Resulting from interest sparked by the 100th anniversary of the assassination of the Austrian arch-duke Franz Ferdinand, I began reading “A WORLD UNDONE: THE STORY OF THE GREAT WAR, 1914 TO 1918” by G.J. Meyer. Just in the first fifty pages, I have learned a number of fascinating factoids about the prelude to war:
-Franz Ferdinand wasn’t just an archduke, he was also heir to the Autria-Hungarian throne. The only son of emperor Franz Joseph (Rudolf) had murdered his lover and shot himself at the age of thirty, in 1889.
-The assassination of Franz Ferdinand (on June 28, 1914) was a bit of a relief to Austria-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph. Ferdinand had deeply annoyed the emperor with his desire to marry a woman named Sophie Chotek, a mere lady-in-waiting to an Austrian archduchess. It became quite a scandal when it was discovered that Ferdinand wasn’t visiting the archduchess for her daughter. The emperor long forbade Ferdinand to marry Sophie, and only finally gave his consent after over two years and with the condition that the marriage be morganatic: neither Sophie nor their children would be eligible to ascend to the throne.
-The assassination was the second one attempted that day. Earlier, a small bomb had been thrown at Ferdinand’s vehicle as it passed, and he had deflected it away. Ferdinand later insisted on driving the same route later that day en-route to visit the victims injured in the event, and while it was during this drive that he and his wife were shot, the two of them had passed by at least four other conspirators that day who had simply failed to act.
-Nobody in the larger world political schema expected the assassination to spark a war, nor did they take particular interest, for assassinations were not uncommon: “in the two decades before 1914, presidents of the United States, France, Mexico, Guatemala, Uruguay, and the Dominican Republic had been murdered. So had prime ministers of Russia, Spain, Greece, Bulgaria, Persia, and Egypt, and kings, queens, and empresses of Austria, Italy, Serbia, Portugal, and Greece.”
-Essentially three men were closest to emperor Franz Joseph’s political decisions: Leopold von Berchtold, Franz Conrad, and Franz Ferdinand. Conrad was obsessively aggressive, having made 25 proposals for war against Serbia during 1913 alone. Berchtold had gained a reputation for passivity, and saw action against Serbia as a way in which both he and Austria could appear stronger. Those closest to Ferdinand, on the other hand, were convinced that he wanted to give Serbia greater sovereignty. Currently an occupied and administrative territory of Austria-Hungary (since 1908), Ferdinand wished to make it an equal partner in a tri-cornered monarchy with its own autonomous government. The Serbs assassinated the one man who might have treated them more fairly.
-Serbia had been involved in wars in the two previous years as well, and each time the conflict had exacerbated larger problems: Austria had been too slow to engage Serbia and had missed its opportunities to weaken them. Russia had each time failed to support its Orthodox friends, the Serbs. Germany had each time failed to support its ally and junior partner, Austria. Each party saw 1914 as a time when it could not fail again.
-Though the world had grown less sympathetic to Austria in the near four week delay between the assassination and the Austrians’ ultimatum, there were good reasons for waiting this long: Austria-Hungary had to get both of its governments on-board with the decision, and the French President would be visiting the Russian Capitol of St. Petersburg from July 20-23. If Austria delivered a disturbing ultimatum before or during that time, it would give its enemies (France and Russia) a unique opportunity to coordinate their response.