Who Was Franz Ferdinand and How Did He Die?

Peter Curry

3 mins

31 Jul 2014

Image credit: Unknown photographer, 1910s / Commons.

On 28 June 1914, the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia. His assassination sparked a series of events that ended with the First World War.

Franz Ferdinand was born 18 December 1863. He was one of 70 archdukes in the Austrian Empire (Austro-Hungary would come into existence during his lifetime).

Due to a series of deaths in the Imperial family, including the mysterious death of Crown Prince Rudolf at Mayerling in 1889, Franz Ferdinand rose to the position of heir to the throne.

Franz Ferdinand was Austrian Archduke heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Credit: Austrian National Library / Commons.

Politics and personality

Franz Ferdinand was not a popular man. He had married Sophie, a Bohemian countess of relatively low status. This marriage meant his children could not inherit the Austrian throne, a cause of tension among the Austrian elite.

He was a deeply conservative figure, as well as piously catholic. He was one of the most vocal opponents of war because he didn’t believe it was in the interests of the Empire. He was also an advocate for granting greater autonomy to ethnic groups within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

He wanted to address the grievances of different groups, especially the Czechs in Bohemia and the south Slavic peoples in Croatia and Bosnia, who had been left out of the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867.

He had a tense relationship with the Emperor Franz Josef. One of Franz Josef’s personal servants recalled in his memoirs that ‘thunder and lightning always raged when they had their discussions.’

Archduke Ferdinand and his wife on an official visit to Sarajevo in June 1914, shortly before their assassination by Gavrilo Princip. Credit: Austro-Hungarian Official Photographer / Commons.

Michael Freund, a German historian describes Franz Ferdinand as ‘a man of uninspired energy, dark in appearance and emotion, who radiated an aura of strangeness and cast a shadow of violence and recklessness … a true personality amidst the amiable inanity that characterised Austrian society at this time.’

Visiting the Balkans

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand took place on the anniversary of the Serbian defeat to the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, a humiliating memory for all Serbs. That day, 28 June 1914, was also Serbia’s national day.

Franz Ferdinand was visiting the newly annexed regions of the Empire in Bosnia on a state visit. The visit was going well. Despite a somewhat prejudicial view towards the Serbians, Franz had exchanged positive comments with his wife on their reception by Serbian officials.

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The next day, the couple set out in their car through the city. They were first attacked by Nedeljko Čabrinović, who threw a grenade at at the vehicle. The bomb detonated behind the archduke and his wife, injuring those in the following car.

On arrival at the Governor’s residence, Franz yelled angrily at the Serbian governor, ‘So this is how you welcome your guests – with bombs!’

After a short rest at the Governor’s residence, Franz and his wife insisted on travelling to the hospital to visit those injured by the attack. No-one informed the drivers of this change until the convoy was underway however, and the drivers had to turn around.

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Gavrilo Princip was sitting at a café nearby when the archduke’s motorcade paused. Princip and his accomplices had trained in Serbia under the Black Hand, a fiercely nationalist organisation  that even the Serbian government was trying to suppress.

Seeing the line of cars trying to change directions, Princip walked across the street and shot the Archduke and his wife. Their driver rushed the fatally wounded couple back to the Governor’s residence but both were dead on arrival.