Who Was Franz Ferdinand and How Did He Die?

Who Was Franz Ferdinand and How Did He Die?

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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.

Franz Ferdinand, archduke of Austria-Este

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Franz Ferdinand, archduke of Austria-Este, German Franz Ferdinand, Erzherzog von Österreich-Este, also called Francis Ferdinand, (born December 18, 1863, Graz, Austria—died June 28, 1914, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria-Hungary [now in Bosnia and Herzogovina]), Austrian archduke whose assassination (1914) was the immediate cause of World War I.

What street was Franz Ferdinand assassinated?

Similarly, why was Archduke Franz Ferdinand assassinated? Nationalism played a specific role in World War I when Archduke Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated by Princip, a member of a Serbian nationalist terrorist group fighting against Austria-Hungary's rule over Bosnia. Entangled alliances created two competing groups.

Moreover, why did the Black Hand assassinate Franz Ferdinand?

Through its connections to the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, which was committed by the members of youth movement Young Bosnia, the Black Hand is often viewed as having contributed to the start of World War I by precipitating the July Crisis of 1914, which eventually led to Austria-

How did 1st world war start?

World War I began in 1914 after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and lasted until 1918. During the conflict, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire (the Central Powers) fought against Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan and the United States (the Allied Powers).


FRANCIS FERDINAND (1863–1914), archduke of Austria.

Francis Ferdinand was born 18 December 1863 in Graz. His assassination in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 led to World War I.

Francis Ferdinand received a strict, Catholic, and conservative upbringing and pursued a career in the military. He unexpectedly became heir apparent to the Habsburg Monarchy on the death of his cousin, Crown Prince Rudolf, in 1889. After a world trip in 1892 and 1893, Francis Ferdinand was laid low for several years by tuberculosis, from which he recovered only in 1898. In the same year he was made deputy in military affairs to his uncle, Emperor Francis Joseph I (r. 1848–1916).

Relations between the emperor and his heir apparent were never all that good, however, and they worsened exponentially over Francis Ferdinand's determination to marry Countess Sophie Chotek. Chotek, though a noblewoman, was not regarded by Francis Joseph as of sufficiently high status to be an appropriate spouse for a future Austrian emperor. A compromise was reached whereby on 28 June 1900 Francis Ferdinand formally renounced the rights of any children from the prospective, morganatic marriage. On 1 July he married Chotek.

From 1906 Francis Ferdinand was allowed to play a role in the politics of the Monarchy. His advisors, grouped around his military chancery in the Belvedere Palace, and known collectively as the Belvedere Circle, achieved a level of influence over Habsburg policy. They usually only did so, however, once they had become the emperor's ministers, and this often meant opposing the wishes of their former patron. Max Vladimir Beck, for instance, became Austrian prime minister and achieved passage of the electoral reform of 1907. Yet his policies came to be opposed by Francis Ferdinand, and the heir apparent intrigued to arrange Beck's dismissal in 1908. Francis Ferdinand had allies within the regime, such as the chief of the general staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, but his attempts to increase his influence over policy were persistently resisted by Francis Joseph.

This may have been just as well. Francis Ferdinand was ideologically a radical conservative and shared the authoritarian sentiments of William II (emperor of Germany and king of Prussia r. 1888–1918) and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (r. 1894–1917). An archconservative Catholic, he held anti-Semitic views and combined contempt for the Magyars with a general dislike for liberalism. His plan for the Monarchy was to reduce Hungarian autonomy and counter Magyar power in Hungary by increasing the rights of the minority nationalities in the kingdom. This approach brought him the sympathy of many minority nationalists, who supported some form of federalism, or, in the South Slav case, trialism (the uniting of the South Slav provinces in the Austrian and Hungarian halves of the Monarchy, as well as Bosnia, in a new, third South Slav "kingdom" under the Habsburg monarch). Francis Ferdinand's reputed sympathy for trialism made him hated by many Serb nationalists, for trialism threatened the dream of an independent Greater Serbia. Ironically, Francis Ferdinand had little time for real trialism (at most he wanted to reorganize the South Slav lands to reduce Hungarian power), nor was he for federalism. Instead, he envisaged recentralizing power in Vienna and subordinating all of the Monarchy's peoples once more to the emperor's rule. His succession was looked on by trepidation by many in the German and Magyar middle classes and the liberal intelligentsia, and especially by Habsburg Jews.

He was seen, moreover, due to his military involvements and his links with Conrad von Hötzendorf as a militarist and warmonger. Public opinion was quite wrong in this. Francis Ferdinand was a believer in authoritarianism, but this also made him a supporter of peace between the Habsburg Monarchy, Germany, and Russia, as a guarantor of authoritarian conservatism. He was hence against an aggressive policy in the Balkans, and constantly counseled staying out of the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913. Nevertheless, as the representative of the Habsburg military, especially after his appointment as general inspector of the army in 1913, with his reputation as a warmonger and with his supposed support of anti-Serb trialism, Francis Ferdinand became a target for Bosnian Serb nationalist terrorists. On 28 June 1914, while on a trip to inspect the military maneuvers, he and his wife were gunned down in their car in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip. The assassination of the heir apparent was then used by Francis Joseph and his advisors as the excuse for launching a "preventive" war against Serbia, exactly what Francis Ferdinand had counseled against, that in days led to World War I and eventually the collapse of the Monarchy.

Franz Ferdinand Killed Almost Everything on his 1893 World Tour

Archduke Franz Ferdinand is probably best remembered not for his life, but for the manner of his death. Were it not for the fact that he took a detour through the streets of Sarajevo and ran into Gavrilo Princip, the archduke might have lived a life devoid of incident. Instead, the spilling of his noble blood led to World War I and the death of millions. Yet, long before that fateful summer day, Franz Ferdinand had shed a lot of blood himself, not in the name of politics or conflict, but entertainment. Archduke Franz Ferdinand didn’t just like hunting – he loved it, and the man who died by the bullet lived by it too.
In his lifetime, Franz Ferdinand’s trigger finger took down 274,899 animals, a number confirmed by his meticulously kept records. He lived in palaces and hunting lodges that were stuffed with the grim trophies of his kills, all sorts of exotic remains lining every wall of every room to bear testament to his hunting prowess. In fact, Ferdinand bagged so many beasts on his world tour that he dreamed of opening a museum to show them off.

To bring the scale of his killings into perspective, in a hunting career spanning over half a decade, the keen and dedicated hunter Emperor Franz Joseph killed 48,000 animals. Of course, unlike the emperor, the enthusiastic archduke embraced technology, sometimes even mowing down his prey with a machine gun.

When he set off on an educational trip around the world in December 1892, Ferdinand was armed and ready with weapons to kill and a journal in which to record every animal slain. The plan was for the emperor-to-be to engage in some diplomatic glad-handing, but when he disappeared into the sunset aboard the Kaiserin Elisabeth, Ferdinand was thinking of the hunts ahead.

Ferdinand’s trip took him to destinations including Ceylon, India, Nepal, North America and Australia. His journal charts not just the diplomatic highs and lows of his travels, but also the rowdy celebrations of those on board the Elisabeth. They also chart each hunt in sometimes distressing detail, leaving a lasting testament to Ferdinand’s dedication to his hobby.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his family circa 1910, from the Library of Congress

The archduke left Vienna in December 1892 and two days later he was sailing out of Trieste aboard the pride of the navy. Just a few days shy of his 19th birthday, Ferdinand was accompanied to the boat by his family, but they weren’t part of the tour party. Although his journal betrays a few pangs of anxiety about what was to come, the young man was determined to enjoy whatever the voyage threw at him. He was hungry for adventure.

The first entry in the journal reflects a traveller finding his feet, gazing in wonder at the stunning vistas, making weather reports and diligently listing naval exercises it’s a whole two days before the parties begin. Things started with a small celebration on the eve of Ferdinand’s birthday, complete with three cheers, fireworks and music. It was all rather respectable and innocent, yet on the big day itself, things got a bit more elaborate.

On the archduke’s birthday, the sailors held a procession of wild animals for his entertainment. Of course, there’s a distinct shortage of mammals in the middle of the ocean and instead, crewmen constructed elaborate costumes better suited to pantomime to perform as elephants, crocodiles and more. Ferdinand reported gleefully of sailors dressed as “jet black zulu kaffirs” who danced lustily for his entertainment and he lapped it up. Not only was such silliness great fun, he reflected, but it showed too how crewmen from all over Europe came together in the spirit of fun. These pantomime elephants and sailors in blackface left him not only rolling with laughter, but bristling with national and naval pride. It’s possible these panto animals left Ferdinand’s trigger finger itching too but sailors were, of course, off limits for hunting.

The social life on board appealed to Ferdinand, who enjoyed settling for a drink beneath the stars to sing shanties and tell tales. He described dressing a Christmas tree at sea, yodelling and partying in the middle of the empty ocean beneath a blazing sun while his countrymen did the same beneath a frozen sky at home. Short stopovers were made, ceremonies and diplomatic business performed and all manner of sea creatures spotted as the days passed. Reading his journals, one can’t deny Ferdinand was finding much to enjoy on this so-far bloodless adventure. It wouldn’t stay bloodless for long.

Franz Ferdinand and his hunting companions pose by a dead elephant in Ceylon, from the Austrian National Library

Soon Franz Ferdinand was shooting rays from the bridge of the ship, hungry for the kill, and when the party arrived in Ceylon, the hunting began in earnest. The visitors were received in fine style in Kandy and treated to a display of local traditions and a tour, which left the archduke revelling in his new surroundings. That youthful excitement was truly breathless when he set off for his first hunting trip of the tour and the journals crackle with anticipation, laying bare the sheer passion he felt for his hobby. Businesslike reports on the planning of the tour give way to an excitable narrative detailing an elephant hunt, the culmination of a long-held ambition.

In fact, though Ferdinand managed to wound an elephant (it was sick, he assures us), he didn’t succeed in killing any. Given the evocative and touching description of a mother elephant grazing with her sleeping calf at her feet, this comes as a relief to the reader. Ferdinand’s writing, however, seethes with his annoyance at his failed efforts. He contents himself with taking potshots at birds, while another member of the party gathers monkeys and yet more avian prey.

The following day, Ferdinand was excited to hear that the wounded elephant had been spotted. Once again the party pursued the creature but again it escaped. With the men bristling with disappointment, the archduke turned his weapon on an enormous lizard and he shared his joy at the cracking of its skull. Despite this, our hunters felt little pleasure in their uninspiring kills that day and drank their cares away deep into the night, lamenting the hunter’s curse that had befallen them.

Ferdinand fixated on killing an elephant, any elephant, raging at his companions when their shots frightened away the herd the next day. Finally though, just as he had given up hope, he killed not one but two of the great creatures. Terrified by being hunted for 48 hours, the herd retreated to what seemed like safety instead, they became easy pickings. Later that day he celebrated by gleefully shooting monkeys, birds and when the Sun went down and the drink flowed, the party was on…

Franz Ferdinand’s party takes lunch in India, from the Austrian National Library

As the tour rolled into India, Ferdinand undertook a trip to a hospital for sick animals. His journals betray his utter befuddlement and distaste at the institution he describes as an aberration. Ever the pragmatist, he found no earthly reason for such a place to exist other than misguided religious sentimentality. He was not entirely without sympathy though, reacting with horror when he saw local people mistreating the oxen that drew wagons – these were working beasts, after all, deserving of proper treatment.

India was to prove rich hunting ground, and as he crossed the subcontinent, shots rang out. Delighted to hear the injured elephant from Ceylon had been found dead, he celebrated by poaching birds from a moving train, which he laughingly reported as accidental. The list of prey in India continued to come thick and fast.

For days they tracked a tiger without success and Ferdinand’s frustration is clear in every written word. Unsuccessful hunting trips were rarely the fault of the archduke nor his Western party but, “The dullness and unreliability of the natives,” though he found local hospitality refreshing. He catalogued near-naked wrestling, magnificent temples and fine dinners cakes filled with live birds and the finest culture the country could offer. Frustrated by his inability to hunt a tiger he was, nevertheless, given two as gifts to take home, reporting that they were no different to domestic cats.

As the days passed, the tiger remained elusive, thick fog blighting the hunt, but the archduke was determined. When he finally killed the tiger he sought and fatally wounded a second that his comrade finished off, he was overcome with joy. He waxed lyrical about, “The most beautiful hunting memory of my life,” offering “Warm thanks to Saint Hubertus for such a successful hunt.” No doubt the tigers felt considerably less blessed.

Franz Ferdinand poses with a dead tiger in India, from the Austrian National Archives

From Ferdinand’s journals, distinct personalities begin to emerge. We meet the unnamed crewmen from across Europe who revel in simple pleasures, the companions who seem given to illness or attempt to match him during a hunt, and the bastions of empire who host glittering social events. There are young princes and old tiger keepers, hunting guides and local shopkeepers, all of who fill in the rich tapestry of his travels. He revels in museums and botanical and natural collections, and along the voyage, begins to assemble quite a collection of living animals that will accompany him home. In Darjeeling, his green credentials rather come to the fore as, distressed to see the jungle burning to make room to grow tea, Ferdinand comments darkly that the wood will revenge itself on man.

In fact, it is these portions of the journal that prove far more illuminating than the procession of hunting tales, lending a unique look at a culture experienced through a very particular pair of eyes. Ferdinand was not a man who readily trusted those of other nationalities, and experiencing these far-off lands in his own words makes for an absorbing experience. He shares his thoughts on how royal heirs are raised across the world, reflecting on religious and social differences, albeit with more than the occasional bit of utter astonishment.

When Ferdinand and his party hit Nepal, hunting tigers was the only thing on their minds. The pickings were rich as big cats, elephants, eagles and other trophies died at their hands. Australia provided a smorgasbord of prey and Ferdinand made sport of the continent’s most iconic creatures. He killed emus, kangaroos and in a particularly distressing episode, a koala and its babe. Celebrations were great, the archduke was in his element and all seemed right with the hunting world as he lapped up the adulation of his Australian guides.

The rifle, as Ferdinand put it so poetically, had to rest in Japan as both schedule and season were wrong for game hunting. Instead he enjoyed a cultural interlude, touring cities, meeting dignitaries and killing precisely nothing. Whether entertaining the locals by showing off their Western physiques in kimonos or shopping for souvenirs, it is in the Japanese pages of the journal that the tourist in Ferdinand can be glimpsed. He got an enormous tattoo, “Which I will probably come to regret,” went sightseeing and fired off a few photos. Not quite a lads’ holiday as we know it now, but certainly containing a few of the required elements.

Franz Ferdinand fishes on Lake Yellowstone, from the Austrian National Library

From there it was more environmental angst in Canada and, of course, grizzly bear hunting. Particularly saddening is the archduke’s excitement on discovering the trail of a “happy mother and its cub,” leaving the reader certain they will not be happy for long. In fact, the bears escaped Ferdinand’s sights and, struck down by a cold, the great hunter had no choice but to admit defeat.

On arrival in Yellowstone Park, Ferdinand was delighted to note the richness of game but this was somewhat lessened by the fact he couldn’t shoot any of it due to a total ban on hunting. The reader can feel his frustration as he sees creatures that he longs to take a shot at and simply can’t. Upon meeting some German hunters on their way to a shoot, he discovered that their rifle barrels had been sealed by rangers, just in case.

Ferdinand would not be stopped though and, determined to bag one kill in the park, he and his companions beat a skunk to death. They attacked porcupines and squirrels too, the whole experience written up with gleeful amusement. Ferdinand was delighted to have got one over on authorities, sure that he couldn’t be forbidden from hunting anywhere.

The long journey home to Europe began in October 1893. With Ferdinand’s hunting world tour finally at an end, he set off on the long voyage home, the ship’s hold stuffed with trophies both living and dead.

For more on the House of Habsburg, subscribe to subscribe to History of Royals and get every issue delivered straight to your drawbridge.

  • G Brook-Shepherd, Royal Sunset: Dynasties Of Europe And The Great War Hardcover, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1987
  • G Brook-Shepherd, Victims At Sarajevo: The Romance And Tragedy Of Franz Ferdinand And Sophie, HarperCollins 1984
  • G King and S Woolmans, The Assassination Of The Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 And The Murder That Changed the World, Macmillan 2013
  • RN Lebow, Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!: A World Without World War I, St Martin’s Press 2014

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The Black Hand attacked Franz Ferdinand as a call for independence for Serbians who lived in Bosnia, part of former Yugoslavia. When Austro-Hungary retaliated against Serbia, Russia—which was then allied with Serbia—joined the war against Austria-Hungary. This started a series of conflicts that eventually led to World War I. Germany declared war on Russia, and France was then drawn in against Germany and Austro-Hungary. When Germany attacked France through Belgium, Britain was brought into the war as well. Japan entered the war on Germany's side. Later, Italy and the United States would enter on the side of the allies.

Curses! Archduke Franz Ferdinand and His Astounding Death Car

It’s hard to think of another event in the troubled 20th century that had quite the shattering impact of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The archduke was heir to the throne of the tottering Austro-Hungarian empire his killers—a motley band of amateurish students—were Serbian nationalists (or possibly Yugoslav nationalists historians remain divided on the topic) who wanted to turn Austrian-controlled Bosnia into a part of a new Slav state. The guns and bombs they used to kill the archduke, meanwhile, were supplied by the infamous “Colonel Apis,” head of Serbian military intelligence. All of this was quite enough to provoke Austria-Hungary into declaring war on Serbia, after which, with the awful inevitability that A.J.P. Taylor famously described as “war by timetable,” Europe slid inexorably into the horrors of the First World War as the rival Great Powers began to mobilize against one another.

To say that all this is well-known is an understatement—I have dealt with one of the stranger aspects of the story before in Past Imperfect. Seen from the historian’s perspective, though, even the most familiar of the events of that day have interesting aspects that often go unremarked. The appalling combination of implausible circumstance that resulted in assassination is one Franz Ferdinand had survived an earlier attempt to kill him on the fateful day, emerging unscathed from the explosion of a bomb that bounced off the folded roof of his convertible and exploded under a car following behind him in his motorcade. That bomb injured several members of the imperial entourage, and those men were taken to the hospital. It was Franz Ferdinand’s impulsive decision, later in the day, to visit them there—a decision none of his assassins could have predicted—that took him directly past the spot where his assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was standing. It was chauffeur Leopold Lojka’s unfamiliarity with the new route that led him to take a wrong turn and, confused, pull to a halt just six feet from the gunman.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was victim of the most momentous political assassination of the 20th century. (Public Domain)

For the archduke to be presented, as a stationary target, to the one man in a crowd of thousands still determined to kill him was a remarkable stroke of bad luck, but even then, the odds still favored Franz Ferdinand’s survival. Princip was so hemmed in by the crowd that he was unable to pull out and prime the bomb he was carrying. Instead, he was forced to resort to his pistol, but failed to actually aim it. According to his own testimony, Princip confessed: “Where I aimed I do not know,” adding that he had raised his gun “against the automobile without aiming. I even turned my head as I shot.” Even allowing for the point-blank range, it is pretty striking, given these circumstances, that the killer fired just two bullets, and yet one struck Franz Ferdinand’s wife, Sophie—who was sitting alongside him—while the other hit the heir to the throne. It is astonishing that both rounds proved almost immediately fatal. Sophie was hit in the stomach, and her husband in the neck, the bullet severing his jugular vein. There was nothing any doctor could have done to save either of them.

There are stranger aspects to the events of June 28 than this, however. The assassination proved so momentous that it is not surprising that there were plenty of people ready to say, afterward, that they had seen it coming. One of them, according to an imperial aide, was the fortuneteller who had apparently told the archduke that “he would one day let loose a world war.” That story carries a tang of after-the-fact for me. (Who, before August 1914, spoke in terms of a “world war”? A European war, perhaps). Yet it seems pretty well established that Franz Ferdinand himself had premonitions of an early end. In the account of one relative, he had told told some friends the month before his death that “I know I shall soon be murdered.” A third source has the doomed man “extremely depressed and full of forebodings” a few days before the assassination took place.

According to yet another story, moreover, Franz Ferdinand had every reason to suppose that he was bound to die. This legend—not found in the history books but (says the London Times) preserved as an oral tradition among Austria’s huntsmen—records that, in 1913, the heavily armed archduke had shot a rare white stag, and adds that it was widely believed of any hunter who killed such an animal “that he or a member of his family shall die within a year.”

The archduke was a keen, if indiscriminate, hunter–seen here with a single day’s “bag.” (Public Domain)

There is nothing inherently implausible in this legend—or at least not in the idea that Franz Ferdinand might have mown down a rare animal without thinking twice about it. The archduke was a committed and indiscriminate huntsman, whose personal record, when in pursuit of small game (Roberta Feueurlicht tells us), was 2,140 kills in a day and who, according to the records he meticulously compiled in his own game book, had been responsible for the deaths of a grand total of 272,439 animals during his lifetime, the majority of which had been loyally driven straight toward his overheating guns by a large assembly of beaters.

Of all the tall tales that attached themselves to Franz Ferdinand after his death, however, the best known and most widely circulated concerns the car in which he was driven to his death. This vehicle—a Gräf and Stift double phaeton, built by the Gräf brothers of Vienna, who had been bicycle manufacturers only a few years earlier—had been made in 1910 and was owned not by the Austro-Hungarian state but by Count Franz von Harrach, “an officer of the Austrian army transport corps” who apparently lent it to the archduke for his day in Sarajevo. According to this legend, Von Harrach’s vehicle was so cursed by either its involvement in the awful events of June 1914 or, perhaps, its gaudy blood-red paint job that pretty much every subsequent owner met a hideous, Final Destination sort of end.

The Austrian heir and his wife. Sophie came from an aristocratic Bohemian family but was not royal. Their morganatic marriage was the cause of considerable controversy and uncertainty in Austria-Hungary. (Public Domain)

It’s sensible to point out, first, that the story of the cursed death car did not begin to make the rounds until decades after Franz Ferdinand’s death. It dates, so far as I have been able to establish, only to 1959, when it was popularized in Frank Edwards’s Stranger Than Science. This is not a terribly encouraging discovery. Edwards, a hack writer who wrote a series of sensational books recounting paranormal staples across one or two pages of purple prose, rarely offered his readers anything so persuasive as an actual source he was prone to exaggeration and untroubled by outright invention. To make matters worse, Edwards wrote up the story of the jinxed Gräf & Stift at pretty much the same time that a very similar tale concerning James Dean’s cursed Porsche Spyder had begun to make the rounds in the United States.

It would be unfair, however, to hold Edwards solely responsible for the popularity of the death car legend. In the decades since he wrote, the basic tale accumulated additional detail, as urban legends tend to do, so that by 1981 the Weekly World News was claiming that the blood-red Gräf & Stift was responsible for more than a dozen deaths.

Pared down to its elements, the News’ version of the story, which still makes the rounds online, tells the story in the words of a 1940s Vienna museum curator named Karl Brunner—and it opens with him refusing to allow visitors to “climb into the infamous ‘haunted car’ that was one of his prize exhibits.” The remainder of the account runs like this:

After the Armistice, the newly appointed Governor of Yugoslavia had the car restored to first-class condition.

But after four accidents and the loss of his right arm, he felt the vehicle should be destroyed. His friend Dr. Srikis disagreed. Scoffing at the notion that a car could be cursed, he drove it happily for six months–till the overturned vehicle was found on the highway with the doctor’s crushed body beneath it.

Another doctor became the next owner, but when his superstitious patients began to desert him, he hastily sold it to a Swiss race driver. In a road race in the Dolomites, the car threw him over a stone wall and he died of a broken neck.

A well-to-do farmer acquired the car, which stalled one day on the road to market. While another farmer was towing it for repairs, the vehicle suddenly growled into full power and knocked the tow-car aside in a careening rush down the highway. Both farmers were killed.

Tiber Hirschfield, the last private owner, decided that all the old car needed was a less sinister paint job. He had it repainted in a cheerful blue shade and invited five friends to accompany him to a wedding. Hirschfield and four of his guests died in a gruesome head-on collision.

By this time the government had had enough. They shipped the rebuilt car to the museum. But one afternoon Allied bombers reduced the museum to smoking rubble. Nothing was found of Karl Brunner and the haunted vehicle. Nothing, that is, but a pair of dismembered hands clutching a fragment of steering wheel.

It’s a nice story–and the wonderful suggestive detail in the last sentence, that Brunner had finally succumbed to the temptation to climb behind the wheel himself, and in doing so drew down a 1,000-pound bomb onto his head, is a neat touch. But it’s also certifiable rubbish.

To begin with, many of the details are plain wrong. Princip did not leap onto the running board of the Gräf & Stift, and—as we have seen—he certainly didn’t pump “bullet after bullet” into his victims. Nor did Yugoslavia have a “governor” after 1918 it became a kingdom. And while it is true that Franz Ferdinand’s touring car did make it to a Vienna museum—the military museum there, as a matter of fact—it wasn’t destroyed by bombing in the war. It’s still on display today, and remains one of the museum’s main attractions.

The Gräf & Stift touring car that drove Franz Ferdinand to his death can still be seen on display in Austria’s Heeresgeschichtliches Museum in Vienna. Note the conspicuous absence of the vehicle’s fabled “blood red” paint job. (Wikicommons)

The car is not painted blood red, you’ll notice, nor “a cheerful blue shade,” and—rather more significantly—it displays no sign of any damage caused by a long series of ghastly road accidents and head-on collisions. It does still bear the scars of the bombs and the bullets of June 28, however, and that seems pretty odd for a vehicle that must (at the very least) have undergone top-to-tail reconstruction work on three occasions for the death car legend to be true. There’s no evidence whatsoever, in short, that the vehicle ever suffered through the bloody experiences attributed to it by Frank Edwards and those who copied him–and though I can find no indication that anyone has ever done a full-fledged reinvestigation of Edwards’ original tale, there’s no sign in any of the more reputable corners of my library, or online, of any “Tiber Hirschfield,” nor of a “Simon Mantharides,” a bloodily deceased diamond merchant who crops up in several variants accounts of the tale, nor of a dead Vienna museum curator named Karl Brunner. All of these names can be found solely in recountings of the legend itself.

Old photos of Franz Ferdinand’s Gräf & Stift gives a clear view (right) of its remarkable license plate. (Public Domain)

In closing, though, I want to draw attention to an even more astounding coincidence concerning Franz Ferdinand’s death limo—one that is considerably better evidenced than the cursed-car nonsense. This tiny piece of history went completely unremarked on for the best part of a century, until a British visitor named Brian Presland called at Vienna’s Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, where the vehicle is now on display. It was Presland who seems to have first drawn the staff’s attention to the remarkable detail contained in the Gräf & Stift’s license plate, which reads AIII 118.

That number, Presland pointed out, is capable of a quite astonishing interpretation. It can be taken to read A (for Armistice) 11-11-18— which means that the death car has always carried with it a prediction not of the dreadful day of Sarajevo that in a real sense marked the beginning of the First World War, but of November 11, 1918: Armistice Day, the day that the war ended.

This coincidence is so incredible that I initially suspected that it might be a hoax—that perhaps the Gräf & Stift had been fitted with the plate retrospectively. A couple of things suggest that this is not the case, however. First, the pregnant meaning of the intitial ‘A’ applies only in English—the German for ‘armistice’ is Waffenstillstand, a satisfyingly Teutonic-sounding mouthful that literally translates as “arms standstill.” And Austria-Hungary did not surrender on the same day as its German allies—it had been knocked out of the war a week earlier, on November 4, 1918. So the number plate is a little bit less spooky in its native country, and so far as I can make it out it also contains not five number 1′s, but three capital ‘I’s and two numbers. Perhaps, then, it’s not quite so perplexing that the museum director buttonholed by Brian Presland said he had worked in the place for 20 years without spotting the plate’s significance.

A reconstruction of the Gräf & Stift’s license plate, showing Brian Presland’s interpretation of its hidden significance. (Public Domain)

More important, however, a contemporary photo of the fateful limousine, taken just as it turned into the road where Gavrilo Princip was waiting for it, some 30 seconds before Franz Ferdinand’s death, shows the car bearing what looks very much like the same number plate as it does today. You’re going to have to take my word for this—the plate is visible, just, in the best-quality copy of the image that I have access to, and I have been able to read it with a magnifying glass. But my attempts to scan this tiny detail in high definition have been unsuccessful. I’m satisfied, though, and while I don’t pretend that this is anything but a quite incredible coincidence, it certainly is incredible, one of the most jaw-dropping I’ve ever come across.

And it resonates. It makes you wonder what that bullet-headed old stag-murderer Franz Ferdinand might have made of it, had he had any imagination at all.

Roberta Feuerlicht. The Desperate Act: The Assassination at Sarajevo. New York: McGraw Hill, 1968 The Guardian , November 16, 2002 David James Smith. One Day in Sarajevo: 28 June 1914. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008 Southampton Echo November 12, 2004 The Times, November 2, 2006 Weekly World News, April 28, 1981.

The Assassination

Although the group had carefully planned the assassination, things went wrong, their plans were foiled and the assassination almost didn’t take place. The members of the group were posted all along the route on which the Archduke and his wife would tour Sarajevo in an open car (with almost no security). Nedjelko Cabrinovic threw a hand grenade at the car, but it rolled off and instead wounded some bystanders and an officer in one of the other cars in the procession.

The procession was stopped and Cabrinovic was arrested after a failed attempt at suicide (he swallowed an expired cyanide pill and jumped in the river). Later on the day, the Archduke decided to go visit the wounded officer at the hospital and the driver took the wrong route and tried to reverse as he realized his mistake. Princip was still loitering in the area and spotted the car, walked up to it and shot Franz Ferdinand twice, point blank from a 1.5m distance. The pregnant Sophie had instinctively thrown her body over that of her husband and was also killed.

8. He probably could have avoided his assassination

Franz Ferdinand ignored warnings that Serbian terrorist group the Black Hand — still reeling from Austrian annexation in 1908 — was plotting to assassinate him during his state visit to Sarajevo.

Plus, the day of his tour was Serbia’s National Day. Sophie pleaded with him not to go.

So why did he? Death was better than humiliation, said Lebow. It was a matter of honor.

Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie riding in an open carriage at Sarajevo shortly before their assassination on June 28, 1914. Photo by Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

On June 28, 1914, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were riding in the third of a seven-car convoy when a bomb bounced off their hood, exploding as the fourth car passed.

At this point, said Lebow, “any security detail worth its salt would have rushed these people out of town immediately.”

But they didn’t. Franz Ferdinand insisted that they pay a visit to an officer wounded in the bombing. On the way, the driver took a wrong turn, and happened to reverse right in front of one of the conspirators, Gavrilo Princip, who, said Lebow, was sipping a drink outside.

Pointing his pistol at the car, Princip fired two shots.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Franz Ferdinand, aged 51, was heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was married to Sophie Chotek von Chotvoka and had three children. Franz Ferdinand was, however, very unpopular because he had made it clear that once he became Emperor he would make changes.

The map below, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914, shows that Bosnia/ Herzegovnia was controlled by Austria. Austria had annexed Bosnia in 1908, a move that was not popular with the Bosnian people.

Franz Ferdinand decided to visit Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovnia, to make an inspection of the Austro-Hungarian troops there. The inspection was scheduled for 28th June 1914. It was planned that Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie would be met at the station and taken by car to the City Hall where they would have lunch before going to inspect the troops.

A Serbian terrorist group, called The Black Hand, had decided that the Archduke should be assassinated and the planned visit provided the ideal opportunity. Seven young men who had been trained in bomb throwing and marksmanship were stationed along the route that Franz Ferdinand’s car would follow from the City Hall to the inspection.

The first two terrorists were unable to throw their grenades because the streets were too crowded and the car was travelling quite fast. The third terrorist, a young man called Cabrinovic, threw a grenade which exploded under the car following that of the Archduke. Although the Archduke and his wife were unhurt, some of his attendants were injured and had to be taken to hospital.

After lunch at the City Hall, Franz Ferdinand insisted on visiting the injured attendants in hospital. However, on the way to the hospital the driver took a wrong turn. Realising his mistake he stopped the car and began to reverse. Another terrorist, named Gavrilo Princip, stepped forward and fired two shots. The first hit the pregnant Sophia in the stomach, she died almost instantly. The second shot hit the Archduke in the neck. He died a short while later.

Drawing of the arrest of Gavrilo Princip

Gavrilo Princip was arrested but was not executed because he was under 20 years. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison where he died of TB in 1918.

This article is part of our extensive collection of articles on the Great War. Click here to see our comprehensive article on World War 1.


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