Recently I have spent time chasing and following various hyperlinks on Wikipedia whilst reading around the topic of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This murder was, of course, one of the most important incidents of the 20th century: it sparked the chain of events that led to the outbreak of the First World War. However, despite mentioning it in the classroom (principally due to the A-level module Democracy & Dictatorship – Germany in the first half of the century) I didn’t know much about it beyond what I had read in general books over the past twenty years. So, Wikipedia became – as it has done many times before – a saviour of sorts.

Whilst reading into the assassination I became interested in the family history of the Habsburgs during this period. This long and distinguished family ruled central Europe for centuries, and in the classroom I’ve covered the early modern era of this family (such as Charles V and his large chin), but didn’t know much beyond the 17th century. My basic grasp of the Habsburgs by the time of 1914 was that there was an old emperor on the throne and that the murder of his heir threw the Austrian-Hungarian empire – and the blood-line – into chaos and ultimate ruin. But there appears to be further drama in the decades leading up to 1914.

Franz Joseph became emperor of the Austrian empire in 1848 at the age of eighteen; he ruled until 1916 during the middle of the First World War, thereby cementing himself as one of the longest serving monarchs in history. This very long reign oversaw vast changes: the empire’s character changed due to being kicked out of Germanic affairs by the rising might of the Prussians (which I’ve covered in a post in the War World Cup series), and by the increasing demands of nationalist movements. Although a peaceful accommodation was made with Hungary in 1867 in the form of the transformation of the Dual Monarchy (creating Austria-Hungary), these nationalist movements plagued the empire and ultimately led it to ruin in the form of the outbreak of the First World War (more on which below).

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Emperor Franz Josef of Austria

Clearly, Franz Joseph was a reactionary who wanted to stem the tide of modernisation and new political ideas. However, I’ve found more interest in his personal life due to the sequence of personal tragedies. In the 1860s his brother – Maximilian -briefly ruled as emperor of Mexico, before being eventually arrested and executed by a competing Mexican government. Then, in 1889, his son and heir – Crown Prince Rudolf – engaged in a suicide pact with his lover (in the “Mayerling incident”), and a decade later Franz Joseph’s wife – the beautifully long-haired Empress Elisabeth – was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist.

So, even before the turn of the 20th century, Franz Joseph and the Habsburg family had become accustomed to pain and death. A letter from the period describes the emperor:

It was pitiful to look at the Emperor, he showed a great deal of energy in his immense pain, but at times one could see all the immensity of his grief.

Although husband and wife appear to have had a rocky relationship, Franz Joseph is said to have never fully recovered the murder. Furthermore, the suicide of Prince Rudolf created dynastic issues. The throne initially passed Franz Joseph’s younger brother; however, Archduke Karl Ludwig died in 1896. This led to the heir becoming Karl Ludwig’s eldest son: Franz Ferdinand. But the emperor and the heir did not have a strong bond and the relationship was fractured due to Franz Ferdinand going against his uncle’s wishes in marrying Sophie Chotek; Chotek was deemed to be far below the rank of a suitable dynastic match. Despite the marriage going ahead, Franz Jospeh made it clear that Franz Ferdinand’s wife was not equal to other royals: she was not provided her share of titles or prestige, and even greater was the barring of any children to inheritance of the Habsburg domains.

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Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek

The context of the relationship between emperor and heir throws the events of the summer of 1914 into a different light. Previously, one could have simply assumed that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand threw the emperor into despair and anguish, leading to his insistence on war in order to obtain justice for a beloved heir. However, it is clear that Franz Ferdinand was not beloved at all; Franz Joseph reputedly commented on the assassination:

For me, it is a relief from a great worry.

Therefore, we must look at other reasons to understand the entrance of Austria-Hungary into a wider war. Although Franz Ferdinand was not personally liked, he was an important symbol as the heir to the throne: his murder was a useful pretext for the invasion and annexation of Serbia into the wider empire. And then, as we all know, the chain of events then brought everyone else in due the web of alliances: Russia supported Serbia, Germany supported Austria-Hungary, France supported Russia, and Britain supported France. But it appears that Franz Joseph acted out of principle rather than out of love or out of pain.

Franz Joseph died in 1916 during the First World War, and the throne passed to another Habsburg: the younger Charles. Despite attempts to find a honourable peace during the year of 1917, Charles eventually accepted defeat and its heavy implications for the empire; American president Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points”outlined Austria-Hungary’s future: the dissolution of the empire, and in its place the coming of smaller, nationalist, democratic governments. 1918 saw the end of the empire and the end of the significant political influence of the Habsburg family.

austrian hungarian empire

So, how am I to bring this into the A-level module that focuses on the years 1918-1945 in Germany? Well, due to time constraints the simply answer is: I won’t be able to! However, a scan of these hyperlinks has provided me with greater colour and context of this period in history, and I am considering teaching the events of 1914 in a different light. Perhaps from a personal angle of Franz Ferdinand himself rather than relegating him into a simple fact or event. The fact that the Archduke married out of love adds a greater emotional element to their murders in Sarajevo in 1914; Franz Ferdinand is reported pleading to his wife: “Sophie! Sophie! Don’t die! Stay alive for our children!”

What is not in doubt is the interest of the Habsburgs of this era: a mixture of personal tragedy and decline of imperial power adds a greater weight of feeling of end of days. Hopefully the adding of a greater personal touch will help students understand the political issues of this period and the reasons for the madness of 1914 that led to the outbreak of war.