Franz Ferdinand Didn’t Die Alone in Sarajevo

One hundred years on Sophie Chotek’s Chiswick relative wants her to be remembered

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Sophie Chotek with her husband and three children. (Picture:Walburga Shearer)


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Exactly a century ago on June 28th 1914 Sophie Chotek was shot dead by a terrorist whilst travelling in the back of a car. Her killer, the teenage Bosnian Gavrilo Princip fired twice. The other bullet killed Sophie’s husband Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Sophie’s great niece, Walburga Shearer, who has lived in Chiswick for over 50 years, does not want Sophie’s death to be a forgotten footnote in history. She explained to us that despite coming from an aristocratic family within the Austro-Hungarian empire, Sophie’s lineage was not deemed sufficient for her to marry a royal prince who was heir to the throne. To the fury of Emperor Franz Joseph, Franz Ferdinand has insisted on marrying Sophie who he is believed to have met at a ball in Prague. She was given the title of the Duchess of Hohenberg but, the marriage was deemed morganatic which meant that their children were barred from inheriting any of the royal titles.

Franz Ferdinand deeply loved his wife but was bitterly resentful of the way in which court protocol was used to snub her. She was excluded from many of the royal courts of Europe although she and her husband were received at Windsor Castle by George V and Queen Mary in 1913 just six months before their assassination.

Walburga Shearer points out that the life of an aristocrat family in the Austro-Hungarian in this period was quite itinerant. Despite travelling conditions which would be deemed intolerable in this day and age, they would regularly move between various homes within the Empire so it was not unusual for the family to travel down to Bosnia even though the political situation was very tense. The day before their official visit they had wandered around Sarajevo and received a friendly welcome from those locals they encountered. On their return home they sent a telegram to their son Max congratulating him on his exam results and looked forward to the following day when they were to celebrate their 14th wedding anniversary.

Earlier in the day on 28th June a group of Serbian nationalists had already made a co-ordinated attempt to kill the Archduke. A bomb had bounced off the roof of the royal car and injured two of the entourage. One man was arrested but the rest of the would be assassins melted away believing their opportunity had passed. The only reason that Gavrilo Princip had the opportunity to carry out the assassination is that Franz Ferdinand had insisted on visiting the injured men, his driver had taken a wrong turn and, unable to use the reverse gear had become stuck, coincidentally at the spot where Princip was loitering.

As Walburga explained chauffeurs in those days were typically former coachmen who often had little driving experience. As the car was being pushed backwards just a few feet from where Princip was standing, he seized his opportunity and fired his pistol twice mortally wounding the Archduke and his wife. Princip was immediately remorseful about killing Sophie saying ‘a bullet does not go precisely where one wishes.’

Just before the assassination the couple had been staying at a family home in the region in Futog near Novi Sad where Walburga was herself to live for a while some years later. Her family fled Europe after the Anschluss along with the von Trapps and she eventually settled in Chiswick. Many years later she was walking her dog in a local park when she got into conversation with Paul Roberts who, at the time, was the lead singer of the Stranglers. When she told him of her family connection with the events of 1914 he was insistent that he be allowed to drive her around the areas in which she grew up. The unlikely pair went on a road trip taking visiting the houses in which Walburga used to stay. She described her disappointment on seeing that the once grand baroque house at Futog had been converted into an agricultural college with prefab outbuildings added on to the original structure.

She also had a chance to visit Artstetten Castle where Sophie and Franz Ferdinand are buried. Even in death the Hapsburgs were unwilling to treat Sophie as a true royal and she and her husband were unable to be buried in the main family mausoleum. She has not however been forgotten by her family with Masses still said regularly for her in the chapels of the Hohenburg properties.

June 28, 2014