The immediate consequence was an escalation of tensions between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the newly independent nation of Serbia. The interlocking treaties and alliances among European powers that had been built up over decades, especially under the leadership of Germany's 19th-century "Iron Chancellor" Otto von Bismarck, led in short order to the bloodiest war that the world had known up until that time. When it was over, four European Empires - the Habsburgs' Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Hohenzollerns' German Empire, the Romanovs' Russian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire - had been destroyed.
The anniversary has gotten quite a bit of coverage in the Austrian press, which has been very interesting for me to read. Franz Ferdinand didn't seem to have been an especially beloved successor to the throne. Of course, that didn't stop the schlerotic imperial leaders of the empires of Europe from throwing themselves into a spectacular disastrous blood-letting over the whiole thing.
Of course, in reality, his assassination was only the event that finally sent a very tense situation spiraling into disaster. I know that the question of the multiple causes of the First World War and exactly what weight they had is one of the thorniest questions debated among historians of the period. So I'll happily stipulate I don't pretend to have any particular insight on that tormented question.
Franz Ferdinand, Duchess Sophie and the Vienna Court
Franz Ferdinand was the son of Karl Ludwig, the younger brother of Kaiser [Emperor] Franz Joseph, and a Sicilian princess. Franz Ferdinand became the crown prince in line for the throne when Franz Joseph's only son Rudolf committed suicide (it was actually a sucide-murder with his girlfiriend). The Habsburg court was notoriously stiff-necked, even by European imperial standards. So they not only frowed on his fathering two children out of wedlock. They also dispproved of hismarrying a mere duchess, Sophie von Hohenberg. (Actually, she got the title of Herzogin or duchess after she married; she was a Gräfin before that.)
She was of noble blood, but somehow in the convoluted system of rules governing such things among the Habsburgs, she wasn't considered to be a proper partner for the future Emperor. So she wasn't allowed to appear with him in public at court in Vienna. One of the reasons he liked going to Bosnia and was insistent of appearing in public in Sarajevo on June 28 was that in Bosnia, he was allowed to appear in public on official functions with Sophie at his side.
His aunt, Empress Elizabeth, still fondly remembered in Austria as "Sisi" (you can find an endless supply of Sisi kitsch in Vienna), had advised Franz Ferdinand to marry into "other blood", and she probably would have approved of his marriage to Sophie. She was from a Bavarian aristocratic family, and she always hated the neurotically elaborate court rituals in Vienna. She spent as much time outside of Vienna as she could, especially in Hungary, where she was also Queen of Hungary. The Habsburg Emperor had multiple official royal titles, among them "king of Jersusalem" (!!!).
But Sisi wasn't around for the wedding, because in 1898 she was murdered in Switzerland by an anarchist/nut/terrorist (take your pick). Sisi actually had sympathy for republican ideas, of which not a lot were practiced under her husband Franz Joseph's rule. She was kind of a Princess Diana type, whose personality continually clashed with the rigid and often irrational rules of court life. Like Sisi, Franz Ferdinand spent a lot of his time outside Vienna with Sophie, especially at his palace near Prague. What is now the Czech Republic was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and lots more besides. It's become normal these days for European royalty to marry "commoners" (see Prince Philip of Spain and Princess Letitia), but it was seriously frowned upon in those days.
Franz Ferdinand's Politics
Sisi probably would have had little sympathy for Franz Ferdinand's political ideas. It's often said these days that the royal families of Europe had, uh, psyciatric "issues" because they were so inbred among the royal families. The King of England and the German Kaiser during the First World War were couisins. Franz Ferdinand himself thought something like that. "If one of us is attracted to someone," he once said, "there turns out to be some petty little thing in their family tree that forbids the marriage. And so it happens, that among us husband and wife are always related to each other twenty different ways. The result is that among the children, half of them are idiots or epileptics." (Quote from first Karl Danninger article; see below.)
I'm not sure how much factual basis this idea has. John Kenneth Galbraith was probably closer to the mark when he observed that one of the main problems with monarchical systems was that when ancestry is the main criteria of who assumes power, intelligence cannot be a key critieria. The crown prince showed much more obvious talent showed immensely greater talent for his favorite talent of hunting than for heading a monarchy whose only chance for long-term survival was to make dramatic adjustments to democratic demands of the people. He was an expert shot, and reportedly shot up to three hundred thousand specimens of game by the time his own life was cut short by Gavrilo Princip's bullet.
The best thing that can be said about Franz Ferdinand's politics is that he opposed a "preventive war" against Serbia, which was advocated by many in the imperial court, especially Franz Joseph's military general staff chief, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf. The crown prince's warning would sound prophetic by the end of 1918: "If we move against Serbia, then Russia will stand behind them, and we will have war. Should the Emperior of Austria and the Czar both oust themselves from their thrones and give a free hand to the revolution?"
But the guy was not only a committed monarchist, he had some fool idea of going back to the absolutist rule of the days of Maria Theresia in the 18th century. He was rabidly anti-democracy, to the point of thinking the shabby pretence at a representative parliament under Frany Joseph was way too much of a concession. On the subject of the social-democratic movement, he wrote in a letter to the General Staff in 1896 complaining about the "subversive socialist ideas, which are gaining ground unhindered day by day, especially among the working class. To this question, there is only one answer: the army." (Preceding two quotations from Herbert Lackner article, see below).
He doesn't appear to have become more enlightened in the succeeding years. He saw himself as the representative of the old aristocracy and the large landowners. The prospective successor to throne of one of the main powers in Europe in the 20th century had not yet adjusted himself to the nineteenth.
Even on the issue of Hungary, he seemed to have had a less than adequate grasp of reality. One of Franz Joseph's most important accomplishments had been to establish a "dual monarchy" with Hungary, which is where the "Hungary" part of the Austro-Hungarian empire comes in. It turned out to be a practical arrangement that gave a significant degree of national self-rule to Hungary and stability to the Habsburgs' impossibly diverse empire. Franz Ferdinand seems to have been unsympathetic to the whole idea.
Franz Ferdinand and the Balkans
After the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, it's much easier for us to imagine what a complicated political mess the Balkan nations represented for European politicians in the early years of the 20th century. The First Balkan War of 1912 found Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria in revolt against the rule of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. The gruesome massacres and the intense, burning hatreds and ethnic grudges about which we heard so much in the 1990s were also very much part of the 1912 war.
The Habsburgs had dabbled in the Balkan wars and hatreds for centuries. They had encouraged the development of a militant Serbian ethnic consciousness of themselves as a barrier against the Ottomans. The Slovanians had been under German/Austrian rule since the 800s, although the common people continued to speak their own language. Croatia was under the Hungarian part of the empire and the Hungarians were none too generous in their manner of rule there. The Habsburgs had made Bosnia-Herzogovina independent in 1878 after a war with the Turks (Ottomans). In 1908, they foolishly annexed it formally.
The predominantly Orthodox Christian Serbians, not without reason, viewed the Catholic Habsburgs as a military threat to their recently won independence. They were also identified with the Serbs' traditional enemies, the Muslim Bosnians and the Catholic Croats. (The German/Austrian identification with Croatia carried over into the SecondWorld War, when the Germans backed a fascist puppet regime in Croatia, and even into recent years, when Germany and Austria formally recognized the independence of Croatia and Slovenia in 1991 when Serbian/Yugoslav forces still held significant parts of the territory of both countries.)
There were conspiracies aplenty afoot on that June 28 in 1914. The act that did Franz Ferdinand and Sophie in was a case of "state-sponsored" terrorism. A whole team of plotters had been sent on a mission against the crown prince by the head of Serbia's secret police, Dragutin Dimitrijevic, known as Apis. The first Karl Denninger article cited below even suggests that Apis didn't intend for it to succeed. He had recruited some inexperienced assassins, according to this theory, expected them to get caught without actually succeeding in the assassination. Instead, he planned to hang the blame for the foiled plot on civilian Serbian government and use that as an excuse for supporting a military coup in Serbia.
That's a theory at the crossroads between how-the-war-began and Balkan politics that I also don't pretend to be able to evaluate in an informed way. But it's a reminder of how tangled, treacherous and complicated Balkan politics were at that moment.
Despite his restraint in opposing a preventive war against Serbia, sensibly realizing that it wasn't in the interest of preserving the rotten old order in Europe, Franz Ferdinand should have realiyed that his visit to Sarajevo was seen as a provocation in Serbia and by Serbian supporters in Bosnia. He received warnings from the Serbian government about plots against him. And the day of his open-auto tour through the streets of Sarajevo was also the Serbian Vidovdan, the day of remembrance of the defeat of the Serbians in the Battle of Blackbirds Field at Amselfeld in Kosovo in 1389, when the Serbians fell under Muslim Ottoman rule.
It was not the best day to be doing something that could provoke Serbian nationalists.
Lessons of the Assassination?
After all the horribly bad Second World War analogies that have been used in defense of Bush's preventive war against Iraq,I'm almost allergic to anything that looks like an attempt to draw lessons from historical events for immediate application to comtemporary events. Especailly since the current US administration doesn't much care about learning from history, since they think they can pretty much use military force to ram any policy they want down the throats of other nations.
The assassination of head of state or other high official is certainly a classical instance of an act of war. And the Habsburg monarchy was certainly right to see Franz Ferdinand's death as a case of Serbian state-sponsored terrorism. And the Habsburgs, sure that God was more on their side on that of the Othodox Serbs, showed those Serbs that they were going to be tough against terrorism. As I said earlier, at the end of the process, four European Empires - the Habsburgs' Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Hohenzollerns' German Empire, the Romanovs' Russian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire - had been destroyed. Three Christian ones, one Muslim.
Lessons for today? At the very least, some sober caution about the possible effects of war would have been sensible on the part of the Habsburg rulers. But war fever won out. As Karl Danniger says in the second article cited below, most of the world, even in the Austro-Hungarian empire, didn't much mourn the untimely passing of the Franz Ferdinand. But, on the other hand:
[P]eople saw in the murder of the crown prince a rational function, which the crown prince during his lifetime would never have been able to call forth: Hurrah, we're going to war!And so they did.
Uwe Wesel, Mit Bomben und Pistolen Die Zeit (Hamburg) 06/17/04
Otto Klambauer, Zwei Schüsse veränderten die Welt Kourier (Vienna) 06/23/04 (behind subscription)
Herbert Lackner, "Als ein Reich zerfiel" Profil 26/2004 (Vienna) 06/26/04 print edition
Karl Danninger, Der Vidovdan forderte seineOpfer Oberöstereichische Nachrichten 06/26/04
Karl Danninger, Franz Ferdinand: Der Jäger, der an einer Kugel starb Oberöstereichische Nachrichten 06/26/04