The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World by Greg King and Sue Woolmans (Review)

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg Empire and his morganatic wife, Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg were assassinated by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo. The assassination of the Archduke served as the pretext for the First World War as conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia triggered the European alliance system. In numerous histories of the period, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie appear on the world stage at the time of their deaths without any mention of how their romance scandalized the court in Vienna or the subsequent lives of their children, including the imprisonment of their sons in the Dachau concentration camp during the Second World War.

In The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World, Greg King, author of numerous royal history books including Twilight of Splendor: The Court of Queen Victoria During Her Diamond Jubilee Year, The Court of the Last Tsar: Pomp, Power and Pageantry in the Reign of Nicholas II, The Fate of the Romanovs and The Resurrection of the Romanovs: Anastasia, Anna Anderson, and the World’s Greatest Royal Mystery and Sue Woolmans, editor of 25 Chapters of My Life: The Memoirs of Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna reconstruct the lives and legacy of the Archduke and the love of his life, challenging the myths surrounding their marriage and providing a full biography of Franz Ferdinand, Sophie and their children.

In contrast to Franz Ferdinand’s contemporaries, the last Imperial Family of Russia, key documents concerning the Archduke’s marriage, including his private correspondence with Sophie, have been destroyed. Even the couple’s descendants are not sure how they first met or precisely when Franz Ferdinand decided to challenge his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph and the strict laws governing the marriages within the House of Habsburg to marry Countess Sophie Chotek. King and Woolmans reconstruct the romance using a wide variety of surviving material including diplomatic correspondence, letters exchanged by Franz Ferdinand’s relatives and newspaper reports. The marriage of the heir to the Austrian throne to a lady-in-waiting, even one from the Bohemian (Czech) nobility, created a scandal at court. Franz Joseph and his officials ensured that Sophie would never be treated as her husband’s equal in life or death.

In the century since Franz Ferdinand’s and Sophie’s death, numerous myths and misconceptions have emerged concerning their characters. King and Woolmans carefully separate fact from fiction. The Archduke emerges as a complex personality, reserved, unsociable and short tempered in public but deeply devoted to his wife and children in private. His political views remain enigmatic as he was accused of having both reactionary and revolutionary inclinations over the course of his life. King and Woolmans provide evidence that his travels in the United States inspired a vision of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a federation of equal states rather than a dual monarchy. There is less surviving information about Sophie but she emerges as a steadying influence in the Archduke’s life, devoting herself to her family and accepting the constraints imposed on a morganatic spouse.

The strongest section of the book is the description of the visit to Sarajevo in 1914. Although the reader knows that Franz Ferdinand and Sophie died there, King and Woolmans create effective dramatic tension, revealing the multitude of official missteps that sealed the couple’s fate as well as the numerous opportunities for changes in plan that would have saved their lives. The complete failure by local authorities to keep the couple safe led to rumours of an Austrian conspiracy to dispose of a troublesome Archduke and create a pretext to invade Serbia at the same time. King and Woolmans examine these interpretations of the events in Sarajevo, sifting through the conflicting accounts of why there was so little protection for the Emperor’s heir.

The only misstep in this otherwise well written and well researched biography are the periodic descriptions of the marriage of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie as a fairy tale romance with various members of the House of Habsburg cast as the “wicked stepmother” or “fairy godmother.” In his previous books, most notably The Fate of the Romanovs, Greg King has been extremely critical of sentimental interpretations of the domestic life of Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra and their children. In the opening chapters The Assassination of the Archduke, King and Woolmans challenge the current romantic image of Franz Joseph’s wife, Empress Elisabeth. By comparing Franz Ferdinand and Sophie to characters from a fairy tale, King and Woolmans appear to hold them to a different standard than the other royalty of the period.

The Assassination of the Archduke brings the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie to life, revealing their determination to marry in the face of widespread opposition and the happy home they created for their children. King and Woolmans re-examine the fatal events of the couple’s visit to Sarajevo and discuss what happened to their daughter and sons, the first orphans of the Great War. The Assassination of the Archduke is an excellent addition to any royal library as it reveals the lives of a couple better known for how their deaths changed history.

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