For me history is all about people. I appreciate the broad sweep of political and social context in which it all takes place but I am more interested in Queen Victoria's attitude to her children than the repeal of the Corn Laws, how the Romanovs lived behind closed doors than the Revolution. When my children were small we took them to stately homes and National Trust houses as I was fascinated by the lives led by their inhabitants and my favourite subject at our history lessons at school was Monastic history where the daily lives and work of the monks enthralled me. I have tried to work out why I feel this way and have come to the conclusion that I like to feel that historical figures, great or small, are just like you and I in our daily lives.
So when I started to read this simply marvellous book about the Assassination of the Archduke though I knew that their deaths triggered off the start of the Great War, I wanted to know more about Franz Ferdinand and his morganatic wife Sophie about which I knew very little. The Archduke had not expected to be heir to the Hapsburg empire but found himself so after the suicide of the Emperor's son Rudolph who put a bullet in his head after killing his mistress Maria Vetsera in what appeared to be a suicide pact.
His marriage therefore was of more importance than hitherto and when he fell in love with Sophie Chotek and wished to make her his wife this was greeted with strenuous opposition. Difficult for us to understand why this was so considering she was a Countess, hardly a shopkeeper's daughter or a maidservant, but this cut no ice with the Emperor. She was not aristocratic enough for the rigid hierarchy of the court "Such a marriage would harm the country and the throne" fumed the Emperor. Franz Joseph was adamant that he would not give Sophie up.
The only way they were able to wed was for Franz Ferdinand to sign a declaration that the marriage would be morganatic and that any children they might have would be unable to inherit the throne or have any claim on any future position. This was reluctantly agreed by Franz Ferdinand but his joy at marrying Sophie swept aside any doubt. There was no tradition or pomp or ceremony attendant upon this marriage. It did not take place in Vienna and celebratory displays were forbidden; even the cardinal archbishop remained in Vienna unwilling to jeopardise his position by performing the ceremony.
And so began years of insults, slights and spurning of Sophie which were cruel, petty and vindictive. Seems she was a woman of strong character and deeply in love with her husband and, thus, able to ignore the attitude of the Viennese court. She was looked upon as an intruder and Franz Ferdinand's two brothers tried to pretend Sophie didn't exist. The ladies of the Imperial family were particularly vicious.
There was a gradual softening of attitude as the years passed but it took a long time before Sophie was allowed to accompany her husband to any functions by his side. By the time the fatal trip to Sarajevo was mooted, it was accepted that the Archduke and his wife would go together. Franz Ferdinand had no wish to go and tried to make many excuses to avoid the trip as he knew he was entering a pit of revolutionary activity and feared for his life.
The sheer incompetence and blundering of those in charge of their security and the entire visit were beyond belief. The motorcade with the royal visitors was on its way when one of the conspirators in the plot to murder the Archduke and Archduchess hurled a bomb at the car which missed. "I thought something like this would happen" were Franz Joseph's words "the fellow is insane. Let's get on with the programme". On their return instead of taking an alternate route they retraced their steps and this time the assassin, stunned when the first car passed directly in front of him, took his chance and did not miss.
We all know what happened next but what I did not know was the effect on their children and what happened to them after the appalling death of their parents. They had been a happy and united family and, unlike some aristocratic families, had spent time with their mother and father and enjoyed activities and holidays together. Now they were orphaned and bereft. How their lives turned out shook me to the core as the two brothers ended up in a concentration camp and, though they survived this horrific experience, died early of heart trouble.
I do not feel I have done justice to this marvellous book in this post, but there is so much I could write. if I did this would be a long long review, but all I can say is that I found it both compelling and heartbreaking at the same time.
So we are back to my opening paragraph - it is the people who define history for me. The steadfast love that Sophie and Franz Ferdinand had for each other, the delight in their children, the ignoring of hurt and slights and insults, the final lessening of hostilities which held promise for their future and then their tragic end. If I had not become so fond of them both this book would not have had such an impact on me. Their strength and determination and their tragic end brought a lump to my throat.
The children, Franz Ferdinand admitted 'are my whole delight and pride. I sit with them all day and admire them because I love them so much....when I return to my family from my long daily labours and see my wife doing needlework and my children playing about, then I leave my cares at the door and can hardly grasp the happiness that surrounds me'.
Please do read this marvellous book. Put it on your Christmas list and if nobody buys it for you, then purchase it yourself. This is going on my list of Random Books of the year. Simply wonderful.