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Romance And Tragedy
on August 20, 2013
Most histories of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 focus on the politics behind it and the catastrophic world war which resulted from it. Franz Ferdinand himself is usually brushed off with a reference to his being heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and sometimes the fact that he had married morganatically (unequally) and that his wife Sophie was also killed that day is mentioned. But who were Franz Ferdinand and Sophie? Most of the time they are brushed aside, as if the only important thing about them is that they were assassinated. Greg King and Sue Woolmans have given us an excellent dual biography of the Austrian Archduke and his Bohemian wife that lets us see them as real people: a man and woman from different backgrounds who met, fell in love, got married despite enormous difficulties, and had a happy family life with their three children until they were murdered on their 14th wedding anniversary.
Franz Ferdinand originally had very little chance of ever becoming famous. He was the nephew of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary, one of several dozen Hapsburg Archdukes. He was sickly as a child and eventually developed tuberculosis. Intelligent but shy and distrustful of others, it was difficult for him to mix in society or form close friendships. When the Emperor's son Crown Prince Rudolf committed suicide in 1889 Franz Ferdinand was forced into a more prominent role, one which neither he nor his uncle cared for, and perforce found himself expected to marry and have children who would one day rule the Empire. While half heartedly going about the business of choosing one or another dreary Princess or Archduchess to be his wife Franz Ferdinand met Countess Sophie Chotek, a handsome woman with a quick mind and sparkling personality. She was his ideal partner a Cinderella to his Prince Charming, but her family was not considered good enough for a Hapsburg to marry. After long negotiations Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were allowed to marry with the stipulation that Sophie would never be Empress and their children would have no right to succeed to the throne.
Franz Ferdinand and Sophie's married life was happy despite a long list of aggravations and petty humiliations visited upon them by the Hapsburg court. She was not allowed to sit near her husband or even attend official functions, and every foreign visit and important occasion was a nightmare of protocol. She and her husband put up with it all, and they doted on their three charming children. Franz Ferdinand spent much of his time making plans for his succession to the throne. He realized that Austria-Hungary would have to undergo major reforms if it was to survive, and he understood that the increasing tension between the European powers was likely to explode into catastrophic war unless something was done to cool things down. Ironically, the trip he and Sophie made to Bosnia in June 1914 was undertaken partly in order to relieve some of the tensions there.
King and Woolmans have done a masterful job of recreating the lives of the Archduke and his Countess. I enjoyed reading about their early lives and the mutiple hoops through which they had to jump before finally being allowed to marry. The details of their fateful trip to Sarajevo were familiar to me, but King and Woolmans have added some human touches, like Sophie's stroking the cheek of a little girl who had given her a bouquet, that I had not read before. In some ways I found the final chapters, which tell what happened to Franz Ferdinand and Sophie's children, the most fascinating. Sophie, Max, and Ernst were orphaned on June 28, but at first their parents left them well provided for. War and revolution decimated their inheritance, and Max and Ernst ended up in Nazi concentration camps for a time in the 1930s. Managing to survive despite these difficulties, the three quietly lived out their lives with dignity, doing everything they could to honor their parents' memories.
This is a highly readable, sympathetic account of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie's lives. Their descendants collaborated with King and Woolmans to help them produce this book, which does much to counter the popular image of Franz Ferdinand as a humorless martinet and Sophie as a scheming nobody determined to become Empress. We will never know what might have happened had Franz Ferdinand and Sophie not gone to Sarajevo that day in June, 1914, but this book allows us to wonder whether the former Austria-Hungary, Europe, and the world might be better places now if that heavyset, awkward, but intelligent Archduke and his just as intelligent commoner wife had lived to rule a century ago.