Thursday, November 7, 2013

"I have to defend him. There's no one else."

Franz Ferdinand is one of those footnotes of history; the guy whose assassination sparked World War One.  If you scratch a little deeper you find that his wife was also killed by the gunman and you might read that he wasn't especially popular.  And yet the deeper truth behind those bland facts is infinitely more interesting than you might imagine.

His uncle, Franz Josef, was emperor of Austria Hungary and the latest in a long line of Habsburgs to rule, stretching back hundreds of years.  His own sons died after short lives of riotous living, and Franz Ferdinand became next in line when his father (brother to Franz Josef) died.  Franz Ferdinand was different, however; deeply religious in word and deed and suspected of harboring liberal ideas.  Suspicions against him only increased when he chose Sophie Chotek, a beautiful Bohemian princess, as his wife.  It was decided by those in authority that she was not from a sufficiently elevated background as he (“don’t let her think she’s one of us”) and when he insisted upon marrying her, his enemies (including Franz Josef) forced concessions upon him.  It was a "morganatic" marriage and neither Sophie nor her children would have any claim to succession of the crown.  

The pettiness of the royal court knew no bounds, however, and many took it upon themselves to continually heap humiliations upon the couple, such as forbidding her to sit with him at official gatherings and making her enter a room last and without an escort.  By all accounts, Sophie bore it quietly even while gossips painted her as a scheming and vengeful woman.  Franz Ferdinand took the insults harder but found refuge in home life and the couple doted lovingly on their three children, finding solace from the imperial court in family and each other.

Greg King and Sue Woolmans paint a very sympathetic portrait of Franz and Sophie, detailing the shameful and petty snobbery of the Habsburgs in The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World.  And they explain in exciting detail the events leading up to that fateful day in Sarajevo.  They discuss the official ineptitude that enabled the assassination to occur, but do not give undue attention to the conspiracy theories that it was more than a terrorist plot – there's just not enough evidence to draw any solid conclusions.  In spite of the knowledge of what happened in 1914, I found myself wishing for a different outcome and almost shouting "don't go!"  The account of the assassination is almost painful to read!  King and Woolmans follow up with the children's lives, including the continuing insults and both sons spending many brutal years in Nazi concentration camps.

I'm certainly no expert in the history of the time, but I felt King and Woolmans did an excellent (and heavily documented) job of making their case that Franz and Sophie have been unfairly treated by history.  If nothing else, the peaceful home life they established and the dignified way they raised their children stands in sharp contrast to the commonly accepted opinion.  It must count for something that the man who might have been king married for love in the face of severe persecution.  Who knows what might have happened if he'd lived, but I enthusiastically recommend this book. (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

No comments:

Post a Comment