Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Assassination of the Archduke

Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World

Greg King and Sue Woolmans

St. Martin's Press



In the Shadow of the Throne

Far away from the glamour of a snowbound Vienna, a thin, pale young man with watery blue eyes was enjoying his own pleasures as 1889 began. From his suite of ornate rooms in Prague's Hradschin Castle, he would join the men of his 102nd Bohemian Infantry Regiment at their dinners, the local officials at their fussy receptions, and the obsequious aristocrats in their rococo ballrooms. He hated the fawning attention and the constant scrutiny that came from his position as an Austrian archduke, nephew of Emperor Franz Josef, but there was no escape. Noble birth had trapped Franz Ferdinand in this gilded cage of privilege and duty.
He was twenty-five now, with light brown hair parted neatly down the middle and a dashing, thin little cavalry mustache, yet Franz Ferdinand had never outgrown the aura of fragile delicacy inherited from his late mother. Archduke Karl Ludwig, his father, was strong enough, with the same watery eyes and a robust, determined face cloaked in drooping, muttonchop whiskers. He was invariably polite; courteous, knowledgeable, and refined, he had, said one lady, "none of the Habsburg arrogance."1 Pleasantries, however, couldn't disguise reality. Karl Ludwig had few interests beyond religion and the arts and sciences. After a brief stint as governor-general of the Tyrol, he stumbled through military and political duties with disinterest until he could retire into private life.
Karl Ludwig's delicate first wife, Princess Margaretha of Saxony, had died in 1858 after two years of marriage. Bride No. 2 came in 1862; this was Princess Maria Annunciata, daughter of the late King Ferdinand II of Naples and the Two Sicilies, a man known as "La Bomba" after having his rebellious subjects shelled into submission. Nineteen at the time, dark-haired, willowy, she had none of her father's fiery passion and proved to be as delicate as the late Margaretha. Within a year, doctors diagnosed tuberculosis. Her weak lungs forced the couple to Graz, where it was hoped the mountain air would revive her fragile health.
"Graz is pleasant," the archduke thought; "it has the benefits of a larger city without the disadvantages."2 Here, in the rented Palais Khuenburg, the couple awaited the birth of their first child. It was a quarter past seven on the morning of December 18, 1863, when the child arrived. The archbishop of Seckau christened the boy that afternoon. Karl Ludwig's mother, Sophie, watched as godfather and great-grandfather Archduke Franz Karl announced the names: Franz Ferdinand Karl Ludwig Josef Maria. The first honored the boy's late Austrian grandfather, Emperor Franz I; the second, his infamous maternal grandfather, King Ferdinand II of Naples and the Two Sicilies.3
More children followed: Otto, in 1865; Ferdinand Karl, in 1868; and Margarethe Sophie in 1870. Franz Ferdinand's childhood was undemanding and comfortable. The family spent winters in a lavish Viennese palace, spring and fall at some remote hunting lodge, and idyllic summers at Schloss Artstetten, some seventy miles west of Vienna near the famous Benedictine Abbey of Melk in the Danube Valley.4 One thing was missing, though. Increasingly ill and exhausted, Maria Annunciata was a mere phantom in her children's lives. Fearing that she would infect her sons and daughter, she forbade them to touch her, kiss her, or even spend time with her. A virtual stranger within her own house, she lived in isolation, growing weaker with the passing years until death finally overtook her in May 1871 at the age of twenty-eight.5
Franz Ferdinand was just seven when his mother died. It was not entirely unexpected, but undoubtedly he missed and mourned her; everyone agreed that the young archduke was a curious child, withdrawn, quiet, and introspective, though whether this stemmed from his mother's death is a mystery. Luckily for Franz Ferdinand and his siblings, a new and altogether steadier influence soon arrived in the household. Twice widowed and with four children to bring up, Karl Ludwig waited just two years before marrying a third time, in July 1873. His new bride, Maria Theresa, was the daughter of the exiled King Miguel I of Portugal. Where Maria Annunciata had been frail and morose, Maria Theresa was robust, lively, and beautiful, with dark hair and sparkling eyes that made her one of the loveliest of European princesses.6 Not quite eighteen, she was nearly twenty years younger than her husband. Karl Ludwig had been a devoted, patient, and loving husband to his first two wives, but with Maria Theresa—at least according to rumor—something changed. Perhaps it was the difference in their ages, or the fact that young officers did not conceal their admiring glances at court, but the archduke allegedly went from sympathetic husband to stern martinet, tormenting his wife and generally making her life miserable.7
Whether or not the stories were true, Maria Theresa did have a dramatic impact on her new family. She never differentiated between her two daughters with Karl Ludwig, Archduchesses Maria Annunciata, born in 1876, and Elisabeth, born in 1878, and her four stepchildren. Just eight years older than Franz Ferdinand, Maria Theresa gave him and his siblings something that they had never known: a mother. For the first time there was maternal love and affection.8 To Franz Ferdinand, she was simply "Mama," and he was her "Franzi."
The young Franz Ferdinand needed the attention. From birth he had been delicate and uncertain, and early impressions were not always favorable. "Franzi was in a bad mood," noted his uncle Emperor Franz Josef on meeting the three-year-old in 1866, "but he speaks rather well."9 Everyone noticed how introverted he seemed, how distant Franz Ferdinand was even with his own siblings. Ferdinand Karl and his sisters were too young to be true companions, and even though he was younger, Otto overshadowed him. Otto rode better than his older brother, excelled at their fencing lessons, and was vivacious where Franz Ferdinand was reticent. Otto loved noise, while Franz Ferdinand preferred solitary pursuits: long walks, lonely rides in a donkey cart, reading, and afternoons playing alone with his pet rabbits.10 Hunting became his favorite passion. He spent hours alone in the forest, watching and waiting for a chance to test his skill. At the age of nine he made his first kill, inaugurating what would become a remarkable record of wild trophies. "I can imagine how pleased you are!" his cousin Crown Prince Rudolf wrote.11
Nor did education draw Franz Ferdinand out of his shell. Like many other princes, he was isolated in a castle schoolroom and lectured by tutors, deprived of any chance to meet other boys and subjected to a rigorous regime that lasted from morning until afternoon six days a week with only a few scattered holidays. Count Ferdinand Degenfeld, an unimaginative former army officer, supervised lessons in a curriculum heavy with arithmetic, German, grammar, sciences, geography, history, literature, and religion.12
It isn't surprising that an archduke in the conservatively Catholic Habsburg family received a reliably conservative education, where reactionary views were advanced and contrary opinions were suppressed. Such concerns shaped Professor Onno Klopp's bigoted and myopic history lectures. Liberal policies, the dangers of modern thought, and dire warnings about a growing Prussian menace threatening the divine mission of the Habsburg monarchy formed the hallmark of these lessons. Klopp was so worried that contrary ideas might influence his pupil that he even literally rewrote the young archduke's history books himself to remove unwanted and pernicious political notions.13
Religious instruction reinforced these notions. Gottfried Marschall, a priest attached to Karl Ludwig's household, provided lessons in Catholic history and church dogma. Although often described as a man of liberal inclinations, Marschall was a deeply conservative man whose lectures emphasized the young archduke's future religious duties as a Catholic Habsburg.14 Franz Ferdinand made his task easier: Even as a young boy he was unusually pious, fascinated by church rituals and standing for hours in the shadows of palace chapels to soak up the atmosphere of intoxicating mysticism.15 Personal devotion and Marschall's lectures left their mark. For Franz Ferdinand, there was little soul-searching when it came to religion; his Catholic faith settled great issues of philosophical concern, and he saw no reason to question the dogmas and wisdom of the Church. Yet he was also largely free of religious intolerance. Too many people, Franz Ferdinand thought, were insincere in their faith. Those who practiced their religion with obvious piety always won his admiration. "After all, that's what counts," he once commented. "Whether they are Christians or Muslims is of much less importance."16
German was the first language for any Habsburg archduke, but there were also lessons in French, English, Czech, and Magyar. Most of these efforts failed with Franz Ferdinand. "His lack of any talent for languages was peculiar," thought one government minister. He mastered French reasonably well, but English remained elusive and uncertain. At times he seemed proficient only to then stumble and awkwardly search for words. The extremely difficult Magyar language fared worst of all. Franz Ferdinand took lessons in the Hungarian tongue his entire life but never gained any real fluency.17
Gymnastics, riding, swimming, fencing, and dancing lessons filled the afternoons; at night, Karl Ludwig taught art history and asked inventors, writers, poets, musicians, and scientists to offer informative lectures.18 There were later lessons in military history, naval maneuvers, architecture, and engineering; future Austrian prime minister Max Vladimir Beck taught civil and constitutional law.19 Nothing had been neglected, but the overall effect was mixed. Education left Franz Ferdinand a well-rounded young man, with a passing knowledge in many topics but a true understanding in few. He despised arithmetic and literature, enjoyed history, and above all adored his brief studies of architecture.20 Tutors routinely complained that he seemed backward, lacked focus, and spent his days brooding rather than concentrating on his lessons.21 Perhaps some of the blame lay with the rather unimaginative system itself, but no one would mistake Franz Ferdinand for an academic. His days were so full of competing lectures that "everything was pell-mell." As a result, he had "learned everything and knew nothing."22
Franz Ferdinand's destiny seemed inevitably mapped out from birth: education, a career in the military, and perhaps some ceremonial duties on behalf of the emperor. There was little chance that he would ever come to the throne. After all, his uncle Franz Josef was still alive; his cousin Crown Prince Rudolf was still unmarried and would undoubtedly wed a suitable consort and produce heirs; and his own father, Karl Ludwig, came before him in the imperial succession. Franz Ferdinand's education hadn't even envisioned the possibility. His life would be pleasant, comfortable, and devoted to enhancing the prestige of the Habsburg dynasty, with few opportunities to explore personal interests or carve out any path that diverged too far from tradition.
An unexpected opportunity did come his way when he was twelve. The exiled Duke Franz V of Modena, archduke of Austria-Este, died without heirs. In his five-hundred-page will, the duke left all of his considerable fortune and numerous estates to whichever male Habsburg would couple the Este title to his own and continue the line. Since his son was so far down the line of succession, Karl Ludwig thought that the change of name wouldn't matter and offered up Franz Ferdinand as heir. The young archduke wasn't happy about appending "Este" to his title, though it seemed a mere inconvenience at the time. It was, after all, an Italian title, and he shared his stepmother's prejudices against the country that had so recently unified at the expense of Habsburg territories. Later, he openly resented the title of Archduke of Austria-Este, feeling that the Italian title somehow singled him out as something of a foreigner among the Habsburgs. Of more immediate concern was another provision: To receive the inheritance, Franz Ferdinand had to gain a working knowledge of Italian within a year. Being a poor linguist, he struggled through the lessons, gathering just enough Italian to satisfy the demands of the will when quizzed by executors.23
The young Franz Ferdinand was now, at least in theory, one of the wealthiest archdukes. The Este inheritance included the famous Renaissance Villa d'Este near Rome, the sixteenth-century Castello del Catajo near Padua, the Modena Palais in Vienna, the estate of Chlumetz in Bohemia, and other properties, along with a vast collection of arms, armor, and artistic treasures.24 It seemed promising, but Franz Ferdinand later discovered how provisions in the will tied his hands. There were undeniable assets, but they were outweighed by financial obligations. Nothing could be sold, and annual legacies to Este relatives, pensions for retired servants, and the upkeep of the various estates exceeded any income he received.25
The military at least offered a reward at the end of Franz Ferdinand's formal education. In 1878, when the emperor made his nephew an honorary lieutenant in an infantry regiment, Franz Ferdinand was overjoyed. Honorary promotions and army commissions finally brought tangible results in 1883 when he was promoted to lieutenant of the 4th Emperor Ferdinand Dragoon Cavalry Regiment stationed at Enns.26 "I am an officer body and soul," he proudly declared. "To my mind, that profession is the noblest and highest in the world." He now set about carving out what was, for an archduke, the only acceptable career.27
Entry into the army marked a significant turn for the previously sheltered archduke. Franz Ferdinand was cautious in everything he did. It was a lesson he had been taught since birth: As a prince, he stood apart from others, who would seek his favor and flatter him into indiscreet friendships for their own gain. He must be friendly but not familiar, honest but guarded. Everything he did reflected on the dynasty's dignity; mistakes and minor lapses in judgment permitted to ordinary officers were, for a Habsburg archduke, deemed grievous sins against the emperor.
By temperament and inclination, Franz Ferdinand wasn't the kind of jovial, carefree young man who could quickly win friends and easily slip into unfamiliar social situations. Though he did well in the army, he seemed aloof and intolerant. Fellow officers put his shyness down to conceit, his sense of inadequacy to disdain. Having had few opportunities to interact with others, Franz Ferdinand had never learned to disguise his feelings; bursts of temper that might have been laughed off at home seemed truly frightening to those expecting an agreeable Habsburg. The archduke hated pretense and never tried to win over his comrades. It was to become a common complaint. Franz Ferdinand lacked the one thing most prized in Austria: charm.
The young archduke joined comrades in boisterous dinners and drinking games but couldn't quite abandon his natural reticence. Yet he was not without opportunities for indulgence. Franz Ferdinand wasn't particularly handsome; he was too thin, with prominent ears and heavily lidded eyes that made it seem as if he was on the verge of waking or going to sleep. Young, privileged, and for the first time unencumbered by minders, he faced an unfamiliar world that brimmed with temptations—which his younger brother Otto had proved himself particularly adept at enjoying.
Otto had always been flamboyantly hedonistic. Where Franz Ferdinand was reserved and quiet, Otto was all jocularity, once signing a postcard of a sailor to his brother, "Oh la la from the sailor!"28 People called him "Handsome Otto," and the attention went to his head. He had a wild sadistic streak, and his "conduct was the town's talk."29 There were always stories, perhaps of questionable veracity, about Otto. He supposedly deprived animals of water for days, then allowed them to drink to excess and die in agony, or strapped naked soldiers to hot stoves and watched as their skin blistered. Gossip even held that Otto had once accidentally killed a military cadet by forcing brandy down his throat until he died of alcohol poisoning.30
Franz Ferdinand never succumbed to such depravities, though it would have been unusual had he not sown a few wild oats. He danced, drank, and hunted with his brother and his fellow officers. Along with public escapades went private encounters of a more intimate nature. Franz Ferdinand once expressed great admiration for the rather dubious physical charms of actress Mizzi Caspar, a woman who had shared his cousin Rudolf 's bed, and some discreet singer or dancer likely introduced him to the mysteries of sex.31
On July 2, 1885, a woman named Mary Jonke gave birth to a son called Heinrich. She claimed that Franz Ferdinand was the father and in April of the following year tried to sue the archduke in a local district court. After some negotiations, Franz Ferdinand agreed to pay her some 15,000 gulden (approximately $150,000 in 2013 dollars) to end all further claims. On August 29, 1889, Marie Hahn, a twenty-one-year-old clerk in a Prague clothing shop, gave birth to a son she named Kurt. Like Jonke, she insisted that Franz Ferdinand was the father. A courtier examined her claim and advised Hahn that if she tried to take her case to court she would lose; Habsburg money bought her silence.32
A Habsburg fathering illegitimate children was scarcely scandalous: even Emperor Franz Josef had done so. Neither of the allegations about Franz Ferdinand was ever proved. Perhaps the women did indeed have liaisons with the archduke, but whether the charges were true or not, Franz Ferdinand could not risk the scandal of being sued in court for paternity.33 Still, rumors of wild escapades reinforced negative stereotypes about him in Vienna. Somewhat surprisingly in light of his own increasingly sordid reputation, Franz Ferdinand's cousin Rudolf now came to the rescue. The crown prince knew only too well how gossip spread through the imperial court and shaped opinion. As out of touch as Franz Josef often was, he always seemed to know the latest family scandals and could, as Rudolf had learned, be blistering in his indictments. Hoping to save his cousin from a similar fate, Rudolf warned Franz Ferdinand against spending too much time away from his regiment and indulging in pleasure. He should "enjoy [his] health in full, but always in moderation and with intelligence."34 The archduke should "not go riding and hunting too early," which would turn the emperor against him.35 At times even Franz Ferdinand protested. "You must admit that Otto and I are treated unfairly," he complained to Rudolf in 1888. "If we are seen at some hunts or go to a few lousy dances, there's right off a cry of indignation across Vienna at all Court and army circles over our shirking our duty."36
More warnings came from Archduke Albrecht, the elderly disciplinarian in charge of the empire's army. Albrecht heartily disliked Rudolf and was convinced that nothing good could come of Franz Ferdinand's association with him. Rudolf constantly complained about "the trouble and unpleasantness that I have to go through with him"; if Franz Ferdinand didn't watch out he, too, would face similar interfering admonitions.37 Not that Franz Ferdinand had to do anything of note to bring about one of Albrecht's insulting letters. Albrecht complained that Franz Ferdinand was too reserved with some elderly gentlemen; Albrecht complained that Franz Ferdinand was too friendly with young women.38 It didn't matter what the archduke did, it always seemed to be wrong. Franz Ferdinand tried to ignore it all, content to carry on with his pleasant, ordered routine for the foreseeable future.
That future abruptly changed on the morning of January 30, 1889. Repeated knocks on Crown Prince Rudolf 's locked bedroom door at his hunting lodge of Mayerling went unanswered. No one wanted to cause a scene: Rudolf was there with his latest mistress, the young and insipid Baroness Mary Vetsera. At last, after hours of continued silence, a worried servant smashed through the door. Vetsera lay on the mattress, a single red rose clutched in her cold hands and a gaping wound in her head; hanging over the other side of a bed whose white sheets were mottled an ugly crimson sprawled Rudolf, blood trickling from his mouth, and the top of his skull blown away. He had killed her first in a suicide pact, sat with the body for hours, and finally put a bullet through his own brain.39
Mayerling was sickly melodrama, a real-life scene from some bad romance novel; most unforgivably, it was exceedingly bourgeois. The suicide of the Catholic Habsburg crown prince sent the imperial court into a panic. Rumors, lies, and increasingly wild tales circulated in efforts to conceal an unpleasant truth that Vienna was eventually forced to admit. In death Rudolf had his final revenge against the intransigent father who had denied him any role and never tolerated the slightest hint of change. It was not merely an act of desperation and depression but also an expression of his thwarted ambitions. Before shooting himself, Rudolf had written letters explaining his actions—to his mother, to his wife, to his sister, but not a single line to his distant father.40
People were shocked, but perhaps no one was as stunned as was Franz Ferdinand when he tore open the urgent telegram early that afternoon.41 He left for Vienna and walked through the cold, miserable streets behind his cousin's funeral cortege, aware with each step that his life had forever changed. A few years earlier, Rudolf had pointed to him and joked, "The man walking towards us will become Emperor of Austria."42 It had seemed absurd, but now Rudolf was dead; the late crown prince's daughter Elisabeth only inherited if there were no eligible male Habsburgs. Only his father, Karl Ludwig, stood between Franz Ferdinand and the throne.
For all of his dissolution, Rudolf had been a popular figure, given to lively displays and known for his liberal tendencies. People knew little about Franz Ferdinand. There were unfavorable comparisons not just to Rudolf but also to his popular, if debauched, brother Otto. To most of Vienna, Franz Ferdinand was "grave, strict, and almost gloomy-looking"; gossip held that he was a narrow-minded conservative and religious bigot, someone whose time on the throne would signal ominous things for all of Austria-Hungary.43
The ordeal of meeting the emperor followed the ordeal of the funeral. Grieving the loss of his son, Franz Josef had to face facts and receive the man who, in the wake of tragedy, would take his place. Uncle and nephew had never been close, and they never understood each other. Franz Josef was conservative and traditional. So, too—at least in these years—was Franz Ferdinand, but the uncle suspected otherwise. He believed that his nephew secretly harbored dangerous liberal ideas; it was an irrational fear, based on nothing more than unsavory rumors and Franz Ferdinand's friendship with the late, unfortunate Rudolf. Never able to overcome his personal prejudices, the emperor simply transferred his disappointment from the deceased Rudolf to the living Franz Ferdinand. Yet, ever the bastion of tradition, Franz Josef bowed to fate. Karl Ludwig was, after all, nearly sixty, and while he might outlive his elder brother by a few years, he would undoubtedly have a short reign. It was inevitable that Franz Ferdinand would one day—perhaps one day soon—come to the throne. There were even rumors that Karl Ludwig tried to extricate himself from the succession only to have the emperor refuse, so doubtful was Franz Josef about his nephew's political inclinations and temperament.44
The meeting between uncle and nephew was brief and uncomfortable, and Franz Ferdinand was left with the distinct impression that the emperor somehow blamed him for Rudolf 's suicide. "It's as if this stupidity of Mayerling was my fault," he supposedly complained after the meeting. "I have never been treated so coldly before. It seems that the mere sight of me awakens unpleasant memories." Franz Ferdinand had expected to be made heir presumptive in theory if not in name, but Franz Josef refused to do so. It was as if acknowledging that the nephew now stood in his dead son's place was too great a concession, too painful a wound. "I shall never know," Franz Ferdinand said, "whether I'm Heir or not."45
Franz Josef was left unimpressed. Throughout the meeting, he complained, his nephew had "looked very pale and seemed to be suffering from a chronic cough." Franz Ferdinand didn't inspire confidence. "I don't think much of him," Franz Josef confessed. "One can't compare him with Rudolf. He is very different."46 Just how different the two young men were no one could yet say. Time would reveal Franz Ferdinand's strengths and weaknesses, yet more than blood would tie the two cousins together: Both of Franz Josef's ill-fated heirs prematurely fell victim to bullets.

Copyright © 2013 by Greg King and Sue Woolmans
Foreword copyright © 2013 by Sophie Von Hohenberg