The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

Franz Ferdinand and the Beginning of the First World War

On 29 June 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo. The death of this rather unpleasant character assumed the dimensions of a Shakespearean tragedy as it became the pretext for the First World War. Very soon, the whole of Europe would find out that the world was, indeed, “out of joint.”

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo moments before the assassination.

It is, perhaps, natural that some have mused over what would have happened if Franz Ferdinand hadn’t been killed, if he had succeeded Franz Joseph and had refused to be drawn into a war, etc. The Archduke is sometimes even presented as something of a rebel, who defied the royal family and married for love. There is the implication that we have a reformer in the making here.

It must be granted that Franz Ferdinand did marry for love – a Countess, who while not of royal blood, was very far from a commoner. He spent the rest of his life demanding that his wife be treated as if she were a royal by birth. The way I see it, this is not at all the behavior of a hero who struggles to change the system, but of someone who desperately wants the system to accept him and those immediately around him. Leaving romance aside, the Archduke became known for his hatred of all things Hungarian – not a small problem for the future ruler of the dual Austro-Hungarian Empire. In fact, his intense dislikes covered a remarkable proportion of his future subjects – Jews, liberals, socialists, Freemasons, Poles, everyone not strictly Catholic, all excited Franz Ferdinand’s ire.

Such random prejudices always find a fruitful ground in empty and ignorant minds and Franz Ferdinand certainly had one. The Austrian writer Anton Mayr-Harting speaks with some degree of horror about the Archduke’s “stupendous” ignorance. Living in a multi-national Empire, Franz Ferdinand proved incapable of learning any language other than German. His attitude to art can be gleaned from the spectacle he made of himself at an Oskar Kokoschka exhibition where he was shouting “Schweinerei” (“disgrace” is the polite translation ).

A portrait of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in military attire

Living in one of the most civilized cities in Europe, the man had no culture whatsoever and not surprisingly his only pastime was hunting. In the words of the modern historian Robert Kann, Franz Ferdinand was a person “whose special predilections for certain regions … were predominantly a function of their potential for hunting terrain.” Quite consistently with the rest of his muddled ideas, the Archduke couldn’t understand why Goethe and Schiller “got their monuments” in Vienna in the 1870s. He certainly had no use for either poet and would have liked instead to see monuments to Austrian generals – not exactly the views of a pacifist.

It is always idle speculation to try to determine in advance what an ignorant man with no political views, full of unexamined prejudices, would actually do. In any case, though, there were no signs that Franz Ferdinand had the makings of the future savior of Europe.

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