OF PRINCES AND PAUPERS, SUICIDES AND ASSASSINATIONS: A WOLFSONIAN REFLECTION ON THE CROWN PRINCES OF EUROPE AND THE OUTBREAK OF WWI
This past Saturday marked the 100 year anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke and heir apparent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914).
The archduke and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg (1868-1914), were visiting the Austrian provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina to celebrate the opening of a hospital under tight security, given a failed assassination attempt made in 1911 against the archduke’s uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph (1830-1916) by shadowy Serbian terrorists, known as the Black Hand.
The royal couple had already survived an assassination attempt earlier in the day, when one of six conspirators recruited by the Black Hand threw a bomb at the royal motorcade. The hand grenade detonated too late to harm the royal couple but did seriously wound two occupants of the fourth car in the motorcade and nearly a dozen spectators.
Ironically, the archduke’s decision to visit the bomb victims at the Sarajevo Hospital proved fatal when his driver made a wrong turn down Franz Josef Street, and the car stalled in the vicinity of a second conspirator, Gavrilo Princip. Born in Bosnia in 1894 to Serbian Christian peasants who were unable to support their children from their tiny acreage, by 1911 young Princip had fallen under the influence of and had joined the radical “Young Bosnia” movement advocating separation from Austria-Hungary and unification with the Kingdom of Serbia. Princip had been expelled from school the following year for aggressively participating in demonstrations against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Nineteen-year-old Princip approached the car and from a distance of five feet fired two shots that fatally wounded the royal couple. After a failed suicide attempt, Princip was apprehended, tried, and sentenced to twenty years imprisonment, though the harsh prison conditions claimed his life in April 1918. The assassination, and Austria’s demands for severe retribution in a July ultimatum to the Kingdom of Serbia, unleashed a conflict that, because of a host of entangling alliances, pulled all of the great powers of Europe into the Great War and ultimately resulted in the death of 16,000,000 civilians and military personnel, and another 20,000,000 wounded by the war’s end in 1918.
After the war’s end, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and the Central Powers who lost the war were judged “guilty” of provoking the bloody conflict.
While democratically elected heads of state in Europe are today perhaps no more immune to assassination plots, in an age when monarchies predominated, the private lives (and fates) of crown princes and other heirs apparent could be critically important to a smooth succession and transfer of power from one generation to the next. While the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is universally remembered as the trigger for one of the most bloody conflicts of the twentieth century and the end of the “old order” in Europe, the earlier suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia (1858-1889) made headlines at the time, but has mostly been sidelined to the footnotes of history by contemporary historians.
Rudolf’s marriage to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium (1864-1945) was not a particularly happy one, and the heir to the dual monarchy took solace in drink and affairs, as his father would not permit him to divorce or seek an annulment. When in 1889 the Emperor demanded that his son and heir end his scandalous affair with the 17-year-old Baroness, Marie Vetsera (1871-1889), the unhappy couple concluded a suicide pact, killing themselves in a royal hunting lodge. In the wake of the Crown Prince’s death by suicide, the aged Emperor’s nephew, Franz Ferdinand became the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, until the pauper Princip’s steady aim in Serajevo took the life of the Archduke and his wife.
Once the war came, it was Kaiser Wilhelm II’s eldest son, Wilhelm, the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Prussia and the Empire of Germany (1882-1951) who was singled out for “character assassination.” Not unlike the strained relations between the Austrian Emperor and his son and nephew, the German Kaiser (1859-1941) also held his son in contempt, both on account of political differences, and because of the heir’s numerous and poorly concealed affairs both before and after his arranged marriage to Duchess Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (1886-1954). The Crown Prince was only 32 when the war broke out and despite having never commanded more than a regiment, he was first given command of the entire Fifth Army and in 1915 was made commander of Army Group German Crown Prince until the war’s end.
Although only flattering images of the Crown Prince were published in Germany, his private affairs and competence as a war leader were publicly called into question by “neutral” and Allied propagandists.
A humorous folding postcard from the war years pictured the Crown Prince “playboy” as a voyeur and swinish “Peeping Tom.”
GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA & CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA
A number of scathing editorial cartoons penned by Dutch painter and illustrator Louis Raemaekers (1869-1956) portrayed the Crown Prince as an immature, bumbling, incompetent commander, leading his armies to senseless slaughter.
Ironically, as early as November 1914, in his first foreign press interview after the outbreak, the German Crown Prince had described the conflict as “…the most stupid, senseless and unnecessary war of modern times.”
He further argued that the war had not been “wanted by Germany,” even though “the fact that we were so effectually prepared to defend ourselves is now being used as an argument to convince the world that we desired conflict.”