Riders on the Storm

Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Into this house we’re born
Into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out alone
Riders on the storm

There’s a killer on the road
His brain is squirmin’ like a toad
Take a long holiday
Let your children play
If ya give this man a ride
Sweet family will die
Killer on the road, yeah.
(The Doors)

It will be the final installment of an accidental trilogy, which

The Duchess of Hohenberg and Franz with childr...Franz Ferdinand with his wife Sophie and their children via Wikipedia

was started by the sad life and mysterious death of Ludwig II of Bavaria and progressed through the fates of his relatives – the  mysterious suicide of the Crown Prince Rudolf and the assassination of his mother, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria also known as Sissi. I call it “accidental” because I didn’t plan a trilogy; to tell you the truth after I started I simply couldn’t resist the temptation to write some more about the fortunes of this particular royal house. After all, you get everything here: a Cinderella-like princess whose life was rather far from a fairy tale, a young Emperor who falls in love with a younger sister when he is supposed to marry the older one, a king suspected of madness, illicit affairs with men and women, , strange, phoney suicides, a hint of ugly Bismarck’s realpolitik and coercive diplomacy, various shadowy international plots and organizations, young and deluded terrorists…really more than enough to tempt anybody who loves history. Taking also into account the fact that lately I started reading “Leviathan” by Scott Westerfeld and one of its main characters is a boy called Aleksandar who is the Prince of Hohenberg and the only son of Franz Ferdinand you must admit I had no choice.

In 1889, after the sudden death of Rudolf which was officially declared a suicide, the Austro-Hungarian empire was in dire need for an heir. The elderly Franz Joseph designated for that role his only living younger brother, Archduke Karl Ludwig of Austria. However Karl renounced the succession rights a few days after the Crown Prince’s death. Why? You must admit that being a Habsburg prince those days was a very high occupational hazard; being additionally an heir was simply too dangerous and too uncomfortable a position for a middle-aged man. He decided to let younger people show their mettle and so his child, young Franz Ferdinand, born in 1863, had to shoulder that dubious favour. He seemed to be the right man for the job – let me present him more closely now.

He was born in Graz, Austria, the oldest son in the family. When Franz was only twelve, his cousin Duke Francis V of Modena died, naming the boy his heir on condition that he add the name Este to his own. Franz Ferdinand thus became one of the wealthiest men in Austria. After being named the Crown Prince, young Franz still managed to find time for travel and personal pursuits – among other things he spent hunting kangaroos and emus in Australia in 1893, and the return voyage to Austria took him across the Pacific on the RMS Empress of China from Yokohama to Vancouver. Quite a trip. Apart from traveling, Franz Ferdinand had a great fondness for trophy hunting. In his diaries he kept track of an estimated 300,000 game kills, 5,000 of which were deer. A small fraction of the trophies were on exhibit at his Bohemian castle at Konopiště which he also stuffed with various antiquities, his other great collection passion.

Politically Franz Ferdinand, not unlike poor Rudolf, his predecessor and cousin, was a proponent of granting greater autonomy to all ethnic groups in the Empire and of addressing their grievances, especially the Czechs in Bohemia and the Yugoslavic peoples in Croatia and Bosnia. He also advocated a careful approach towards Serbia warning that harsh treatment of that country would bring Austria-Hungary into open conflict with Russia, to the ruin of both Empires. He was of course right but nobody knew to what extend. In short Franz Ferdinand didn’t appreciate his Germanic subjects as much as the Iron Chancellor, von Bismarck, would like him to – he was in for a rather interesting but not particularly safe life.

The German historian Michael Freund described Franz Ferdinand as “a man of uninspired energy, dark in appearance and emotion, who radiated an aura of strangeness and cast a shadow of violence and recklessness … a true personality amidst the amiable inanity that characterized Austrian society at this time.” His other admirer, Karl Kraus, put it this way: “he was not one who would greet you … he felt no compulsion to reach out for the unexplored region which the Viennese call their heart.” His relations with Emperor Franz Joseph were tense; the emperor’s personal servant recalled in his memoirs that “thunder and lightning always raged when they had their discussions.” The commentaries and orders which the heir to the throne wrote as margin notes to the documents of the Imperial central commission for architectural conservation (where he was Protector) reveal what can be described as “choleric conservativism.” Soon enough old Franz Joseph was given another reason to get stormy with his heir and nephew –  young Ferdinand fell in love.

In 1895 he met Countess Sophie Chotek at a ball in Prague. Sophie was a lady-in-waiting to Archduchess Isabella, wife of Archduke Friedrich, Duke of Teschen. Franz Ferdinand began to visit Archduke Friedrich’s villa in Pressburg (now Bratislava) and plenty of people though he was interested in his eldest daughter, Marie Christine. Sophie kept their relationship a secret for more than two years – although she made an indelible impression on him and both were determined to marry each other there was just a little snag. To be an eligible marriage partner for a member of the Imperial House of Habsburg, you had to be a member of one of the reigning or formerly reigning dynasties of Europe. The Choteks were not one of these families, although they did include among their ancestors, in the female line, princes of Baden, Hohenzollern-Hechingen, and Liechtenstein. One of Sophie’s direct ancestors was Albert IV, Count of Habsburg; he was descended from Elisabeth of Habsburg, a sister of King Rudolph I of Germany. It was still not enough. When their mutual attachment became official a public scandal erupted.

Sophie, the Duchess of HohenbergSophie – image via Wikipedia

Franz Ferdinand, contrary to the meek Rudolf, refused to marry anyone else. Perhaps the fact that he was deeply in love gave him the strength to defy the old Emperor, perhaps the times have changed. He also gathered some important allies to support his cause. Pope Leo XIII, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and the German Emperor Wilhelm II all made representations on his behalf to Emperor Franz Joseph , arguing that the disagreement between the Emperor and his heir was undermining the stability of the monarchy.

Finally, in 1899, Emperor  agreed to permit Franz Ferdinand to marry Sophie, on condition that the marriage would be morganatic. It was really a huge fly in the ointment. Practically it meant that their descendants would not have succession rights to the throne and Sophie would not share her husband’s rank, title, precedence, or privileges; as such, she would not normally appear in public beside him. She would not be allowed to ride in the royal carriage or sit in the royal box. Apparently it was all they could get and they accepted it, promising themselves quietly that as soon as the old man died they would change these harsh conditions immediately.

The wedding took place on 1 July 1900, at Reichstadt (now Zákupy) in Bohemia; enraged Franz Joseph did not attend the ceremony and neither did so any other archduke, including Franz Ferdinand’s brothers. Allegedly they were ordered not to. The only members of the imperial family who were present were Franz Ferdinand’s stepmother, Princess Maria Theresa of Braganza, and her two daughters. Upon the marriage, Sophie was given the title “Princess of Hohenberg” (Fürstin von Hohenberg) with the style “Her Serene Highness” (Ihre Durchlaucht). In 1909, she was given the more senior title “Duchess of Hohenberg” (Herzogin von Hohenberg) with the style “Her Highness” (Ihre Hoheit). This raised her status considerably, but she still yielded precedence at court to all the archduchesses. Whenever a function required the couple to gather with the other members of royalty, Sophie was forced to stand far down the line of importance, separated from her husband. Franz Ferdinand felt it keenly but all he could to was to grind his teeth and persevere.

The couple had four children: Princess Sophie von Hohenberg (1901–1990), Maximilian, Duke of Hohenberg (1902–1962), Prince Ernst von Hohenberg (1904–1954), and a stillborn son (1908). It seems they were a very happy family. Unfortunately the time left to them to enjoy their happiness was short.

In 1914, General Oskar Potiorek, Governor of the Austrian provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina, invited Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie to watch his troops on maneuvers. Franz Ferdinand knew that the visit would be dangerous. A large number of people living in Bosnia-Herzegovina were unhappy with Austrian rule and favoured union with Serbia.

Sophie was usually not allowed to accompany her husband on official visits, but on this occasion Franz Ferdinand arranged for her to come as an anniversary gift. She was ecstatic. The visit took place at the end of June and proved to be one big safety nightmare. Already the first day, when the procession passed (oh irony) the central police station, Nedjelko Cabrinovic hurled a hand grenade at the archduke’s car. The driver accelerated when he saw the object flying towards the car and the grenade exploded under the wheel of the next car. Two of the occupants were seriously wounded. Fourteen spectators were also hit by bomb splinters. The visit should have been aborted at that stage but it wasn’t. Franz Ferdinand allegedly shouted in anger to local officials: “So you welcome your guests with bombs”. 

After attending the official reception at the City Hall, Franz Ferdinand asked about the members of his party that had been wounded by the bomb. When the archduke was told they were badly injured in hospital, he insisted on being taken to see them. A member of the archduke’s staff, Baron Morsey, suggested this might be dangerous, but Oskar Potiorek, who was responsible for the safety of the royal party, replied, “Do you think Sarajevo is full of assassins?” However, Potiorek did accept it would be better if Sophie remained behind in the City Hall. When Baron Morsey told Sophie about the revised plans, she refused to stay, arguing: “As long as the Archduke shows himself in public today I will not leave him.”
On Sunday, 28 June 1914, the royal couple insisted on seeing all those injured at the hospital. After travelling there, Franz and Sophie decided to go to the palace, but their driver took a wrong turn onto a side street, where Gavrilo Princip,19 at the time and a member of Young Bosnia and one of a group of assassins organized by the Black Hand spotted them. As the car was backing up, Princip approached and shot Sophie in the abdomen and Franz Ferdinand in the jugular. 

A detailed account of the shooting can be found in Sarajevo by Joachim Remak:

As the car was reversing (to go back to the Governor’s residence because the entourage thought the Imperial couple were unhurt) a thin streak of blood shot from the Archduke’s mouth onto Count Harrach’s right cheek (he was standing on the car’s running board). Harrach drew out a handkerchief to still the gushing blood. The Duchess, seeing this, called: “For Heaven’s sake! What happened to you?” and sank from her seat, her face falling between her husband’s knees.
Harrach and Potoriek … thought she had fainted … only her husband seemed to have an instinct for what was happening. Turning to his wife despite the bullet in his neck, Franz Ferdinand pleaded: “Sopherl! Sopherl! Sterbe nicht! Bleibe am Leben für unsere Kinder! – Sophie dear! Don’t die! Stay alive for our children!”. Having said this, he seemed to sag down himself. His plumed hat … fell off; many of its green feathers were found all over the car floor. Count Harrach seized the Archduke by the uniform collar to hold him up. He asked “Leiden Eure Kaiserliche Hoheit sehr? – Is Your Imperial Highness suffering very badly?” “Es ist nichts – It is nothing” said the Archduke in a weak but audible voice. He seemed to be losing consciousness during his last few minutes, but, his voice growing steadily weaker, he repeated the phrase perhaps six or seven times more.
A rattle began to issue from his throat, which subsided as the car drew in front of the Konak bersibin (Town Hall). Despite several doctors’ efforts, the Archduke died shortly after being carried into the building while his beloved wife was almost certainly dead from internal bleeding before the motorcade reached the Konak.

They were both dead within an hour. The storm began.

Austria-Hungary’s reaction to the death of their heir, who was not greatly beloved either by the Emperor, Franz Josef, or his government, was three weeks in coming.  Arguing that the Serbian government was implicated in the machinations of the Black Hand (whether it was or not the truth remains unclear, but it appears unlikely), the Austro-Hungarians opted to take the opportunity to stamp its authority upon the Serbians, crushing the nationalist movement there and cementing Austria-Hungary’s influence in the Balkans
The ‘Great War’, which began on 28 July 1914 with Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war with Serbia, was the first truly global war – although it began in Europe but quickly spread throughout the world.  Many countries became embroiled within the war’s first month; others joined in the ensuing four years.
What was intended as a strictly limited war – a brief war – between accuser and accused, Austria-Hungary and Serbia, rapidly escalated into something that was beyond the expectations of even the most warlike ministers in Berlin. 

The First World War has sometimes been labeled, with reason, “a family affair”.  This is derived from the reality that many of the European monarchies – many of which fell during the war (including those of Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary) – were closely inter-related. The British monarch George V’s predecessor, Edward VII, was the German Kaiser’s uncle and, via his wife’s sister, uncle of the Russian Tsar as well.  His niece, Alexandra, was the last Romanoff Tsar’s wife.  Edward’s daughter, Maud, was the Norwegian Queen, and his niece, Ena, Queen of Spain; Marie, a further niece, was to become Queen of Romania.

Despite these familial relations European politics at that time was all about power,  influence, ‘protection’ and encirclement. The World War I also proved to be very cruel. Family ah family…


Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, Volume 27, Funk & Wagnall, 1983

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3 Responses to Riders on the Storm

  1. Did you start reading Leviathan yet?

  2. Blodeuedd says:

    Oh the poppies, I have a strange fascination with WWI poetry, it is so beautiful and so sad.

  3. anachronist says:

    Brooke Yes, I've already started – a friend of mine has sent my an e-copy of "Leviathan".Blodeuedd I love poppies too and they symbolize the WWI in many countries as they tended to grow on battlefields.

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