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Obituary: Emperor Franz Ferdinand I (December 23, 1863-July 30, 1947)


by Steve Condrey



ARSTETTEN CASTLE, AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN EMPIRE, August 2, 1947 (UPI) – His Imperial Majesty Franz Ferdinand I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, lies in state as dignitaries from around the world, including Vice-President Earl Warren of the United States, pay their respects. The Emperor passed away in his sleep three days ago at the age of 83.

Franz Ferdinand I was born in the town of Graz in what was the Austrian Empire in 1863. He was an unconventional monarch. His marriage in 1900 to Countess Sophie Chotek raised eyes among the royal families of Europe, as she was not considered an eligible marriage partner for an heir to the House of Habsburg. Consequently, their children were left out of the line of succession to the throne. His consort was never fully accepted by most of the royal houses of Europe, a possible factor in his efforts to transition the Empire to a constitutional monarchy on the lines of Britain.

At the time his name came to global prominence in 1914, Franz Ferdinand was not expected to be more than a place-holder in the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire, at the time torn by ethnic strife. The assassination attempt against then Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife during a visit to the city of Sarajevo was averted when a grenade thrown at their car failed to detonate. Police quickly rounded up several suspects belonging to the Black Hand, a separatist group whose aims included a pan-Slavic state separate from the Empire. One of the would-be assassins, Gavrilo Princip, was defiant all the way to his death in 1918 from tuberculosis. Nonetheless, Franz Ferdinand interceded with his predecessor, Emperor Franz Joseph I, on behalf of the Kingdom of Serbia. Serbia was spared invasion provided the kingdom extradite all known members of the Black Hand to the Empire, a request that was carried through within six months. Given the network of alliances that existed amongst the Great Powers of Europe at the time, one can only wonder of the magnitude of the conflict that would have ensued had Serbia not fully complied with the Empire’s demands.

Upon succeeding to the throne in 1916, Franz Ferdinand initiated extensive reforms intended to ease political and ethnic strife in the Empire. The Diet was reformed on the model of the United States Congress in 1918 after the Emperor retained former US President William Howard Taft as an advisor. All ethnic groups meeting certain population requirements were allowed proportional representation in the Diet. Likewise, civil service reforms reduced corruption and increased government efficiency by ensuring that government workers are hired on the basis of professional competence rather than family connections. Most importantly, Article 19 of the Empire’s constitution was amended to require the use of German, Hungarian, and Italian as official languages while maintaining the rights of the Empire’s various ethnic groups to preserve their own languages and cultures. Implementation of this reform spurred a massive investment in primary and secondary education, which has paid off to this day. 90 percent of the Empire’s population is fully literate in at least two languages, and the Empire is behind only Germany, France, and Britain in the number of working scientists and engineers graduating from its universities. Once a region destined to fall behind the modern age, the Austro-Hungarian Empire is now the third-largest economy in Europe and a major player in world affairs.

Codifying a long-standing Imperial policy of unofficial tolerance for its Jewish population prompted mainly out of a desire to prevent further agitation of endemic ethnic strife, the Emperor in 1923 declared Austria-Hungary a ‘friend to all peoples, of all faiths, who live and act lawfully within the boundaries of the Empire’. Backed up by a newly-formed national police force—among the most modern and well-trained in Europe—the Empire made good on his bold words, and Austria-Hungary houses the second-largest Jewish population in the world. Vienna is often referred to as ‘new Jerusalem’; a massive new synagogue completed in 1940 is the world’s largest.

Proof of the Empire’s dedication to religious tolerance was seen in 1928 when a group of anti-Semitic agitators led by a failed artist named Adolf Hitler was arrested after plotting a series of synagogue bombings. Hitler and his co-consiprators were eventually executed for attempted murder and ‘acts detrimental to the internal security of the Empire’. Such groups still arise from time to time in the Empire but their actions are not tolerated, and gradually the various peoples of Austria-Hungary are learning that more is to be gained from cooperation than from continued conflict.

In 1937 after the Panay Incident, in which Japanese warplanes mistakenly attacked an American naval vessel in Chinese waters, Franz Ferdinand offered his services as a mediator between the two Pacific powers. The resulting Treaty of Budapest led to a settling of interests in the Pacific fixing the American and Japanese spheres of influence in China and elsewhere. The Empire has remained on very friendly terms with both the United States and Japan ever since.

While ensuring peace between the United States and Japan, the militarist regime in Japan all but assured war in the region was inevitable, and Japan attacked the Russian Empire in 1940. Most of eastern Siberia was lost to the Japanese before Tsar Alexei I was deposed and replaced by a Communist regime under Josef Stalin in 1943. The Tsar and his family remain in exile in Vienna, the Tsar physically too ill to participate in today’s funeral services but still a vigorous anti-Communist.

No friend to Communism, the Emperor was very tough on Red activities within his own borders. Former army officer and Austro-Hungarian Communist Party chief Josip Broz was executed for treason in 1943, and most of the party's senior leadership imprisoned, after Broz's connections to the Stalin regime were revealed. However, Franz Ferdinand also mediated in the civil war in Spain, though Generalissimo Franco proved to be a very difficult case. A power-sharing agreement between the Loyalists and Nationalists was eventually worked out in 1937, but the situation in Spain remains very shaky and is likely to boil over with Stalin's so-called 'Soviet Union' now willing to foment the conflict.

One of the hardest-working monarchs in Europe, Franz Ferdinand also enjoyed his recreation. An avid tennis player, he participated in friendly matches with most of the prominent tennis stars in Europe and the United States. During each of his five state visits to the United States, the Emperor made sure to include at least one of the national parks on his itinerary. He was said to be particularly fond of Yellowstone and Acadia. What was thought to be an assassination attempt against the Emperor in 1938 at Acadia National Park in Maine turned out to be the act of a lone, mentally unstable poacher that nonetheless cost the life of a park ranger who died protecting Franz Ferdinand. The ranger, Karl Jacobson, was posthumously granted honors by the Emperor and his family awarded a pension in gratitude.

Franz Ferdinand is survived by his children, Princess Sophie von Hohenberg, Duke Maximilian von Hohenberg, and Prince Ernst von Hohenberg. He was preceded in death by his consort, Duchess Sophie von Hohenberg, in 1944 and a stillborn son in 1908. Because of the morganatic nature of Franz Ferdinand’s marriage to Sophie, none of the children are in line for the throne. The Emperor’s nephew, Archduke Otto von Habsburg, will ascend the throne in their place as Emperor Otto I in a ceremony to take place after the 30-day official mourning period declared by the Diet.


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