Love, Two Deaths, A World War: Shots In Sarajevo Doomed An Era

Posted: November 20, 2000

Why did Franz Ferdinand go to Sarajevo on June 28, 1914?

His uncle, Franz Josef, head of the Austro-Hungarian empire, thought it was a bad idea. The mayor of Sarajevo and the head of the Bosnian army said: Stay home.

He was crazy to go. His uncle's empire ruled Yugoslavia, where unrest was stroked on by the terrorist group terrifyingly nicknamed The Black Hand. June 28 was Vidovdan, celebration of the Turkish defeat of the Serbs at the Field of Blackbirds in 1386. Serbs celebrate that pulverizing defeat as an emblem of their defiant persistence. And Franz Ferdinand, heir-apparent to the empire, wants to visit Sarajevo on that day? Don't do it! I want to yell. Turn back! You and your wife will be murdered. Country will back country in mad alliance, domino will follow domino, and soon the skull and the rat and the rainwater in trenches across the face of Europe.

I'll tell you why he went, why, in effect, he risked plunging the world into war for the sake of a quixotic jaunt into the maw of danger.

He went for love. He went to hold his love for Sophie, his wife, in the face of his uncle and of the world. It is one of the saddest stories I ever read.

Countess Sophie von Chotek von Chotkowa und Wognin was well-born but not well enough. She was a only a lady in waiting, unacceptable to emperor Franz Josef. Nephew held firm. So did uncle. Sophie was snubbed, frozen out. The royals slipped her cruelties like low cards, refused to have her at functions, drifted elsewhere in the room.

The old uncle drove a cruel bargain. He would agree to the marriage only if Franz Ferdinand renounced all rights of succession for his children. And that is what he did on June 22, 1900. Sophie was elevated to Duchess of Hohenburg, but she was denied all royal privileges. She could not sit in the family box at the opera, not ride in the family carriage at official ceremonies, never be buried with Franz Ferdinand in the royal vaults in Vienna.

There was an official pretext for the Sarajevo visit: inspect troops. Franz Ferdinand knew of the death threats, the dams pregnant with the floodwaters of war throughout Europe. But he was going to Sarajevo, and he was going to make it Sophie's day. For June 28 was near their 14th wedding anniversary. So Sophie would accompany him, ride in state, look on as he inspected the troops, motorcade through town, play the role.

Sarajevo, then a town of 50,000, was packed. Hidden in the thousands were seven would-be assassins. Franz Ferdinand's car passed one of them, a boy who froze and missed his chance. Another threw a bomb into the car, but Franz Ferdinand knocked it away. And still he commanded to press on.

At the town hall, he yelled at the mayor: "So this is how one is welcomed, with bombs?" he decided to visit the hospital to see people injured by the explosion.

So they drove into the caress of the Black Hand. The driver of the car turned down (irony of ironies) Franz Josef Strasse, the wrong way, the wrong way for all history - for there stood Gavrilo Princip, 19, tubercular and determined. Everyone gave the driver different orders: Go forward, go back. He shoved into reverse, ground to a halt right in front of Princip, who stepped up to the running board of the car, raised his pistol and closed his eyes.

Popguns in the bazaar? Sophie and Franz Ferdinand sat calm, looking straight ahead. Then Sophie cried out to her husband: "For heaven's sake - what's happened to you?"

Franz Ferdinand had just spat out a clot of blood. Blood spurted from his neck. Ashamed to be dying in front of her, he said, "Sophie dear! Sophie dear! Don't die! Stay alive for our children!" but she was gone already, a bullet in her womb, and he let go his own life as they carried him to a doctor, told him to hold on. "Es ist nichts," he was heard to say.

It was all nothing. Russia came in, then Germany. Four years of trenches, gas, barbed wire. Riots in Germany drove the Kaiser into exile in 1918, and the Americans stymied in the French woods declared themselves the winners.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie's world died with them. The victors recarved Europe (Franz Josef's empire imploded), uprooted millions, creating depression and Fascism and Hitler, and Sophie and Franz Ferdinand's first kiss drove shock lines through decade after decade, to Nagasaki and beyond. That kiss has convulsed this entire century. Maybe calm has verged closer with Vojislav Kostunica's victory over Slobodan Milosevic. Maybe not. Maybe every kiss sparks a disruption in the time-space continuum, causing supernovas billions of light years away and love poems nearer at hand. Romantic and fatal, Franz Ferdinand's trip to Sarajevo was a lover's gift that unleashed the tortuous demons of the next 86 years.

John Timpane edits the Commentary Page. His e-mail address is

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