Who Was Archduke Franz Ferdinand?

This biography of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria includes a number of Franz Ferdinand facts from his early life, considers his relationship with his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, and his marriage to Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg, and looks at all the pertinent details leading up to his death.

Who Was Archduke Franz Ferdinand?

Franz Ferdinand was born in Graz, Austria, on the 18th December 1863. He was the eldest son of Archduke Karl Ludwig of Austria, who was Emperor Franz Joseph’s younger brother.

At the tender age of eleven, Franz Ferdinand became one of the wealthiest people in Austria, when he was left most of the huge estate of his first cousin twice removed, Francis V, Duke of Modena, on the proviso that he subsequently used the title Archduke of Austria-Este.

Educated by private tutors throughout his youth, Franz Ferdinand began his military career at the age of 12, and was promoted rapidly through the ranks, becoming a major general in the Austrian army, in 1894, aged only 31.

Meanwhile, in his private life, Franz Ferdinand had two obsessions—hunting and antiques; and many of his hunting trophies and antiques can still be seen today, at Konopiště Chateau, in the Czech Republic.

Heir To The Throne

In 1889, Franz Ferdinand’s cousin, the Crown Prince Rudolf, committed suicide at his hunting lodge, in Mayerling, which meant that Franz Ferdinand’s father had become first in line to the throne. Then, when his father also died, in 1896, of typhoid fever, Franz Ferdinand effectively became heir-presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

The Emperor Franz Joseph had always considered his nephew to be somewhat of an embarrassment, thanks in part to his playboy lifestyle, and so he was not particularly pleased with the fact that Franz Ferdinand had now become his heir.

Emperor Franz Joseph with his nephew, Franz Ferdinand

The two did not see eye to eye on politics either, and were frequently arguing over how they saw the future direction of the empire. However, it was Franz Ferdinand’s marriage to Sophie Chotek, which particularly infuriated his uncle.

Franz Ferdinand’s Morganatic Marriage

The Emperor had made it quite clear that his nephew was not to marry Sophie, a mere countess, as it was contrary to the rules of the Habsburg family, who were only permitted to marry a member of one of the European royal dynasties. Franz Ferdinand, who was totally besotted with Sophie, ignored his uncle’s wishes and was intent on pursuing the marriage.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his friend, Kaiser Wilhelm II

In 1901, Franz Joseph did finally allow the marriage to go ahead, thanks in part to a request from Kaiser Wilhelm, who was a close friend of Franz Ferdinand, but only if the archduke accepted that the marriage would be morganatic, which meant that his descendants would not have any succession rights to the throne.

All in all, Sophie would actually have a good influence over Franz Ferdinand’s life and over time even the rift with his uncle had healed enough that he began to take an active role in the government and carry out official engagements. It was on one such engagement, in the summer of 1914, that he found himself in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. Moreover, the trip was a rare opportunity for Sophie to accompany her husband on state business.

Trip To Sarajevo

The archduke must have been aware of how dangerous such a trip was. His uncle had been the subject of a failed assassination attempt by the Serbian secret military society, Unification or Death, also known as the ‘Black Hand’, a few years earlier, in 1911. However, despite the known risks, Franz Ferdinand and his wife drove through the streets of Sarajevo on the 28th June 1914, in an open sports motorcar with its top folded down.

Driving through the streets of Sarajevo in an open-top car

The security provided for Franz Ferdinand while he was in Sarajevo was altogether quite lax. A proposal that troops line the route was dismissed out of hand, as it was believed that this would offend the loyal citizens of Bosnia. With hindsight, this lack of security was extremely foolhardy, as the assassination of the archduke had actually been in the planning since March of that year.

A team of six assassins had been assembled in Sarajevo on the day of the archduke’s visit, by Danilo Ilić, a Bosnian Serb, who was a member of the Black Hand secret society. The assassins, some of whom had been trained in Serbia, were armed with bombs and pistols, and were lying in wait to murder the heir to the Austrian throne.

Why Was Archduke Franz Ferdinand Assassinated?

The question why was Franz Ferdinand killed by the Black Hand is a pertinent one; after all, he seemed to be far more sympathetic towards the Slavs in the empire than his uncle ever was. Perhaps it was because the archduke was seen to be trying to pacify the Serbs that led Apis, a prominent member of the Black Hand, to turn his attention away from killing Emperor Franz Joseph, having failed in a plot two years earlier, and instead target the archduke, for the simple reason Apis sought a Serbian revolution. Or perhaps Franz Ferdinand’s state visit to the Bosnian capital on the 28th June, was simply considered to be too good an opportunity to pass by.

Whatever the reason for the change of target, Apis had now given the order from Belgrade to kill the archduke, and the six members of the pro-Serb revolutionary movement, Young Bosnia, were waiting patiently in Sarajevo for the perfect moment to carry out that order.

Who Killed Franz Ferdinand?

So who was it that actually assassinated the archduke? The Black Hand? Young Bosnia? Well, yes, both of those organisations were to blame for the murder, but ultimately Gavrilo Princip killed Franz Ferdinand. It was he who pulled the trigger and changed the course of the twentieth century, even though to begin with, it looked certain that the dastardly plot was all set to fail.

The series of events leading up to the assassination really were quite remarkable and began when one of the would-be assassins, a Bosnian Serb called Nedeljko Čabrinović, threw a bomb at the archduke’s motorcar from among the cheering crowds. Fortunately, the bomb bounced off the folded back cover of the open-top limousine and exploded under the motorcar which was following behind.

Having survived the failed assassination attempt, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were driven quickly along the Appel Quay to the Town Hall, where the archduke was scheduled to give a speech. The other assassins, including Gavrilo Princip did not get a chance to carry out a second attack, as they watched while the archduke’s car sped by.

Following the reception, Franz Ferdinand decided that he and Sophie would visit the victims injured by the bomb and so insisted on being driven to the hospital where they were being treated. In order to avoid the crowded city centre, a change to the original return route was decided upon, whereby the motorcade would drive back down the Appel Quay at speed, thus minimising the chance of a second attack.

Unfortunately, no-one told the Czech chauffeurs in the motorcade of the changed itinerary and as a result the archduke’s car made a wrong turn into Franz Joseph Strasse, the street where Princip just happened to be standing, awaiting the archduke’s return from the town hall.

A Painting of the Assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie

As the chauffeur of the archduke’s car fumbled with the gears, while attempting to reverse the motorcar back on to the correct road, Gavrilo Princip was able to walk up to the stationary car and shoot the occupants from close range. Franz Ferdinand was shot in the neck and Sophie in the abdomen—both died before receiving any medical assistance.

Click here for a more in-depth look at the Assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Franz Ferdinand Death and Funeral

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was only 50 years old when he died. His funeral took place on the morning of 6th July 1914, in Vienna. The ceremony began at 10.45am and while it was attended by the extended royal family and other dignitaries, there were some notable absentees.

The most notable absence was that of the Emperor Franz Joseph, which was supposedly to spare the 83-year old Emperor during such a trying time, but which was more likely one final snub by Franz Joseph towards his nephew.

Another absentee was Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had genuinely wanted to attend his friend’s funeral, only to be warned off at the last minute by his government, over fears concerning his security. It was felt that the successful assassination attempt might encourage other revolutionaries to try their luck and there were question marks by the German ministers over the level of security in Austria.

Franz Ferdinand was not buried in the Imperial Crypt, in Vienna, because he knew he would not be able to be laid to rest with his beloved wife there. Instead, he and Sophie were buried together in a family crypt within Artstetten Castle, in Lower Austria.

Why not check out Franz Ferdinand Biography – PowerPoint Lesson with Speaker Notes

Test Your Knowledge with our FREE WebQuest

Now it’s time to test your knowledge of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Franz Ferdinand Assassination Standard WebQuest Cover
The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand WebQuest
The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand


The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand WebQuest Student Version is a 5-page teaching resource consisting of a webquest which covers the main immediate cause of World War One, namely the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

The webquest comprises of 5 worksheets, which contain 24 questions, as well as 4 jigsaw puzzles (with secret watermarks) and an online quiz (requiring a pass of 70% to reveal a secret phrase).