Archduke Franz Ferdinand and His Astounding End
Smithsonian Magazine, April 22, 2013
It’s hard to think of another event in the troubled 20th century that had quite the shattering impact of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The archduke was heir to the throne of the tottering Austro-Hungarian empire; his killers—a motley band of amateurish students—were Serbian nationalists (or possibly Yugoslav nationalists; historians remain divided on the topic) who wanted to turn Austrian-controlled Bosnia into a part of a new Slav state. The guns and bombs they used to kill the archduke, meanwhile, were supplied by the infamous “Colonel Apis,” head of Serbian military intelligence. All of this was quite enough to provoke Austria-Hungary into declaring war on Serbia, after which, with the awful inevitability that A.J.P. Taylor famously described as “war by timetable,” Europe slid inexorably into the horrors of the First World War as the rival Great Powers began to mobilize against one another.
To say that all this is well-known is an understatement. Seen from the historian’s perspective, though, even the most familiar of the events of that day have interesting aspects that often go unremarked. The appalling combination of implausible circumstance that resulted in assassination is one; Franz Ferdinand had survived an earlier attempt to kill him on the fateful day, emerging unscathed from the explosion of a bomb that bounced off the folded roof of his convertible and exploded under a car following behind him in his motorcade. That bomb injured several members of the imperial entourage, and those men were taken to the hospital. It was Franz Ferdinand’s impulsive decision, later in the day, to visit them there—a decision none of his assassins could have predicted—that took him directly past the spot where his assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was standing. It was chauffeur Leopold Lojka’s unfamiliarity with the new route that led him to take a wrong turn and, confused, pull to a halt just six feet from the gunman.
For the archduke to be presented, as a stationary target, to the one man in a crowd of thousands still determined to kill him was a remarkable stroke of bad luck, but even then, the odds still favored Franz Ferdinand’s survival. Princip was so hemmed in by the crowd that he was unable to pull out and prime the bomb he was carrying. Instead, he was forced to resort to his pistol, but failed to actually aim it. According to his own testimony, Princip confessed: “Where I aimed I do not know,” adding that he had raised his gun “against the automobile without aiming. I even turned my head as I shot.” Even allowing for the point-blank range, it is pretty striking, given these circumstances, that the killer fired just two bullets, and yet one struck Franz Ferdinand’s wife, Sophie—who was sitting alongside him—while the other hit the heir to the throne. It is astonishing that both rounds proved almost immediately fatal. Sophie was hit in the stomach, and her husband in the neck, the bullet severing his jugular vein. There was nothing any doctor could have done to save either of them.
There are stranger aspects to the events of June 28 than this, however. The assassination proved so momentous that it is not surprising that there were plenty of people ready to say, afterward, that they had seen it coming. One of them, according to an imperial aide, was the fortuneteller who had apparently told the archduke that “he would one day let loose a world war.” That story carries a tang of after-the-fact for me. (Who, before August 1914, spoke in terms of a “world war”? A European war, perhaps). Yet it seems pretty well established that Franz Ferdinand himself had premonitions of an early end. In the account of one relative, he had told some friends the month before his death that “I know I shall soon be murdered.” A third source has the doomed man “extremely depressed and full of forebodings” a few days before the assassination took place.
According to yet another story, moreover, Franz Ferdinand had every reason to suppose that he was bound to die. This legend—not found in the history books but (says the London Times) preserved as an oral tradition among Austria’s huntsmen—records that, in 1913, the heavily armed archduke had shot a rare white stag, and adds that it was widely believed of any hunter who killed such an animal “that he or a member of his family shall die within a year.”
The archduke was a committed and indiscriminate huntsman, whose personal record, when in pursuit of small game (Roberta Feueurlicht tells us), was 2,140 kills in a day and who, according to the records he meticulously compiled in his own game book, had been responsible for the deaths of a grand total of 272,439 animals during his lifetime, the majority of which had been loyally driven straight toward his overheating guns by a large assembly of beaters.
Source: Roberta Feuerlicht. The Desperate Act: The Assassination at Sarajevo. New York: McGraw Hill, 1968.