Today it is easy to look back upon the years before 1914 with a kind of gauzy, romantic nostalgia. It seems a simpler time, when innovation enthralled and peace predominated. The truth, though, was somewhat different. All major powers had fought in at least one war since 1860, usually several, and the modern arms race had begun in earnest; incursion, revolution, revolt, and repression were rife. The fifty years preceding that golden summer of 1914 witnessed constant violence. Assassination was common: The sultan of Turkey was killed in 1876; American President Garfield and Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881; President Sadi Carnot of France in 1894; the shah of Persia in 1896; the prime minister of Spain in 1897; the empress of Austria in 1898; King Umberto of Italy in 1900; American President William McKinley in 1901; King Alexander and Queen Draga of Serbia in 1903; Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia in 1905; King Carlos of Portugal and his son Crown Prince Luis Felipe in 1908; Russian prime minister Peter Stolypin in 1911; and King George of Greece in 1913. Royalty and politicians alike fell in precipitous numbers to bombs, bullets, and knives in these “golden” years of peace. (Introduction, p. 21, iPad iBooks e-edition)
June 28, 2014 marks the centenary of the fateful assassination of Austrian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, Bosnia. This event, long considered to be the flash point that triggered the horrific violence of World War I, did not actually generate as much initial attention as the events that followed in July 1914. After all, tragic as the event was, it was for some at the time yet another assassination, one that removed a troublesome heir and this removal could potentially reap benefits for the Austrian crown. For others, with their deaths, the hope for a federalization of the Habsburg-Lorraine realms crashed with the report of Gavrilo Princip’s bullets. For most of the past century, historians have focused more on the events surrounding the assassination and on the social and political pressures present on the eve of the assassination than on the actual killing of the Archduke and his wife. In the wake of tens of millions dead, wounded, or displaced, those two initial deaths meant little more than just the beginning of this massive wave of deaths. But what is the story behind their arrival in Sarajevo? Is there something to be gleaned from their lives that would make their deaths worth considering in a context other than the beginning of a deluge of war-caused deaths?
In their 2013 book, The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World, Greg King and Sue Woolmans take a close look at the doomed couple, seeing in their controversial romance and marriage, as well as their deaths and its aftermath, the clash of an old and new Europe, a conflict destined to engulf millions. Theirs was a marriage of unequals, at least in the eyes of the Austrian court. The future heir to the Habsburg-Lorraine possessions, consorting with a minor Bohemian countess? Even though there had been some liberalization of attitudes during the 19th century, the marriage of a royal heir to a member of the lower nobility was considered to be scandalous. The aged Emperor Franz Joseph refused to recognize Countess Sophie as equal to his nephew and despite his and the court’s every attempt to split the couple, the court finally agreed to allow the two to marry, but only through what is known as a morganatic marriage, in which Sophie could not receive the traditional title’s of the royal Archduke’s consort and any children of hers would be barred from the line of succession. The litany of petty snubs and insults is strange to contemplate a century later:
This set the tone for the rules Montenuovo laid down governing Sophie’s life. As a morganatic spouse, she was excluded from nearly every privilege enjoyed by other Habsburg wives; on the rare occasions when concessions were made, they were done in such a way as to ensure that her unequal position was reinforced. Sophie was not allowed to appear with her husband in public. If he attended a race, opened a museum, toured a factory, or dedicated a school, she had to remain at home or linger in the distant shadows, unacknowledged. If an honor guard saluted Franz Ferdinand, she had to leave, for as a morganatic wife she was not entitled to receive the salutes meant for a Habsburg. If the national anthem greeted the archduke, she had to withdraw, as she was not a member of the imperial family. If officials made a formal welcoming address or presentation, she was not allowed to stand near her husband and give the impression that she in any way warranted official recognition. Franz Ferdinand was forbidden from ever mentioning his wife in any official speech. Sophie could not even accompany Franz Ferdinand to the races, for she was deemed unfit to share his place in the imperial box. (pp. 82-83, Ch. 5)
In several chapters, King and Woolmans juxtapose this ill-treatment with the Archduke’s fondness for his wife and young children. The Franz Ferdinand that they depict is a person of contrasts, a stern, aloof figure in public who was a loving husband and father in private. Utilizing several letters that the couple’s descendents lent to them, King and Woolmans make the case for the Archduke being, if not quite a liberal, someone who considered a federal model, based on that of the United States (which the Archduke had toured in the 1890s), as a possible solution for the growing radical nationalist organizations in various parts of the Dual Monarchy. He particularly saw the fissioning of Hungary into Magyar, Ruthenian, and South Slav constituencies as a way of lessening the power of the landed Hungarian nobility. (p. 130, Ch. 10)
Unfortunately, King and Woolmans do not devote much space to exploring the possibilities that these proposed policies could have had on future imperial politics, as this could have illustrated more strongly their thesis that the Archduke could have been a good ruler who might have staved off some of the nationalistic excesses that took place in 1918 and afterward. In addition, the relative lack of opposing sources to contest their portrayal of Franz Ferdinand makes it hard at times to contrast their rosy image of the assassinated heir with contemporary accounts of his demeanor and actions. Their use of the Archduke’s preserved communications with his wife and others is valuable, but at times it appears that they rely too much on them, risking a distorted image of Franz Ferdinand in their attempt to show him and his wife as tragic figures in the conflagration to come.
The events in Sarajevo in June 1914 are perhaps the most arresting of the book. The efforts the authors make in establishing the characters of the Archduke and his wife pay off in how the Archduke’s conflicts with his military staff and his taking advantage of a situation to have his wife travel openly with him in a public, official position led directly to their deaths on June 28, 1914. King and Woolmans also utilize recently-released records to show that there seem to be very strong connections between the Serbian nationalist group the Black Hand, Serbia, and through Serbia to Russia. The conspirators’ origins and planning are laid out in clear, concise fashion, with enough detail to make the reader curious to know more. This paragraph in particular is intriguing:
If Austria attacked Serbia, Artamanov assured Dimitrijević, “you are not going to be alone.” This is what Dimitrijević said he was told. Was this Russian sanction for the assassination? Or was it merely some vague diplomatic assurance that the Tsarist empire would stand by its Balkan ally? The answer depends on what Artamanov told St. Petersburg. A veil of plausible deniability cloaked everyone involved. Official Russian documents concerning the buildup to World War I were later falsified before publication or disappeared altogether. On balance, it is not unlikely that Dimitrijević told Artamanov of the plot. Nor is it unlikely that Artamanov shared this information with others. However, the murky connections and destruction of official papers makes it impossible to offer any definitive evidence on this critical question. (p. 165, Ch. 14)
King and Woolmans’ discussion of the immediate aftermath makes quite clear that the assassination was not necessarily viewed then as a casus belli:
Then suddenly the music ceased as word of the assassination spread. Many people, believing the worst about Franz Ferdinand, reacted with relief. “There was,” recalled Stefan Zweig, “no special shock or dismay to be seen on the faces of the crowd, for the Heir to the Throne had not by any means been popular.” Theatrical performances were canceled and shops closed to maintain the mood of mourning, but many Austrians almost welcomed the news. “The town takes it all very quietly,” noted Sir Maurice de Bunsen. “There is not a sign of emotion anywhere. They must be a very apathetic people.” In the Prater, one man saw “no mood of mourning” as the round of festivities continued. “God meant to be kind to Austria,” recorded famed diarist Josef Redlich, “by saving it from this Emperor.” In many political and official court circles, Eisenmenger said, word of the assassination “was received with ill-concealed satisfaction. They were relieved to be rid of so powerful and dangerous an opponent.” One courtier greeted the news with the simple “The ogre is dead.” (p. 188, Ch. 17)
The authors immediately contrast this seeming apathy in Vienna with violent street fights in Sarajevo, as Turks and Croatians carried black-ribboned mourning pictures of the Emperor and began looting the houses of Serbs, treating them all as complicit in the assassination. (p. 190) The investigation into the murders led to the arrests of most of the conspirators. Mounting evidence indicted that the Serbian government in some fashion either knew beforehand of the assassination attempt or they may have actively aided and abetted the conspirators. Although King and Woolmans make a compelling case for this, the paucity of discussion prior to the final few chapters serves more here to create an intruding discussion into the main narrative regarding the warm relationship between the Archduke and his wife. It is not an unwelcome intrusion, but nonetheless, it does feel foreign to the narrative they had established for the previous four-fifths of the book.
The Assassination of the Archduke is one of those historical books that contains a wealth of sources and footnotes, yet is more accessible for the general layperson who might not be familiar with current research. Certainly King and Woolmans do a good job in presenting a different side to the long-reviled Archduke, but there are times that they come across more as advocates for his defense than as historians writing a historical biography. Leaving this aside, this book is valuable not just for its portrayals of the doomed couple, but also for its cogent presentation in the concluding chapters of possible factors that led to the Austrian government using an ultimatum to Serbia, an ultimatum that was not met and one that led to the catastrophe of World War I. It may not be the best-argued and presented book on the Sarajevo assassination, but it certainly is one that adds to our collective understanding of the people who died there a century ago.