The Austrian Archduke and his wife

In the aftermath of the so-called Great War there were various attempts by the victorious nations to focus symbolically upon individual victims. An individual tragedy was easier to assimilate than death by the thousand. Thus special significance was often attached to naming ‘the first to fall’.3

In Lower Austria, the village of Artstetten stands on rising ground a few kilometres north of the river Danube. Just below its castle is a war memorial which names the fifty local soldiers who gave their lives for the Austro-Hungarian Empire of Franz Josef I (Fig. 2). Below the outspread wings of a hovering eagle and above the gilded list are the names of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his devoted wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. As is well known, their assassination on June 28, 1914 in the small Serbian town of Sarajevo lit the fuse for the First World War; understandably, in the eyes of Artstetten folk the ill-fated couple were its first victims. The castle behind the war memorial was their summer residence and is now open to the public: it is attractive but quite modestly furnished considering that Franz Ferdinand was heir presumptive to the throne and an empire of fifty million inhabitants. He was short-tempered and generally unpopular but devoted to Sophie and their three children. Surprisingly for the time, he was a pacifist, realizing that any attempt by Austria to annex the troublesome Slav state of Serbia would provoke its protector Russia into war and ultimately threaten and even destroy the Habsburg dynasty. The hawks at the Ministry of War in Vienna vigorously opposed this view, disregarded his many warnings and advised the ageing Emperor to the contrary.

Fig. 2 – Memorial to Archduke Ferdinand, his wife Sophie and fifty villagers, Artstetten, Danube valley, Lower Austria.

After the Archduke’s assassination in Sarajevo, a perfunctory funeral service was held in Vienna, giving the Habsburg court another opportunity to vent its spite at Sophie’s morganatic status. The two coffins were then taken west by steam train to Pöchlarn and transferred in the dead of night into two horse-drawn hearses ready for ferrying across the Danube to the family home at Artstetten. As the crossing began a thunderstorm of extreme violence suddenly broke and the two coffins very nearly toppled from the ferry into the fast-flowing river: in all, this Wagnerian scenario was a bad omen. Today their impressive white sarcophagi can be seen in the crypt beneath the family chapel of the castle.

  1. The subject of the first American doughboys to fall in battle (Autumn 1917) appears in the previous chapter of this Web site. []