Chotek, Sophie (1868–1914)

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Chotek, Sophie (1868–1914)

German-born Austrian aristocrat whose assassination in Sarajevo with husband Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggered the chain of events that hurled the world into the first total war in history. Name variations: Sophia, countess of Chotek; Sophie of Hohenberg; Sophie von Hohenberg; duchess of Hohenberg, Hohenburg or Hohenbourg. Born in Stuttgart, Germany, on March 1, 1868; assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on June 28, 1914; daughter of Count Bohuslav Chotek of Chotkova and Wognin and Countess Wilhelmine Chotek; had four sisters and three brothers; married Francis Ferdinand also known as Franz Ferdinand (1863–1914), archduke of Austria (r. 1896–1914); children: Sofie (b. 1901); Max (b. 1902); Ernst (b. 1904).

Sophie Chotek was born into one of the most distinguished families of the Czech nobility. Her ancestors had been barons of Bohemia since 1556, counts of Bohemia since 1723, and counts of the Holy Roman Empire (Reichsgrafenstand) since 1745. Her father, Count Bohuslav, was a successful diplomat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ending his career with posts in Brussels and Dresden. Sophie's mother, Countess Wilhelmine Chotek , could point with pride to her own family tree, that of the illustrious Kinskys, who had long served many Habsburg rulers over the centuries. Despite this illustrious lineage, the Choteks were not deemed eligible to enter the very highest circles of the Austrian-Hungarian aristocracy through marriage. Jealously preserving their status, in 1825 the ruling houses of Austria, Baden, Bavaria, Hanover, Hesse, Prussia and Württemberg published a schedule of those noble families that would henceforth be eligible for marriage into their august circle. Despite their excellent record of service to the Austrian crown, neither the Chotek nor Kinsky families—and, indeed, others at least as illustrious—were included on the Austrian list of 14 "princely houses domiciled in the Monarchy" and six families headed by counts who were included for special historical or genealogical reasons.

As the fourth of the five Chotek daughters, Sophie had by her late teens blossomed into an attractive and intelligent young woman. Given the fact that her father was not wealthy, she followed the path taken by several of her sisters, namely looked for suitable employment. The opportunity soon presented itself when Sophie was hired by the Belgian-born Archduchess Isabella of Croy-Dulmen , whose husband Archduke Friedrich was one of the wealthiest members of the Habsburg imperial family. In 1894, Sophie met Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who had been heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary since the death of the intellectually mediocre and politically inept Archduke Karl Ludwig (Charles Louis) in May 1896. When Archduchess Isabella discovered that Franz Ferdinand had come to her estate to see Sophie rather than one of her own eligible daughters, she fired Sophie on the spot. But once ignited, Franz Ferdinand's passion for Sophie did not cool off. Although he had been involved in several passionate affairs, Franz Ferdinand now found himself hopelessly in love with the charming, "wholesome, womanly yet strikingly dignified" Sophie Chotek. The fact that her family tree did not make her "of equally high birth" (ebenbürtig) to the Habsburg clan was contemptuously dismissed by the archduke as a matter of "some triviality in the family tree."

Once he knew about his strong-willed nephew's plans to marry Fräulein Chotek, Emperor Franz Joseph made it clear that he did not approve of the match. But Franz Ferdinand was equally determined to marry his beloved "Sopherl." Accepting the reality that the Chotek family could never qualify as a members of the very highest nobility, on June 28, 1900, Franz Ferdinand swore on a Bible and signed an Act of Renunciation that took away all rights to succession to the throne for any children that he and Sophie might have, thus making theirs a morganatic marriage. This solemn declaration was not only written into the Habsburg family records, but raised to the status of a legally binding agreement by the parliaments of both Austria and Hungary, and sanctioned by a law of December 4, 1900.

On July 1, 1900, Franz Ferdinand married Sophie. With her marriage, she automatically was raised to the rank of a princess—a very minor title in the scheme of Austrian nobility. Happily, the couple quickly raised a family: in 1901, daughter Sofie was born, followed in 1902 and 1904 by sons Max and Ernst. Although Sophie had agreed to the morganatic union, it soon became evident that she was not happy with the consequences. An inflexible tradition of imperial Habsburg court etiquette and protocol kept Sophie from riding in the same coach in public with her husband. At the beginnings of official ceremonies and events, she had to wait until higher-ranking women had made their entrances before she could herself enter and rejoin Franz Ferdinand.

Never ceasing to look upon these restrictions as deeply hurtful personal slights, Sophie felt totally justified in asserting her full rights as the wife of the heir to one of Europe's great powers. In 1905, the emperor Franz Joseph relented somewhat by elevating her to the title of duchess of Hohenberg, thus allowing her to be addressed as "Your Serene Highness." In 1909, the emperor further increased the status of the duchess by permitting her to be addressed as "Highness" ad personam, thus making her status in public somewhat less socially awkward than before.

Both Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were devout Roman Catholics. In his case, it was largely a matter of sticking to socially prescribed external rituals, but where Sophie was concerned religion was an important part of her daily routine. She rarely neglected either confession or Holy Communion, and both she and her spouse were

active in Vienna's Roman Catholic circles. This included the political arm of the church, the Christian Social Party of Dr. Karl Lueger (1844–1910), who as lord mayor of Vienna governed on a demagogic anti-Semitic and anti-Socialist platform. Commenting on Austrian politics, Pope Pius X noted that "the Archduke sees through the eyes of his wife." Sophie not only agreed with Franz Ferdinand, who regarded Jews as a threat to the social order because they were customarily too liberal and sympathetic to Marxism, but gave him the confidence to pursue a course of action that soon diverged significantly from those of the emperor.

At times, the duchess of Hohenberg was able to engage in the kind of public actions that her husband would never dare be involved in. In April 1901, she took part in a militantly Catholic street demonstration in Vienna that her husband doubtless approved of. As reported in London's Daily Mail, the Viennese public was astonished to see Sophie lead "a procession of 200 fashionable and aristocratic ladies" who marched to several churches where they were addressed by a Jesuit priest who gave "an inflammatory sermon." Again asserting her rights as the wife of the heir to the throne, in 1913 Sophia, accompanied by her children, ostentatiously went with Franz Ferdinand to the military maneuvers then taking place in Bohemia. Her presence on this occasion served to unleash a storm of protest in Parliament, where some deputies accused her of meddling to the extent of determining how the troops should march during the exercises.

One of the most astute observers of the Viennese court scene, Baron Albert von Margutti, described the duchess as "a woman of high intelligence, extraordinarily ambitious, resolute and yet vain, and without the slightest intention of accommodating herself to the position of a morganatic wife kept carefully in the background. On the contrary, she strained every nerve, with a zeal that was not always coupled with the necessary tact—especially after she had presented her husband with a daughter and two sons—to assert her full rights as the wife of the heir to the throne."

Having settled down in his marriage and content with his private life, starting in 1906 Franz Ferdinand devoted the bulk of his energy to political affairs. His military affairs office in Vienna's Belvedere Palace, where he and his family lived, developed into a sort of shadow government of the aging Franz Joseph. Above all, Franz Ferdinand feared that growing nationality tensions would inevitably result in the self-destruction of the venerable Habsburg state he hoped to one day rule. One of his concepts was to bring the Czechs into full partnership in the monarchy with the Austro-Germans and Hungarians that already dominated it. His foreign policy was predicated on eliminating the threats from Italy and Serbia, and he was sympathetic to the idea of preventive war against these two states.

By 1914, it was clear that "something had to be done" in the Balkans to assure the continued existence of Austria-Hungary. Serbian self-confidence had grown in two regional wars, and Serbian-backed nationalist agitation had begun to destabilize Bosnia-Herzegovina, seized by Austria-Hungary from Turkey in 1878 and officially annexed to the Habsburg state as recently as 1908. In 1913, the governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina, General Oskar Potiorek, responded to the nationalist activities in his province by cracking down with more police repression, press censorship and a temporary suspension of the regional assembly. Hoping to show how well the situation was now in hand, he invited Franz Ferdinand, who was inspector-general of the Austrian armed forces, to visit the capital city of Sarajevo. The date chosen by Potiorek, June 28, 1914, St. Vitus' Day, was particularly provocative to Serbian nationalist elements because it was also a day sacred to South Slav nationalists, being the anniversary of the fateful battle of Kosovo, June 28, 1389, when Serbia surrendered its freedom to the Ottoman Empire.

General Potiorek may have innocently chosen the date, but some have suggested that it was done to deliberately provoke already incensed Bosnian Serbs. Personally, Potiorek had reasons to resent Franz Ferdinand, having been twice denied promotion by him. More ominous was the fact that a newspaper announcement in mid-March 1914 of plans for the visit was read by diehard enemies of the Habsburg state, including a young Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip (1894–1918). Son of a postman and in fragile health, young Princip was a militant Serbian nationalist who had since 1912 been an active member of the Black Hand (Ujedinjenje ili Smrt—"Union or Death"), a secret nationalist organization determined to create by any means possible a Greater Serbian state, clearly at the expense of a Habsburg monarchy that was both multinational and increasingly vulnerable.

In the Serbian capital of Belgrade, the leadership of the Black Hand, which had recruited its leaders from within the higher echelons of the government and military, decided to plot the assassination of the archduke, heir-apparent to the

throne of hated Austria-Hungary. Besides Princip, two other Bosnian Serbs, Nedjelko Vaso Cabrinovic and Trifko Grabez, were trained to kill Franz Ferdinand on his official visit to Sarajevo. In an attempt to divert attention from Serbia's own deep involvement in Black Hand activities, the Serbian minister to Vienna, Jovan Jovanovic, issued a vague warning about a possible assassination attempt on June 5, 1914, to the Austrian minister of finance, Dr. Leon von Bilinski. Bilinski unfortunately did not understand the diplomatic innuendo and completely missed the warning. By early June, Princip and his colleagues were already in Sarajevo, where over the next days they would recruit four additional young men as members of the conspiracy.

Franz Ferdinand was determined to take Sophie along with him on his trip to Sarajevo, particularly in view of the fact that away from the Viennese Court a number of social taboos relating to her subordinate status could be ignored. For one thing, she would be able to ride next to him in an automobile, something that remained verboten (forbidden) to them in Vienna. Scheduled as it was for the last days of June, the trip would coincide with their 14th wedding anniversary. Franz Ferdinand was indifferent to his own security, intensely disliking the presence of personal guards when in public. Raised in a medieval intellectual environment, he was extremely superstitious, once telling Count Ottokar Czernin how a fortuneteller had predicted "that he would let loose a world war." When Franz Ferdinand and Sophie departed from the estate at Chlumetz on June 23, their private rail car had to be left behind because of axle problems. He told Sophie: "Well, our journey starts with an extremely promising omen. Here our car burns and down there they will throw bombs at us." When the electricity in another rail car failed and candles were substituted for light bulbs, Franz Ferdinand said to his secretary: "Is it not like a grave?"

In Sarajevo, June 28, 1914, was a hot and sunny day. After reviewing troops at a nearby army camp, the archduke and Sophie headed for City Hall for a reception hosted by the mayor. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie rode in the second of a six-car motorcade. The driver and the car's owner, Count Franz Harrach, sat in the front seat while Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were in back. With friendly cheering crowds on the sidewalks, the motorcade traveled along the wide avenue called Appel Quay, which followed the north bank of the River Miljacka. Amid the crowd were the seven Black Hand assassins. While the first lost his nerve, the second, Cabrinovic, withdrew a bomb from his coat pocket, striking its percussion cap against a lamp post, and hurled it at Franz Ferdinand's vehicle.

The alert driver stepped on the accelerator while at the same time Franz Ferdinand caught a brief glimpse of the object and raised his arm to deflect it away from Sophie. Glancing off the archduke's arm, the bomb exploded with great ferocity, injuring members of the crowd and passengers in the third car, including General Potiorek's chief adjutant, Lieutenant Colonel Merizzi, who suffered a deep flesh wound to the back of his head. Fortunately, Sophie only received a barely noticeable graze wound near her shoulder blade. Several bomb fragments had become embedded in the car, but the only injuries sustained by Franz Ferdinand's group were Sophie's negligible scratches. In his determination to commit suicide, would-be assassin Cabrinovic swallowed cyanide and jumped into the river. But he failed to kill himself because the poison the Black Hand had given him was old and no longer lethal, and the river contained only a few inches of water. He was taken into custody.

Arriving at the City Hall, a furious Franz Ferdinand confronted the mayor who had begun a welcoming address, sputtering, "Herr Bürgermeister, one comes here for a visit and is received by bombs! It is outrageous!" The mayor found himself at a loss for words, but the duchess of Hohenberg managed to calm the situation by whispering a few words into her husband's ear. After some hesitation, a considerably more composed Franz Ferdinand informed the mayor he could complete his interrupted speech. Although he believed there was more violence on hand in Sarajevo, having told this to Count Harrach after the bomb attack, the archduke turned down his staff's plan to remain in the City Hall until the city's streets had been cleared by troops. Habsburg pride prevailed, and Franz Ferdinand decided to complete the day with the scheduled visit to the National Museum as well as a brief visit to the hospital to see the wounded Merizzi. Although both an aide and Franz Ferdinand himself tried to dissuade Sophie from joining the party, she determinedly refused, insisting that "as long as the Archduke shows himself in public today I will not leave him."

Placing security first, the new plan was for the motorcade to avoid the narrow streets of the old city of Sarajevo, driving swiftly instead along the Appel Quay directly to the hospital. Unfortunately, neither the driver of the mayor's car nor the driver of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie's car had been told of the changed plans (Merizzi had been in charge of this detail, but he was now hospitalized). Six of the seven conspirators remained in the crowds, hoping to find a second opportunity to strike.

The opportunity soon presented itself when the first two cars of the motorcade mistakenly turned at Franz Joseph Strasse, with the imperial Habsburg vehicle briefly stopping in front of Moritz Schiller's delicatessen, where a few moments earlier Gavrilo Princip had stopped to buy a sandwich. When it came to a complete stop no more than five feet from him, Princip immediately recognized the car's illustrious occupants. He quickly raised his revolver, but for a split second hesitated from any action when he saw Sophie seated on the near side of vehicle. But then seized by "a strange feeling" and "greatly agitated," he fired two shots in quick succession. Most likely he intended to hit Franz Ferdinand and Governor Potiorek, but the bullet meant for Potiorek hit Sophie instead. Count Harrach, who had been riding on the car's left running board so as to shield the precious couple from assassins, now unfortunately found himself placed in a position useless to afford any protection. Intending to commit suicide with a third shot, Princip turned his gun on himself, but a spectator stopped him. With a crowd on top of him, Princip also swallowed cyanide, but like that taken by Cabrinovic, his portion was also old and only made him ill. Had both men died by poison, the Black Hand involvement would most likely have remained murky and the political crisis of the next weeks might possibly have been averted.

The car turned around quickly and sped down the Appel Quay to the Konak, a walled fortress from Turkish times that served as Military Governor Potiorek's residence across the river. The first impression of the entourage was that there had been no injuries to the car's passengers. But as the vehicle sped to the safety of the Konak, it became obvious that both Franz Ferdinand and Sophie had been grievously injured in the Franz Joseph Strasse. As the car neared the Lateiner Bridge, a stream of blood shot from Franz Ferdinand's mouth. He had been shot in the neck and was bleeding profusely. Seeing this, Sophie called out to her husband, "For heaven's sake, what has happened to you!" Thereupon she fell over, unconscious and sinking fast. Still optimistic, Potiorek and Harrach believed that she had simply fainted from the excitement. Seeing his wife, Franz Ferdinand pleaded with her, "Sopherl! Sopherl! Sterbe nicht! Bleibe am Leben für unsere Kinder!" ("Sophie dear! Sophie dear! Don't die! Stay alive for our children!"). When Count Harrach asked the archduke if he was in great pain, he answered, "It is nothing." He repeated the phrase six or seven more times, each time slipping further into a state of unconsciousness.

By the time the car arrived at the Konak, both Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were unconscious and barely alive. Their wounds were mortal. Franz Ferdinand died from a bullet that severed his jugular vein and lodged in his spine. Sophie, who died first, succumbed to a bullet that had entered her abdomen from the right side, causing massive internal trauma and bleeding. The couple were declared dead by 11:30 am, June 28, 1914. The archduke's body was laid out in the governor's bedroom. His collar was open, and a gold chain could be seen from which hung seven gold and platinum amulets, each one meant to ward off a different form of evil. Around the neck of the duchess of Hohenberg was a golden chain, with a scapular of holy relics that she had firmly believed would serve as protection from ill health and misfortunes.

The bodies were taken back to Vienna from Sarajevo by rail to the coast, then by sea to the port of Trieste on board the battleship Viribus Unitis. From Trieste to Vienna, the caskets went by train. Even in death and laying in state in Vienna, Sophie Chotek remained an inferior member of the ancient Habsburg clan. At first, the Court chamberlain, Prince Montenuovo, decided that the duchess' casket would not be permitted to be placed next to that of Franz Ferdinand. Only the personal intervention of the Emperor Franz Joseph himself made it possible for her to lie next to her husband in the imperial chapel. But her coffin was set conspicuously lower than that of Franz Ferdinand, and with far less decoration. Some historians have suggested that the fact that Franz Ferdinand and Sophie did not receive a grand state funeral in Vienna made it impossible for the European heads of state to meet in an informal summit conference that might still have averted a major war.

Since Sophie could not be buried in Vienna's Capuchin Crypt, reserved only for "true" members of the imperial family, it was decided that she and the archduke would be buried at his favorite castle, Artstetten. Located in the romantic Pöchlarn region of Lower Austria near the Danube, less than two hours' drive from Vienna, Artstetten had been the site of Franz Ferdinand's happy childhood. But a darker side of his personality had revealed itself soon after his marriage to Sophie, when he ordered a crypt built underneath the castle church. Years later, the archduke's private secretary wrote that in ordering the crypt's construction while still a young man, Franz Ferdinand appeared to be possessed "by an intimation of his impending fate … and could hardly await its completion." Sophie and Franz Ferdinand's coffins arrived at the modest Pöchlarn train station at 2:00 am just as a violent thunderstorm broke out. The ceremony had to be held inside a crowded waiting room. To reach Artstetten, the two hearses, each drawn by eight black horses, had to cross the Danube on a ferry. The thunderstorm continued unabated as they crossed the Danube, and only the quick-witted intervention of bystanders kept the hearses from slipping into the raging river.

Among the few mourners present that stormy night was a certain "Herr Burg," who happened to be Franz Ferdinand's younger brother Ferdinand Karl. The emperor had granted Ferdinand Karl no more than one day's stay in Austria to attend his brother's funeral. Stripped of his noble name and military rank and exiled from the Habsburg realms for life, Ferdinand Karl had, like his brother, chosen to marry for love—in his case, he had married far below his exalted aristocratic status, the daughter of a Viennese university professor. Sophie and Franz Ferdinand still rest in the crypt of the castle church at Artstetten. A plaque over their graves serves to remind visitors of a grim fact that places their personal tragedies in the context of a much larger, global catastrophe that began in the summer of 1914: "Here Lie the First Two Victims of the [First] World War." Only in death, on June 28, 1917, the third anniversary of her and Franz Ferdinand's assassination, did Austria-Hungary recognize Sophie as being fully equal to her husband, when the postal administration of Bosnia-Herzegovina honored her on a series of postage stamps meant to raise funds to build a memorial church in Sarajevo.


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related media:

"The Hapsburgs: A European Family History" (4 video-cassettes), Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities, 1998.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia