This summer we observe the 100th anniversary of the start of  World War I. The “Great War” and “War to end all wars” would be a catastrophe for Europe, and is rightly described as a kind of “suicide of the west.” Already, you may have heard something of the events commemorating this anniversary or some of the articles or scholarship reviewing its details.

Despite everything you may have already read regarding this great tragedy, it is likely that you have never come across at least a few of the following list [Number 7 might make you cry]:

1. War in the name of a pacifist?
“A war between Austria and Russia would ‘encourage revolution in both countries and thereby cause both Emperor and Tsar to push each other from their thrones. For these reasons, I consider war to be Lunacy…’” Those are the words of none other than the Archduke Franz Ferdinand to his uncle the Emperor Franz Joseph in 1913. The imperial heir was strongly opposed to the idea of a war against Russia, a pre-emptive war against Serbia, and, indeed, had even opposed the annexation of Bosnia in 1908. Regarding that act, which antagonized both Serbia and Russia, Franz Ferdinand remarked “In general I am completely against all such displays of strength in view of our depressing domestic circumstances.”

On the matter of war, he and the atheist Austrian Chief of the General Staff, General Field Marshall Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, who was one of the leading hawks clamoring for the 1914 declaration of war, greatly differed. For his part, the Archduke hoped to reform the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy to something akin to the American federal system, with a series of loosely federated states with local autonomy under Vienna’s authority. The local ethnicities might have had their own states under this man that dismissed the idea of a war with Russia as lunacy. We can only guess what that might have meant for central Europe and the Balkans!

2. A complicated line of succession.
The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the imperial throne of Austria-Hungary, whose assassination triggered the start of the First World War, was the nephew of the reigning Emperor Franz Joseph. Franz Joseph did have his own son, Rudolph, but he had tragically taken his own life in 1889. That meant that by 1914, the son of his younger brother Karl Ludwig, was now the heir to the throne. (Another younger brother of the Emperor Franz Joseph was Maximilian, who was the short-lived Emperor of Mexico!) In any event, next in line after Franz Ferdinand in 1914 was his nephew, Karl, as his own two sons were not eligible for the throne, being the result of a morganatic marriage.

Franz Ferdinand had married a Countess, Sophie Chotek, whose lineage was not deemed equal to the Imperial Hapsburg family. Hence, the marriage was “morganatic” or unequal, and she and her children were not considered members of the Imperial family, and could not inherit the throne. That meant that Franz Ferdinand’s heir was none other than Blessed Karl of Austria (who may soon be a canonized saint of the Catholic Church), who would succeed Franz Joseph in 1916 in the middle of World War I.

Franz Ferdinand with wife Sophie, and children Sophie, Max, and Ernst
Franz Ferdinand with wife Sophie, and children Sophie, Max, and Ernst

3. The plots thicken.
The plot to assassinate Franz Ferdinand during his visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia was, to some extent, facilitated by the Serbian Chief of Intelligence, Dragutin Dimitrijević, nicknamed “Apis.” Historian Christopher Clark describes him as “the real author of the conspiracy.” What a pedigree he had–in 1903, Dimitrijević had led a coup that assassinated King Alexander and Queen Draga of Serbia; in 1911, he dispatched a terrorist to Vienna in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Franz Josef; and by 1914, he was plotting an assassination attempt against Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria. He was determined to advance Serbian nationalism, even if with violence, and had Russian support, and, when he helped kill his own king to make way for a pro-Russian monarch back in 1903, he had Russian pay.

4. Who knew?
It seems that no shortage of folks in significant positions of authority heard of the plot to assassinate Franz Ferdinand before it happened. Aside from Dimitrijević, who helped organize it, knowledge of the plot went all the way to the Prime Minister of Serbia, Nikola Pašić. The Serbian minister of education mentions that, “Pašić said to us that certain persons were preparing to go to Sarajevo and murder Franz Ferdinand.” Indeed, “a report on the conspirators’ progress into Bosnia reached his desk the first week of June. The prime minister knew the names of the three conspirators who had traveled from Belgrade; he knew they carried bombs and revolvers, that Serbian frontier officials and members of the military intelligence had helped them, and that they were on their way to Sarajevo to kill Franz Ferdinand. Pašić even annotated the report in his own hand.” The Austrian governor of Bosnia, Oskar Potiorek, received multiple warnings of the danger to the Archduke, and elected to do nothing about it. The Serbian ambassador to Austria even hinted that a visit to Sarajevo would be risky. Nevertheless, visit he would.

5. If at first you don’t succeed…
On 28 June 1914, Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie did not face just one attack by a gunman in Sarajevo. They had survived a bombing attempt on their motorcade earlier the same morning of their assassination. With the route of the motorcade’s entry into Sarajevo published in the papers, there were plenty of conspirators lining the route. One of them, Nedeljko Čabrinović, threw a bomb at the car of the Archduke, but it missed, and detonated in front of the next car in the motorcade. The lead car continued on, but the Archduke saw to the treatment of the wounded and then ordered that the cavalcade continue on.

6. Nobility in action.
Rather than leave the city immediately, Franz Ferdinand insisted that he and his wife go and visit those wounded by the bomb attack. It was on their trip there that, through a bit of miscommunication, the driver started to take them down the wrong road, when the governor, Potiorek, stopped the car, “This is the wrong way!” He would do that, of course, directly in front of Gavrilo Princip, who was sitting at a shop, little expecting the man he came to Sarajevo to kill would stop his car in front of him. Franz Ferdinand, after being shot himself, appealed to his mortally wounded wife: “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die, stay alive for our children!” He is often written off as a generally unlikable fellow–this a man, learning that a poor farmer stole wood from his estate instructed, “Since it’s Christmas and I hear that the man’s family is really poor, he is not to be punished. Just so he won’t be tempted to steal again from my woods, I want you to send him enough firewood for the winter, and to his wife, ten Crowns…as a Christmas present from my children.”

7. Father, forgive them.
In the investigation and trial that would follow the assassination, only one of the conspirators evinced sorrow for their role in the plot: Nedeljko Čabrinović. In court, he remarked: “we heard it was said that Franz Ferdinand was an enemy of the Slavs…All of us, nevertheless feel very sorry, because we did not know the late Franz Ferdinand was a father of a family. We were greatly touched by the last words he uttered to his wife. I humbly submit my apologies to the children of the Heir Apparent and ask them to forgive us.” Amazingly, hearing what was said in court, two of the children, Sophie, 12 years old, and Max, 11 years old, wrote a letter to Čabrinović assuring him that he should be at peace: “[t]hey completely forgave him his part in the deaths of their parents.” It was delivered to the conspirator in his cell by the very priest that gave the Archduke and his wife last rites.  As an aside, Franz Ferdinand’s two sons, Max and Ernst, would both end up in the Dachau NAZI concentration camp, with both surviving; but that is another topic for another article!

8. Friends don’t let friends…
Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum on 23 July 1914, to Serbia, which had refused to cooperate in any manner of investigation into the assassination, despite or because of their significant ties to the event. The Austrians demanded cooperation, including demanding that Serbia allow an investigation with Austrian officials into Serbian territory. In a message to the Serbian missions, Prime Minister Pašić, on 25 July, declared his intention to be “conciliatory on all points…[giving Austria] full satisfaction.”

A promise of Russian support; a commitment backed by France, however, changed all that. This refusal to cooperate must be carefully presented. The French ambassador to Russia noted on 25 July, after a conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov, it was essential, for the sake of Russian, French and British public opinion, that Austria, not Russia, be seen as the aggressor. “We must let Austria place herself entirely in the wrong.” Sazonov told French Ambassador Paléologue on 24 July.

The French connection was key as, France loaned Serbia an amount twice that of the state budget for 1912 to cover military expenditures, and on 21 July, the French President Raymond Poincaré told his ambassador to Russia, “We must warn [Russian foreign minister] Sazonov of the evil designs of Austria, encourage him to remain firm and promise him our support.” Serbia would submit a response that, while carefully taking the tone of an innocent and conciliatory power, conceded practically nothing. It worked. To this day, most folks certainly look on Austria and Germany as the aggressors, and Serbia as having been willing to negotiate.

9. “Give Peace a Chance” – Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.
You probably didn’t know that the German Kaiser, on 28 July, inscribed on his copy of the Serbian reply [to the Austria ultimatum] the words: “An excellent result for a forty-eight hour [deadline]. This is more than we could have expected! But this does away with any need for war.” More famous were his messages with his cousin, Tsar Nicholas II–the Willy-Nicky Telegrams–in which he attempted to convince the Tsar to restrain the Russian military machine.

Unknown to many, too, is that at the last moment, on 1 August 1914, when he got word of an ultimately unfounded possibility of achieving British and French neutrality, the Kaiser ordered his forces moving on the western front to halt and interrupt the execution of the Schlieffen Plan. He did this with the support of his Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow, and State Secretary of the Imperial German Navy, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. At the same time, the willingness to stop the military machinery mid-process devastated the hawkish Helmuth von Moltke; in a private conversation with Minister of War Erich von Falkenhayn, Moltke confided, close to tears, “that he was a totally broken man, because this decision by the Kaiser demonstrated to him that the Kaiser still hoped for peace.”

10. A Papal Blessing for War?
Finally, when the first broke out, the Pope was none other than St. Pius X. While the efforts to end the war by Pope Benedict XV, elected in September 1914, are well-known, much less is said of the attitude of Pope Pius X, who died on 20 August 1914. Dr. Peter Chojnowski writes that: “on July 28, 1914, the Austrian Ambassador appeared before Pius X to inform him that the Empire had formally declared war upon the Kingdom of Serbia. During this meeting, the ambassador asked the Pope to bless the guns of the imperial and royal army of Austria and Hungary. To this Pius X replied, ‘Tell the Emperor that I can bless neither war, nor those who have desired war. I bless peace.’ When the ambassador then followed up with a request for a personal blessing for the emperor, Franz Josef, the Pope stated, ‘I can only pray that God may pardon him. The Emperor should consider himself lucky not to receive the curse of the Vicar of Christ!’”

[Editor’s Note: Footnotes were removed from Mr. Cole’s article, but much of the research came from two recent works: Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), and Greg King and Sue Woolmans, Assassination of the Archduke (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013). Mr. Cole recommends these sources if anyone would like to do further reading on the topic.]

Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole

Has a graduate degree in history from George Mason University, and obtained his undergraduate degree in history from Christendom College. He has taught history for 10 years, with an emphasis on the history of the Church. Tom is currently a teacher at Holy Spirit Preparatory School in Atlanta, GA.
Thomas Cole