Alan Mason is on fire this week. We have received another post with reference to the World war 1 celebrations. Great work Alan, keep ’em coming. – Deskarati

One of the key players in the drama of the summer of 1914 was handsome and aristocratic; much photographed, but barely rates a mention in most accounts. I refer to the magnificent Gräf und Stift motor car (pronounced grev oond sh tift) (1) in which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was travelling, when he and his wife were assassinated.

The Carriage or the Car?

At this period in time, motor cars were so expensive that only the wealthy could afford them. Stylistically, and technologically, it was a period of transition between the “horseless carriage” and the true motor car. Prior to this, well-to-do people rode in a horse-drawn carriage, and employed a groom-handyman to care for the horse and to drive the carriage. The horseless carriage incorporated many of the features of the horse-drawn carriage, for example, it was open to the weather, and had running boards along the sides. Essentially, it was a vehicle in which to be seen by the passing crowds.

By contrast, the motor car was more about comfort, and insulation from the weather, particularly the rain and the cold, so that they were usually closed vehicles. It is interesting to speculate that had the Archduke and his wife chosen a closed motor car it would have been much more difficult to assassinate them.

However, the whole point of this visit was to “show the flag”, to the people as the Archduke was representing the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I. Sarajevo was the capital of the country of Bosnia, which had recently (1908) become part of the “Dual Monarchy of Austro-Hungary” and this visit gave everyone an opportunity to demonstrate their enthusiasm for the political union to which they belonged, whenever they saw the car with the Archduke and his wife (2).

The design of the car, technically a “double phaeton” was based on the barouche (bar oosh), a large, open and ostentatious carriage. The Kovolevsky painting (3) shows a horse-drawn version of the barouche, taking two members of the Russian aristocracy, through their estates. The serfs turn their vehicles off the narrow road into the corn, to permit their masters to pass without delay, doffing their caps as they do so.

A Simple Confusion over Routes

The Gräf und Stift car had been lent for the Archduke’s visit by the owner, Franz, Graf (Earl) von Harrach, and he was riding in the front with the chauffeur at the time of the assassination. The Graf had bought it only four years earlier from the Gräf und Stift Company, an Austrian automobile firm run by the Gräf brothers and Willy Stift.

In an incident earlier in the day, a bomb had been thrown at the car, but it bounced off the folded roof, and exploded under the back of the following car, injuring a policeman. The Archduke expressed a wish to visit the man in hospital and the route plans were hastily changed. This led to some confusion so that the driver of the Archduke’s car came to a complete stop in front of Schiller’s delicatessen store, where the student, Gavrilo Princip, was waiting with his revolver. He only needed a few seconds to step forward to the running board and kill both the Archduke and his wife. It was on such chances and unexpected turns of events that the outbreak of war ultimately depended.

Although there is photographic and cine coverage of much of the Archduke’s visit, it is mostly along the planned route. The actual assassination was not captured by camera, so the newspapers were publishing “artists’ impressions” (4) which are often as absurd as the once shown here. Everyone, including the driver, is acting their heads off, whereas the reality was that hardly anyone noticed the assassin till it was too late to stop him. There were, however, enough police on hand to arrest him (5) after the event.

The Meaning of a Morganatic Marriage

The British historian, AJP Taylor, in a popular book on the First World War (See Reference A) explains dramatically how it was that the Archduke chose the date of his death when he fixed the date of his wedding day as 28 June 1900. “Franz Ferdinand was a brutal and obstinate man, impatient with opposition, unsuited to a democratic age. He had one redeeming feature: he loved his wife.” As a member of the Hapsburg ruling family and heir to the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, he was legally limited in his choice of marriage partners. He had fallen in love with the beautiful Countess Sophie Chotek, but unfortunately, “Sophie Chotek was a mere countess and did not come within the permitted degrees for an imperial Habsburg marriage. Franz Ferdinand was compelled by the current Emperor Franz Joseph I to sign away the rights of any children born of the marriage.” The legal description of such a relationship is ‘a morganatic marriage.’ Why was the Emperor so cruel to his heir?

Modern readers will be surprised at these kinds of restrictions, when, for example, all the children of Queen Elizabeth II have married people without titles. Remember this was over a hundred years ago when social conventions between the classes were totally different. Even so, Pope Leo XIII, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and the German Emperor, Wilhelm II tried to persuade the Emperor to change his mind, but the old man was implacable. The relationship between Franz Ferdinand and his uncle, the Emperor, was never good, and this made it worse.

The Archduke’s wife did not become an Archduchess or an Imperial Highness, but what was much worse she could not appear in public with him in a royal carriage, or even sit in the royal box at the theatre. It irked him that she could never even sit by his side on any public occasion.

“There was one loophole. The Archduke was a field marshal and Inspector General of the Austro-Hungarian army. His wife could enjoy the recognition of his rank when he was acting in a military capacity. Hence he decided in 1914, to inspect the army in Bosnia. At its capital Sarajevo, the Archduke and his wife could ride in an open carriage side by side on the 28 June — the anniversary of their wedding day. Thus, for love, did the Archduke go to his death.”

It would be naive to suggest that had the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand been prevented there would have been no war. So many nations were prepared and quite ready for war that any one of a dozen events could have been the spark which ignited the gunpowder.

Balkan Politics and Punishment

As AJP Taylor explains, “Bosnia and its sister province, Hercegovina, (7) were recent Habsburg acquisitions. Formerly Turkish and the scene of many rebellions, they had been administered by Austria-Hungary since 1878, annexed only in 1908. The inhabitants were southern Slavs, Serbs, or Croats, many of them — especially the younger ones — resentful at having been brought under the Habsburgs instead of being allowed to join Serbia, their national state. Romantic young men conspired together, and made unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Habsburg officials. When the Archduke’s visit was announced half a dozen grammar-school boys decided to have a shot at him… none foresaw that… this would lead to the deaths of many million others.”

These schoolboys were, however, backed by a professional and clandestine Serbian military organisation, which supplied weapons, ammunition and safe houses. Given that Austro-Hungary is always portrayed as a brutal and repressive police state, one of the surprises of the aftermath, for me, is the leniency with which the perpetrators of the assassination were treated. All of the 29 conspirators were arrested and brought to trial.

Although nine were acquitted, eleven were given terms of imprisonment, ranging from one full life term to 3-year terms. The maximum sentence permitted for men below twenty years of age was 20 years. This is why several of the schoolboys at the centre of the plot, notably Gavrilo Princip, received only 20 year sentences, but he died in prison of tuberculosis. Four were executed by hanging, and three older military men, who were possibly spies, were shot by firing squad.

Let us compare this with Britain or the USA at the same time in history. If a schoolboy had shot and killed the heir to the British throne, or assassinated the American Vice-President, would the people of those two nation states have been content with a 20 year jail sentence for the murderer?

I suspect the courts in both countries would have pronounced death sentences. Neither did we limit the jail sentence for men under twenty. In addition, we had a law of “joint enterprise”, so that if a group of people set out together to commit a crime, and a murder results, then all are guilty of murder, whatever their individual contribution may have been. This was to avoid a situation where gang members each blame the other and all escape justice because it is impossible to pin the murder on any one individual.

One sinister figure, whose grizzled features stand out in stark contrast to the photographs of the fresh-faced schoolboys, was Mohammed Mehmedbasic. He was a fully professional terrorist and assassin, a carpenter by trade and the son of an impoverished Muslim noble, and a member of the Black Hand Secret Society. In 1913 he had attended a secret meeting in Toulouse, France with the Chief of Serbian Military Intelligence, Colonel Dimitrijević, code-named Apis, where future terrorist outrages were planned. He expressed himself as “eager to carry out an act of terrorism to revive the revolutionary spirit of Bosnia”.

Curiously, of all the assassins, he was the one who largely escaped justice. Although all the assassins were eventually caught, and Mehmedbasic was arrested in Montenegro, he was “allowed to escape” to Serbia where he joined the military auxiliaries. He was arrested again in 1916 and brought to trial, sentenced to 15 years, but his sentence was commuted and he was released in 1919. His military chief, Apis, and his immediate lieutenants were executed by firing squad, while Mehmedbasic disappears from history.

The final resting place for the Gräf und Stift “double phaeton” is the Heeresgeschlichtliches Museum (Military History Museum) in Vienna.


The two principal references I have used are noted below.

A. “The First World War – An Illustrated History” by AJP Taylor, Penguin, 1963

B. “History of the First World War”, Purnell,

C. “Our forgotten Past” edited by Jerome Blum, Thames and Hudson, 1982

1. The Graf und Stift Motor Car from the early 20 C (Purnell, op cit)

2. The Archduke and his wife Sophie are greeted by a Sarajevo dignitary (Purnell, op cit)

3. A Russian barouche, detail from a painting by V O Kovolevsky (Blum, op. cit)

4. The 1914 Assassinations (Purnell, op cit)

5. The arrest of Gavrilo Princip (Purnell, op cit)

6. Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Lying in State, before their State Funeral (Purnell, op cit)

7. Eastern Europe, 1914 (Author)

8. Punishment (Purnell, op cit)

9. Two Gräf und Stift cars waiting outside the town hall at Sarajevo for the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (Purnell, op cit)

This entry was posted in Alan Mason, History. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A KEY PLAYER

  1. Deskarati says:

    Excellent piece Alan. Very informative.

  2. Robin Ahlgren says:

    Please don’t write the phrase “World War 1 celebrations.” A World War is nothing to celebrate, it’s something for humans to be ashamed of. I know David Cameron used the phrase but even he now speaks of ‘commemoration’ rather than ‘celebration’. If such a notorious Bullingdon boy can correct himself, please can you?

    • Deskarati says:

      I’m sure that most considerate individuals would have realised that, in this case, the word was used with its deferential definition.

      1. to observe (a day) or commemorate (an event) with ceremonies or festivities:
      2. to make known publicly; proclaim:
      3. to praise widely or to present to widespread and favourable public notice, as through newspapers or novels:

      • Robin Ahlgren says:

        Hmmm. I hope I am not an inconsiderate man. I am a pacifist and alarmed by the current readiness of politicians to glorify war. Experience shows it is never a good solution and always needs to new problems. Holding a special day of contrition for this centenary would seem more appropriate.

  3. Robin Ahlgren says:

    P.S. I really don’t want to drag your excellent and lively site down into vituperation, whether about politics or definitions. I withdraw, considerately.

Comments are closed.