's efforts to promote South Slavic influence cut two ways, however. The independent Balkan nation of Serbia also hoped to take its place at the head of a South Slavic confederation, and many nationalists in the Austro-Hungarian provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina were sympathetic to the Serbs. When Franz Ferdinand visited the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in June of 1914 for a military inspection, the ingredients for a tragedy were coming together. Top personnel in Serbia's intelligence agency dispatched members of a terrorist group, the Black Hand, to assassinate Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The Serbian prime minister tried unsuccessfully to thwart the plot.
By the time Franz Ferdinand and Sophie arrived by train in Sarajevo on Sunday morning, June 28, 1914, six Serbian assassins had lined the route of their motorcade from the train station to Sarajevo's city hall. The first two were unable to get a clear shot at Franz Ferdinand's open car through the crowds, but a third, Nedjelko Cabrinovic, hit the car with a hand grenade. Two people riding in the car were wounded, and after the official reception for Franz Ferdinand had ended, he asked to visit them in the hospital. The Austrian governor, Oskar Potiorek, advised Sophie to remain behind at the city hall, but she insisted on remaining at his side. Plans were hastily laid for a safer route, but Franz Ferdinand's driver became confused and lost his way. As he began to turn around, the car rolled slowly past one of the original group of six assassins, Gavrilo Princip.
He fired his gun several times, nearly at point-blank range, and a single bullet hit Franz Ferdinand in the neck and Sophie in the abdomen. Franz Ferdinand, hit in the jugular vein, knew he was dying. According to several accounts, his last words were "Sopherl! Sopherl! Sterbe nicht! Bleibe am Leben fËr unsere Kinder!" (Little Sophie! Little Sophie! Don't die! Stay alive for our children!). But both were dead within minutes. War flared between Serbia and Austria-Hungary in the aftermath of the shooting, and other countries that had been allied with one or the other, all armed and on hair-trigger status, were drawn into the conflict before diplomacy had a chance to work. The result was four years of total warfare over much of the world.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (1863-1914) is best known for the way his life ended: he was assassinated in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The cascade of events that followed plunged Europe and the world into the Great War, later known as World War I.
- Brook-Shepherd, Gordon, Archduke of Sarajevo: The Romance and Tragedy of Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Little, Brown, 1984.
- "Archduke Franz Ferdinand," Trenches on the Web, http://www.worldwar1.com/biohff.htm (December 19, 2008).
- "Franz Ferdinand," Spartacus Educational, http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWarchduke.htm (December 19, 2008).
- "The Making of an Archduke," http://www.austria-hungary.piczo.com/?cr=7 (December 19, 2008).
- "Who's Who: Archduke Franz Ferdinand," http://www.firstworldwar.com/bio/ferdinand.htm (December 19, 2008).