Archduke Franz Ferdinand – heir to the throne

Assassination at Sarajevo, newspaper illustration, 1914

Publication commemorating Franz Ferdinand and his wife, 1914

After the suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889 Franz Ferdinand became heir presumptive to Emperor Franz Joseph. Relations between uncle and nephew were extremely difficult.

Assassination at Sarajevo, newspaper illustration, 1914

Publication commemorating Franz Ferdinand and his wife, 1914

Born in Graz on 18 December 1863, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the eldest son of Archduke Karl Ludwig, a younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph, and his second wife, Maria Annunziata of Naples and Sicily (called Ciolla; 1843–1871), a daughter of King Ferdinand II of von Naples and Sicily from the House of Bourbon and Archduchess Maria Theresia. Maria Annunziata was a granddaughter of Field Marshal Archduke Karl and thus half Habsburg on her mother’s side. Franz Ferdinand’s sickly, epileptic mother died at a young age of lung disease.

Franz Ferdinand’s father was extremely conservative and a devout Catholic, and his son was accordingly given a strict Catholic upbringing. The archduke pursued the military career typical for male members of the dynasty in the nineteenth century.

Ever since the suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889, Franz Ferdinand had been regarded as the prospective successor to his uncle Franz Joseph, although he was not officially proclaimed heir to the throne until 1898. The reason for this lay in Franz Ferdinand’s state of health, which had been debilitated by lung disease to such an extent that it was thought unwise to specify the emperor’s successor. It was not until his health improved that Franz Ferdinand was officially designated heir to the throne and at the same time appointed representative of the ageing emperor in military affairs. However, Franz Joseph systematically excluded the archduke, who was not a popular figure, from the political decision-making process. The relationship between uncle and nephew was characterized by mutual lack of understanding and antipathy.

Franz Ferdinand developed independent ideas about the future of the Monarchy, ideas that have received conflicting assessment from historians. His criticism of dualism in its favouring of the German-Austrian and Magyar ethnic groups above other nationalities, together with his demands for a more inclusive treatment of the Slavs, are seen in a positive light. However, his rejection of the federalization of the Monarchy comes in for negative criticism: Franz Ferdinand regarded the strengthening of centralism and the might of the army as the most important means towards consolidating Habsburg power in the face of the centrifugal forces of nationalism. His foreign policy goals foresaw increased cooperation with Germany and rapprochement with Russia with the aim of creating an alliance between Europe’s conservative monarchies.

As General Inspector of the Imperial and Royal Army, Franz Ferdinand was well-informed about conditions within the armed forces. Doubting whether they would be capable of withstanding attack if war broke out, he advocated pursuing a moderate foreign policy and was an opponent of the exaggerated plans for expansion in the Balkans and the aggressive war policy being pursued by Chief of Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf against Serbia and Italy, fearing that the Monarchy was simply not strong enough. Astonishingly, Franz Ferdinand was nevertheless portrayed in the press as a warmonger in the Balkan conflicts, an image that is still widespread today.

In his capacity as General Inspector of the Army he was to oversee the manoeuvres being held in Bosnia in June 1914. His official reception in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo was planned for 28 June, a date that was viewed as an affront by Serbian nationalists. The 28 June is St Vitus’ day (Vidov Dan in Serbian) and also commemorates the defeat of the medieval Serbian kingdom by the Ottomans at the Battle of Kosovo, a central concept in Serbian identity.

A group of young Serbian nationalists planned to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. After one attempt with a hand grenade failed, the nineteen-year-old high school student Gavrilo Princip managed to shoot the heir to the throne and his wife. The assassination triggered a succession of events that led to the outbreak of the First World War, a conflict that Franz Ferdinand had always endeavoured to prevent.

Martin Mutschlechner