By Larry D. Rose
Visitors to Vienna usually want to see the magnificent palaces, listen to Strauss waltzes or perhaps savour chocolatey desserts at one of the many superb coffee houses. However, hidden away in one corner of the Austrian capital, is something rather more unusual.
On display at the Austrian Military Museum are several items relating to the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, including the uniform he was wearing when it happened. The assassination, of course, was the spark that touched off the First World War, which left 15 million people dead, Russia swept by revolution and the map of Old Europe in tatters.
The archduke’s sky-blue cavalry general’s tunic, with high collar and gold braid cuffs, still shows ample evidence of the attack in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. His helmet, festooned with now-faded green ostrich feathers, sits nearby.
Only a few feet away is the 1911 Gräf und Stift phaeton convertible car which carried Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, to their fateful encounter with assassins. The car comes complete with a bullet hole on the right-hand side, near where the archduke was seated. The Graf und Stift was the luxury limo of its day, and although splendid, somehow doesn’t seem as big as one might expect considering its role in such a momentous event.
The museum also has the actual Browning Model 1910 semi-automatic pistol the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, used in the attack along with other weapons seized from the group of conspirators.
The archduke, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was 51 years old at the time and, given the grim outcome of events, it would be nice to think he was an admirable prince. Alas, it turns out that he was a passionate believer in the absolute right of kings who thought his Hungarian subjects were “infamous liars” and who wasn’t much loved by his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph or just about anyone else except his wife.
For her part, Sophie was intelligent and assertive but not a “royal” and, as a result, was shunned by the extremely rigid etiquette of the Austrian court. At least the couple could say they had a loving and happy marriage.
The assassination was the result of ghastly security blunders, blind dumb luck by the mostly amateurish assassins, and, above all, terrible judgement by the archduke himself. Tiny details, such as the fact that the Graf und Stift limo did not have a reverse gear, also played into the ultimate outcome.
It is clear the archduke should never have gone to Sarajevo in the first place since it was among the most notorious trouble spots in the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire. Several earlier plots had been foiled. Meantime, in terms of security lapses, the route the archduke was to take was well advertised in advance while the royal couple rode in the wide open car with almost no guards around them. One officer who was part of the security force joined the motorcade, leaving most of his troops behind.
The assassins were part of a Bosnian group committed to throwing the Austrians out of the Balkans. There were seven of them, armed with six bombs and four Browning semi-automatic pistols. They also carried a handful of cyanide suicide capsules which, in the event, proved ineffective in hastening their own dispatch.
Three of the group had been in Sarajevo for some time, scoping out the parade route and planning to cover three bridges since the archduke’s motorcade would have to use at least one of them.
The archduke and Sophie had arrived in Sarajevo by train on the morning of the fateful day — which happened to be their 14th wedding anniversary — and, under bright sunshine, set off down a broad boulevard toward city hall amid splendid uniforms, fluttering ostrich feathers, fezzes worn by locals and Sophie’s fashionably big-as-all-outdoors bonnet.
At the first stop one of the plotters threw his bomb. It hit the archduke’s car but bounced off and exploded under the following vehicle, injuring several officers, some bystanders and slightly wounding Sophie on one cheek. The bomb thrower was arrested. This apparently unnerved most of the other conspirators who, although the motorcade passed directly in front of them, found various excuses for melting into the crowd and calling it a day.
It was blindingly obvious to the Austrians that if there was one assassin about, there could be others and this might be the right moment to depart for safer havens. However, unaccountably, the archduke commented, “That fellow is clearly insane” and ordered the visit to continue.
Amid dust and smoke, the injured members were taken to hospital and then the cavalcade proceeded to city hall. There, the archduke was greeted with a previously written speech — macabre in the circumstances — noting that all the people of Sarajevo were “filled with happiness” over the royal visit.
Then came the archduke’s next—and ultimately fatal — decision as he demanded plans be changed to visit the wounded men in hospital. All piled into their vehicles and the convoy headed off. However, no one told the archduke’s driver of the new plan and after setting out he turned onto the wrong street. Without a reverse gear, the car remained stationary while assistants assembled to push it back far enough to take the correct route.
By chance one of the assassins, described by historian Max Hastings as “a weedy teenage terrorist,” was standing on the exact spot where the car stopped. Gavrilo Princip seized this unexpected opportunity and fired two shots at the archduke from a few feet away. One bullet hit Franz Ferdinand in the neck while the other entered the side of the vehicle (hence the hole) hitting Sophie in the abdomen and severing an artery. She died very quickly.
Franz Ferdinand’s last words, muttered in the car, were, “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die — stay alive for our children.” The archduke was rushed to hospital and examined for what appeared to be chest wounds. His uniform was ripped twice as doctors tried to locate his wounds, with the rips still obvious on the tunic today. He died lying on a couch, which is also part of the exhibit at the Vienna museum.
The assassin, Princip, tried to commit suicide but was grabbed, arrested and later sentenced to a long prison term since he was too young to be executed. He died of tuberculosis while still in jail.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The archduke’s uniform, the car, gun and other artifacts are only a small part of the museum that is spread over two floors and includes hundreds of photos, weapons, uniforms and memorabilia covering more than 200 years of Austro-Hungarian military history. The Austrian Military Museum, known in German as the (take a deep breath) Heeresgeschichtliches
Museum, is a $25 cab ride from the city centre. Entry fee is about $10.