Archduke Franz Ferdinand: The Imperial Death That Triggered World War I

The 28th of June is a defining moment in world history. It's the date where the imperial prince of Hapsburg, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia in 1914.

His death was no ordinary.

It brought terrible repercussion to the worsening condition of the relationship among the Great Powers, and triggered political tension in Europe that blew off into an arm conflict, plunging the world into the first war.

The unresolved murder of the archduke and the events that followed, created tension within the Great Powers.

It ultimately pushed the European continent into the last showdown of power, which precipitated World War I.

Why it went  that far? 

The Future Austrian Emperor

Franz Ferdinand became an heir presumptive of his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, when in 1889 the emperor's only son, Crown Prince Rudolph and his mistress in the famous Mayerling Tragedy.

Franz Ferdinand's father, Archduke Karl Ludwig, the younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph, gave up his claim to the throne for his eldest son to become the heir presumptive.

Franz Ferdinand was pretty much like today's royal prince. He wanted to marry for love. Alas! His choice wasn't considered suitable by royal standard.

Countess Sophie Chotek, was the lady-in-waiting to Archduchess Isabella.  She didn't belong to any dynastic royal houses in Europe.

The marriage was viewed as scandalous because Sophie was not a royal princess. The marriage was permitted by the emperor but the couple suffered harsh consequences.

Franz Ferdinand  was forced to renounce his descendants' right to the imperial throne, Sophie was not accorded with the title, right, rank, privilege, precedence for a wife of an imperial prince.

No imperial family members ever attended the wedding ceremony except Franz Ferdinand's stepmother, Princess Maria Theresa of Braganza and her two daughters.

Franz Ferdinand, his wife and children

The couple had three children, all not eligible to succeed the imperial throne of Austria-Hungary. So Franz Ferdinand's successor was his younger brother, who became Emperor Charles I in 1916, the last Austrian Emperor.

Charles I was the grandfather of Prince Lorenz, Archduke of Austria-Este, the husband of Princess Astrid of Belgium, sister of King Philippe of the Belgians.

The Imperial Archduke's Death

On June 28, 1914, despite warning from Bosnian officials that there was an intelligence report over an assassination plot, Franz Ferdinand decided to go ahead with his scheduled tour to meet his future subjects in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia.

He was traveling with his wife, Sophie, who by then was given a courtesy title of Duchess Sophie of Hohenberg.

That Ill-Fated Wrong Turn

On the day of his visit, six conspirators, all Serbian extremists who demanded independence from the Hapsburg rule (the imperial house name of Austria) were already in Sarajevo and took their positions along the route where the imperial car would pass. 

The assassination plot was believed to have been orchestrated in Serbia weeks before the scheduled imperial visit in Bosnia. 

According to the testimonies of some of the conspirators arrested after the assassination, they were supposed to throw a bomb on the car of the archduke but one of the conspirators miscalculated the target and the bomb detonated behind the archduke’s car, wounding the occupants in the convoy. 

It narrowly missed the target.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were unharmed and arrived safely at the Governor’s residence. 

However, the archduke insisted to go to the hospital to visit those who were injured during the explosion. 

After an hour of discussion whether the archduke would go out in a risky situation, the imperial convoy immediately left the Governor’s residence to travel to the hospital.

For some unknown reason, the archduke’s driver made a re-route and followed a crowded area, prompting the car to move slowly. 

It was also the same area where Gavrilo Princip, one of the conspirators, was taking a sandwich break in a nearby cafe. 

As fate would have it, he easily spotted the imperial convoy.

Gavrilo Princip, 19
the assassin of Franz Ferdinand
He was a young Serbian Nationalist

Princip immediately pulled his gun, aimed his target and fired several shots. Duchess Sophie was killed instantly while Franz Ferdinand was brought to the hospital. 

Unfortunately, he didn't make it. He was declared dead on arrival. His last words recorded were, “It is nothing”, when asked if he was badly hurt.

The bodies of the imperial couple were brought back to Vienna and buried in Arstetten Castle, Austria. 

They could not be buried in the royal crypt of the Hapsburgs together even though Ferdinand was in direct succession to the imperial throne because his wife was not of royal blood.

Gavrilo Princip was only 19 years old at the time of the assassination, two years short of the required age of a death sentence. 

He was thrown to a life imprisonment instead, while other conspirators who were also captured, were hanged to death.

Princip died in his prison cell during World War I due to malnutrition.

The Imperial Death That Precipitated World War I

The news of death of Franz Ferdinand shocked Europe and brought a terrible blow to the existence of the Hapsburg  imperial house. 

It was more than 25 years since the death of Ferdinand’s cousin, Crown Prince Rudolf, whose mysterious death in the Mayerling hunting lodge remained an unresolved crime.

However, unlike the death of Rudolf, Austrian military officials knew where to throw their fury. 

They were convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the crime was engineered in Serbia and perpetrated by the Serbian notorious extremists.

They angrily demanded an immediate resolution of the case. The investigation began with both parties exchanging critical arguments. 

For political observers, it was only a matter of time before the tension would blow up into an arm struggle. 

Ultimately, Ferdinand’s death worsened the long standing political row between Serbia and Austria. 

Charles I, the last Austrian Emperor

World War I 

Other Great Powers: Britain, France, Russia, Germany, tried to mediate to cool down the tension and avoid resulting to war, but Serbia and Austria could not agree how to conduct the investigation.

By then, Europe's Great Powers had already mapped alliances agreement, which they established prior to the assassination in 1914: The Triple Entente of France, Britain and Austria, and the Triple Alliances of Germany, Austria and Italy.

These two opposing military alliances  clearly drawn its footing in case of European war. 

To make matter's worst, Russia's sympathy was with Serbia due to its own unresolved territorial dispute with Germany.

In the final weeks of July 1914, everything went wrong with the negotiation between Austria and Serbia.

Austrian military leaders wanted to get hand on the investigation. Serbia would not agree and its response to Austrian leaders on July 23, 1914, dragged them more into uncertainty.

Austria had no other choice but to attack the tiny territory. One month after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Austria bombed Serbia on July 28, 1914. 

It motioned the general mobilization of the military troops of  Germany and Russia and in the summer of 1914 the deadly conflict commenced. 

It became a full blown war on August 9, 1914 when Britain joined the conflict after Germany invaded Belgium.

This German invasion of Belgium incensed the other Great Powers because it was a direct defiance to the International Agreement they'd signed. That in case of war, Belgium should remain neutral due its largest port, Antwerp, the continent's only access to the high sea to bring food in case of famine.

Germany ignored this agreement to implement their Schlieffen Plan, a military strategy that would allow them to fight in a two-front war with an assurance of victory.

Instead of the original plan of entering The Netherlands, the German Chief Commander modified the tactic and entered Belgium instead, to crash the Verdun and Somme in France where France and Russia concentrated most of their veteran combatants. 

Scene during the war

The war spread to every corner of the world and did not fully end until November 11, 1918 during the signing of Armistice in Germany. 

Russia officially left the war in 1917 to concentrate on looming home problems: the rise of the Russian revolutionists.

Result of the war 

The end of the war saw the defeat of Germany, Austria and Italy which led to the abolition of most monarchies.

German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, a grandson of Queen Victoria of Britain, was forced to abdicate and went into exile in the Netherlands where he stayed until his death in 1941 during World War II.

Russia plunged into civil war and forced Emperor Nicholas II to abdicate. He was assassinated with his entire family in July 1918. 

Emperor Franz Josef died from illness in 1916 and he was succeeded by his nephew, Archduke Charles whose wife was Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma

Blessed Karl of Austria 

Before he became an emperor, Charles I was known for his devotion to the Catholic faith. However, the unexpected assassination of his cousin in 1914 made him suddenly the heir presumptive.

He reigned only for two years until 1918 when the monarchy was abolished. He went into exile in Switzerland then move to Portugal.

He spent the rest of his life fighting to take back the imperial throne but unsuccessful due to lack of support. He died in 1922.

In 2004, Pope John Paul II beatified Charles I and became known as Blessed Karl of Austria.

Wishing for world peace 

We can only wish world wars would never happen again in our lifetime. Wish every nation will promote international understanding and solidarity so that peace will reign all throughout the world. 

Our prayers to all heroes who died during the war and those who fight for our freedom and unity. 

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