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The Sleepwalkers: why Europe went to war in 1914


A more thorough, comprehensive, balanced and relevant, detailed narrative of whst took place, how and why that led to conflict in 1914. Vital resding to anyone interested on why the world went to war in 1914, and background to many 20th and even 21sf century conflicts since from the Second World War, through the Cold War, Balkan War and even civil war in Syria. As the Ottoman Empire fell apart like a pair of unmendable trousers the Balkans became a collection of nations that the powers of the day wanted to influence – Russia eventually picking Serbia which was also the nemesis of Austria-Hungary. Britain was aligned with Russia to protect interests far further afield, such ad India, while France, still wounded from the loss of Alsace-Lorraine was more thsn prepared to fight Germany if first the alliance with Russia, and then that with Britain could be brought into play. Some three decades of taking an interest in the First War and this book is by far the best read on the causes and therefore the most important of anything I have read. Make it the first book of any you may wish to read as the centenary looms.


Who caused the First World War? Which men, not nations, are to blame?

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914 by the Australian historian Christopher Clark is the most thorough, balanced and I therefore believe accurate assessment of what took Europe and the world to war in 1914 – repurcussions froms which we still feel to this day, not least in the current impasses in Syria, a product of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and in its use of chemical weapons first used and condemned in the First World War. Blaming a nationa is foolish – the blame, if we are to pick people, begins with the Serbian plotter, assin and gangster Dragutin Dimitrijevic – a regicide who planned and successfully executed the assasination of archduke Franz Ferdinand – without him none of this would have happened. In HIS hands is the blood of 9 million from the First War and 20 million from the Second. He wanted to bring things to an impasse between Serbia and Austria-Hungary so that a Great Serbia could be forged. Next in line to blame is Tzar Nicholas II of Russia who turned any advice on what had caused or who had instigated the assasination of the Archduke on its head and in pushing to support Serbia knew an attack on Austria- Hungary was needed and doing this would expose a flank to German so would naturally have to include an attack on Germany too. Next I blame the French for siding with Russia and knowing that they would need to attack German or defend an attack from Germany. Tucked in here somewhere blame must go to Conrad and Franz Josef of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – who deserved and required retribution for what all knew to have been a plot from Serbia if not from the Serbian government – the problem here was the tangled mess that was the Serbian government – too weak to oppose terrorist groupings (there are two) such as The Black Hand, who like a secretive group of Free Masons or the ‘old school tie’ and artistocratic links that controlled politics in the British Empire, could not be policed, managed or held to account. Austria-Hungary should have asked, “what would Franz Ferdinand” have done? He would had trodden carefully, always having wanted to give greater autonomy to ‘nations’ within the empire. And, on the list, but lower down, blame needs to go to Gavrilo Princip. As various opportunities presented themselves to assasinated the archduke and some of the seven assasins had their go, two go cold feet on seeing the duchess Sophia – did she need to die too? Had Princip shot only the archduke then the response from Vienna, though tough, may have been less than all out war with Serbia. I do not blame Germany at all, indeed I see how they suddenly found themselves hemmed in by aggressors. Germany, like Russia, were then simply chancing their arm, believing each had the adequate military muscle to prevails and itching to settle all kinds of unresolved scores and national and empirical ambitions that a battle or two would resolve. None could see the scale. It became, and has been, a hundred year’s of war …

Franz and Sophie – the tragic love story that will forever be considered the opening shots of World War One

Fig. 1. Archduke Franz Ferdinand in his early thirties

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand knew his mind unlike others at the Court of the Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary. When he fell in love with someone ‘beneath his station’ he would not budge.

Fig. 2. Sophie Chotek, in her early twenties. She was a lady in waiting to the Archduchess to Archduchess Isabelle de Croÿ – Dülmen, who was married to Archduke Friedrich. 

Knowing that his affection for the daughter of a Czech Count, Sophie Chotek would meet with disapproval and marriage never permitted they kept the relationship a secret.

Fig. 3 The young mistress of Count Rudolph, another Austro-Hungarian royal who found the obligations birth intolerable.

His older brother Otto (born 1865) had dutifully married a Royal, though he kept a mistress, just as the Emperor Josef had done for decades. This kind of behaviour came unstuck when the heir presumptive to the Crown, Count Rudolph, in an unhappy marriage, started to have an affair with a girl, possibly as young as 15 when the relationship began and certainly only 17 when it ended.

Fig. 4. Count Rudolph blew his brains out rather than live a life without his lover.

On 30th January 1889 Count Rudolph killed his young mistress rather than give her up then committed suicide himself.

Fig. 5 Clearly a poisoned chalice, Archduke Karl Ludwig, Franz Ferdinand’s father, had no desire for the Austro-Hungarian throne.

Rudolph’s uncle, Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s father Archduke Karl Ludwig and the next in line to his older brother Franz Josef, renounces the throne within days in favour of his eldest 26-year-old son: Franz Ferdinand was 25 at the time.

Fig. 6. The Place of Grassalkovich, Pressburg (Slovakia)

In the 1890s, when stationed in Pressburg (Bratislavia) Franz Ferdinand was a regular visitor to the archduke Friederich of Teschen at the Palace Grassalkovich. It was Friedrich’s wife, the archduchess Isabella of Croy-Dülmen who hoped that Franz Ferdinand would be interested in marrying one of their several daughters.

However, Franz Ferdinand’s affections developed instead for a lady-in-waiting of minor nobility: Sophie Chotek. The court considered her to be an unsuitable match due to her family’s lack of a broad royal pedigree in her lineage.  Franz Ferdinand may have considered renouncing the throne for her. Franz Ferdinand was exceedingly wealthy having inherited an uncle’s vast estates when he was 12 so perhaps he bargained with the Emperor – let him marry Sophie and he would indeed become the heir presumptive.

Fig. 7. Sophie Chotek. 

Deeply in love, Franz refused to consider marrying anyone else. In turn, Pope Leo XIII, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and the German Emperor Wilhelm II make representations to the Emperor.

Fig. 8. Franz Ferdinand’s step-mother Marie Theresa (she’s easy to spot in the old film footage of the old Emperor). 

It is almost certainly Franz Ferdinand’s stepmother, Marie Theresa who became one the most influential at court after the death of Count Rudolf as he empress had retired from court life, who helped support her stepson’s choices of bride.

In Vienna, on Thursday 28th June 1900 Franz Ferdinand signs a paper before Foreign Minister Goluchowski stating that neither Sophie nor their children would have rights to succession, the titles or privileges of a royal Archduke.

Fig. 9. A royal wedding that has more authenticity to it than would have been the case had the royals of Europe attended.

On Sunday 1st July 1900, in the Chapel at Reichstadt in Bohemia, Marie Theresa’s home, Franz and Sophie marry.

The only members of the Imperial family attending are Franz Ferdinand’s stepmother and her two daughters – Archduchess Maria Annunziata and the Archduchess Aloys. Those absent included the Archduke’s uncle the Emperor, his father the Archduke Karl Ludwig, his brothers and his sister the Archduchess Sophie. Those present must surely included Sophie’s six sisters and her brother.

Fig. 10. Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his family not long before mother and father are murdered.

The couple have four children: Princess Sophie von Hohenberg ;is born the following year on 24 July 1901, while Maximilian, Duke of Hohenberg is born on 28 September 1902 and Prince Ernst von Hohenberg in 1904. There is also a stillborn son born in 1908.

Fig 11. The British Royals.

Because of their morganatic marriage,  many European royal courts feel unable to host the couple, however, some do so, including King George V and Queen Mary, who welcome the Archduke and Sophie to Windsor Castle in November 1913.

Fig 12. General Oskar Potiorek

Franz Ferdinand had entered the army young and was frequently promoted, given the rank of lieutenant at age fourteen, captain at twenty-two, colonel at twenty-seven, and major-general at thirty-one. In 1898 he was given a commission “at the special disposition of His Majesty” to make inquiries into all aspects of the military services and military agencies were commanded to share their papers with him, which is how he came to be invited by General Oskar Potiorek to observe military manoeuvres in the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1914.

On the morning of Sunday 28th June 1914 the Archduke and Duchess are part of a motorcade with a number of planned stops.

There are seven armed assassins waiting for them – Serb Nationalists led by leading figures who wanted the province of Bosnia and Herzegovina to become part of a Greater Serbian nation.

Fig 13. The Serb Plotters

The mind been this plot and previous assassinations – failed and successful – is Dragutin Dimitrijević, a very able,though ruthless 36-year-old military man. He knew of Franz Ferdinand’s ideas for a federated ‘United States of Austria- Hungary’ and feared that would put an end to bringing the southern Slav provinces of the old empire into the Serbian fold.

Nedeljko Čabrinović throws a bomb at the open top tourer carrying the Archduke and Duchess but it bounces off the unfolded canopy, possibly as the chauffeur spots the danger and hits the accelerator. The bomb goes off under car behind wounding several of the occupants – soldiers from the academy.

Despite the self-evident danger of his presence in Sarajevo the Archduke presses on with a short engagement at the City Hall. Less than an hour later, against advice, Franz gets back into the open-top tourer. Given the heightened dangers General Oskar Potiorek suggests that Sophie stays behind, but she insists on remaining at her husband’s side. After more than a decade of being snubbed due to court protocol she may relish any rare opportunity such as this – despite the risk.

Fig 14. The numerous opportunities to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. This was the work of seven young men, never just one. This map above is wrong. The car used, as can be seen below, was a right hand drive tourer … until the Anschluss in 1938 they drove on the left in Austria. This photograph of the Archduke’s car coming down the Quai Appel also shows it on the left.

Fig 15.  Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek on leaving the Town Hall.

The vehicles in the entourage initially stick to the original itinerary until it is remembered that the Archduke had asked that they go to the hospital to visit the wounded from the bomb attack. Having taken the wrong turning the driver stops and begins to reverse back onto the Quai Appel.


Fig. 16 Contrary to just about every caption where this picture is published this is NOT the assassin Gavrilo Princip, but the earlier arrest of Nedeljko Čabrinović who threw the bomb. Someone has very crudely painted a moustache on the figure. 

By chance this presents Gavrilo Princip with an extraordinarily good opportunity to fulfil his mission. He raises the revolver he has been practising with for the last few months and shoots at point-blank range. The first bullet hits Franz in the neck and the second hits Sophie in the abdomen.

Fig. 17 Franz Ferdinand and his family. No ‘royal’ in Austria has been allowed by law to use their titles of birth since. 

As Sophie dies she expresses concern for her husband’s health, while Franz implores Sophie to stay alive for the sake of their young children. Both are dead within minutes. The couple leave behind them three children, their eldest daughter Sophie, soon to be 14, Max, age 11 and younger son Ernst age 8.

The repercussions for Europe are that Austria sends an army in Serbia which triggers a response by Russia to defend its Serbian ally and the Great Powers line up then tumble towards war.

With special thanks to comments and corrections from Roger Bogaert (See comments below)

Regarding this ‘love story’, setting aside their status and Franz Ferdinand’s objectionable character, it was tragic to be a royal obliged to marry only within strict rules. That the couple should be assassinated leaving their children is tragic too. 


Study ‘Total War’ with the Open University this February

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