Monday, June 27, 2011

Royal Profile: Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria

Today ‘Archduke Ferdinand’ (as he is often incorrectly known) is probably one of the best known yet least understood royal figures of the 20th Century. Most people have heard of him but only because it was his assassination which caused the spark that ignited the powder keg of World War One. He was, however, a much more far-sighted man than he is often given credit for and, in many ways, he seemed to sense the calamity that was approaching Europe and which would overtake it upon his death. However, much of this remained unknown due to his style and personality which often masked how modern-minded a man he was. He was born on December 18, 1863 to Archduke Karl Ludwig of Austria (younger brother of Emperor Francis Joseph) and Princess Maria Annunciata of the Two Sicilies. In 1889 HIRH Crown Prince Rudolf died which made Archduke Karl Ludwig heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, however, only a few days later he abdicated his rights making Franz Ferdinand the successor to his uncle the Emperor.

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.

To the immense dismay of his uncle the Kaiser he fell in love with the Countess Sophie Chotek after meeting her at a party in Prague in 1895. They kept their romance a secret for two years because of the disapproval of the Emperor. Finally, however, the Archduke made it clear that he would have no other wife but his beloved Sophie. Emperor Francis Joseph was outraged, considering the countess to be of far too low a rank to be wed to the heir to the Hapsburg throne but the Emperor would not budge. The Tsar of Russia, the German Kaiser and even the Pope all wrote to the Emperor urging him to agree to the marriage and finally he relented. The couple were married on July 1, 1900 but the Emperor would never allow the countess any additional privileges. Their children would have no rights to the throne, she would not have the title of her husband and so on. For the rest of his life the Emperor would refer to the countess as the “scullery maid” (she had previously been a lady-in-waiting to the Duchess of Teschen) and always regretted allowing the marriage. Nonetheless, despite these difficulties the Archduke adored his wife and wrote in a very touching letter in 1904, “The most intelligent thing I’ve ever done in my life has been the marriage to my Soph. She is everything to me: my wife, my adviser, my doctor, my warner, in a word: my entire happiness. Now, After four years, we love each other as on our first year of marriage, and our happiness has not been marred for a single second.”

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.

However, in a way, it was his foresight that was to be his undoing. When he became the target for assassins while on a visit to Sarajevo it was not because of what he had done wrong to the Serbs but for what the extreme Serb nationalists feared he would do right. The Archduke had actually opposed the annexation of Bosnia from the Ottoman Turks because he feared it would upset the European balance of power. So, he had not even wanted Austria-Hungary to rule Bosnia. Furthermore, it was his plan to create a federal Austria-Hungary with the Slavs being raised to equal status with the Austrians and Hungarians that the violent Serb nationalists saw as a threat. After all, if the Slavs were given political autonomy, if their grievances were all addressed, they might not be so receptive to the idea of risking war to throw off Hapsburg rule in favor of the dream of a “Greater Serbia”. So, again, it was not because of what he had done to mistreat the Slavs but specifically because of what he planned to do on their behalf.

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.


  1. It's amazing how demonized the victims of Modernism have been, especially those who would have or in some cases *did* reform past errors. That's true evidence of a conspiracy even if one ardently wanted to credit Lone Gunmen for those deaths to begin with.

  2. Yes, and some certainly do. I have noticed recently that some are again trying to argue that 'lone gunmen' were responsible which I thinnk could be discounted simply by the fact that Serbia was one country which got pretty much everything it had wanted out of the war and which could have got none of it without the war. That doesn't mean the people were guilty or even the King nor were any in Serbia responsible for the war spreading but the Black Hand certainly had supporters in the government and they were initiating the events that served their own interests.

    Oddly enough, of the big-3 central powers, German, Austria Hungary and Ottoman Turkey it was the most "modern" -Germany- which was the only one that was not in the middle of major reforms or planning for them in the near future.

  3. A great analysis on the assasination and on its background. You have truly connected the dots.

    The plans of the Archduke are also well stated. However, we must add that those reforms would've been catastrophic to Hungary. The whole method would've been revolutionary and nationalistic, would've destroyed the county-system of the Kingdom of Hungary and would've left the Empire impotent. So we were lucky to have Karl IV. as our last king, not the Archduke.

    Also, don't forget that the Archduke harboured utter hatred towards the Hungarians while Karl IV. said that "there are no better people on Earth than Hungarians."

    So for the reasons above I'm reluctant to accept him as a positive person in the history of the Habsburg Empire.

  4. He was an pacifist that wanted an Europe at peace without rivality between the great power, but it pains me to say that his plans where impossible to acomplish due to the european situation and (as Peyta said) his internals plans for a federal Austria-Hungary would have destroyed the Empire making it to fall into terryble civil war. He was an great person but he was utopic.

    I think that an Trialism (Austria Hungary and Bohemia) would have been the best solution.

  5. Mad Monarchist, how would one try to reform Austria-Hungary today through means other than federalism or trialism? If I recall, Charles I favored the former, yet, as Petya said, federalism would've ruined the Emperor's power and caused the Hungarians to rebel in self-defense. And as for trialism under Austria-Hungary-Bohemia, one should keep in mind that Bohemia is located on the northwestern part of the empire (far from the Southern Slavs who were causing much of the trouble), and even then the Kingdom as a whole was a very small area in the first place.

    For a long time I decided that quadrilism under Austria-Hungary-Bohemia-Croatia was the best solution; Croatia would've acted as the South Slav kingdom. But a few days ago, I decided to reject that notion due to the fact that Hungary would've, once again, rebelled against even an inch of their [rightful] land being taken.

    Currently, I'm thinking of a combination of Bohemian trialism, the federalization proposal applying only to the Austrian part of the empire (including Slovenia, Trieste, Galicia, etc), and an imperial decree stating that Hungary would have to acknowledge her minorities and stop persecution and Magyarization attempts. Then again, though, we all know what happened to a few Transylvanians when they tried the latter.

    1. The system in place could have worked, dualism, federalism, trialism etc all could have worked provided that good will exists; those in authority do their duty and the people are loyal and law-abiding. I've yet to find a perfect formula with a system that would prevent a country from falling apart no matter what influences were at work on the public.

      If the existing system is rejected (the prior model of the Austrian Empire rejected as well) and any level of federalism is rejected because Hungary would never abide it (not an unreasonable assumption) then, well, it seems like you're just stuck. If centralism nor federalism can work, I don't what other alternative there could be.

  6. Although I can agree with most of the facts you have laid out in your article on Archduke Franz Ferdinand, I would like to contribute some historical facts from the Serbian point of view on Serbian-Austrian (and later Austro-Hungarian) relations from 1815 to 1914. Serbia achieved its autonomy as a principality within the Ottoman Turkish Empire in 1815 (356 years after its loss of independence to the Ottomans); it had not achieved full independence as Greece had in 1823 due to the vociferous objections of Great Britain, France and Austria, the last country viewing Serbia as a threat and a possible focal point for its Serbian subjects in the Military Frontier, Dalmatia, Slavonia and Southern Hungary (present-day Northern Serbia).

    The Congress of Berlin in 1878 granted both Serbian states (Serbia and Montenegro) independence as well as expanded territories. However, Austria-Hungary also gained a mandate over Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was still Turkish territory but was inhabited by Serbians of all three confessions (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Muslim). Austria-Hungary also tried to gain a mandate over the Sanjak of Novi Pazar as a means of driving a wedge between Serbia and Montenegro, eager to stop any attempts of unity between these two Serbian states. When Austria-Hungary finally decided to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, it was against the will of the Serbian people in Bosnia, as they were for unification with the Kingdom of Serbia.

    Franz Ferdinand's murder in Sarajevo on the 28th June 1918 was indeed a terrorist act, what is more, the Serbian government relayed intelligence to the Austrian court of a plot to assassinate the Archduke, which they purposefully disregarded, as he was a highly unpopular man and his death would serve as a convenient casus belli for a "punitive" expedition against Serbia. However, it is a mistake to describe his murder as a "Serbian" terrorist act, since Princip himself had stated during his trial that his goal in murdering the Archduke was not the establishment of a "Greater Serbian" state, but a Yugoslav one (which ultimately happened). The terrorist organization he belonged to was the "Black Hand", whose head was the notorious Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic-Apis, the same person who was ringleader to a clique of officers who murdered King Alexander Obrenovic and his wife on the 29th May 1903.

    The very concept of "Greater Serbia" did not come from Serbia, but was concocted by the Austrian government as a convenient excuse to harass its southern neighbor, i.e. it served as an excellent foil to its own expansionist policy towards Serbia. Serbia's only goal had been to unite all lands which had a distinctly Serbian majority, no more no less. The bogey of a "Greater Serbia" was later used by the Yugoslav communists in repressing all monarchical and national sentiment among its Serb populace in Yugoslavia, where it was viewed as politically incorrect to deem oneself a Serb, much less a monarchist.

    If my tirade has been a little tiresome and long-winded, it has only been with the purpose of clearing up some historical lies which have haunted and still haunt the Serbian people. As a final word, I am a staunch monarchist and work towards a return of the Serbian monarchy, which is gaining increasing support among the populace in my country.


    David of Rascia

  7. Archduke Murder Franz Ferdinand because the Serbs wanted independence from Austria-Hungary.


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