How 'Game of Thrones'-style family drama triggered a World War

Every high school student knows that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo helped spark World War I. But did you know that he wasn’t the only one killed that day? The other victim was his wife, Sophie, whom he married against everyone’s wishes. Their wedding pretty much cost Franzi everything – including his throne and his life.

Henry-Guttman-photo-Franz-Ferdinand-Sophie-Chotek

Photo: Public Domain by Henry Guttman

What an Heir-Head

Franz Ferdinand was the greatest catch in Europe at the time of his coming of age, especially for the heir to Austria-Hungary (downgraded from the Holy Roman Empire in 1867). As nephew and heir to Emperor Franz Joseph I – husband of the tragically beautiful Empress Elisabeth, a.k.a. “Sisi” – Franzi could have his pick of any eligible woman in Europe. He couldn’t marry just any woman! According to aHabsburg family statute of 1839, archdukes and archduchess could only marry with the consent of the head of their house (i.e., the emperor). But the marriage market of late nineteenth century Europe was a small place. No matter which way he went, an archduke would end up wedding a relative; since she had to be Catholic, the bride-to-be would probably end up being a French, Bavarian, Portuguese, Italian, or Spanish princess, or even an Austrian archduchess cousin.

In 1915, Polish noblewoman, Princess Catherine Radziwill, wrote a fabulously gossipy memoir calledThe Royal Marriage Market of Europe, detailing the available royals of Europe and their family foibles. She snarked about Empress Sisi and her family, but actually had nice things to say about Franz Ferdinand and his marital choices – which went against the grain and wrought havoc in his family. Who was his choice? Not a royal princess, but a lady-in-waiting named Sophie Chotek.

Sophie-chotek-ferdinand-1868-2-world-war-I

Photo: Public Domain

By modern standards, no one would blink at a royal marrying a noblewoman – in fact, the bride would probably be of higher rank than many other princely wives-to-be. But for the tottering Habsburg-Lorraine family and its weakening empire, it was imperative to maintain a “pure” bloodline, one worthy of the perhaps oldest and most prestigious Catholic clan on the Continent. Only the bluest of blood would do for an empress consort! Which led to a hell of a family squabble…especially after Franz Joseph’s only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, committed suicide and didn’t leave behind a son.

I Keep on Fallin’…

Franz Ferdinand first met Sophie Chotek when she was a lady-in-waiting to the wife of his distant cousin, Archduke Friedrich of Teschen. The snobby, upwardly mobile wife of Friedrich – Isabella of Croÿ – was barely good enough to make it as an imperial wife. Gushed Princess Radziwill, “The young man — he was barely twenty-two at the time — fell in love with the Princess Isabella of Croÿ, whose father, the Duke of Croÿ, though belonging to the higher order of the German aristocracy, was still looked upon as a simple gentleman, in possession of large means and an old title.” Scandalous!

Isabella was “a clever, ambitious woman, who at once understood the immense advantages of such an un-hoped-for marriage,” and the imperial family tried to prove that her family wasn’t good enough, stating that Friedrich and Izzy’s wedding should be morganatic (a union between people of unequal rank, when any resulting kids usually can’t inherit any thrones involved). Isabella came up with enough evidence to prove her house was sufficiently ancient and high-ranking, so the Habsburgs begrudgingly allowed her into their family.

After Isabella got her long-awaited title of archduchess, she popped out eight daughters before giving birth to her golden ticket, a son. With so many marriageable girls, Isabella had a ton of matchmaking to do, and what better match could be made than with the heir of the empire? One of her daughters marrying the future emperor would also finally silence any detractors who complained about her own lineage. So ambitious Izzy, always playing up her family because of her own insecurities about it, set out to snag Franzi for one of her baby girls, bringing him over to her country house time and again. During this courting process – sometime in the 1890s, although the exact date is unknown – Franz Ferdinand met Sophie.

Sophie-Chotek-Franz-Ferdinand

Photo: Unknown photographer

One Less Problem?

Each time he was invited to court his cousins, the more he fell for the one woman he wanted – and the one he couldn’t have. To be fair, Sophie’s background wasn’t exactly dirt-poor; it was just not up to imperial standards. Her grandfather was an Austrian count, while her diplomat dad worked all over Eastern Europe. Her clan wasn’t rich, but it was often in the wings of major imperial events, so Sophie would’ve known Franzi by sight. She was young, pretty, and refreshingly un-stuffy, compared to the rest of his family. In other words, perfect for the archduke. Princess Radziwill had fairly nice things to say about her, but admitted, “Her sway over the mind of her husband was unlimited, and, perhaps, even in excess of the love which he undoubtedly bore her.”

When Isabella found out by discovering a lost locket with Sophie’s picture in it, she was irate.According to Austrian noblewoman Marie Louise von Wallersee-Larisch‘s memoirs, “the archduchess immediately dismissed” Sophie and threw her out of her home. Emperor Franz Josef was opposed to their union, too, but Franz Ferdinand dug in his heels – it was Sophie or no wife at all. In a time of empires toppling left and right, the heir had to have a bride! Eventually, the emperor acquiesced, but added a harsh proviso.

FF and Sophie could get married – and they were, wed by a mere deacon – but she could never have imperial rank and their kids couldn’t inherit. As von Wallersee-Larisch noted, “the Emperor soon realized the marriage was a complete success,” so he bumped up Sophie’s rank to countess, then duchess. She still trailed behind every royal woman of the court and was probably shunned by all the archduchess. A shame no one realized that Sophie and FF made a popular couple that might have improved the imperial public image…especially with their three kids – Little Sophie, Maximilian, and Ernst.

In June 1914, Sophie and Ferdinand went on a diplomatic trip to an already uneasy area: Sarajevo. Only here, when  Franzi was on military duty, could the two unequally married lovebirds ride together in a car, so she accompanied him on the journey. The portents weren’t good – when the car overheated,Franzi quipped, “Our journey starts with an extremely promising omen. Here our car burns, and down there they will throw bombs at us.” While out and about in an open motorcade on June 28, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were both shot by Gavrilo Princip, a nationalist terrorist. This was after a failed bombing attempt occurred that same day, and FF decided to keep on trekking.

Henry-Guttman-photo-Franz-Ferdinand-Sophie-Chotek

Photo: Public Domain by Henry Guttman

Sadly, these later shots were fatal. When Sophie slumped over her husband in the car, an already mortally wounded Franz Ferdinand shouted, “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die, stay alive for our children!” Both were later declared dead at the Konak palace. And, of course, Vienna took a hard line at the assassination of its heir and his wife. They declared war, and the rest of Europe chose sides…starting World War I.

Also at HistoryBuff.com:

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