In spite of Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August, World War I did not begin in August 1914. It was not the implementation of the Schlieffen Plan of the Germans, Plan XIV of the French, the invasion of Belgium, the mobilization of the Russian army, or the flurry of telegrams racing from capital to capital that started the war.
World War I started with one gun, one gunman (his confederates failed), and two casualties. It happened in the distant south-eastern European city of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. At the end of the day, an heir to a throne and his wife were dead and their three children were orphaned. Over four years later, millions had been killed by battle and the effects of war and Europe lay in ruins. It would be those ruins which would then kinder the sparks that would lead to a second world war late 1930’s.
When studying World War I, numbers quickly cease to have any meaning. A thousand soldiers die here, another thousand there, and soon the battles escalate to where ten thousand, twenty thousand, and even a hundred thousand die in a battle that barely moves the front lines and that doesn’t seem to hasten the end of the war. But when the story becomes more focused and those first two deaths are seen not as numbers, not a members of a ruling family, but as real people and as a husband and wife, a father and mother, then the pain of World War I becomes more vivid.
The first two to die in that war were Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. His title was Archduke and he was in line to be the next emperor or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. If the story of Czar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra of Russia is poignant, the story of Ferdinand and Sophie is even more so. They were truly in love and their love had a cost.
Sophie was of the lesser nobility of Bohemia (later to be part of Czechoslovakia) while Ferdinand was of the royal Habsburg family which had ruled Austria for centuries. After the unexpected death (by suicide) of the Crown Prince Rudolf, Ferdinand stood next in line to rule what had become known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The current Emperor Franz Joseph had ruled the land since 1848. Like much of the noble classes, ignoble marital and extra-marital affairs were commonplace. Marriages were, in true Habsburg fashion, more driven by political considerations than by love or romance. Ferdinand broke the pattern and married Sophie.
As a result of this morganatic marriage, Sophie was not allowed the usual position of the wife of the heir to the throne. When she was allowed to appear at public or social events, her lesser status kept her from being at her husband’s side. Also, none of the children were to be considered as heirs to the throne after their father. They were not even considered to be Habsburgs, rather they went by the name Hohenburg.
I had always assumed or maybe had read that Franz Ferdinand was a rather shallow man who was simply a pawn in history’s larger chess games. He was actually quite visionary and wise. He was destined, so it seemed, to rule over an empire that has been described as a polyglot. Within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there were Germans (Austrians), Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Bosnians, Italians, and various other ethnic groups. The Austrians were the dominant faction although Hungary had been given a greater degree of power and autonomy. South eastern Europe tended toward two extremes: It could either be a factious group of smaller rival nationalities or it could be an empire ruled by a dominant power.
Ferdinand sought a further choice. He desired to be more visionary, more federal, and more open to a nation-state where the various groups could be united as one while maintaining more of their national interest. Imagine it as a type of United States or European Union.
That dream ended when he and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo in June 1914. By 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Habsburg monarchy were both brushed into the dustbin of history.
Sad story, but it didn’t end there. One Austrian nurtured a hatred toward the various races and cultures of the empire. He longed to see Germanic Austria joined to the greater conglomeration of Germanic nations that formed Germany. After World War I, events enabled this Austrian, Adolph Hitler, to rise to political power within one German party and then to power in Germany as a whole. One of his early great triumphs was the Anschluss.
Perhaps many best know of this event from the movie The Sound of Music when Admiral Von Trapp is “trapped” by the merger of his country with Nazi Germany. He and his family, both in the movie and in real life, escaped. Many people were arrested, removed from power, or killed because of their positions in Austria.
It is here that the key story of James Longo’s book comes into place. Hitler hated the Habsburgs and their descendants. Franz Ferdinand’s two sons were almost immediately arrested and imprisoned after the Anschluss. Their crime was their being descended from the Habsburg family. There was, to make matters worse, a movement within Austria to restore the Habsburg monarchy and make Otto Habsburg the new ruler. As obsolete as we make think monarchy is, a restored Habsburg monarchy in the 1930s could well have prevented World War II.
The larger portion of Hitler and the Habsburgs covers the efforts of the two sons to survive Dachau and of the family to rescue them. The daughter of the slain couple, Princess Sophie, endured being exiled from her family’s estate in Czechoslovakia twice in her life, being in danger constantly, and of losing two sons who were forced to serve the Third Reich’s armies on the Russian front.
Besides being a riveting historical account, this book is an amazing testimony of the Christian faith. The faith in God and marital love of the parents was passed on to the children. Sophie, the daughter, perhaps better than anyone else, displayed a great certainty in God’s goodness in spite of all the losses she experienced in her life.
This book is history at its finest. Yes, it is full of sadness, but there is triumph and perseverance and hope found in the story of this family. Two World Wars brought incredible miseries upon them. A fairy tale kind of royal life was denied to them at every step, but they endured and held fast to the truths that stand stronger than any empires or armies on earth.