Review: The Assassination of the Archduke by Greg King and Sue Woolmans

assassination of archduke franz ferdinand by greg king and sue woolmans
The Assassination of the Archduke

The Assassination of the Archduke (Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance that changed the World) by Greg King and Sue Woolmans would be published by Pan Macillan in UK and St Martin's Press in USA on 26th-September-2013. A website has also been created for the book's release.

I remember clearly there were some chapters thrown in my history school textbook about World War I and how it got started by the assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand. Long years have passed since and it was only a matter of time before I started pushing my curiousity against matters of importance which happened almost 100 years ago. I have found dynasties confusing - the overflowing names, fancy titles, grandfather-father-son having the same names, and the incessant list of relatives, children, palaces and officers which unmistakably haze me if not presented along with a well drawn graphical chart. So when the book started with a Cast of Characters and Introduction, both of which had slippery names and non-existential background for me, I was left wondering whether to search for each name on the web and educate myself or to continue reading surrounded by the dark presence of ignorance. I decided on the former and wasn't disappointed for Greg King and Sue Woolmans, who diligently give an unperturbed historical background about: the Habsburg Dynasty (with family trees of the Habsburgs and the Hohenbergs), the fast-diminishing peace in the World and especially Europe, and the fragile situation that existed under the Austro-Hungarian Empire with Magyars, Serbs and southern Slavs. Their comparison of Countess Sophie Chotek with Cinderella and Franz Ferdinand with Prince Charming was delightful while keeping things simple in the Introduction. Sophie von Hohenberg, great-granddaughter of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek, has written the Foreword, which is a grim outline of the excruciating struggles the Hohenbergs and the descendants of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek have faced since the fateful Sarajevo visit of the archduke and Sophie on St. Vitus's Day (28th June, 1914).

Austria-Hungary Empire in 1910 (source: Wikipedia)
"For centuries Vienna had provided the Habsburg dynasty with a theatrical stage set from which to dominate Europe. They ruled from the Alps to the warm waters of the Mediterranean, from the sunshine of Trieste to the dark, mysterious forests of Transylvania, Bohemia, and the edges of imperial Russia". The authors start their book with setting up a historical context of the dynasty and the then existing finer aspects of relationships between uncles, aunts, cousins and children. Franz Josef I was the Emperor of Austria and “Apostolic King of Hungary; King of Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slovenia, Galicia, and Jerusalem; Archduke of Austria; Grand Duke of Tuscany, Krakow and Transylvania; Duke of Lothringia, Salzburg, and Bukovina”! Such glorious and never-ending titles these were. Franz Josef’s son Rudolf, a debauched serial philanderer, had blasted his own brains off with a revolver on 30th January, 1889 after killing her latest mistress, the young Baroness Mary Vetsera. Karl Ludwig, Franz Ferdinand’s father, gave up his right to accession and paved way for Franz Ferdinand to become the archduke, who would head the empire after Franz Josef’s death. The excessive formalities of royal families and their ways with living are no less intriguing. And it is hilarious to read how in the dead of a night Franz Josef scolded his doctor for not appearing in the customary tailcoat to treat him. 

Anthem of Austro-Hungarian Empire

Franz Josef was not too impressed with Franz Ferdinand and suspected him to be like his son Rudolf, harbouring dangerous ideas. The dynasty was not bereft of numerous sexual affairs, mistresses, venereal diseases, illegitimate children and depressed cousins and relatives. Franz Ferdinand lived a life of comfort and pleasures in his childhood and youth, which later led to two claims of paternity from his feminine encounters. Franz Ferdinand was also a skilled shooter and known for his passion towards game. He “shot 274, 889 animals in his life-time, although this does not include another thirteen moose he killed in Sweden”! Royals hunted animals for proving their masculinity and adeptness while annihilating innocent, harmless fauna. He was educated and made aware of various streams to gain a holistic understanding before he became an emperor; however he never went deep enough to master any of them.
Franz Ferdinand met Sophie Chotek, who worked as a lady-in-waiting for Archduke Friedrich’s wife, Isabella. “Choteks had been Bohemian barons since 1556, counts of Bohemia since 1723, and counts of the empire since 1745” and “occupied a prominent place among the country’s elite” but “the family had never been deemed equal for the purposes of marriage”. Love blossomed amongst the two and when news reached the emperor Franz Josef about Franz Ferdinand’s intentions of marrying Sophie, a Chotek, he immediately disapproved and thought of it as only a passing phase where his nephew was jailed in the charms of his new mistress. However, Franz Ferdinand persisted in his efforts and the emperor relented but only with the condition that “any marriage between Franz Ferdinand and Sophie would be a morganatic union that would recognize her unsuitability, ban her from membership in the imperial house, and bar nay potential children from the succession”. Franz Ferdinand agreed and so did Sophie, thinking, presumably, that life still would be much better together than being way. The reality of their lives which unfolded later, however, couldn’t have been harsher. The emperor was not only upset but also immensely worried that the morganatic descendants might lay claim to the monarchy and forever destroy the chances of the Habsburg lineage. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie started their lives happily with the joy of expectations brushing aside any blots of doubts. The Habsburgs, however, were not too welcoming. Every occasion was an opportunity for them to prove the ‘unworthy’ status of Sophie – from ballrooms, to plays, to luncheons, to guards and even, finally, much later, in death.

BBC documentary on the assassination

Franz Ferdinand was invited to oversee military maneuvers in Sarajevo and Sophie wanted to accompany him as they had an ominous feeling about being attacked during the trip. Oskar Potiorek, the Governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina, made callous preparations for the archduke and Sophie. The inevitable happened when Gavrilo Princip shot the couple from a distance of less than five feet. His other accomplices were Nedeljko Cabrinovic and Trifko Grabez and all of them had connections with Black Hand. “The two bullets fired that fateful Sunday morning had stripped the nearly thirteen-year-old Sophie, twelve-year-old Max, and ten-year-old Ernst of youthful innocence”, write the authors of the three children. The involvement of Serbian officials is obvious beyond doubt, but many other conspiracy theories remain unproven. The ensuing World War I engulfed Europe and the rest of the World. The ghastly wretched experiences weren’t to end yet. The rise of Hitler and the World War II resulted in Max and Ernst being forced in the concentration camps of Dachau and others; following Hitler’s instructions the “Hohenberg boys” were made to do latrine duty! The authors write, “using spoons, they were forced to clean out the fetid cesspits shared by hundreds of inmates; SS guards taunted them as they worked, hurling rocks into the pools to splash feces onto the brothers’ faces while laughingly calling them “Imperial Highnesses””! The heart wrenching stories of the three children and how they suffered make one’s eyes moist.

Rare video of Franz Josef from Wikipedia

The authors have included several rare correspondences, unearthed the personal histories, and even tracked the descendants who are currently spread out in various countries. They have been, however, to a great extent, prejudiced in favour of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. Franz is rarely, if at all, criticized for any of his decisions. Some of the points – because they are interpretations – can be debated endlessly. Why did Sophie accompany the archduke to Sarajevo? Many believe that it was because she was always treated as a commoner by the Habsburgs and whenever the opportunity presented itself to honour Sophie, the couple were overjoyed and never declined an opportunity. Greg and Sue point out that it was only because of her fear for his life in Sarajevo that she joined him. She already “had been received at the royal courts of Rumania, Berlin, and Great Britain”, so the appeal of being honoured by a few thousand Bosnians wouldn’t have been appealing.

The complexity of the empire, the ideological fights of Franz Ferdinand with Chief of General Staff Conrad von Hotzendorf, the intricacies of the power struggles involving the Romanovs, Kaiser and the rulers from England can’t possibly be captured in this review, but what lingers on is how the romance of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek changed their own destinies, and of their children and grandchildren forever. This is one of those rare books, when I was done reading, which made me feel sad that it came to an end. The vivid and exquisite descriptions of their lives by the authors make you feel and re-live the aspirations, the agonies and the pains of the family and their descendants. To mark 100 years of the assassination of the archduke and the beginning of the First World War, nothing could be better.

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