Book Review: The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World

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by Greg King & Sue Woolmans

New York: St. Martin's Press, 2013. Pp. xxxviii, 384. Illus., map, stemma, notes, biblio., index. $27.99. ISBN: 1250000165

On the eve of the centennial of the Sarajevo event, well-known royalty historians King and Woolmans bring us a detailed account of the life, times, and tragic deaths of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, which helped touch off the First World War, which still shapes the world.   

The early chapters of The Assassination of the Archduke concentrate on Franz Ferdinand’s family, birth, childhood, education, and military career.  This gives the reader a good look at the complexities of the stifling regime of the Hapsburg court in the reign of the tradition-bound and ultra-conservative Emperor-King Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary.  As a member of the imperial family, albeit originally not the heir to throne, Franz Ferdinand’s life was essentially planned for him in great detail.  But he broke the rules, falling for a woman who, though a noble, was not quite noble enough to marry a Hapsburg.

The romance, marriage, and family life of the imperial prince and the mere countess take up about half the book.  King and Woolmans give us a look at the courtship of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie and their long battle to secure permission to wed, albeit in a morganatic marriage, which denied her and her children imperial rank. The picture of the couple’s life together shows us an almost continuous pattern of petty snubs and deliberate insults from the court, but they have been a happy couple, producing three children who seem to have had a rather normal family life considering the pressures on them.  King and Woolmans make a serious effort to rehabilitate the images of both Franz Ferdinand and Sophie.  For example, they argue that Franz Ferdinand was neither an unimaginative, stiff-necked conservative, nor a starry-eyed liberal, as various authors in the past have depicted him.  Though perhaps more sympathetic than the evidence would suggest, they see him as a realistic conservative, who recognized the need for reforms that would bolster the old order.  Moreover, they point out that he actually had some influence in reshaping the monarchy, helping create a new navy for example. 

Naturally, the events in Sarajevo take up a substantial part of the book, about a third overall.  King and Woolmans discuss the circumstances that led the couple to be in Sarajevo on a most inappropriate day, the anniversary of the destruction of the old Serb kingdom by the Turks more than five centuries earlier.   They then give us an overview of the Serb nationalist conspiracy that led to the assassination.  King and Woolmans follow this with a detailed look at the events on that fateful day.  They also briefly summarized some “conspiracy theory” views of the events, including the possibility that the assassination might have had the blessing of the Serbian crown, and even a suggestion that some of the Archduke’s enemies within the Empire may have had a hand in it.

In their final chapters King and Woolmans give us a look at the funeral accorded Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, with its continuing slights, the political and diplomatic fallout of their deaths, notably the “Great War” which everyone had been desiring and dreading for decades and its long term consequences, as well as look at the later history of the couple’s children.

The authors are good at short word-portraits of some of the many interesting characters who appear in the book.  They have insightful looks at Franz Joseph, his wife the Empress Elizabeth, and their son Crown Prince Rudolf, who famously murdered his mistress and killed himself, as well as many others, from court officials to their assassin, Gavrilo Princip.  They do make a few small errors of fact, for example, misdating the Empire’s loss if its Italian provinces by some 20 years, and while there are a number of excellent photographs not previously seen by this reviewer, a plan of Sarajevo would have been useful in following the events.

In writing this book, King and Woolmans were assisted by the couple’s descendants, who provided access to family archives and shared personal recollections.  These helped flesh out material found in other archives and published works, and the authors also consulted a impressive number of contemporary newspaper accounts.  This wealth of resources makes the book of value to scholars of the outbreak of the Great War and to “royalty buffs” of course, but also to anyone curious about the political, social, and cultural milieu within which the Archduke and his wife lived.  The Assassination of the Archduke, which has a thoughtful foreword the tragic couple’s great-granddaughter, is well-written, and makes for an easy read, and can be enjoyed by both academic and layman alike.

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   


Buy it at Amazon.com




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