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100 years on, ‘forgiving’ the gunshots that sparked WWI

von Hohenberg family

A hundred years after the death of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria led Europe into World War I, his great-granddaughter, Anita von Hohenberg, spoke to FRANCE 24.


For more than 30 years, Anita von Hohenberg has taken care of the Artstetten Castle in Austria.

The sumptuous Baroque residence is a place heavy with history: this is where Anita von Hohenberg’s great-grandparents, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg, are buried.

One hundred years after their assassination on June 28, 1914, Anita will honour their memory. “We’re expecting between 1,000 and 2,000 people,” she told FRANCE 24 in lightly accented French. “There will be a gathering at the family tomb and a bouquet will be placed, followed by a Pontifical Requiem Mass in the basilica.”

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie von Hohenberg with their children, Maximilian, Sophie and Ernest. © von Hohenberg family
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie von Hohenberg with their children, Maximilian, Sophie and Ernest. © von Hohenberg family

But Anita von Hohenberg is not only planning on paying tribute to her ancestors; she will also be commemorating the “17 million victims of World War I”. Her family considers Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, whose deaths plunged the world into bloody conflict, the first victims of the war.

International commemorations will be held in Sarajevo, the very city where Anita’s great grandparents were shot dead by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip. But Anita says she chose not to attend. “We decided that no member of the family was going to go,” she explained. “We didn’t want to offend the people; it’s a form of respect.”

One century later, tensions still surround the gunshots that sparked the war. According to some, Princip is a hero, a freedom fighter who rose up against the Austro-Hungarian occupiers who had annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. According to others, he was a terrorist, a murderous coward who drove the world into chaos.

‘They forgave him’

The von Hohenberg family has kept its distance from partisan interpretations of history – even if the deaths of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie left their three children parentless. “It has always been important for us to have no resentment,” Anita said. “We were raised by my father, and those close to him, with the idea that they had made peace with Gavrilo Princip.”

Anita, who holds the title of princess, recalled that the couple’s three children – Maximilian (her grandfather), Sophie and Ernest – even wrote to Princip during the war, before his death in prison in 1918, to tell him they forgave him. “My ancestors thought he was a young man who had been completely manipulated and, along with the other plotters of the assassination, been brainwashed,” Anita told FRANCE 24.

Beyond political and historical considerations, Anita also wants to help reveal another side of her ancestors. Though Franz Ferdinand was often described as authoritarian and angry, the princess insists that the reality was more complex. “He was a rather impulsive character, but he wasn’t austere,” she noted. “He was a good father.”

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