Monday, June 29, 2015

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

(Eleventh in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)

The Habsburg dynasty reigned in various European configurations and locales from the 1400s through its finale in 1918, famously stockpiling its geographical components through strategic marriage ceremonies more often than armed conflict.

There’s something to admire in wedding banquets as opposed to bloodletting, although unfortunately, hard-learned lessons were forgotten in the very end.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the Habsburg Empire had been rebranded as Austria-Hungary, and occupied a large chunk of Central Europe – from the Alps to what is now Belarus and the Ukraine, and from Poland to the Adriatic.

The empire was populated by numerous ethnic groups speaking just as many languages, representing most major religions and a few minor ones, and held together largely by a steadily eroding inertia, otherwise known as “divine right” in the person of the venerable emperor, Franz Joseph, who was 84 years old in 1914 and had ruled since 1848.

His own son having committed suicide, Franz Joseph’s heir was his nephew, Franz Ferdinand – and Franz Ferdinand was a complicated individual.

The history of the Habsburgs was a major reason for my visit to Vienna in 1985, with the single most important objective being the city’s military history museum, appropriately located in a complex of 19th-century buildings called the Arsenal. I wanted to learn more about Franz Ferdinand’s life, and chose to begin with his death.

Upon arrival in Vienna, and after the cursory stowing of gear at the Hostel Ruthensteiner and a quick coffee, the Arsenal was my opening afternoon attraction. Happily for an inexperienced tourist often too disorganized to eat, the museum boasted a small, efficient canteen operated by its citizen support arm.

The counter was manned by an elderly mustachioed gentleman who served fat local sausages with a roll and mustard, accompanied by a blue collar Schwecator lager, and all of it available at a very reasonable price. Restored to metabolic equilibrium, it was off to the exhibits.

First came the obligatory suits of armor and medieval skull-busters, followed by racks of muskets, Napoleonic-era uniforms and affiliated ephemera. Modern times drew steadily closer, and then I spotted the relics that occasioned my visit: Franz Ferdinand’s blood-stained tunic, the restored Gräf & Stift automobile in which he rode to his murder in Sarajevo in 1914, and numerous facsimiles of photographs taken before and after the assassination.

This was one of the images, and it triggered a lasting personal obsession.

Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie are shown exiting the town hall in Sarajevo. In little more than ten minutes, they’ll be dead, dispatched by two improbably well-placed gunshots from a youthful terrorist, Gavrilo Princip.

When the photo was taken, the Archduke’s visit to Sarajevo already had careened far off the rails. It was about to get even worse, with misfortune ranging far beyond the shortened lives of the royal couple, to victims all over the world about to be claimed in an unprecedented conflagration.


The Archduke Franz Ferdinand comes to us as a blunt, obnoxious, violent and generally unlikable human being, who in his spare time enjoyed slaughtering wildlife under the flimsy guise of hunting.

But had Sigmund Freud been asked, the Viennese doctor surely would have pointed to deeper currents. While not exactly enlightened, Franz Ferdinand’s views on the future of the empire were not in sync with those of his uncle’s conservative coterie. He had his own ideas and advisers, and chafed at waiting his turn, at least in part because of an under-appreciated aspect of his character.

Improbably, Franz Ferdinand was a closeted romantic, and he did something decidedly uncommon among his royal brethren: He fell madly in love, and remained just as madly in love, with a woman of minor nobility who was decreed by the hidebound royal court as inadequately marriageable for Franz Ferdinand -- and so of course, he married her anyway.

Doing so triggered sanctions from Franz Ferdinand’s own family. He was humiliatingly compelled to endure a morganatic marriage, renouncing the path of succession for his two young children, and explicitly acknowledging that Sophie could not participate in the intensively choreographed trappings of royal life.

To the otherwise indefensible Franz Ferdinand, a perfect family man at home, dynastic protocol became a daily slight – an unceasing and mocking suggestion that his beloved did not even exist. It isn’t surprising that he nursed a smoldering grudge.

In 1914, Franz Ferdinand had the chance to attend military maneuvers in Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a disputed region of mixed ethnicity once occupied by the Ottoman Turks, and recently annexed by Austria-Hungary to the growing dissatisfaction of the neighboring Kingdom of Serbia, where there existed a body of opinion that all Serbs should be united under Serbian rule.

In such a highly charged atmosphere, the war games seemed a provocation to many people in the region. It was not necessary for Franz Ferdinand to make the trip, but (of course) he did.

Among the reasons for Franz Ferdinand’s decision was this: As defined geographically by the royal court protocol the heir so detested, Bosnia-Herzegovina was outside the reach of official mandated etiquette. It was a veritable loophole, allowing a pleasure trip on company expense, and a chance for the heir to treat his wife to perks otherwise denied her. No doubt he chortled at the turnabout, and her servants began filling crates.

Meanwhile, the background meant nothing to a young group of nationalistic Bosnian revolutionary conspirators, who were being trained and financed by the Black Hand, a covert group of Serbian army officers. As the days passed prior to Franz Ferdinand’s arrival in Sarajevo, a motley crew of inflamed and malnourished terrorists plotted a tragicomic ambush of the Archduke.


As Franz Ferdinand’s motorcade rolled through Sarajevo, one of the inexperienced terrorists managed to keep his wits and toss a bomb, albeit inexpertly. It bounced off the hood of the Archduke’s car and ignited atop the vehicle behind it, injuring a subaltern.

The bomb thrower sought first to drown himself, jumping from an adjacent bridge into the knee-deep river; thwarted, he then tried to ingest poison that wasn't poisonous enough. He was quickly arrested and the group dissolved in panic, with Princip – a true believer if ever there was one – adjourning to the curb outside a coffee house to morosely consider the failures of the botched performance.

But he kept his gun safely in his pocket.

Meanwhile, in spite of the bomb attempt and further warnings that security could not be guaranteed, the supremely annoyed Archduke elected to finish his official visit at Sarajevo's town hall, where his epic tirade ended only after soothing words from the always helpful Sophie.

Hence, the photo: A bedecked Austrian royal, veins still visibly bursting, descends the stairs while local minor officials in vests and fezes offer tepid and embarrassed salutes. The fear in their eyes is palpable even in ancient black and white. A bad moon is about to rise, and they all seem to know it.

Confusingly, the motorcade resumed. Although Franz Ferdinand’s staff had altered the return route to make it safer, the changes were not communicated to the drivers. The Archduke’s Gräf & Stift made a wrong turn, and its driver was told to halt.

The car stopped on the street directly outside the coffee shop where Princip now emerged to find his original target, seated and stock still only 20 feet away, as though serenely posing in the crosshairs. He fired just two shots, each inexplicably perfect, and within moments both heir and wife were gone.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination provided the pretext for European hawks to settle accounts. Six weeks after his death, Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia as a heavy favorite, but was mauled repeatedly by the outnumbered Serbs until Germany came to the rescue. Meanwhile, general conflict had erupted throughout Europe, the consequences of which endure a century later.

In retrospect, irony abounds. Franz Ferdinand may have been an unsympathetic, disagreeable figure, and yet his genuine love for his wife was in part responsible for their passing.

Moreover, he understood perfectly what so many of his royal compatriots did not: Austria-Hungary was not at all equipped to fight a modern, industrial war. Counter-intuitively, the first casualty of war was a prime voice for peace.

Soon millions of others would perish, although initially, only two funerals were required. In death as in life, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary went his own cantankerous way, albeit with a little “help” from his royal family.

That’s because as noted previously, Franz Ferdinand’s final resting place is not among the Habsburg bloodlines deep within Vienna’s Kaisergruft. Protocol forbade the presence of Sophie in the crypt, so Franz Ferdinand’s testament called for the couple’s burial at his family’s castle in Artstetten, a half-day’s bicycle ride up the Danube from Vienna.

In 1985, I was just getting to know Franz Ferdinand’s story. By 2003, almost two decades later, I’d visited several other places connected to Franz Ferdinand: His chateau in Benesov, Czech Republic; the official residence at the Belvedere Palace in Vienna; and Sarajevo, where I followed the motorcade route and saw the scene of the crime.

In 2003 a friend and I bicycled to Artstetten. As we were leaving, I mentioned to the gift shop attendant that in 1985, I’d gone to Vienna looking for Franz Ferdinand, only to find he wasn’t there, which was the reason I’d finally made it to Artstetten. There was no public access to the final resting place of the Habsburg heir and his wife, and I didn’t ask.

She handed me the key, anyway.

I had my moments with them, alone.



The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.

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