Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World — reviewed by Jim Gallen


The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World
by Greg King and Sue Woolmans
St. Martin's Press, 2013


The Assassination of the Archduke tells the history of the first family tragedy of World War I, affecting as it did both the family of nations and the family of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The family story is complicated. Franz Ferdinand was not born heir to the throne. He reached it through a series of misfortunes. The Emperor's son Rudolph, the heir, embarrassed the Imperial Family by committing suicide after murdering his mistress. That made Franz Ferdinand's father, brother of the Emperor, heir presumptive until his death in 1896, at which time the title of heir was assumed by Franz Ferdinand.

Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were star-crossed lovers who made their own way to their tragic end. As merely a countess and lady-in-waiting, Sophie was an unsuitable match for an heir to the Habsburg throne. Although the Emperor reluctantly gave his permission for a morganatic marriage, in which neither Sophie nor their children would hold royal titles, he and his court never lost an opportunity to enforce distinctions in rank between the lovers. Besides the problems of his marriage, Franz Ferdinand's relatively liberal political views made him an outsider among the Empire's ruling elite.


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Franz Ferdinand's position as inspector general of the army brought him to observe maneuvers near Sarajevo. His plans to make a low-key trip without a visit to the city were foiled by the insistence of Oskar Potiorek, governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the orders of the Emperor. All of the warnings were ignored. St. Vitus Day, 28 June, the Serb national holiday commemorating the 1389 Battle of Kosovo when the Turkish army reduced Serbia to vassal status in the Ottoman Empire, was a likely occasion for a demonstration by Black Hand Serbian nationalists.

Pamphlets denouncing the visit were circulated in advance. Leaving the train station, the motorcade passed several assassins along the route. The first threw a bomb that exploded under the following car. While speeding to the Town Hall the royal party passed three other assassins. At the Town Hall reception the Archduke expressed outrage over the bombing. Deciding to visit victims of the morning's bombing, the party headed toward the hospital. A wrong turn took them past the leader of the assassins, Gavrilo Princip, who fired one shot each into Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. Both were pronounced dead at the governor's residence.

Fanciful Depiction of the Assassination from Le Petit Journal

The authors point out that the assassination need not have ignited the firestorm that it did. Franz Joseph did not seem overly disturbed by the assassination of his troublesome nephew. The murder actually provided the opportunity Austria had been seeking to put the Serbs in their place. Kaiser Wilhelm advised Franz Joseph to deal with Serbia before any other powers could get involved. Ultimatums and responses flew back and forth between Vienna and Belgrade while Serbia consulted Russia. Within a month Europe was mobilizing and in its death waltz of war.

It is a multifaceted story. The art of authors Greg King and Sue Woolmans is to weave the threads into a tapestry that tells the tales: the story of a loving family pressed on all sides by an intolerant court, the intrigue of the Austrian courtiers, the plots of the Serbian nationalists, and the falling dominoes of the entangling alliances. The authors also raise questions that remain unanswered and, perhaps, unanswerable. Was the royal couple set up by their own monarch and court? Was the Serbian government involved in the plot? How would the empire and the world have been different had Franz Ferdinand lived longer, or if Franz Joseph had died sooner? We will never know, but readers of The Assassination of the Archduke will have a better grasp of what happened, some understanding of why it all happened, and, in the end, a sense of tragedy in which history is more moving than the finest fiction.

Jim Gallen

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