on 16 October 2013
We've all heard of Archduke Franz Ferdinand whose assassination sparked the First World War. But I for one knew little about him personally.
The assassination, and the politics surrounding it, are condensed into a few chapters. The book is really the story of Franz Ferdinand and his happy marriage to Sophie, who died alongside him that June day in Sarajevo one hundred years ago. But what a fascinating tale it all makes.
Not born to be Emperor, this reserved and shy man found himself suddenly heir to the Austro-Hungarian crown upon the suicide of his cousin the Crown Prince. Franz married Sophie for love. She was aristocratic but, crucially, not royal. The Archduke and his Countess endured years of slights and snubs from the imperial family in Vienna. The couple's children were barred from the succession. So strained was Franz's relationship with the old Emperor, his uncle, that the Archduke's children only met Franz Josef twice in their lives.
But Franz Ferdinand had ideas for Austria-Hungary which may have prevented the Empire's extinction after the Great War. Following a visit to the USA, he considered re modelling the crumbling Behemoth on federal lines.
King and Woolmans have written a very readable book, with useful family trees and dramatis personnae. My only slight criticism is that the fairytale motif was a little overused - the repeated comparisons between Franz and Sophie's love story and the Cinderella fable came to jar after a while. But otherwise, a great book. Thought-provoking too: I always remember my school history teacher asking 'what would have happened if Gavrilo Princip had missed?'
2014 marks the 100 year anniversary of the fatal shots that not only ended the life of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, but precipitated the First World War. That their assassination caused the war is common knowledge. What this timely and highly readable publication from Greg King does is fill in the details of what happened on that momentous day and puts human faces to the political and historical figures who were involved. Most historical accounts focus primarily on the assassination itself and its consequences, but this one gives equal weight to the personal tragedy, and thus becomes a gripping human drama.
The book is divided loosely into two halves. The first concentrates on Franz Ferdinand himself, as heir to the Hapsburg throne, but also as devoted husband and loving father and family man. The second describes the background to the assassination, the dreadful events of the day itself and the aftermath, examining en route the many conspiracy theories that have since been propounded, and looking in detail at both the facts and also rumours that continue to surround the murder. Greg King goes on to report the fate of the couple's 3 children, who were just 13, 12 and 10 when they lost their parents and whose own lives were blighted by their deaths. From castles and royal courts, to concentration camps and battlefields, this is biography and historical writing at its best. A moving picture of the end of an era, it draws on a variety of sources, including letters, diaries and archives, access to many of which has been restricted until now. This is a vivid and totally compelling account of a pivotal event in 20th century history.
I received this as an e-galley from Netgalley and very much missed not seeing the illustrations that will accompany the final version, but no doubt these will be as illuminating as the text. All in all I can't recommend this book strongly enough, a book that is thoroughly researched enough for any serious student of history but also of enormous interest to the more casual reader. No reader will surely remain unmoved by the story of the Archduke and his wife, the fate of whom is surely almost as tragic as that of the Romanovs, whose heart-breaking end seems to have eclipsed that of Franz Ferdinand and his Sophie in the popular imagination. Greg King has now redressed that balance.
In school we all (or at least most of us) learned that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the spark that exploded into World War I, but did we ever wonder who Franz Ferdinand was and what role he played in the life of Austria-Hungary? If you ever asked yourself those questions "The Assassination of the Archduke" is the place to look for answers.
I turns out that Franz Ferdinand was the heir presumptive to the throne occupied by his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph. Sophie was his morganatic wife, one of unequal rank whose children would not inherit their father's titles. Together the raised a loving family constrained and, ultimately destroyed, but the world in which they lived.
This book tells two stories. The first is the disparaging treatment of the family by the members of the Habsburg Court. Being of inferior rank, Sophie was not permitted to enter events with her husband or even sit next to him. The emperor even declined permission for the couple to share a box in a theatre in which there was no royal box. At official dinners Franz Ferdinand would be among the first to enter and would sit near the head of the table. Sophie, if she was even invited, would usually be the last to enter and would be seated at the end of the table. One incident was mentioned in which the couple was very excited because someone of lower social standing enabled Sophie to be the second last to enter the room. Even in death, Franzi's casket was larger and higher than Sophie's. Their children were not permitted to attend the funeral Mass for the royals, only being allowed to visit their parents' coffins after the invited guests had left the chapel.
The second story is that of the assassination itself. The readers become acquainted with Franz Ferdinand's reluctance to visit Sarajevo and Sophie's insistence on accompanying him. The saga then winds through the plotters' preparations, the alleged involvement of the Serbian government and couple's itinerary, culminating in the fatal shooting by Gavrilo Princip.
The last chapters of this work deal with the chain of events set off by the assassination that set the world on fire. The Austrian ultimatums, the Serbian responses, the signals sent by allies in Berlin and St. Petersburg and the motivations of the players are all analyzed. Did Franz Joseph insist on the trip to rid himself and his empire of an embarrassing marriage in the Royal Family and an heir who was seen as too liberal, too willing to change the structure that held the Realm together? Did the Serbian government encourage the assassins in the hopes of creating a disturbance that could lead to Serbian advantage?
We know the rest of the story for Europe, but what happened to the orphans of the featured couple? That is the subject of the epilogue. Their status would vary with the changing winds of politics. They got no benefits from being Habsburgs, but their property was confiscated along with that of the Imperial family. The sons, Maximilian and Ernst would long support the restoration of the monarchy, a position that would get them confined in Nazi concentration camps. After release they would die at fairly young ages while their sister, Sophie, would live as the defender of her parents until her death in 1990. The fates of the conspirators are described. Time would change how the events of Sarajevo would be remembered. The principals involved would alternate on top and bottom as wrestlers in a match. Princip would mutate from hero to villain while Franz and Sophie would change from oppressors to honored heroes.
The dramatis personae are introduced and developed. Franz Ferdinand is depicted as a man of his rarified world who has the vision to look outside it and pluck its sweetest rose while preparing for the day when he could adapt the realm to the world of the then new 20th century. The accounts of his hunting records are amazing. Sophie is seen as intelligent woman who knew the place for herself and her children while quietly working to improve it. I am impressed by how they both knew how far to press and when to stop. Emperor Franz Joseph is depicted as an elderly monarch constrained by the blinders of tradition and devoid of compassion for those around him. Archduke Karl, who would come to idolize Franz Joseph and succeed as the last Austrian Emperor, is shown as a somewhat enlightened character who tragically comes to power as that power was slipping away. There are villains also. The Prince of Montenuovo as master of the court left no stone unturned in making life miserable for Franz Ferdinand and his family. Prince Rudolph, Franz Joseph's son and heir is recorded as having murdered his mistress before committing suicide, as scandal among the Habsburg defenders of the Church.
Authors Greg King and Sue Wollmans do an excellent job at weaving a personal story into historic events. The writing style never dampens the readers' interest. I fell that I got less about the lead up to the war than I expected but much more about the personalities involved so I am glad that I read it. It is the first of millions of family tragedies associated with World War I. The one thing that gives me some reservation about this book is the authors' association with the descendents of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. One wonders whether this resulting narrative too defensive and places them in an overly favorable light. Even with this in mind "The Assassination of the Archduke" is an important addition to what I am sure will become a flood of World War I books as we approach its Centennial.
on 1 October 2013
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie at Sarajevo in 1914 had momentous consequences. Just six weeks later the First World War broke out, leading to the downfall of several European dynasties as well as the deaths of millions of people. As the centenary of this event approaches it is a good time to take a closer look at the first two victims of this war, the Archduke and his wife.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand has previously come across as aloof, charmless and arrogant. In fact his childhood was blighted by the death of his mother and his youth by tuberculosis. He never expected to become heir to the Austro-Hungarian crown but the suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf and the death of his own father (after inadvisably drinking contaminated water from the River Jordan), thrust him into the spotlight. He seems never to have got on with the ageing Emperor Franz Joseph, a situation that was only exacerbated when Franz Ferdinand fell in love with Countess Sophie Chotek. Unfortunately, the letters between Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were destroyed by their son, nor did they keep regular diaries, but the authors have done a good job piecing together the story of their courtship.
Sophie, as a `mere' countess, was not sufficiently noble to marry an Archduke, and it took all the persuasion of Franz Ferdinand's stepmother Archduchess Maria Teresa before the old Emperor allowed them to marry morganatically. Sophie could never share her husband's rank and their children could never succeed to the throne.
Once married, Sophie found herself subjected to `pinpricks' from the Imperial Court, which were really more like stabs in the back, served up by Prince Montenuovo the Lord Chamberlain (although the Emperor, here far from the powerless figure usually portrayed, seems to have had little inclination to change Sophie's awkward situation). Sophie endured all the humiliations with good grace. It is heartening to see that members of foreign royal courts gave Sophie the respect she deserved, and also that towards the end of her life (perhaps wishing to ingratiate themselves with the man who would undoubtedly soon be Emperor) even members of the Austrian court softened.
Which brings us to Sarajevo. Franz Ferdinand did not want to go, but was forced to in the face of the Emperor's insistence. The villain here is Count Potiorek, the Governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who was determined that the visit would go ahead to bolster his own position. The authors chart the events leading to the assassination with scrupulous detail and reading their account it is difficult to believe that Potiorek could have been so incompetent in the face of all the warnings given about what would happen. The lack of security around the couple could only have been deliberate. Was it, as the authors postulate, a plot whereby the murder of the couple would be used as an excuse for Austria to settle old scores with Serbia, and did Russia know of the plan in advance?
Their children's suffering did not finish at Sarajevo. Although in Austria they were regarded as private individuals, in Bohemia they were seen as Habsburgs. When the war ended their estates were confiscated and they were evicted. They were condemned to lives of suffering, especially the two boys, who endured time in concentration camps which broke their health. Two of the Archduke's grandsons perished at the hands of the Soviets.
This is very much a personal, rather than a political, biography and the authors are to be congratulated on shedding a fresh perspective on a couple who, until now, have been mainly famous for their deaths, the repercussions of which are still with us today. This book shows what the couple were really like. And the illustrations are excellent.
on 11 February 2014
I really enjoyed this book. The fate of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is probably one of the most famous events in modern history, yet for most of us so little is known about him, his family, and the circumstances surrounding his death. While the tragedy of Czar Nicholas II and his family is well known and much has been written about it, the tragedy of Franz Ferdinand has been mostly ignored. This is unfortunate because had he lived and succeeded to the throne, there might never have been a WW1 and by extension, a WW2, a Soviet Union or Cold War. Franz Ferdinand was a forward looking man and his plans for the empire may have stabilized Europe and even Russia. The Romanovs were a dieing dynasty and not much could have saved them, but Franz Ferdinand may have changed history. And the fate of his family is no less a tragedy than that of the Romanovs. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were truly a love story and the children lost their entire world after the deaths of their parents. And the repercussions of their death continued to follow them their whole lives, just as it did for the rest of the world.
Was there a conspiracy to kill him in Serbia? According to the authors it seems the answer is yes and the Prime Minister knew it. Did it include Russia? Did the conspiracy reach all the way to Emperor Franz Joseph? The world may never know but it is certainly possible. The book is really fascinating and I would highly recommend it. Definitely worth five stars.
I am ashamed to say that, although I knew that the First World War was triggered by the assassination of ArchDuke Franz Ferdinand I knew absolutely nothing about him other than that he was the heir to the throne of AustroHungary and that his wife was killed with him in Sarajevo. When I had the opportunity to have a free copy of this book in exchange for a review I was interested in filling in the gaps in my knowledge. I am so pleased that I did, for this is a fascinating story, told well, which engaged me from the start.
The authors tell the tale of the ArchDuke and his quite horrible family and the strange events which led up to him being the heir of a man who greatly disliked him. They also bring the ArchDuke to life and show why he was regarded differently by the people who knew him in various roles. The ArchDuke's marriage is a very special love story and his wife, Sophie, had to live every day with the consequences of them stepping outside the bounds of tradition at the very conservative court. Just as we have come to know and understand the couple the authors lead us up to the assassination (this is not a spoiler, it's in the title !) and explain carefully the events of the day, the various conspiracy theories and why it was had such far reaching consequences. The political bits were easy enough to understand and there is a lot of interesting detail about the assassins and the actual events of the day.
What makes the book exceptional, however, is the attention to detail in what happened after the assassination. The couple's children are described as the first orphans of the war and the authors show how they were treated when they no longer had their parents to defend them. The story of what happened to their sons in the Second World War is very grim and demonstrates well the consequences of the choices which the ArchDuke made in his personal life as well as the assassination itself.
I found it very difficult to put this book down as I wanted to know what had happened to the people, but it is very much a history book and not a novel.The authors have referenced their material and are careful to explain where a fact or opinion is disputed. What this book achieves very well is putting life into an historical event - the assassination is not just a fact learned in history lessons but the death of a fascinating couple and the beginning of eventful times for all who knew them as well as the world at large.
on 9 April 2014
While most people know that the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914 was the spark that ignited the First World War, few know little or anything about the Archduke himself and the life he lived before that fateful day. As we approach the 100th anniversary of his murder this highly topical book by Greg King and Sue Woolmans provides an interesting and detailed account of the lives of Franz Ferdinand and his family and the role they played in pre-WW1 Europe during the last years of The Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The story begins in 1889 when the morally earnest, conservative and deeply religious Franz Ferdinand became the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Sometime In 1894 [the book makes clear no-one knows exactly when] he met and fell in love with his future wife, the Countess Sophie Chotek [although initially he was forbidden to marry her because she did not belong to one of the reigning or formerly reigning dynasties of Europe and was therefore considered too lowly]. However in 1899, after he had refused to marry anyone else, the Archduke's uncle, the Emperor Franz Joseph, relented and allowed the couple to marry but only on the condition that the marriage would be morganatic and that any children they had would not have succession rights to the throne. They wed on 1 July 1900 and would remain happily married until their deaths in June 1914.
Using the Austrian and the recently opened Czech and Hungarian archives, as well as various other sources such as diaries, letters, contemporary newspaper reports and interviews with their descendants, the authors piece together a comprehensive appraisal of the Archduke, his wife, their three children and the society they lived in. The account of the family's idyllic private life at their home, Konopiste Castle, located just outside of Prague, is particularly endearing. Yet, while the book deliberately paints a sympathetic portrait of Franz Ferdinand in order to "correct a century of misinformation and errors", it is justifiably scathing about the Imperial Court and it catalogues years of cruelty, spite and vindictiveness directed towards Sophie by officials, courtiers and the wider Imperial family - petty humiliations Franz and Sophie bore with dignity and fortitude during their time together and which, absurdly, even continued after their deaths.
However, this is so much more here than historical romance and when it comes to the assassination itself and the machinations behind it the authors consider how history has generally ignored the Serbian government's complicity in the murder of the couple and they illustrate how Serb officials either deliberately - or through sheer incompetence - enabled the crime to take place. They also look at a number of conspiracy theories that have been raised over the years. Finally, there's the sad fate of Franz and Sophie's three orphaned children, Sophie, Maximillian and Ernst who are the largely forgotten victims of their parents' murder. Their fate becomes all the more poignant when you consider Franz Ferdinand's famous dying words to his fatally wounded wife: "Sophie, don't die! Stay alive for our children".
I really enjoyed this book and thought it was a fantastic read. On a personal level it was a great antidote to the communist-era rubbish I was fed about the Archduke and his wife when I visited their former home at Konopiste a few years ago but there is probably something in here for everyone. The Assassination of the Archduke is one of those true stories that read like a novel and even if you've only a passing interest in history, it should be on your reading list for 2014. The world we live in today was born on 28th June 1914.
on 5 May 2016
More than anything else a trenchant commentary of the nigh unbelievable snobbishness of the aristocratic dynasty in Austria at the time. The archduke married into lesser aristocracy than his station in life demanded and was effectively ostracised. His assasination could easily have been avoided. As to whether this was the trigger for the First World War is debatable as the Austro-Hungarian Empire was already under a lot of stress and Prussia and Russia were already eyeing each other suspiciously.
on 11 January 2014
This very detailed and well written account of Archduke Franz Ferdinand's life and times throws a lot of light on one of history's most familiar names - everyone knows his name, most know very little about him. The circumstances of his assassination show it as truly tragic, something which should never have been allowed to happen, and those who allowed it to happen were never held to account, yet were responsible for the unutterably dreadful consequences. It's still enough to make you weep.
on 27 May 2016
Fascinating book very well researched and well crafted. The cast of characters we think we know so well and yet here they are finally inked in. The repercussions of the act are emotionally dealt with and brings us right up to date. Highly recommended.