Monday, June 27, 2011
Royal Profile: Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria
In the years since, many have tried to portray the Archduke as spoiled, aloof and uninformed but that could not be farther from the truth. He was wealthy, having inherited the fortune of his cousin the Duke of Modena and he was more of an avid sportsman than an intellectual but he was also well educated, well traveled and took his position as heir to the throne seriously. He devoted a great deal of his time to studying the problems of Austria-Hungary and how he might one day solve them, looking to examples from history and the world around him for ideas. He traveled extensively across Europe and around the world visiting Australia, Japan and Canada on one trip alone. He served in the army and was found to have a natural talent for organization, eventually becoming inspector general of the Imperial & Royal armed forces in 1913. His personality was such that he could seem a bit authoritarian at times but this was certainly not his character as his private life clearly shows.
Obviously, the true character and personality of the man was not what most assumed it to be based on his reserve in public and his often heated confrontations with the Emperor. However, the misunderstandings regarding the Archduke overlap with the misunderstandings of the Dual-Empire as a whole. It has become fashionable to view Austria-Hungary as a doomed state, government remaining stagnant while the world pushed ahead, ready to bring down the edifice that refused to adapt. However, this was not the case. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, though a very conservative, Catholic prince, could see that problems existed and were growing worse and he worked on a plan to solve them. He was not a man who resisted any change at all on principle nor was he a militaristic expansionist (which often put him at odds with the Chief of the General Staff).
Archduke Franz Ferdinand realized that the greatest threat to Hapsburg stability was the Slavs in the southern part of the empire. To deal with them and to hopefully put to rest all of the ethnic discontent in Austria-Hungary, he proposed a version of the idea of federalism. Some called this the “United States of Greater Austria” (and, indeed, America was an example) in which all ethnic groups in their own regions would have an equal voice in government. Concerning the Slavs in particular, others called the plan of the Archduke “Trialism”; putting the Slavic peoples on an equal footing with the Germans of Austria and the Magyars of Hungary. In fact, most of the southern Slavs fell under the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Hungary and so, not surprisingly, there was little love lost between the Archduke and the Hungarians who were to be his future subjects. Franz Ferdinand thought Hungary needed reform, both in how they treated their own minorities and in how they administered government. In fact, he threatened to refuse being crowned King of Hungary if their government did not pass universal suffrage. Surely this was hardly in keeping with the image of the Archduke as an aloof authoritarian.
And so, we come to that fateful Sunday, June 28, 1914 when, after surviving a bomb thrown in their direction, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were gunned down while riding in an open car by the Serb terrorist Gavrilo Princip. Even with his last breaths his concern was for his beloved wife and children. He died shortly after reaching the town hall and, taking the side of either Austria-Hungary or Serbia, the rest of Europe and soon the world began marching down the path to the most ruinous war mankind had yet witnessed.