Jonathan Keates

A hostage to fortune

Jonathan Keates on a comprehensive study of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Mugging, according to a popular theory, is a consensual act. Split seconds before the assault takes place victims supposedly establish some sort of complicity with their attackers, thus turning the robbery into a contractual arrangement. The same principle is just as easily applied to political assassination. Along the lines traced by Hardy’s famous poem ‘The Convergence of the Twain’, which suggests that the Titanic and the iceberg had actually been waiting to bump into each other, the hated tyrant seeks some kind of consummation in the thrust of a dagger or the discharge of a bullet.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef, appears to have received more than one premonitory glimmer of his death at the hands of the Serb student Gavrilo Princip on 28 June 1914. ‘I know I shall soon be murdered,’ he announced to a relative shortly beforehand, adding that a newly-completed crypt at the family castle stood ready to receive him. Leaving for military manoeuvres in Austria’s newly annexed province of Bosnia, he commented on the sepulchral quality of the candlelight in his imperial railway carriage and joked about ‘a murder attempt in Sarajevo’.

Franz Ferdinand belongs to that class of assassination victims doomed to extermination for what they represent rather than for any specific wickedness. Though possessed of a temper so filthy as to suggest partial insanity, he was in no position, as yet, to act the role of tyrant. His killing sprees were confined to the non-human. A game bag totalling 272,439 included two elephants, a leopard, a panther and a domestic cat. His tenderer moments focused on his morganatic consort, Sophie Chotek, Duchess of Hohenberg, whom the Austrian nobility, taking its lead from the Emperor, delighted to snub.

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