The Violent Birth of the Modern World

Today marks exactly one-hundred years since a nineteen-year-old Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. The assassination led directly to the beginning of the First World War, and, as a result, may well qualify as the origin of the modern world. In recognition of this somber anniversary, I thought I’d dig through the trove of primary sources over at Chronicling America to learn how American newspapers covered Ferdinand and Sophie in life and in death.

Born in 1863, Franz Ferdinand was still largely unknown in the United States throughout the 1880s. In 1889, an article on Ferdinand’s father, Archduke Karl Ludwig, referred to Ferdinand and his brothers as a “brood of brutes,” but the same article acknowledged that little else was known about young Ferdinand. That began to change in the years thereafter, especially once it became clear that Franz Ferdinand was next in line to rule the Austria-Hungary Empire. He first visited the United States in 1893, and though he preferred to stay incognito, newspapers documented his every move. He arrived in the United States by crossing the Canadian border and entering Washington state on the morning of September 19, 1893. In the weeks thereafter, he passed through, among other places, Spokane, Helena, Yellowstone National Park, Salt Lake City, Niagara Falls and New York City. He also found time to visit the world-famous Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he toured the city’s brand-new Art Institute. Some of the city’s plutocrats evidently descended on the museum when they learned that the Archduke was on the grounds, but Ferdinand ignored them entirely. As one reporter explained, he gave them a “good round snub.” When news of this snub reached Hawaii, the local press decided that the Archduke had “shown himself to be a supercilious, conceited hog.”

Franz Ferdinand next appeared in American newspapers in 1897, when a scandal erupted over his choice of bride. News of his pending nuptials first appeared in German-language newspapers in June, but had spread to English-language newspapers by the fall. Reports surfaced that he had chosen a “middle-class lady” named Sophie Chotek as his bride, and that her humble origins were causing a “sensation” throughout his future empire. One article reminded readers that Ferdinand was not the first Hapsburg to “marry beneath his station,” and that several of his ancestors had been cursed with the same affliction. Others were more forgiving. The Salt Lake Herald reminded readers that “Cupid is no respecter of persons, and differences in rank and worldly circumstances cannot deflect his keen arrows or disturb his wonderful aim.”

To assuage concerns over his wife’s purportedly humble pedigree, Ferdinand announced that his marriage to Sophie would be a “morganatic” arrangement. By virtue of this agreement, Ferdinand allowed that any children he conceived with Sophie would not be eligible to inherit the throne. As more than one American newspaper pointed out, renouncing a child’s right to the throne was presumably easier than renouncing his own right to the throne. Others marveled that morganatic marriages were “unintelligible to the American public,” and that such arrangements were scarcely any better than the “‘slavery’ of Mohammedan women” that Christians so abhorred. Sophie remained a lightning rod for divisive opinions in the years thereafter. Some articles portrayed the Duchess in a positive light, insisting that she had adjusted easily to royal life and that she was “extremely popular.” Others cast her in a decidedly sinister light, insisting that she had had her eye on the crown ever since she first seduced Ferdinand. “She is a shrewd woman,” the Tacoma Times warned, adding that Ferdinand was like “putty in her fingers.”

By 1907, newspapers had begun to openly discuss the “advanced age” of Ferdinand’s seventy-six-year-old uncle, Emperor Franz Josef, and what his passing might mean for the power balance in Europe. Some insisted that Ferdinand had already started to seize control from his uncle. As early as 1908, reports had already dubbed Ferdinand a “man of destiny” and the true “power behind the throne.” He was also assigned most of the credit for Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although Franz Josef, who had sat on the throne for more than sixty years, was still alive and relatively well in 1909, American newspapers identified Ferdinand as the “real ruler of the dual monarchy.” Astute reporters noted that Austria’s military was “building with feverish rapidity,” and that Ferdinand would soon have at his command some 4,000,000 soldiers. These unsettling facts, coupled with the growing tensions between Austrians and Serbians, encouraged still greater scrutiny into Ferdinand’s motives and Sophie’s influence.

Passions were already running high when Ferdinand and Sophie arrived in Sarajevo for their first official visit on the morning of June 28, 1914. They arrived in the city via train, and then transferred to an open-air automobile. The couple had been in the city scarcely an hour when an aspirant assassin hurled a bomb at their motorcade. They narrowly survived that assassination attempt, but they would not survive the next one. At approximately 11:00am, Gavilo Princip fired two shots into the back of their automobile. One struck the Archduke; the other struck the Duchess. They both died on the scene. The assassination was a major news story across the United States, including front-page coverage in New York, Texas, Oregon, Utah, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Nebraska, Washington DC, and Hawaii, though the assassination was deemed page-28 news in Chicago, which was apparently still smarting from the Archduke’s rebuke more than twenty years earlier. Remarkably, one observer actually predicted that Ferdinand’s assassination would lead to a more peaceful Europe, but, that woefully mistaken individual notwithstanding, nearly everyone else recognized that dark days lay ahead, and that Europe’s implosion appeared all but inevitable.

And finally, since cartoons are capable of capturing and conveying the nation’s mood in ways that print stories cannot, I thought I’d share some of the cartoons that appeared in American newspapers in the days following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. A variety of themes are present, including, not surprisingly, violence and fear. Another popular trope that appeared on more than one occasion portrayed royalty in imminent danger. The most effective cartoons may have been those featuring a heart-stricken Emperor Franz Josef. They are especially poignant given the Emperor’s intimate familiarity with loss, but also because we know the loss of his nephew occasioned the loss of a hundred million lives over the next three decades. You can check out these cartoons in greater detail by clicking on the images below. Many thanks to Chronicling America, the Library of Congress, and the National Endowment for the Humanities for scanning and posting all these extraordinary historical documents.








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