list of the causes of the First World War invariably includes the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While researching my trilogy of novels – Shattered Crowns – following the lives of the royalties from 1913 to the Treaty of Versailles, however, it became increasingly apparent that rather than being an unfortunate event which sparked the war, the Archduke’s murder was probably deliberately staged in order to provoke the conflict, and ultimately to destroy the three most powerful autocracies in Europe: Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Apart from the effect of his assassination, Archduke Franz Ferdinand appears largely as a footnote in history but, looking more deeply into his life, several interesting facts come to light. While his short temper and morganatic marriage to a lady-in-waiting are often cited as reasons why he appeared so unpopular in Vienna, it is clear that his forward-looking views were the real reason why he was hated and feared by the most powerful ministers. At the time, Austria-Hungary comprised many different ethnic groups, several of which resented being ruled from Vienna. Unlike many of his contemporaries in the Austrian Court, Franz Ferdinand was well-travelled and had taken the opportunity to study alternative forms of government. It was his intention, on becoming Emperor, to give greater autonomy to each of the different groups and, while maintaining the royal traditions, to created a sort of Federal Austria-Hungary similar to that of the United States, but with an emperor rather than a president. He was also eager to maintain peace in Europe by forming stronger ties with Russia and, only a week before his murder, he was paid an informal visit by Kaiser Wilhelm who agreed to this plan, which was totally at odds with the views of many senior ministers – and bankers and industrialists! - who were desperately seeking an excuse to invade Serbia, which would almost inevitably lead to war with Russia. It was also widely known that Franz Ferdinand had already drawn up lists of ministers who would replace the present incumbents and he had stated that he would refuse to be crowned King of Hungary until a fair system of suffrage was implemented.
Naturally, the possibility of his becoming emperor gave rise to a good deal of anxiety among the ministers and that anxiety was surely heightened in the winter of 1913-1914 when his aged Great Uncle Emperor Franz Josef suffered a serious and potentially fatal bout of bronchitis. It was during this time that the Archduke received an invitation to review the troops in Sarajevo, Bosnia (a territory annexed by Austria in 1908) the following June, and to add an extra incentive, the invitation was extended to his wife who, until then, had been frequently humiliated and snubbed due to her lowly origins. This was the Archduke’s first opportunity to attend an official public engagement with his beloved Sophie and by coincidence or design it was set to take place on their 14th wedding anniversary. The date – June 28th – also coincided with a Serbian National Holiday so the arrival of the heir to the Austrian throne would almost certainly arouse antipathy among the Serbs. In the days leading up to the visit, Franz Ferdinand stated many times that he suspected that he was about to be murdered, probably by Freemasons. Nonetheless, he and Sophie travelled to Sarajevo and received a warm welcome from the crowds until an unsuccessful assassination attempt disrupted the planned visit. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie decided to visit the wounded in hospital before leaving the city, but, strangely considering the tension in the city and the possibility of further attacks, they were again driven in an open-car with no armed escort or military presence, allowing Gavrilo Princip to step out from the edge of the road and fire point-blank at his victims.
The discontent, which Franz Ferdinand’s and the Kaiser’s plans would have prevented, was exacerbated by the horrors of the war. Within a few years, the three major autocracies were destroyed and access to the Russian oilfields, the ‘grain basket’ of the Ukraine, the thriving German chemical industry and the economies of Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary was available to foreign industrialists and bankers.
This is but the tip of a very murky iceberg, which I have sought to uncover in my Shattered Crowns trilogy of novels, based on actual historical events. The first two books of the trilogy: The Scapegoats (1913-1914) and The Sacrifice (1914-1917) are currently available in paperback and Kindle formats. The third book, The Betrayal, is coming soon...
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Christina Croft is a writer and speaker who lives in the north of England. Learn more about her and her works at Hilliard & Croft, Shattered Crowns: Queen Victoria & Other 19th Century Royalties and Grand Duchess Elizabeth And Other Stories.