Many years ago, when I began attending the Salzburg music festival, I became well acquainted with my distant cousins, the Hohenberg princes. I was particularly fond of them. They were friendly, funny, and lively. They were also the grandchildren of one of most history’s most famous tragedies.
At the end of the 19th century, Archduke Franz Ferdinand found himself the heritor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He wasn’t bad looking; he was intelligent, cultivated, and particularly interested in the Arts. He had, however, a rather difficult character; this, of course, didn’t prevent any of the mothers from hoping that he would choose to marry one of their daughters. In particular, one of his distant aunts, the Archduchess Isabelle, conspired to have him fall in love with one of her daughters, who would then become Empress of Austria-Hungary. The Archduchess joyfully remarked that Franz Ferdinand always accepted her invitations. When he showed himself to be more and more eager to visit her country estate, she was certain the matter was settled.
During one of these visits, the Archduke left for a hunting trip, forgetting to take his gold pocket watch along with him. Now, the Archduchess wondered if there might not be a small portrait in this watch, the one that he would often open and contemplate. She was curious to know which of her daughters he loved, and if he had in fact placed a tiny portrait of one of them inside. She discretely made her way into his room and found the watch sitting on a table; she opened it and found a small portrait. It was not, however, a portrait of one of her daughters, but rather of her lady of honor, Countess Sophie Chotek. Her rage knew no bounds: Who is this imbecile, who in the company of my ravishing daughters falls in love with this slattern! A simple Czech Countess from a small aristocratic family! Sophie Chotek was promptly dismissed.
The reaction of the heritor to the throne came quickly, “Well, if that’s the case, I’ll just marry Sophie.” They had only known each other for a few months, but in that short time, from their first meeting, they quickly fell for one another, and had maintained in secret an excited passion. Yet marring the Countess Sophie Chotek was almost unthinkable. A member of the imperial family, not to mention the heritor to the throne, could not marry a simple aristocrat. The Emperor, the many relatives of Franz Ferdinand, and the imperial government would all be united in opposition to this union. Yet Franz Ferdinand held fast, he had decided to marry Sophie Chotek and nothing was going to change his mind; the Emperor Franz Josef was forced to yield. Franz Ferdinand would marry her, but at what price? Sophie Chotek would never achieve the rank of her husband and their children would never be recognized as members of the imperial family; they would never succeed Franz Ferdinand when the time came. “Never mind all that,” Franz Ferdinand would respond, determined, from the bottom of his heart, to change things when he became emperor.
The couple married, and Sophie Chotek received the title of Duchess of Hohenberg. But their life together was not all roses, far from it. The Emperor, the imperial family, the imperial government, and the Court took every opportunity to humiliate poor Sophie, and through her, Franz Ferdinand himself. The formal pettiness, the glaring contempt, and all the means that the greats of the monarchical and aristocratic world have at their disposal to make those they believe less than themselves feel inferior were directed at Sophie Chotek. Franz Ferdinand was enraged, but he could do nothing about it. He longed for proper recognition for his wife, a recognition that the authorities denied.
This was the case when one fine day a small city in the south of the empire invited, for an official visit, not only Franz Ferdinand, but also his wife, making it known that she would be treated as his equal. The Archduke jumped at the chance, welcoming this long-awaited recognition. He wanted to accept the offer, but the government opposed it, as the city was full of dangerous anarchists. The opportunity would be good for them to pass up, to attack one of the pillars of the Empire, the heritor of the Emperor Franz Josef. The imperial police warned Franz Ferdinand against setting foot in the city, but the Archduke, anxious to see his wife treated as his equal, would hear nothing of it. He accepted the invitation. And so it was that one beautiful day in June, the Archduke stepped into his train with his wife, eager to win over the city of Sarajevo. And it was there, in this small city in the south of the empire, that fate was waiting for them, in the form of a young Serbian terrorist armed with a revolver who shot down the Archduke and his wife.