REVIEW: The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance that Changed the World (2013)

A book by Greg King and Sue Woolmans

As you may have noticed, I have been reading quite a few books on World War I this year, and the majority of them are somewhat strange in the way they gloss over what is quite possibly one of the most important moments of the entire thing – The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Perhaps it’s because the authors, seeped in what is likely years worth of research, assume that the average reader inherently knows everything about it, or that the death of the Austrian Heir-apparent is not as important as talking about battles, but I wanted to get a better reading of what exactly went down with this event. The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance that Changed the World by Greg King and Sue Woolmans sets out to fill in whatever gaps that they can using the archival documentation and personal letters that they could find. It seems a lot of the actual personal writings of Franz Ferdinand were lost to time, but they are confident that they have a good grasp of what was going on throughout his life.

“In the summer of 1914, three great empires dominated Europe: Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. Four years later all had vanished in the chaos of World War I. One event precipitated the conflict, and at its hear was a tragic love story. When Austrian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand married for love against the wishes of the emperor, he and his wife Sophie were humiliated and shunned, yet they remained devoted to each other and to their children. The two bullets fired in Sarajevo not only ended their love story, but also led to war and a century of conflict.

Set against a backdrop of glittering privilege, The Assassination of the Archduke combines royal history, touching romance, and political murder in a moving portrait of the end of an era. One hundred years after the event, it offers the startling truth behind the Sarajevo assassinations, including Serbian complicity and examines rumors of conspiracy and official negligence. Events in Sarajevo also doomed the couple’s children to lives of loss, exile, and the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, their plight echoing the horrors unleashed by their parents’ deaths. Challenging a century of myth, The Assassination of the Archduke resonates as a very human story of love destroyed by murder, revolution, and war.”

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The first half of this book is basically a rundown of the marriage of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Chotek, the Duchess of Hohenberg. If you are like me and find the discussion of monarchical traditions and the pretention of rich people insufferable, this section of the book is quite aggravating. Due to the fact that Franz Ferdinand was next in line for the throne and Sophie was merely a low-level duchess, treated as if a commoner in many ways, their union was a “morganatic marriage”. A “morganatic marriage”, according to Wikipedia, is “a marriage between people of unequal social rank, which in the context of royalty or other inherited title prevents the principal’s position or privileges being passed to the spouse, or any children born of the marriage.” This meant that everyone in the endlessly inbred and backwards Hapsburg Dynasty constantly treated Sophie like human garbage, passing rumors that she was trying to usurp the throne, sleeping with everyone, or worse. We saw a little bit of this sort of nonsense with the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle when a bunch of out-of-touch aristocrats started acting like their world was ending because a commoner was in their midst.

It seems that despite all the meddling and roadblocks, the marriage between the two was largely a happy one, with three children and most of the benefits that being such high standing brings to someone. Franz would test his standing in high society by pushing the limits of what he and his wife could and could not do as per the rules of their unspeakable marriage. Of course, a bunch of stuffy old aristocrats scoffed at some of the luxuries that his mere minor duchess of a wife got away with, but when it became increasingly evident that the throne was soon going to be his, many quieted down. For all we know this could have been self-preservation as being seen as openly hostile to the incoming emperor would likely not be a good look for anyone of interest in the empire. Franz Ferdinand was even pretty progressive in terms of how he looked at the relationship between the two halves of the dual monarchy and smaller nations that had been annexed including Serbia. It’s quite ironic that of all the people that Serbian nationalists targeted, it would be the one person that more than likely would have ensured their self-determination in face of mounting pressure to wage some sort of all-out war against them.

Gavrilo Princip

What follows is largely the main point of the book – The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. One of the main reasons I looked into this topic was that I have found that information on the Serbian Nationalists that committed the deed, The Black Hand, are pretty scant in English aside from reading something like a Wikipedia page or a vague mention in a broad World War I book. While this book did not go into great depth on them, it was more than sufficient and did a solid job of highlighting the different personalities and motivations of the small group of assassins that ultimately brought about the biggest change in our modern world. I thought it was quite interesting for the author to propose a series of conspiratorial items into the narrative.

For example, I had no idea that Franz Ferdinand was basically aware of his impending death long before it actually happened and sought either a cancellation or alteration to the plans for his visiting of Sarajevo for military exercises. The Emperor Franz Joseph seemed absolutely obsessed with sending him which begs the question: were high-ranking Austrian diplomats and aristocrats responsible for either ignoring the impending disaster or worse – actually plotting the death wholesale. While a lot of the evidence for this is circumstantial at best, even coincidental, it’s an interesting aside and is not the focus of the book. The author goes into great detail to discuss the fact that these are just ideas and not his overall thoughts on what happened.

Another remarkably interesting portion of this book for me was the epilogue due to it doing an excellent job of following up on what happened to various people after the assassination and even further on past the war. I feel that one of the more unspoken parts of history was what happened to the Hohenberg children after their parents were ripped from their lives. After being passed around to various relatives, the children became political pariahs due to an overwhelming misconception that Franz Ferdinand was in some way to blame for the start of the war due to circulating conspiracy theories that involved a supposed plan by the archduke to start a war with Serbia. This went on for a while until the start of World War II, by which time Adolf Hitler saw a threat to his power with the boys in particular. Trying to avoid the same sort of fate that their parents suffered, the boys turned themselves in and were put to work in Dachau Concentration Camp for the majority of the war. The treatment they endured and the conditions that they survived went on to shackle both to numerous health problems in middle age and is somewhat young death for Ernst in particular, who died at age of fifty. To this day there are still efforts to move ownership of some of the children’s properties into the name of the family after they were illegally seized by the Czechoslovakian government many years ago as retaliation for the war.

Overall, this was a very well-done book that had quite a bit of information that I had never heard despite the overwhelmingly large amount of World War I related material that I have been consuming as of late. I won’t pretend like the portion of the book about the rules of the Austria-Hungarian Empire In regard to marriage in nobility wasn’t infuriating in many ways, but it’s important to read about all of the nonsense that the couple went through to get a better understanding of where they ended up. Perhaps it was just an assassination by circumstance, perhaps any high-ranking Austrian leader would have been killed, but this book opens my eyes to an even darker plot that exists on the outsides of accepted historical narrative muddying the waters on what we think we might know of that fateful day over one hundred years ago. If you are like me and you feel that most books on World War I gloss over certain things such as the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, this might be a great idea for something to add to your library. I feel like I learned a lot reading this, and it gives me new ideas for information to seek out in the future.

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