June 28 A Century Ago

Franz Ferdinand was a difficult person in many ways. Dark. Angry at times. He became heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary when his cousin, Rudolf (whose tutor was the father of the Austrian School of Economics, Carl Menger) died in an apparent murder-suicide with his young mistress in 1889. The death of Rudolf was only one of many tragedies in the Habsburg family in the two generations leading up to World War I. Besides the cases of consecutive heirs to the throne, Franz Josef’s glamorous wife, Elisabeth, died at the hands of an assassin in 1898. There was also the rancor over Franz Ferdinand’s marriage in 1900 to Sophie Chotek, whose prestigious pedigree was not quite prestigious enough for the House of Habsburg. The two married in 1900, but only on the condition that Sophie not appear as Franz Ferdinand’s consort on occasions when he was appearing in the capacity of heir to the throne. She would not receive the title of Empress, and any son would not be eligible to succeed to the throne.

This is to say, Franz Ferdinand was facing somewhat more than normal family pressures. Political issues also lay heavy on his mind. To his thinking the transformation that had given Hungary autonomy within the Empire in 1867 had allowed the Hungarians to impose “magyarization” on the nationalities who came under their control–in effect nationalizing the minorities in the way that the Russians were “russianizing” their minorities. In an Empire which had grown by marriage alliances and had kept strong by means of negotiation and compromise, the 1867 compromise represented permission to introduce a new tone of bitterness into politics. Franz Ferdinand advocated peace with the bothersome southern neighbor Serbia, in part because he needed to have the cooperation of all Habsburg Slavs. He hoped to revamp the Empire from a Dual Monarchy into a Monarchy presiding over a federation of regions, and the various Slavic nationalities were crucial in overwhelming the Hungarians.

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So he had enough on his mind to appear dark and angry. At times, he was capable of charm—for example in the center of his family or when he was with friends and close aides.

As Inspector-General of the Habsburg Army, Franz Ferdinand must have found the occasion of visiting Sarajevo, in recently annexed Slavic Bosnia, a special moment. Not only could he confer special attention on the picturesque capital with a parade and a visit to civic institutions, but since he was there in his capacity as Inspector-General of the Army, Sophie was allowed to sit by his side.

Would this apparently cold personage have been able to change the course of nationality conflict in the Empire?  Could he have withstood the more more general Leviathan trends of the growing state, the manipulation of currency for wealth transfer, growing collectivism, and the legal plunder that characterized his times? His “dark” public persona is probably irrelevant here. Indications are that he had strong ideas and a willingness to push for them.

Whatever Franz Ferdinand might have achieved or not achieved, Gavrilo Princip and his backers in Bosnia and Serbia made sure that none of us will ever know.

A hundred years ago today, Sophie and her husband were murdered in an open automobile in the streets of Sarajevo. Five weeks later, the major powers of Europe and many minor ones had jumped into a conflict that has created the backdrop, scenery, and stage props for our times.

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