Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 258th installment in the series.

November 21, 1916: Franz Josef Dies 

Already 84 years old when he made the critical decision that ignited the First World War, Austria-Hungary’s iconic dynast Franz Josef lived long enough to witness the nightmare unleashed by his desperate gamble – but not the final collapse of his empire, nor the strange new world that arose from the ashes. 

On November 21, 1916, several days after contracting pneumonia on a walk around the palace grounds, the Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary died at the age of 86, having ruled his subjects for a remarkable 68 years, making him one of the longest reigning monarchs in history. His successor, his young, liberal-leaning nephew Karl, until recently the commander of an army on the Eastern Front, inherited a system in collapse (below, the royal family at Franz Josef's funeral on November 30, 1916):

Indeed, Franz Josef’s entire life could be viewed as a chronicle of the long, gradual decay of Europe’s old aristocratic order, punctuated by disasters and sudden bursts of frenetic activity – brief and only partially successful attempts at reform. 

Franz Josef ascended to the throne unexpectedly as liberal revolutions swept Europe in 1848, threatening the very existence of the monarchy and its multiethnic dynastic holdings. After his uncle and predecessor Ferdinand I abdicated to appease the revolutionaries, Franz Josef’s father Franz Karl also renounced the throne, leaving the task of reuniting the divided and rebellious empire to his 18-year-old son. 

This the new emperor did with typical caution, reflecting both his youth and generally moderate character – but as a profoundly conservative aristocrat he also showed a steely determination to uphold the old feudal order, as well as a willingness to use force if he judged it necessary. 

After agreeing to the constitution demanded by liberal revolutionaries in 1849, restoring his power base in Austria, Franz Josef crushed a nationalist rising in Hungary by inviting Tsar Nicholas I to send 200,000 Russian troops into the rebellious kingdom – one of the high watermarks of the Concert of Europe, the reactionary diplomatic system created by Metternich to prop up the continent’s old dynasties following the upheavals of the French Revolution and Napoleon. 

Following the defeat of the Hungarian revolution, however, Franz Josef was willing (as he would show himself many times in the decades to come) to compromise in order to preserve the core institution of the monarchy amid the earth-shaking developments resulting from the spread of nationalism across Europe. 

In 1859 Austria lost the kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia to the new-forming nation of Italy, causing a long-standing grudge, which their membership in the Triple Alliance did nothing to allay (ironically Franz Josef’s ill-fated heir, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, though the empire would go to war with Italy before Serbia). 

But no event was more fateful for Austria-Hungary, or Europe, than the creation of a new German state by Prussia led by chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who united the independent German kingdoms by force under Prussian rule with a series of short wars, successfully overcoming opposition by Austria and the German Confederation in 1866, and France in 1870-1. Austria’s stinging defeat damaged Vienna’s prestige and stirred up a new Hungarian national movement by the aristocratic Magyars; with the compromise of 1867, Franz Josef conceded the Hungarians their own constitution, giving rise to the unusual Dual Monarchy that would unite the “kaiserlich und königlich” (Imperial and royal) realms of Austria-Hungary somewhat awkwardly for the rest of its existence.

With the rise of Germany as a leading industrial power in the remaining years of the century, Austria transitioned from defeated foe to junior partner in central Europe – a diplomatic demotion which Franz Josef accepted graciously enough, although he found Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II rude and overbearing. Personal tragedy struck in 1889 with the suicide of Franz Josef’s son and heir Rudolf, who killed himself in a suicide pact with his mistress Mary Vetsera, leaving the crown (unexpectedly, again) to the emperor’s nephew Franz Ferdinand. 

But the emperor never deviated from the basic, aristocratic views that he inherited along with his feudal realm – among them the principle of “hausmacht,” or the power of the noble house. This expressed itself in opportunistic attempts to aggrandize the power of the Habsburgs by acquiring new territorial holdings, just as an ambitious medieval monarch might in the days of the Holy Roman Empire. 

This ancient impulse was ill suited to the modern era, and became dangerous with the surging power of national ideologies requiring resistance to “foreign” rule, even by a well-intended dynasty. This was the bitter fruit of Franz Josef’s ill-advised decision to formally annex Bosnia-Herzegovina, formerly a province of the declining Ottoman Empire, in 1908.

In addition to sparking a general diplomatic crisis, the annexation of Bosnia embroiled Austria-Hungary in a messy, unwanted confrontation with the neighboring small Slavic kingdom of Serbia, and with it its great Slavic patron, Russia. The confrontation between the Dual Monarchy and Serbia escalated with Serbia’s success in the First and Second Balkan Wars, threatening to cause a general European war. The situation was temporarily defused by the Conference of London, which agreed on the creation of a new nation, Albania, to prevent further Serbian expansion in 1912.   

However Franz Josef’s advisors, including chief of the general staff Conrad von Hotzendorf and foreign minister Count Berchtold, were convinced that Serbia remained committed to undermining the empire in its nationalist quest to free the Serbs of Bosnia (some Serbs, led by the intelligence officer Apis, certainly were). The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand provided a convenient excuse to finally crush Serbia and dispense with the threat of Slavic nationalism once and for all – but they were unable to avoid war with Russia, resulting in disaster

In the two years following the outbreak of war, Franz Josef found himself largely an onlooker to the empire’s repeated military defeats (and later successes under German control). His refusal to give up traditional Habsburg territories in the Trentino and Trieste provoked Italy to join the war against the empire in 1915. By the same token, there was little he could do to stave off German moves to dominate Eastern Europe economically and diplomatically, giving Austria-Hungary’s inferior position. Chaos was also clearly beginning to rend the old society: on October 21, 1916 the Austrian premier Karl von Stürgkh was assassinated by the socialist revolutionary Friedrich Adler. But at least he lived to see Romania, another erstwhile ally, brought to book.

German victories were hardly much consolation for the people of the fragmenting empire he left behind. On one hand there was still the popular image of a familiar, avuncular figure, who had endured the heartbreaking loss of his child, and could until recently still be seen taking stately walks with his companion Katharina Schratt. On the other was the knowledge that this elderly man had set in motion events that caused the conflagration consuming Europe – and then stood back, a passive bystander to what followed. 

In Karl Kraus’ satirical play “The Last Days of Mankind”, when told that the emperor has died, the character “the Grumbler” responds: “How do you know?” Later the same character opines: “Just for reasons of prestige, this monarchy should have committed suicide long ago.” Asked to evaluate the emperor’s 70-year-reign, he unleashes a tirade against the years in question: 

They are a nightmare of an evil spirit which, in return for extracting all our life juices, and then our life and property also, let us have as a happy gift the opportunity to become completely idiotic by worshiping an emperor’s beard as an idol. Never before in world history has a stronger non-personality impressed his stamp on all things and forms. A demon of mediocrity has determined our fate. Only he insisted on Austria’s right to trouble the world with our murderous nationality brawls, a right grounded in the God-ordained bureaucratic muddle under the Hapsburg scepter, the mission of which, it appears, has been to hover above world peace like Damocles’ sword. 

Later the Grumbler adds: 

I would also like to believe that it is more pleasing to God to show veneration for the majesty of death at the graves of ten millions youths and men, and hundreds of thousands of women and infants who had to die of hunger, than to bow down before that one casket in the Capuchins’ Crypt, that very casket that entombs the old man who considered everything carefully and, with a single scratch of the pen, brought it all about. 

Unsurprisingly, news of Franz Josef’s death didn’t elicit a great outpouring of sympathy from Austria-Hungary’s enemies in the great struggle now unfolding. Mildred Aldrich, an American woman living in the countryside near Paris, wrote in a letter home on November 25, 1916, touching on Franz Josef’s death briefly: 

In the meantime I am sorry that Franz Josef did not live to see this war of his out and take his punishment. I used to be so sorry for him in the old days, when it seemed as if Fate showered disasters on the heads of the Hapsburgs. I wasted my pity. The blows killed everyone in the family but father. The way he stood it and never learned to be kind or wise proved how little he needed pity. 

See the previous installment or all entries.