Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s Czech connections

Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his wife Sophie Chotek and their children

Heir to the imperial throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand is best known for his assassination in Sarajevo which set in train the events which led to the First World War. Lesser known are his special connections with Bohemia and Moravia and his plans for shaking up the whole empire which might have forestalled Czechoslovak independence.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his wife Sophie Chotek and their children
“And so they’ve killed our Ferdinand ” said the charwoman for Mr. Švejk. “Which Ferdinand, Mrs. Muller” asked Švejk. The famous lines from the start of Jaroslav Hašek’s famous satirical novel ‘The Good Soldier Švejk introduces the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este, the spark that ignited the First World War, as a banal event. Few at the time could have foreseen what the events of June 28 in Sarajevo would lead to.

In spite of Švejk’s purported ignorance and nonchalance, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the imperial Austro-Hungarian throne was a significant figure in Bohemia and Moravia, the industrial powerhouse of the disparate empire.

As Mrs. Muller’s comments suggest, Franz Ferdinand might at some levels even have been thought of as a local or at the very least as a localized Habsburg. He married a Czech noblewoman, Sophie Chotek, after being smitten by her after they met at a Prague ball in 1894. The relationship was kept secret for the first few years because by the Habsburg’s exclusive rules about who should enter the in-bred family she was not up to it. After refusing to be deterred,Franz Ferdinand finally got his way, overcame Emperor Franz Joseph's resistance, and the couple were married in what could only be described as a discrete ceremony at Zákupy in northern Bohemia in 1900. The ceremony was shunned by the Vienna aristocracy with only the archduke’s mother and sister as significant guests on the groom’s side.

There had also been a price for the wedding bells to ring, it had been agreed that the price paid for marrying into the Bohemian nobility, was that the couple’s children would not be eligible to succeed to the imperial throne. That snub was one of many which Franz Ferdinand and Sophie faced from the imperial court in Vienna.

Partly as a result, the couple spent a lot of time in the Bohemian chateau of Konopiště near Benešov, around 40 kilometres from, Prague which the Archduke had bought in 1887. He installed there his massive collections of game trophies and antiquities. Even by the standards of the late 19th century gentry, Archduke Ferdinand’s obsession with hunting the furred and feathered was exceptional. His trophies are estimated to number more than 300,000.

Konopiště chateau,  photo: CzechTourism
The already strained relations with the ageing emperor Franz Joseph, who had held the empire together since the revolutionary year of 1848, did not improve. Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este only became heir to the imperial throne after the suicide of the emperor’s son, Crown Prince Rudolf, in 1889 and the death of his own father seven years later.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand is often described as having a reckless, choleric and authoritarian personality. There are also a lot of arguments over whether the Archduke’s political views made him a liberal reformer or a conservative, it is pretty clear that he disagreed with the emperor on many aspects of how Austro-Hungary was run and made little secret that he intended wholesale changes. In particular, the archduke resented the predominance that Hungary was given at the expense of other nations in the empire.

Australian historian Christopher Clark in his book ‘The Sleepwalkers’ about the drift to war in 1914 argued that Franz Ferdinand understandably favoured those who did not look down on his lower born wife. That included the war mongering Austrian general Franz Conrad who was infamous for his calls for Austria-Hungary to launch a pre-emptive war against the small kingdom of Serbia, seen as the main troublemaker in the Balkans. Conrad, largely as a result of the archduke, was appointed chief of general staff of the entire army in 1906.

The great grandson of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is Nikolaus Hohenberg. He attended a conference in Prague on June 2 to discuss the assassination and his relations with Bohemia and plans to reform the empire. In the crowded conference room afterwards this is what he had to say about the Archduke: “The idea that he was a militarist is a bit of a cliché. He knew very well that the military power of the Austro-Hungarian empire was very weak and very disorganized and needed reforming. And he always backed down from situations which could have led to a war because he was not interested in being part of that. A am talking from a family point of view, I am not an historian. What I can say is that as a family person and being very close to his wife, he was not confrontational and we know from family history that his wife often told him ‘Look if you send people to war now there will be sons of people who will be killed. Do you really want this?’ And he was not interested in that. So that is a bit of a cliché.

Franz Joseph I.
“What he wanted to do is to reform the whole thing and by doing that he was saying I will have to give more autonomy to the different ethnic parts of this empire, it can’t be decentralized between two powers, Austria and Hungary. And especially the situation in Bohemia was an historic anomaly because all the Habsburg rulers were crowned Kings of Bohemia and that had not happened to Emperor Franz Joseph for whatever reason and he definitely did not want to have that. He would have, if he had the chance, make sure that he was crowned King of Bohemia. So that is something that he wanted to change. I do not know whether he would have been successful. Unfortunately that is something I can’t say but he was at least trying to change things and not wait till it all falls apart. That was a bit of a problem. ”

It was later revealed, for example, that the archduke was in contract with the prominent Czech politician Karel Šviha of the Czech National Social Party, a left-wing party which championed greater Czech independence. A member of the party was also Edvard Beneš, latter one of the key architects of Czechoslovak independence. Slovak Milan Hodža also helped the Archduke design the plans for a federal empire with a greater share out of power.

Nikolaus Hohenberg again: “The fact that he inherited or he acquired these two estates in Bohemia helped. And he was not stupid, he knew Bohemia was the economic powerhouse of the empire and you can’t just deprive the people over there of political influence and autonomy, you cannot do that. The same was in the southern part of the empire, the southern Slavs, the Croats and so on. So he was saying it does not just work that way and he had to amend this, to change this. That was clear. I would say that being married to a Bohemian countess helped the whole thing. ”

Czech historian Jaroslav Šebek agrees that Archduke Franz Ferdinand did distinguish himself as someone who mixed with the top of Czech society and was amenable to putting forward plans for reform that were eventually advanced at the end of the First World War, when they had already been overtaken and it was already too late. “The direction of his moves was for a federal reorganization of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The concept of a federal autonomous monarchy was set forth, but in an official form only at the end of the war with the manifesto of Charles the First. But it was already at the end of the empire and it basically did not make any sense.

“It is possible that this federal model could have in some sort of way continued under Franz Ferdinand. There’s obviously a question if it would have been able to solve the most acute problem and that was the nationalities problem. There was here the very strong antagonism between Czechs and Germans when we talk about Bohemia and Moravia. That was the biggest problem. In fact the most destructive element in the empire was not Czech but German nationalism and I think that Archduke Ferdinand was conscious of this. ”

As heir to the throne, the Archduke has already created a sort of shadow government in anticipation of the day when he would take over from Franz Joseph. The circumstances which put paid to those ambitions and put Europe on the road to way will be covered in a second instalment of this programme next week.