The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Murder That Changed the World by Greg King and Sue Woolmans

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The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Murder That Changed the World by Greg King and Sue Woolmans

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, and his wife Sophie, whose assassinations at Sarajevo in 1914 led to the outbreak of the First World War.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: September 2013
Publisher: Macmillan
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780230759572

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Possibly no assassination in history can have had such momentous consequences for the history of the world as that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, in June 1914. It was their killing which led directly to the outbreak of the First World War, just six weeks later.

Despite the title, this book does not deal solely with that single event. While much of it is focused on the events which led up to the fateful visit, the day itself and its immediate repercussions, it also serves as a first-rate biography of the couple and of their family more or less to the present.

At the centre of the book is Archduke Franz Ferdinand himself. The figure that has come down to us throughout history of an intolerant, bad-tempered reactionary whose reign as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary would have been a disaster for the dual monarchy is a superficial one, not to say inaccurate. The Archduke had his faults, to say nothing of his enemies at court, but as King and Woolmans show clearly, such a judgment does him scant justice. A clear picture is painted of the delicate, solitary, introverted youth left motherless at the age of seven. Like his mother he suffered from tuberculosis, although unlike her he evidently made a remarkable recovery, thanks to the ministrations of doctors and to his looking after himself properly. The gilded decay of the Habsburg court, presided over by his uncle Emperor Franz Joseph, is also portrayed well as a backdrop to his life.

He would have probably lived his life out as just another Austrian Archduke of senior military rank had it not been for the suicide of his cousin, the Emperor’s only son Rudolf. Franz Ferdinand’s father, Karl Ludwig, was never seen as a potential Emperor, and what slender chances there might have been of his succession to the throne died with him after he drank polluted water from the river Jordan on a visit to Palestine and died of typhoid. Franz Joseph never liked his nephew, now his immediate heir, and for some inexplicable reason preferred Franz Ferdinand’s debauched brother Otto, who was notorious throughout for his infidelity and scandalous behaviour. The distance between the ageing Emperor and his heir was exacerbated when the latter had the temerity to fall in love with a mere Countess and lady-in-waiting, Sophie, whom he insisted on marrying.

Thanks to the vindictive behaviour of court officials, most notoriously the vindictive chamberlain Count Montenuovo, every possible humiliation was heaped on the couple. Yet Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were and remained a devoted couple, supremely happy in their marriage and the best of parents to their daughter and two sons. A telling contrast is drawn between them and the legend of the happy family life in Russia of Nicholas and Alexandra and their five children – which was not the idyll that many a biographer has made it out to be. The placid, patient Sophie put up stoically with the insulting conduct they constantly had to endure, such as her being seated at different tables from the family at official functions, and did her best to persuade her furious husband that it did not really matter that much.

Patience received its due reward from certain quarters at least. On visits to the courts of Roumania, Germany and above all England, the couple were welcomed and always made an excellent impression on their hosts. Attitudes at court slowly softened towards them, although this was probably more from a realisation that Franz Ferdinand would surely be Emperor before long, and it would not do for officials to make an enemy of their next sovereign.

One of the most pleasing aspects of this excellent biography is the portrayal of Emperor Franz Joseph, that dry as dust patriarchal figure at the head of the empire as well as the family. The popular image of him is as the lonely man deprived of his wife, his closest brother in age and his son by violent or scandalous deaths, the automaton imprisoned by time-honoured protocol who did things a certain way because it had always been thus. This is partly true, but the authors suggest that he had the will and the power to be more flexible, particularly in his attitude to the Archduke and his morganatic wife, but for reasons of his own – possibly spite or jealousy – simply chose not to.

The first years of the twentieth century were a time of growing territorial unrest throughout Europe, exacerbated by Austria’s controversial annexation of the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which led some political observers to fear the outbreak of war. The main events and their significance are all fully featured and discussed.

I have read several other biographies of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, but none went into quite such meticulous detail on the planning of the journey to Sarajevo, the events of the day itself and the rather sordid aftermath, especially with regard to the treatment of the victims’ bodies. The authors are to be congratulated on having done their research so thoroughly. In particular, I was fascinated and yet horrified to read about the gross ineptitude and laissez-faire attitude towards the security arrangements, given that there had been ample warnings about what was likely to happen. Potiorek, the governor-general of Bosnia, was at the head of a long list of guilty men. On the other hand, the suspicion remains that the Archduke and the Princess (as Sophie had become) were deliberately sacrificed as part of a masterplan by which a vengeful Austria would settle old scores with Serbia, even if it meant risking a major European war and the dissolution of the empire in the process. Devil take the hindmost. Much as I look cynically at conspiracy theories in general, I make an exception in this case.

The story does not end there. We continue to follow the human element, in other words the fate of the orphaned children who were left behind. The two sons died in middle age, their health weakened by shocking experiences, including prisoner of war camps, during the Second World War. Like their elder sister, they also suffered under an astonishing list of petty humiliations from some of the surviving Habsburgs, simply because of their morganatic birth, while two grandsons perished at Soviet hands. This is in some ways a sad book, yet it is still a rich biography, written partly with input from the Archduke’s direct descendants and with a foreword by his great-granddaughter Sophie von Hohenberg. Above all, it is one that inspires genuine pity for and anger on behalf of its main subjects and their children.

At a time when the centenary of ‘the war to end wars’ is on the horizon, now is as good a time as any to recall the lives and deaths of its first two victims. This biography discharges that function to perfection.

For more on the war itself, The Beauty and the Sorrow: An intimate history of the first world war by Peter Englund

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