Hapsburg heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countess Sophie in Sarajevo.
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Who was Franz Ferdinand?

The Habsburg heir was a rose-fancying, pious man, fond of hunting and above all his family – yet his assassination a hundred years ago led to the fall of empires.

In 1883, while still only the callow crown prince, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II, and his almost exact contemporary Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to the Habsburg empire, sat chatting in Berlin. This was one of a number of “exchange student” meetings between younger members of the two royal families to cement the recently signed Triple Alliance, a defensive pact (also including Italy) that both provided security against France and Russia and symbolised a new, cheerful relationship between Vienna and Berlin that ended years of deep antagonism.

Older Habsburgs found the freshly united Germany insupportable – their own empire, for so long the senior reactionary power, now found itself further diminished each year by its crazily bumptious and abrasive neighbour. The hope was that younger royalty (through such figures as Rudolf’s teenage cousin Franz Ferdinand) could cement the alliance, making it practical and normal within a generation.

Rudolf’s visit was not a success, although he concealed his deeper feelings from his German hosts. To the anguished, liberal-minded Rudolf’s despair, Wilhelm droned on about how parliament was “that pigsty” and about the opposition being “dogs who should be taken out and whipped”. As the decade went on, their meetings became ever more frosty, albeit propped up by the usual yawning acres of imperial protocol, exchanges of absurd military uniforms, and so on. Wilhelm thought Rudolf a “vain, literary, Jew-loving popularity-seeker, without character or virtue”. Rudolf said he could only imagine choosing to invite Wilhelm to a shoot if he knew it would end with an “elegant hunting accident”. Rudolf concluded that Crown Prince Wilhelm was a terrible figure: “a hothead in charge of the German barracks” under whose rule both the Habsburg empire and Germany would “sink in a sea of blood”.

Dynastic history is always an unstable mixture of compelling drama and mere, flailing happenstance. In the 1880s there was a great deal of such flailing, with profound implications for the future of Europe. When Wilhelm and Rudolf were first trying to play nicely together the personal stakes were very low. Both men had the promise of a remarkable future but seemed shielded for many years from any proper responsibility: Wilhelm’s big-bearded, war-hero and somewhat liberal father would shortly become Kaiser Friedrich III and while the reign of Rudolf’s father, Franz Joseph I, could already in the 1880s be described as dragging a bit, he was, like Friedrich, a hale figure only in his fifties.

The fates of both of these younger men now twisted drastically. Friedrich at last succeeded his unbelievably ancient father, Kaiser Wilhelm “the Great” (not an epithet that has stuck), in 1888. But he came to the throne with throat cancer and ruled for only three months, unable to speak, and writing desperate messages on little pieces of paper, aware that the reactionary camarilla at court could hardly hide its glee at the surprise present of his imminent death. Grossly underprepared and in any event simply incapable of ruling such a large, complex, rapidly expanding country as Germany, Wilhelm therefore suddenly found himself as kaiser in June 1888, perhaps 20 years earlier than expected.

A few months after Wilhelm’s accession, Rudolf, unable to stand the weight of his own future responsibilities and driven to despair by the cold haughtiness of his father (and probably by sexual illnesses), shot his mistress, sat contemplating her corpse for some hours, and then shot himself – a clearly conscious attempt to break through the arid, fossilised air of court by checking out in as trashily Grand Guignol a manner as possible. It did not work – the Habsburg court smothered the scandal and turned the site of the outrage (a hunting lodge in the Vienna Woods called Mayerling) into a Carmelite convent. Nobody involved seemed to learn anything at all from Rudolf’s gory critique of the difficult relationship between
a ruler and his successor.

The suicide suddenly cleared the way for a plodding younger cousin and friend of Rudolf’s, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Rudolf had been Franz Joseph I’s only son, so now that he was lopped, the family tree’s branching moved to Franz Joseph’s next brother, Karl Ludwig. Karl Ludwig recoiled in horror at the idea and was in any event so close in age to Franz Joseph that he could only ever have ruled as a stopgap. So his son Franz Ferdinand became “the Heir”, albeit barely recognised as such by Franz Joseph, who remained contemptuous of and remote from the pious and not very exciting young man. And so, in early 1889 Franz Ferdinand began his long apprenticeship to become emperor.


Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the “great oddity at the heart of the July Crisis”.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The small Czech town of Benešov, a few miles south of Prague, is an unremarkable place. Like many hundreds of similar towns in central Europe it has an air of mild desolation, and the area around the railway station, with its simple, standardised buildings, sidings and rails, feels disconcertingly like an unloved, gigantic version of a toy-train layout. But it does possess one small and remarkable thing. Along with all its standard Habsburg/Soviet features, the station has an elaborately decorated doorway on the main platform. This doorway leads to nothing exciting – as far as anyone can see there are just dusty boxes in a neglected room. But this is all that is left of the Imperial Waiting Room, reserved for visitors to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who lived in his castle at Konopište, a kilometre or so west of the town. A stream of extraordinary people once stomped into that room – royal friends, generals, hunting cronies, journalists, nationalist oddballs, confidential priests, all part of the complex web of contacts who kept Franz Ferdinand informed about the empire which, for some 25 years, he was destined to rule.

Franz Ferdinand is the great oddity at the heart of the July Crisis. In Britain he is only really known for being murdered, but for a generation he had been one of the most important figures in central Europe. It is a measure of how far the Habsburg empire had shrunk in importance during the 19th century that it ended up looming so small in our minds. An empire that in the 18th and early 19th centuries had been Britain’s crucial ally had now dwindled away until its only remaining role was, through the narrowness of its own concerns, to destroy Europe.

The July Crisis can be picked over almost indefinitely. One aspect that I keep returning to is the sense of weariness and despair among many of Europe’s royal elite. It is curious that both Germany and Russia were ruled by men who had become widely viewed as embarrassing failures in their roles. It is impossible now to see photographs of Kaiser Wilhelm II or Tsar Nicholas II and not recoil at their air of silliness – by different measures these were simply not individuals capable of running such empires. Both had on their accession used “youth” as a winning card and both had mouldered into middle age, leaving a trail of ineradicable and sometimes near-fatal mistakes behind them. Both had made major international gambits and failed under humiliating circumstances.

The kaiser was disturbingly unchanged in his views and manner from the young man who, in his dealings with Rudolf, had viewed the word “literary” as a stinging insult. He had ardently pursued a German “world policy” that wound up netting a few coffee farms and some Pacific islands that exported coconut matting. He had built a large navy, which well before the crisis of 1914 had clearly failed to topple the overwhelming strength of Britain’s navy, while also helping make Britain needlessly anti-German. The tsar had become tangled in what was meant to be a decisive effort to make Russia the key power in the Pacific and the “protector” of northern China, only for his army and navy to be destroyed by Japan. This had provoked a revolution at home that loyal forces had only narrowly managed to subvert.

If we feel weary and a bit depressed seeing photographs of these rulers, imagine how it must have been for their subjects, as Wilhelm in 1914 clocked up 26 years on the throne and Nicholas 20. They both ruled societies that were, in different ways, highly dynamic, unstable and successful, but generally not thanks to their monarchs, or the weird ensembles of courtiers and military men who surrounded them. Under normal circumstances both rulers could have expected to stay in power into the 1930s or 1940s, so in 1914 they were in the mere foothills of their mediocrity.

Royal longevity, though, was on view in its most parodic form in their southern neighbour, the third of the three broadly “reactionary” European powers that would be destroyed by the decisions taken in July 1914. Both Wilhelm and Nicholas had come to the throne young on the surprising early death of their predecessor. Franz Ferdinand, from the same generation, was for a quarter of a century trapped in a holding pattern, pacing back and forth at Konopište, ever hopeful that his deeply disliked uncle Franz Joseph I was about to die. Instead, Franz Joseph had kept going effortlessly – heading for his 84th birthday that summer.

Just as William and Nicholas had once gained free passes by being in the unexclusive category of “young”, so Franz Joseph took on an ill-deserved glow just by being “old”. He had come to power in an illegal coup at a panicked moment in the 1848 revolutions, had suffered a welter of military fiascos during the 1850s and 1860s, and had ever since exercised a form of narrow cunning to ensure a quiet life. Obsessed with legitimacy (oddly, given the illegal basis on which he had come to the throne), protocol, uniforms, hunting and public prayer, he operated in a world almost entirely divorced from modernity. Even in the 1870s there had been complaints about the decrepitude of official Vienna, but by 1914 most people had given up – there was almost nobody alive who had any memory of a world that did not revolve around Franz Joseph’s pious fakery. A sense of the interminable nature of his reign can be had by realising that when Franz Joseph had first become emperor he had initially fawned on and then betrayed the Russian tsar Nicholas I, great-grandfather of Nicholas II, himself a long-serving ruler by 1914.

The Hapsburg brothers: Karl Ludwig, Franz Joseph, Maximilian and Ludwig Victor. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There is a superb photograph from the 1860s showing a seemingly adamantine phalanx of Habsburg imperial legitimacy (above) – the four brothers, with Franz Joseph glaring into the camera, flanked by his siblings Maximilian, Karl Ludwig and Ludwig Viktor. Maximilian was the first to go, having agreed to become emperor of Mexico in a near-laughably ill-judged attempt to revive the old Habsburg American empire of Charles V’s Renaissance glory days. He remains chiefly known today for Manet’s unfinished paintings of his execution in 1867, but there are some superb Mexican mementoes in Vienna, including not least his bodyguards’ gold Prussian-style helmets – with the more usual spike replaced by an elaborate eagle-snake-cactus decoration – and the Imperial Sombrero.

Karl Ludwig went next. While on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he went into a “religious ecstasy”, drank from the movingly Jesus-associated yet also rather faecal River Jordan and was killed by typhoid. The last brother, Ludwig Viktor, was the only one to outlive the dynasty, not dying until 1919, but he spent much of his life tucked away under police surveillance because of his enthusiasm for, among other things, wearing women’s ballgowns.

Franz Joseph I had married Elisabeth, a Bavarian princess, in 1854 and they had seemingly assured the succession with the arrival of Rudolf as heir in 1858. Both Elisabeth and Rudolf had the daunting task of trying to interact with the cold, stunted and petty Franz Joseph. They reacted in contrasting ways. Elisabeth became ever more glum and distant and latterly hardly stayed in Vienna, becoming a sort of unhappy mystic, obsessed with the idea of her own beauty and drifting from posh resort to posh resort. About ten years after Rudolf’s suicide, Luigi Lucheni, an Italian anarchist, arrived in Geneva, planning to stab to death “Philippe VIII”, the Orléanist pretender to the French throne. When it turned out Philippe had already left town, Lucheni, in a superb piece of anarchist chop-logic, killed the Empress Elisabeth instead.

It was generally a bad time to be royal, with simple technological changes such as faster communication, more compact explosives and cheap, small guns wreaking havoc, and with anarchists as much as revolutionary socialists making the running. Tsar Nicholas’s grandfather and uncle had both been killed in opportunist bomb attacks; Umberto I, the unpleasant king of Italy, was gunned down in 1900. Franz Ferdinand was among the guests at Alfonso XIII of Spain’s wedding in 1906 when a chunk of the procession was blown to pieces. In practical terms, however wobbly they may appear to us, royal families were still immovably entrenched before 1914, but senior figures within them were without doubt suffering from being the ultimate symbol of order, hierarchy and continuity. Everywhere, an elaborate, “rightly paranoid”, out-of-control shadow war was going on between revolutionaries and the secret police, of a kind immortalised by Under Western Eyes, The Man Who Was Thursday and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to name just three very different fictional responses. The secret police chased monsters of their own making and these caused chaos as the state tried to assess the real threats, with conmen, agents provocateurs, genuine killers, double agents and triple agents all criss-crossing an open-bordered Europe and impatiently checking on royal visitor schedules.


As with any heir who does not live to inherit, it is easy to project on to Franz Ferdinand (as it had been on to Rudolf) any number of virtues and vices and to generate elaborate “what if” scenarios ad nauseam. He certainly had a far stronger sense of the modern world than Franz Joseph, but this would not have been difficult. He had travelled extensively and understood from visits to British India and North America that a hugely powerful new world existed, completely beyond Austria-Hungary’s reach. His conclusions were understandably conservative – that war was something Austria-Hungary could not afford and friendly relations with both Germany and Russia were essential to protect the empire’s borders. He inherited Franz Joseph’s loathing for Italy, even though it was an ally, and his uncle Maximilian’s old dream of a substantial Habsburg navy to fend off any future Italian predation along the Adriatic coast.

In a sense, the weakness of the Habsburg empire should have been enjoyable for its rulers. While the other major European capitals were filled with fevered dreams of global domination and their newspapers festooned with pride-inducing colonial bloodbaths, Austria-Hungary was pleasantly left out. Its only tangible involvement with the wider world stemmed from sending a small naval contingent as part of the “Eight-Nation” army, which (confusing a technological superiority for a moral one) used various blends of metal and explosive to slaughter its way across northern China in 1900 to suppress the Boxer Rebellion. The Austro-Hungarian navy’s contribution was notable chiefly for one of its young sailors being the later Captain von Trapp of The Sound of Music fame.

The Triple Alliance made Franz Joseph’s empire in effect invulnerable from attack. There was also a substantial shared interest between Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary in keeping down the spectre of Poland, the ex-inhabitants of which they shared between them. This left only the small, weak states of Romania and Serbia and the expiring remnants of the Ottoman empire as border threats – and these were negligible. The Habsburg empire (the size of Texas) would on the face of it hardly need to react to any initiative from such Ruritanian kingdoms (“these Balkan toads”, as Franz Ferdinand helpfully once called them).

The most pressing issues that threatened the Habsburg empire during the many years of Franz Ferdinand’s pacing back and forth were internal. Stretching from the Alps to the Carpathians and from southern Poland to the Adriatic, the empire consisted of all of or chunks from 12 modern-day European states. As the 19th century progressed the need for a paper-based bureaucratic state created mass literacy of a kind potentially very damaging to a multi-ethnic state. Oddly, however, the most profound threat, the rebellions of 1848-49, had taken place very early in the process, with exterminatory violence between Hungarians and Romanians, for instance, proceeding with little evidence of literacy on either side. So widespread were these 1848 convulsions across the empire that, once they were stamped out (with help most importantly from a Russian army that, in a strange preview of 1944-45, destroyed Hungary), the Habs­burgs locked into place a new regime of heavy internal military policing, enshrined in the urban citadels that remain dotted throughout central Europe today.

In 1867 Franz Joseph came to a deal with the cowed Hungarians to split the empire, with one half ruled from Vienna and the other from Buda (shortly to become Budapest), and a handful of common ministries. This new entity, Austria-Hungary, gerrymandered two sub-states in which German speakers dominated one and Magyar speakers the other.

The smaller nationalities spent the following half-century twisting and turning, both to protect their cultures and to fret over what sort of political arrangement would actually make them happy. The populations of the empire were too entangled to allow for simple, monolingual units. Even a compact, urban and educationally articulate group such as the Czechs lived in an area of the empire (the kingdom of Bohemia) honeycombed with German and Yiddish speakers.

Smaller groups, such as the Slovenes and Slovaks, were barely culturally “awake” and in any event feared merely swapping one form of domination for another if the empire broke up. Some larger groups were loyal for odd reasons. Poles tended to be pro-Habsburg because the conditions for Poles in neighbouring German and Russian territories were even worse, while Romanians in the south-eastern regions of the empire were often loyal because the kingdom of Romania was too brutal and unstable to be much of a beacon. The Hungarians dreamed of their independent state, which had existed for a few weeks in 1849, but were also aware, in some moods, of their intense linguistic isolation and of the value of being part of a much larger empire in what could (as they knew from the Russian invasion) be a rough neighbourhood.


Franz Ferdinand spent his adult life musing on these problems, generally at Konopište, where he lived as a German-speaking aristocrat in a mostly Czech milieu. The castle is now a hugely popular tourist attraction, its car park groaning with sausage-stands, its moat boasting archery stalls and a captive bear, and with a fine shop selling Franz Ferdinand yo-yos, one of which has had pride of place on my desk for some years.

Some of the castle’s appeal may be ascribed to Habsburg nostalgia or a National Trust-like wish to cringe in the face of dead elites, but mostly it is down to Konopište being one of the most interesting places in central Europe.

Franz Ferdinand was methodical, pious, arrogant and touchy. He believed in order, hierarchy and discipline and the castle is like an enormous, crumbling version of his brain, done in bricks and stucco. To walk around the castle and grounds is to be plugged in, very oddly, to The Heir.

He catalogued everything, listing the thousands of animals he shot (and stuffing the heads of hundreds of them, whose fangs, snouts and horns eerily line entire corridors). He wrote down where he went each day and put up photographs of the exotic places he had visited (the Pyramids, Yellowstone – the latter, as a national park, being the only place he was prevented, to his rage, from shooting anything). He even had a helpful chart above his desk of the “national characteristics” of the different ethnic groups he would be responsible for.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie descend the steps of the City Hall in Sarajevo.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Early in life he had been sufficiently unimportant to have a strange inheritance dumped on him. The very rich Francis V, Duke of Modena, the last male member of the Este family – one of a number of pointless rulers kicked out during Italian unification – settled his fortune on whoever would take on the Este name. Franz Ferdinand was put forward for this honour and as a result inherited a great pile of money and one of Europe’s premier collections of old weapons and armour, many enjoyable examples of which are still displayed at Konopište. This inheritance was important because it meant, when he became next in line to the throne, that he could buy things such as castles without Franz Joseph controlling his money supply, the usual way rulers buy obedience from heirs. Franz Joseph and Franz Ferdinand deeply disliked each other but Franz Ferdinand was in the relishable position of not having to care, much to Franz Joseph’s fury.

Franz Ferdinand collected everything, from hundreds of statues of St George and the Dragon to prize roses, hoarded in a vast, suffocating garden. Left on his own he would have been a mere pop-eyed eccentric, but in the 1890s he fell in love – and this is the other great reason why Konopište is swamped by visitors. Sophie Chotek, the focus of his passion, was a lady-in-waiting from an old Czech noble family. She was completely unacceptable to Franz Joseph and most of the Habsburg family because she fell way outside the narrow limits of permitted royalness. Given that hereditary rule within one family is arbitrary and absurd, it is mere fussing around the edges for us to be angered today by such unfairness in court protocol, but the end result was definitely nasty.

It can never be quite clear whether this was the love story of the century, or merely yet another example of Franz Ferdinand’s almost insanely arrogant and overbearing need to get his own way; but the couple’s affection and concern for each other seem to have been genuine. Franz Joseph eventually agreed but, almost bursting with dynastic self-righteousness, forced Franz Ferdinand to sign an agreement that excluded any future children from the succession. Toadies at court then enjoyed themselves for years by humiliating Sophie, sitting her on ridiculously low-rank tables at banquets with provincial mayors, ensuring that sentries did not salute her, and so on. At official events Franz Ferdinand in effect had to pretend he was a bachelor and not refer to her in speeches.

When the couple’s corpses were returned from Sarajevo to Vienna, Franz Ferdinand’s coffin was heaped with a clutter of helmets, swords, medals and sashes, while Sophie’s was decorated with white gloves and a fan to mark her former status as a lady-in-waiting, so the toadies had the last laugh. But at Konopište they settled into an appealingly human family life, with Franz Ferdinand transformed from a teeth-grinding martinet into a genial father: “I sit with them and admire them the whole day,” he wrote, “because I love them so.”

The nursery areas of the castle, with their toys and the children’s jaunty paintings, are hard to cope with, the rooms suffused with the knowledge that the three children – Sophie, Maximilian and Ernst – were swept aside in the universal catastrophe that followed their parents’ murders. They were passed from hand to hand as first their Habsburg world crumbled and then rival nationalisms saw them only as threatening reminders of the past. Following Hitler’s absorption of Austria, both sons were sent to Dachau (they survived but died prematurely) and two of the daughter’s children died on the Eastern Front.

Franz Joseph was willing to tinker with the empire’s constitutional arrangements, but resisted anything that might overturn his 1867 deal with the Hungarians. Franz Ferdinand and his advisers, both at Konopište Castle and at his Vienna headquarters, the Belvedere, passed the long years working out what to do when at last the old man died. There were so many schemes that we can never know what Franz Ferdinand would have carried through. He hated the Hungarians (this has always been viewed as an important part of his personality but, in fairness, he hated most people) and in some moods wished to initiate his reign with a military coup to break their hold on the empire. One amusing option he considered was to become a faux-earnest convert to full democracy in the empire’s Hungarian half (but not the Austrian half), swamping the Magyar aristocracy in a multicoloured slurry of picturesque ethnicities. Perhaps the most interesting option, having broken the Hungarian veto on change, would have been to follow the Romanian writer and politician Aurel Popovici’s plan for a United States of Greater Austria, a federal ethnic scheme that both foreshadowed and checkmated Nazism.

Franz Ferdinand was entirely sceptical of any move into the south by the empire. The “temporary occupation” of the Ottoman territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878 was followed in 1908 by its total absorption as a new, almost valueless imperial province, a process so woefully handled that it terminally alienated Russia. The small, neighbouring kingdom of Serbia saw Bosnia as clearly marked out for its own territorial advancement and both Serbia’s government and some of its subjects became ever more dysfunctionally enraged with Austria-Hungary. Impotent in the face of Austria-Hungary’s overwhelming size, elements in the Serbian armed forces looked at ways in which they could provoke the sort of crisis that might create fresh opportunities.

Attempts by the Serbs to compensate for being shut out of Bosnia by trying to snatch some sea coast from the Ottoman empire further south during the Balkan wars of 1912-13 were gleefully foiled by Vienna and Rome (in a rare moment of amity), who conjured up independent Albania to block them. But being cheated of Sarajevo remained the original sin. Franz Ferdinand’s visit there in June 1914 could hardly have been more of a provocation, although one bizarrely discounted by the archduke’s woeful security team. It was because of this that, in A J P Taylor’s memorable phrase, “half a dozen grammar-school boys decided to have a shot at him”.

Franz Ferdinand’s own interest in the southern empire lay in “Yugoslavism” under Croatian control, promoting Zagreb to the same level as Vienna and Budapest, characteristically not out of a love for Croats but because it would mess up the Hungarians, who then ruled the region. In the fevered maunderings of the Austro-Hungarian military mind there often loomed the idea of war with Serbia, which offered an alternative focus for “Yugoslavism”, for Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians and the many Serbs who lived inside the empire. For Austro-Hungarian planners, Serbia had the great merit of being a little, seemingly beatable country, unlike its increasingly concerned and belligerent protector Russia. Franz Ferdinand was hostile towards the idea of fighting Serbia: “And what, for heaven’s sake, would we gain? Some plum trees and goat pastures full of shit, and a bunch of rebellious killers.” He kept the military in their place and vetoed their beloved southern military actions. These would, he stated, win merely “cheap laurels” and would run the risk of escalation, with “a war on two or three fronts”.


In mid-June 1914 two of his final (as it turned out) visitors came to see The Heir, marching through the grand waiting room at Benešov. These were Kaiser Wilhelm II and his surreally bearded sidekick Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. Tirpitz was one of the great grotesques of late-monarchical Europe. In the 1890s, when there had been hardly a cloud in the sky, he had, for reasons that could only be viewed as mystical, foreseen that Britain would become Germany’s principal enemy. He ceaselessly lobbied for the building of a gigantic navy to take Britain on – thereby conjuring up British enmity. If ever someone deserved a slow handclap it is Tirpitz. Luckily, unlike his equally mischievous German army equivalent Alfred von Schlieffen, Tirpitz did at least live to see the fruit of his lunatic misconceptions. But in June 1914 he was excited to be at Konopište for non-military reasons. The old horror, the militarist’s militarist – his mind filled with deck armour, trajectories, torpedo tubing and explosive yields – was also a great enthusiast for roses. Franz Ferdinand’s gardeners had spent months timing a truly awe-inspiring display on Konopište’s immense parterre, and so the Nibelung warlords and their pop-eyed host spent a happy afternoon snuffling Gloires de Dijon.

Wilhelm and Franz Ferdinand had a relationship based around a love of animal killing and fancy outfits (Wilhelm often designed his own and, in fact, had arrived at the Imperial Waiting Room in his own dashing, if deeply peculiar, hunting costume). Just as important, Wilhelm always treated Sophie with full respect, placing her next to him at banquets in Berlin, cunningly aware how much this both infuriated Franz Joseph and bound Franz Ferdinand to him. A legend has grown up around the visit to Konopište, the idea that as the men banqueted, handled roses and sat smoking in Franz Ferdinand’s misnamed but loosely oriental “Harem Room”, they planned a world war. But the one area where they had nothing in common was foreign policy.

Franz Ferdinand insisted that war would be a disaster for Austria-Hungary and that the empire’s army (of which he was inspector general and the senior commander in the event of conflict) was for internal policing, not for external aggrandisement. For years he had battled with the patently insane Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Habsburg chief of staff (whom Franz Ferdinand, awkwardly, had appointed). Conrad – a figure who makes Tirpitz look like a children’s television presenter – caused chaos by his constant demands for war. No crisis in the years before the First World War was complete without some incoherent scream for military action from Conrad: an attack on Italy, Serbia, or wherever. Conrad’s understanding of war was entirely theoretical, his only active service being in the sort of policing favoured by Franz Ferdinand, and when the First World War broke out he proved terrifyingly incompetent. What Franz Ferdinand referred to as the “witches’ kitchen of war” of his chief of staff was one of the critical, now hard-to-reconstruct elements of the pre-crisis world.

There was a dangerous paradox – shared with Germany – of a heavily militarised society, obsessed with mobilisation timetables, fortresses and cutting-edge weapons, which nonetheless never fought anybody. In countless war games and manoeuvres, Franz Ferdinand and Wilhelm pretended to be going into action but at no cost beyond the occasional victim of heatstroke. Wilhelm had become desensitised to the grim seriousness of the military men he liked to adorn himself with and to the uncertain nature of his own role. But Franz Ferdinand was very clear – indeed, he was planning finally to sack the raving Conrad on his return from his tiresome forthcoming trip to Sarajevo.

So we cannot know what was discussed at Konopište but it was certainly not a plan for war. The European great powers had just weathered two murderous Balkan wars, which had concluded only the previous summer, and not come to blows. As much time could have been spent in Franz Ferdinand’s Harem Room debating tea roses as armies. Wilhelm apparently raised the idea that one of Franz Ferdinand’s sons (disinherited from ruling Austria-Hungary) should come and work for him as ruler of a new kingdom of Lorraine. But this was standard-issue castles-in-the-air from Wilhelm, who loved to propose such fun arrangements; at one point he had suggested to the king of Belgium that he come over to join the central powers and become king of Burgundy, with a big slice of north-eastern France. These fantasies of lightning military action and of fresh royal and imperial titles, coupled with musings about the right sort of fabric for coronation robes, had harmlessly occupied much of Wilhelm’s life.

As the two men sat there chatting, they could both feel that their empires had moved into a calmer period, having successfully navigated a number of grave foreign policy conundrums. They also had the unimaginable personal advantage of “legitimist arrogance” – they were sniffing roses and admiring antique armour not just as themselves, but as senior representatives of two ancient families. They shared the ease of the very long, dynastic view, and of being backed up by the staggering grandeur and achievements of their distinguished ancestors. After all, Wilhelm’s family, the Hohenzollerns, had ruled Berlin for half a millennium; Franz Ferdinand’s family had ruled Vienna for nearly six and a half centuries. The kaiser and Admiral Tirpitz headed back to the station at Benešov; Franz Ferdinand and Sophie started to pack. 

Simon Winder’s most recent book is “Danubia: a Personal History of Habsburg Europe” (Picador, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

AKG-Images/Russian State Archive for Film and Photography, Krasnogorsk
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What caused the Russian revolution? Look to the powder keg of Petrograd

How unrest exploded in 1917 – with help from Russia’s Terrible Twins.

Nineteen seventeen is a year that resonated through the 20th century. But place matters here as much as time – “place” meaning not just Russia, but Petrograd, as the imperial capital became known after “St Petersburg” was de-Germanised on the outbreak of war in 1914. Though in due course 1917 was touted as a universal model for revolution, it cannot be detached from the impact of the Great War in a distinctive country and a uniquely combustible city. Nor can it be separated from the intertwined stories of two almost incomprehensible men, a failed autocrat and a ruthless dictator: Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin, Russia’s Terrible Twins.

The Great War may as well have been called the Great Killing. In 1916, the London Annual Register offered this elegant summary of the callous calculus that passed for Grand Strategy: “[T]he number of men possessed by the Entente Powers was much greater than the number that the Central Powers could command. The war was therefore to be a crude process of sheer killing. And then, assuming that each side killed equally effectively, the Entente would reach victory in an inevitable manner through the working of a simple mathematical law.”

But each side did not kill “equally effectively”. Not only were the Germans more efficient killers than their opponents, but the homicidal potency of each country on the battle front depended on its industrial efficiency on the home front. Despite frequent strikes, Britain and France “worked” as societies and economies; the main member of the Entente, Russia, did not. Its Achilles heel was the supply of fuel and food by a broken transport system during the coldest winter in years. In early 1917 bread riots broke out in many cities. But only one of those cities was the crucible of revolution.

Petrograd was unusual, by Russian standards and those of the modern world. The fifth-largest metropolis in Europe, it was an industrial sweatshop of 2.4 million people in a predominantly rural country. Seventy per cent of the city’s workers were employed in factories with a staff of over 1,000, a proportion unmatched even in the conurbations of Germany and the US. Sucked in by the war boom, they lived amid squalor: more than three people on average to every cellar or single room, double the figure for Berlin or Paris. About half the homes lacked water supply or a sewage system; a quarter of all babies died in their first year.

Yet wealth and privilege were staring these workers in the face: the main factory district, on the Vyborg Side of the Neva, lay just across the water from the imperial palace and the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt. This cheek-by-jowl polarisation contrasted with more suburbanised industrial centres such as Berlin, London and Paris. Equally important, Petrograd was a large garrison, with over 300,000 soldiers in and around the city. That, an eyewitness said, was like placing “kindling wood near a powder keg”.

Today the barracks and the sweatshops are gone. But even in modern St Petersburg one can see why Petrograd literally walked into revolution in 1917. A 90-minute hike will take you from the Finland Station on the Vyborg Side, across the Liteiny Bridge, west along the embankment to Palace Square and then left down Nevsky Prospekt to the Moscow Station. Maybe an hour, if you cross the Liteiny Bridge and turn east to the Tauride Palace and Smolny Convent. Along these axes, within the space of a few square miles, the drama of 1917 played out.

Thousands of spectators looked on and many recorded what they saw. Some were foreign residents and journalists, whose impressions are the stuff of Helen Rappaport’s lively narrative Caught in the Revolution. Sticking closer to raw sources is John Pinfold’s Petrograd, 1917, which is lavishly illustrated with postcards and prints from the Bodleian Library’s collections. Some of the city’s biggest factories were British-owned and British-managed: the Thornton Woollen Mill, employing 3,000 workers, belonged to three brothers from Yorkshire. Many of the luxury stores along Nevsky Prospekt – tailors, dressmakers, food emporiums, bookshops – were British or French, catering for expatriates and wealthy Russians in the days when French was still the lingua franca of the elite.

For months it had been clear that trouble was brewing. “If salvation does not come from above,” one Russian duchess warned the French ambassador, “there will be revo­lution from below.” Yet few anticipated how Petrograd would stumble into a new era.

Thursday 23 February (tsarist Russia still followed the Julian calendar, 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West) was International Women’s Day, a red-letter date for socialists. Thousands flocked across the bridges and the frozen river from the Vyborg Side and other industrial areas and marched down Nevsky Prospekt demanding bread. Trams and other obstacles were pushed aside. “I have heard the Marseillaise sung many times,” wrote Florence Harper, an intrepid American journalist, “but that day for the first time I heard it sung as it should be” – with raw class hatred.

Marchons! Marchons! All day the tide surged along and around Nevsky. Across the river, strikes spread violently through the factory districts. More demonstrations followed on Friday, and clashes escalated with the hated mounted police. Yet life still went on: the Alexandrinsky Theatre, one block off Nevsky, was packed that evening for a performance of Nikolai Gogol’s classic comedy The Government Inspector, its tale of official corruption, incompetence and self-delusion from the era of Nicholas I still richly apt in the dog-days of Nicholas II. By the weekend, however, trams had shut down, most shops were closed and looting was rife. Troops and policemen massed around the main squares. But when the police started sabring the crowds, Cossack troops and even crack Guards regiments sided with the protesters.

On Monday 27 February, with temperatures rising literally as well as figuratively, thousands of mutinous soldiers joined the milling crowds, which were now armed with booty looted from military arsenals. Army officers were particular targets. One of them, bemedalled and swaggering, was pursued along Nevsky by a crowd of women who stripped him of his weapons. A grey-haired woman screaming abuse broke the officer’s sword over her knee and tossed the bits into a canal. By nightfall, the tsarist regime had lost control of most of the city, except the Winter Palace and a few government buildings nearby. It was “a revolution carried on by chance”, Bert Hall, an American aviator attached to the Russian Air Service, wrote in his diary – “no organisation, no particular leader, just a city full of hungry people who have stood enough and are ready to die if necessary before they will put up with any more tsarism”.

Although Hall’s account was rather simplistic, this was indeed a revolution in search of a leader. On 2 March the tsar abdicated, but plans for a constitutional monarchy evaporated when his brother Mikhail refused the throne, leaving Russia headless. A rump of the parliament dithered and bickered in one wing of the Tauride Palace, while a heaving jumble of soldiers, workers and activists in the other wing congealed into the “Petrograd Soviet”. Aptly, they were on the left of the palace and the politicians were on the right, with little to connect the two sides. The politicians became the Provisional Government but the soviet had authority over the army. “Dual power” signalled a duel for power.

The duel proved painfully protracted. Four coalitions ensued in less than nine months, not to mention seven major reshuffles. Meanwhile the country slipped towards civil war – a process well documented by Stephen Smith in Russia in Revolution, based on a deft synthesis of recent research. Peasants with guns and pitchforks looted the big houses and seized the estates. Workers’ committees took control of much of the defence industry. In the army, “all discipline has vanished”, the French ambassador told Paris. “Deserters are wandering over Russia.” Smith emphasises that February aroused idealism as well as anarchy: a yearning for political rights, decent living standards and, above all, peace. Yet the leader of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, decided to mount a summer offensive against the Germans, which quickly became a disaster, with vast losses of troops and territory. The people were turning against the government but the indecisive duel dragged on.

Enter Lenin. Contrary to Soviet mythology, he was not a “man of the people”. His father belonged to the provincial establishment – a reformist inspector of schools in the Simbirsk region, south-east of Moscow. Lenin’s pedigree was also hushed up by the Soviet authorities: his maternal grandfather was Jewish and his paternal grandmother was a Kalmyk from central Asia, hence those “Mongol eyes” and high cheekbones. Most of all, he was a man who had been going nowhere for years, or, rather, had been going round in circles. Yet when finally he went for the jugular it proved decisive for him – and fatal for Russia.

Victor Sebestyen brings the man’s complexities to life in Lenin the Dictator, balancing personality with politics in succinct and readable prose. Like other biographers, Sebestyen roots young Vladimir’s revolutionary turn in the double trauma in 1886-87 of his father’s sudden death and his elder brother’s execution for plotting to kill the tsar. From now on Lenin’s one-track, control-freak mind was fixed on the goal of a Russian revolution, in defiance of Karl Marx’s insistence that this would be impossible until feudal peasant Russia had first become a bourgeois society.

For three decades, however, the would-be revolutionary was a failure, spending much of his time in exile flitting between Munich, London, Paris and various “holes” in Switzerland – Geneva, Bern, Zurich – endlessly plotting revolution, frenziedly writing revolution, but not actually doing revolution. In fact, Lenin seemed to have a knack of being in the wrong place at the right time: outside Russia in the upheavals of 1905, likewise when war broke out in ­August 1914, and again when tsarism was toppled in February 1917. It was almost as if he was so obsessed with revolution that he could never see it coming.

This life of frustrated waiting took an enormous toll on nerves and health. Sebestyen describes particularly keenly how this ruthless, domineering, often vicious man depended on three women to sustain him. There was Maria Ulyanova, his mother, who provided financial and emotional support until her death in 1916. Then his wife, Nadezhda (“Nadya”) Krupskaya – written off in Soviet times as a mere cook and amanuensis, but who Sebestyen and other biographers show to be an intelligent and devoted partner in the revolutionary project and one with whom Lenin talked out his ideas before writing them down. And Inessa Armand, a chic French divorcee for whom Lenin fell, passionately, in the only real “affair” of his life. A superb linguist and accomplished pianist, Inessa was not only his sharpest intellectual critic but also an intrepid party organiser, undertaking dangerous missions in Russia. Nadya accepted the ménage à trois with remarkable equanimity and the two women seem to have become good friends. Nadya, who was childless, was especially fond of Inessa’s two young daughters.

Lenin might have gone to his grave playing out this pointless life of head and heart but for the accident of the February revolution. Now frantic to get back to Petrograd, he could not see how to travel from Zurich across or around war-torn Europe. His plans to do so became increasingly surreal. A wig to conceal his giveaway bald pate? Maybe a Swedish passport? (Forgeries were easily obtained.) “Find a Swede who looks like me,” he instructed a Bolshevik in Stockholm. “But as I know no Swedish, he will have to be a deaf mute.”

In the end, the kaiser’s Germany came to his rescue, eager to undermine Russia’s home front. To quote Winston Churchill’s celebrated one-liner, “They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia.”

In Lenin on the Train, Catherine Merridale tells the famous story with colour and detail, setting it in the crucible of a Europe at war. Her introduction relates how she faithfully retraced his 2,000-mile journey to Petrograd, even leaving Zurich on the same date as Lenin, though this personal odyssey is not then woven into the body of the book. And because her account does not extend as far as the October revolution, we finish the book on a slight sense of anticlimax. But Merridale offers an engrossing account of the physical train ride – in a single wooden carriage, painted green, consisting of three second-class and five third-class compartments plus a baggage room. German guards sat at the back behind a chalk line on the floor, to preserve the fiction that Lenin had no contact with Russia’s enemy.

A martinet as ever, he imposed specific sleeping hours on his Bolshevik fellow travellers, banned smoking in the compartments and corridor, and instituted a pass system to regulate use of the toilet between smokers and those answering the call of nature. After a tense delay in Berlin, the train chugged on to Germany’s Baltic coast, from where a ferry and then more train journeys through Sweden and Finland brought Lenin to the Finland Station in Petrograd on Easter Monday, 3 April.

That night he delivered a tub-thumping, two-hour speech to his socialist comrades explaining that the first phase of Russia’s revolution was over and the second was beginning. Not for him a coalition of the left, let alone the British/French staging post of liberal democracy: the Russian bourgeoisie was locked in to capitalism and wedded to the war. No, the second stage was quite simply to “place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasantry”. To most of his listeners, Merridale remarks, “this was not just bad Marxist theory; it was an invitation to political suicide”. Even Nadya was overheard telling a friend, “I am afraid it looks as if Lenin has gone crazy.”

Once home again, Lenin seemed to succumb to the Petrograd paralysis. He hectored large crowds and churned out endless articles, insisting, “No great question . . . has yet been resolved in history other than by force.” But in June he warned key aides not to let anti-war demonstrations get out of hand: “Even if we were now able to seize power, we’re in no position to hold it.” When the protests did escalate and the government cracked down, he fled to Finland, provoking bitter accusations of cowardice from many of his jailed supporters.

But finally he went for broke. After three months in exile again, he slipped back into Petrograd on the night of 10 October to browbeat the Bolshevik Central Committee into affirming that the time was “perfectly ripe” for “an armed uprising” against Ker­ensky and the Provisional Government, rejecting arguments that they should work for a peaceful transfer of power at the Second Congress of Soviets 15 days later. As Sebestyen observes, “If anything disproves the Marxist idea that it is not individuals who make history but broad social and economic forces it is Lenin’s revolution.”

On 24 October, Lenin’s comrades tried to keep him tucked away on the Vyborg Side because he was still on the government’s wanted list. But by the evening he could not endure to wait yet again in the wings. Crudely disguised with glasses, a grey wig and a worker’s peaked cap, he took off for the Smolny Institute where the Bolsheviks had their military headquarters. Without a car or tank for transport, he and one bodyguard got on a tram to the Liteiny Bridge and then tramped the rest of the way along the embankment, narrowly avoiding arrest. Like the protesters in their February revolution, Lenin walked into Red October – and finally into history.

Today Lenin’s mummified body still resides in its shrine in Red Square, in the heart of Moscow. But in fact, as Sebestyen writes, Tsar Nicholas “did as much as anyone, including Lenin, to bring about the destruction of the Romanov dynasty and to ensure the Communist takeover in Russia” – not just by setting his face against reforms that might have averted revolution, but also because he had “no understanding of the nature of power”. Russia in 1917 was “an ­autocracy without an autocrat”.

In The Last of the Tsars, Robert Service ­examines the mentality of this lost leader. He does so through the lens of Nicholas’s experiences and reflections during the 16 months between his abdication in March 1917 and his family’s grisly end in July 1918. The tsar’s limp surrender of the throne ­continues to amaze. Emotional exhaustion; pressure from the army command; concern for his haemophiliac son; the impossibility of squaring a constitutional monarchy with his coronation oath: one can intuit possible explanations. But it still seems astonishing that this proud scion of the Romanov dynasty, rulers of Russia for three centuries, signed away his throne on a provincial railway station with blank calm – as if, to quote one aide, “he were turning over command of a cavalry squadron”.

The abdication wasn’t something Nicholas discussed during his peripatetic house arrest in 1917-18 around western Siberia and the Urals. Nor did the eks-Imperator (as he was described on his ration card) express any regret about his record as a ruler: he blamed Russia’s woes on alien forces instead. Top of the list were the German invaders and the Bolshevik revolutionaries: he described the peace treaty that Lenin signed with the Kaiserreich, surrendering the Baltic states and the Ukraine, as a “nightmare”. The tsar may have been a devoted husband and father – romanticised in the movie based on Robert Massie’s 50th-anniversary encomium Nicholas and Alexandra – but, as Service writes: “In power and out of it, he was a nationalist extremist, a deluded nostalgist and a virulent anti-Semite.”

Originally the Bolsheviks had envisaged a show trial, like those of Charles I in England and Louis XVI in France. But by July 1918 the time had passed for political theatre: Russia was engulfed in civil war and hostile Czech troops were closing in on Ekaterinburg, where the Romanovs were now being held. Service has no doubt that Lenin authorised the killing but – as in 1917 when he was trying to cover up German help and money – any documentation was destroyed. Instead, conveniently in keeping with the Bolshevik slogan “All power to the soviets”, responsibility for the deed was ascribed to party leaders in Ekaterinburg.

Yet even after Nicholas’s death his regime lived on. “As a form of absolutist rule the Bolshevik regime was distinctly Russian,” Orlando Figes remarked in his 1996 classic, A People’s Tragedy. “It was a mirror-image of the tsarist state.” Lenin and Stalin replaced the Tsar-God, and the Cheka/NKVD/KGB continued (even more systematically) the brutal work of the tsarist police state. In a new introduction to a reprint of his book, Figes emphasises that Putinism is also rooted in this Russian past – in the enduring weakness of civil society and the scant experience of deep democracy.

Not that the West can easily point the finger at Russia. In the age of Trump and Brexit, with an ossified EU and a global refugee crisis, we should not be complacent about the sophistication of our own democracy, or about the thin screen that separates peace and civilisation from the law of the jungle.

The American diplomat and historian George Kennan described the Great War as “the seminal tragedy” of the 20th century – seedbed of so many horrors to come. The events of 1917 were its bitter first fruit. As Stephen Smith writes, “[T]here is a great deal to learn from the history of the Russian Revolution about how the thirst for power, the enthusiasm for violence, and contempt for law and ethics can corrupt projects that begin with the finest ideals.” 

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit