This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.
By 1914, Franz Josef had reigned for 65 years over Austria-Hungary—the third-longest reign in European history. Having come to the throne after the 1848 revolutions, Franz Josef had been a determined opponent of Liberal parliamentarian government. And though he eventually established a parliament for Austria and approved universal suffrage, Franz Josef remained what he called himself—the last of Europe’s traditional kings.
In his private life, Franz Josef had suffered many tragedies. In 1867, Mexican revolutionaries had executed his younger brother, Ferdinand Maximilian, who had become emperor of Mexico with the help of Emperor Napoleon III of France. Then, in 1889, Franz Josef’s only son and heir, Archduke Rudolf, committed suicide. Eight years later, an Italian anarchist assassinated the emperor’s wife, Elisabeth of Bavaria. To Franz Josef, a shy, lonely man with few friends, Elisabeth had given companionship, affection, and support. Suddenly, she was gone. “The world does not know how much we loved one another,” said Franz Josef.
Since Archduke Rudolf had been Franz Josef’s only son, his death meant that the next in line to the throne was the emperor’s nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand von Österreich-Este. Franz Josef was not fond of his nephew. Franz Ferdinand could be proud and impatient; he also was critical of how the empire was ruled. The archduke thought the oppression of Slavs and Romanians in the kingdom of Hungary threatened the future of the Habsburg monarchy. Franz Ferdinand wanted to transform the Dual Monarchy into a “Triple Monarchy” with a Slavic kingdom separate from both Austria and Hungary.
Though Franz Josef sincerely had the good of all his subjects at heart, he knew the Magyar nobles who controlled the Hungarian diet would strongly oppose the formation of a separate Slavic kingdom. The emperor feared that a struggle with the Magyars would end in separating Hungary entirely from the empire. The emperor thus was convinced that Austria-Hungary had to remain what it was—the Dual Monarchy.
More vexing to Franz Josef than Franz Ferdinand’s political ideas, however, was the archduke’s announcement of his engagement to a Czech countess, Sophie Chotek. Franz Josef objected to the countess not because she was Czech but because, even though she was nobility, she was related to no royal family. An old fashioned royalist, Franz Josef insisted that Franz Ferdinand marry into one of Europe’s royal houses.
Deeply in love with Sophie, Franz Ferdinand refused to give her up. At last, the emperor gave way. Franz Ferdinand could marry Sophie Chotek, but on one condition—that none of their children could inherit the imperial throne. Franz Ferdinand agreed, and he and Sophie were married on July 1, 1900. The emperor, however, refused to attend the ceremony.
Since Franz Ferdinand’s children could not inherit the throne, the next in line after Franz Ferdinand himself was his nephew, the Archduke Karl von Habsburg-Lothringen. A devout Catholic and deeply concerned for the good of Austria-Hungary and all her peoples, Archduke Karl believed that the Dual Monarchy should be transformed into a federation of ethnic states, each having its own parliament and laws under the authority of the Habsburg emperor. Such an arrangement, he thought, would put an end to nationalist squabbling and the oppression of minorities in the empire. Karl discussed his ideas with Franz Ferdinand during visits to his uncle’s Belvedere palace in Vienna. Karl no doubt enjoyed more than his political conversations at Belvedere, for Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s home life, with their three young children, was peaceful and joyous.
Not only Franz Ferdinand but the old Franz Josef took a great liking to his great nephew, Archduke Karl. Serious, devout, and full of reverence for the emperor, Karl also displayed a strong character as well as a gallant, noble demeanor. Franz Josef was greatly pleased with the woman Karl chose as his wife—Princess Zita of Parma-Bourbon. The 17th child of Roberto I, who had been duke of Parma until Italy had driven him out in 1859, Zita also had royal blood—as her name, Bourbon, indicates. A serious Catholic, and moreover an intelligent woman, Zita was a fit consort for the future emperor. The two were married on October 21, 1911, and the emperor attended their wedding.
In 1914, Archduke Karl was not yet 27 years old and had little training in what it takes to be a ruler. But this lack of experience did not seem to matter. The aged Emperor Franz Josef could be expected to die at any time, but the 50-year-old Franz Ferdinand stood ready to take on the imperial power. Karl very likely would wait many years before becoming emperor and, during that time, he would doubtless receive the experience and knowledge necessary to carry the Habsburg legacy deep into the new century.
The End of an Age
Archduke Karl and Princess Zita's wedding expressed the romance of a dying world. The Romantic age in music and art was also at this time drawing to a close. One of its last gasps was the music of the Austrian composer, Gustav Mahler, whose Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth"), a setting of Chinese poetry, premiered in Munich on November 20, 1911 -- nine days after after Karl and Zita's wedding and six months after the composer's death. Here is a performance of Das Lied von der Erde (with English subtitles) by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Eric Gardiner.