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98 years ago today came the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary an act which precipitated the first World War. I cannot do justice in this blog to all the complexities that lead to the start of World War I. I don’t view the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the cause of World War I but merely the spark that set off a ticking time bomb. The roots of the war go back a long way in European history. Throughout the 19th century a weakened Ottoman Empire began losing its European territories. As territories were lost they were gobbled up by the larger European powers which often disregarded the ethnic and nationalistic make up of the population. This happened when Austria-Hungary annexed the Bosnian region which had a large population of Serbian nationals.

What also was a large factor was the alliance system that reached its peak during the 19th century. In order to balance power states sought alliances with one another so one state would not be dominant over others. While in theory this may sound like a good system, or maybe not, it created great tensions between the states and when the spark was set off, the house of cards came tumbling down. With the end of the war the monarchies of Germany and Austria-Hungary, which had existed for over a millennium, were gone.

At the time of the assassination Archduke Franz Ferdinand was heir to the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. He was the eldest son of Archduke Karl Ludwig of Austria (himself a younger brother to the then reigning emperor, Franz Joseph) and his second wife, Princess Maria Annunciata of Bourbon-Two Sicilies. After the murder suicide at Mayerling of the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his lover Baroness Mary Vetsera in 1889, Archduke Karl Ludwig became heir to his brother’s throne until his death in 1896. From 1896 until his death in 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the throne of his great-uncle.

On July 1, 1900, Franz Ferdinand married Countess Sophie Chotek. Although she was from an aristocratic family and claimed descent from various reigning houses, her family was not a reigning family and therefore she did not meet the requirement for an equal marriage. After many years of tension between Emperor Franz Joseph and Franz Ferdinand the emperor finally capitulated and allowed his heir to enter into a morganatic marriage where his wife had no right to her husbands titles and their children would have no claim to the throne.

Although more liberal than the emperor, Franz Ferdinand envisioned a future empire where all ethnic groups would have greater autonomy under his rule. This benevolence actually did not sit well with many Serbian nationals who did not want autonomy within the empire, they wanted freedom from the empire. Fearing that if Franz Ferdinand’s plans came to pass their desire for independence would fail.

Franz Ferdinand and his wife were in Sarajevo that day representing the emperor at opening of the state museum when Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Serb nationalist organization ‘the Black Hand,” assassinated the Archduke and his wife. There were several attempts on the Archduke’s life that day. Princip failed at an earlier attempt that day to assassinate the Archduke when the motorcade drove by too fast. Another attempt occurred when a bomb was throne at the Archduke’s car wounding 20 people. Undeterred, the Imperial couple continued on.  After visiting the Town Hall the Archduke’s motorcade took a wrong turn on its way to the next event. When the driver tried to turn the car around, the car stalled and Princip, who had just walked out of a delicatessen for lunch, found himself only a few feet away from the Archduke and his stalled limousine. Princip fired two shots at a very close range hitting the Archduke in the jugular vein and Sophie in the abdomen. They were both rushed to the Governor’s Residence for medical treatment but both died within a few minutes. The shock was felt deeply throughout Europe and within the month all the major powers of Europe would be at war.

The Archduke’s blood soaked tunic

The 1911 Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton in which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was riding at the time of his assassination.

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