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Great Cars of Death III: The Franz Ferdinand Death Car

Once again a full moon rises above the moors and tiny witches, goblins, vampires, and Paris Hiltons roam the darkened streets in search of treats. The wind whistles through the trees and a mist creates horrifying shapes out of mundane objects parked in suburban driveways. . . .Vegas of every description, mean and aggressive Chargers, and even -- dare I mention its name? -- a forlorn yet strangely diabolical RAMPAGE!! or two. Yes, it's that time of year again. . . .it's Halloween and  . . . *cue spooky music crecendo* . . the General Mills Monster Cereals hit your local grocery store! Gavrilo-princip

Oh wait, my bad. It's Halloween and  . . . *cue spooky music crecendo again*. .another installment of Great Cars of Death.

Like the previous installments, this one will focus on a car that involved a death of some sort. Unlike previous installments, however, this one is rather more sinister in that not only were its primary occupants tragically killed in it, but it led directly to the untimely deaths of millions in World War I. A forgotten war to many, overshadowed as it eventually was by the horrors of World War II, it was -- accurately for the time -- known as The Great War, involving as it did countries from around the world and savage in its brutality. Until 1939 it was also known as The War to End All Wars, since the carnage for soldiers and civilians alike was really unlike anything that had gone before, both qualitatively and quantitatively. The advent of the machine gun and heavy artillery turned infantry into cannon fodder and completely rewrote the book on how to conduct modern warfare. True, the Crimean War and the American Civil War had hinted at what 'total war' looked like, but the concept reached its full fruition in WWI.

And it all started with a few young hotheads hell bent on killing someone for the glory of Greater Serbia. 

When the Bosnian War erupted in 1992, I daresay most people in the US reacted with a big "Huh?". After all, most of us had never even heard of "Bosnia-Herzegovina" and if we did it was probably only mentioned incidental to the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games. This conflict in the heart rump of Europe was as perplexing as it was complicated: Bosnians hate Serbians hate Croatians because, um, why again?

Austria-Hungary or the "Austro-Hungarian Empire" was a loose consolidation of two major empires, one German and one Magyar. Submerged in the latter were a number of ethnic minorities, among them Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, and Serbs. Ruled, somewhat nominally, by the Hapsburg Monarchy, the state was created in haphazard (and ultimately unstable) fashion by the Austro-Hungarian Treaty in 1867. With two more or less separate governments and one side trying to keep a lid on restless ethnic minorities, the Empire was probably never destined to last. Exacerbating the existing tensions, the Treaty of Berlin in 1878 created separate sovereign territories of Romania, Montenegro, and Serbia. While this limited sovereignty may have sounded like a good idea at the time to keep some of the minorities happy, it Franz_ferdinandprobably just made the situation worse: inch, mile, etc.

Serbia was the most uncomfortable with that situation. Having existed in some form since at least the Roman era, Serbia had been under the Ottoman Turks since 1459, only gaining its independence in 1817. Under the Berlin Treaty, many ethnic Serbs were excluded from the territory given them, and a fiercely nationalistic Serbia spent the years between 1878 and 1914 feuding with Austria-Hungary over all manner of real and perceived insults, including Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Several nationalistic elements had been attempting assassinations of Austro-Hungarian officials in the years leading up to 1914, with the tacit or active support of the Serbian government. Add to that a historic connection with imperial Russia -- who had their own conflicts with Austria-Hungary -- and the situation was, as they say, a powder keg waiting for a match.

That match came in the form of seven young (the oldest was 27) Serbian nationalists who hatched a plan to kill the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, presumptive heir to the Austrian throne. The assassins probably didn't think they were about to bring down the Empire nor start a world war: they were more motivated by a hatred for the Empire and a desire to bring greater recognition to Serbia.

Ferdinand had taken his wife Sophie to Sarajevo for their 14th wedding anniversary on June 28, 1914. There were political overtones to the visit, as the Austrian army was then conducting maneuvers in Bosnia near the border with Serbia; as Inspector General of the Army, it was also part of Ferdinand's official duties, thus further enraging the Serbians. The assassins themselves weren't exactly a band of ruffians: only one had a criminal record and none were excessive drinkers or gamblers. On the morning of June 28 the seven were staked out at various points along Ferdinand's parade route, waiting to strike a blow for MArchduke-franz-ferdinand-with-wifeother Serbia. They were armed with a variety of weapons, none all that sophisticated -- mostly an assortment of crude bombs and pistols -- and one might have suspected that their chances for success were quite limited. . .which they probably were, had it not been for a series of unfortunate mishaps on the part of the motorcade and the assassins themselves and not a little bit of luck. Most of it bad.

The first assassin, Mohammed Mehmedbasic, got cold feet and didn't toss his bomb at the car. The second, Nedjelko Cabrinovic, standing not far from Mehmedbasic, was bolder and actually threw his bomb at the car occupied by Franz and Sophie -- the second car in the motorcade -- but a sudden acceleration by the driver caused the bomb to narrowly miss Sophie's head; Franz had gallantly shielded his wife from the missile and caused it to explode under the third car in the motorcade, injuring several bystanders as well as Sophie, minorly. Cabrinovic, having failed in his attempt, quickly popped a cyanide capsule and jumped in into the nearby Miljacka river to drown himself. . . .however, in line with his luck as an assassin, the cyanide only made him throw up and the river at that point was only deep enough to drown a crippled rat. So much for those two.

In all of this, the lead car was nearly oblivious to the action behind and continued to lead the way to City Hall, in the process speeding past three more assassins including one Gavrilo Princip, all of whom failed to act. A couple of quick speeches were made at City Hall, shortened by a livid Ferdinand. In the meantime, Princip, apparently disgusted at their lack of success, made his way to a local delicatessen -- some say he'd been drinking, but this is probably apocryphal.  Gavrilloprincip

After leaving City Hall, the small motorcade made its way to the intersection of Appel Quay and Francis Joseph Street. At this point, the lead car should have taken the Appel Quay, but instead turned right onto Francis Joseph Street. Once they'd realized it was the wrong way, the driver stopped and prepared to turn around -- a classic Y-turn -- when Princip emerged from the delicatessen right near where the cars were turning. Princip immediately pulled out his pistol and fired two shots at the couple, hitting Franz in the neck and poor Sophie in the abdomen. Both were dead a short time later, though probably not, as the legend goes, before they could be removed from the car. Thus was set in motion the series of treaty obligations and mobilizations that eventually led to the deaths of millions.

The car itself was a 1911 Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton (possibly a Bois de Boulogne tourer, as it has also been called). Gräf & Stift had been manufacturing various vehicles since 1902 and was still in business up until 2001. Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot out there on the car itself: according to most sources, the engine was a 4-cylinder delivering 32 bhp, and had originally been purchased by a Count Franz von Harrach in 1910. After that, the cursed car passed into a number of hands, all of whom met with accidents and grisly deaths after only a short time in possession of the haunted automobile. . . .

Or so goes the legend anyway. Much like James Dean's Porsche, the Gräf & Stift supposedly had a number of mishaps associated with it, all pointing to some sort of curse. These stories seem to have originated in the 1950s around FranzFerdinandCarthe time of Dean's accident. Among the various curse-related incidents:

-- The Governor of Yugoslavia had four accidents in the car, including one where he lost his right arm

-- One Dr. Sirkis (a friend of the Governor's) drove it for six months until he overturned it and died

-- A Swiss race driver had an accident in the Dolomite Mountains was thrown from the car and broke his neck and died

-- The last private owner, Tiber Hirschfield, and four passengers were killed in a head-on collision

Sadly, the truth is far more mundane (and one wonders how long a car could survive in driveable condition after so many accidents): the owner, von Harach, still had ownership of the car, but it was soon turned over to the Heeresgeschitliches Museum Wien (Vienna Military History Museum) where it resides today, along with Franz's blood-soaked jacket and the similarly blood-soaked chaise lounge on which he breathed his last. Thus, while the car can definitely be associated with two deaths -- Franz and Sophie -- and somewhat more tenuously to another sixteen million in the War, the remaining tragedies are probably fictional.

On the other hand, as recently as 2002, the daughter of von Harach, Baroness Alice Dreihann-Holenia, Platehas been trying to obtain recognition by the Austrian state of the family's legal ownership of the car. No word yet on the status of the request, but at least we can say it's still causing some trouble for the Austrian government.

One eerie coincidence, however, remains. One might be tempted to pass this off as yet another legend,  but it seems to hold up under some scrutiny. The license plate of the car as seen today is "A III 118" which one might interpret as "Armistice 11-11-18" which some have taken as a sign of the ultimate fate of the car and its passengers. . .and the world Some have argued that the plate may have been placed there retrospectively, but historic photographs of the car, while not conclusive, seem to indicate that it was, in fact, originally fitted with that plate. So we may have at least one true creepy aspect to the car, beyond its inherent morbid interest.

--Anthony J. Cagle

Credits: You can read more on the origin of the curse legend here, whence comes the grainy photo immediately above of the license plate, a photo taken on the day of the assassination. All of the other photos are from Wikipedia or are found in numerous places all over the web.


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If I remember correctly, Franz Ferdinand was in favor of granting greater political autonomy to the minority nationalities in the Empire. Had he lived to succeed Franz Josef, the Serbians (and everyone else, for that matter) would have gotten much of what they were demanding without firing a shot. The Empire would still probably have broken up eventually, but we might have avoided all the trench warfare and poison gas.

Proof that 1914 was a very different time: This motorcade had just been attacked by a bomb-throwing assassin, and yet it stuck to its schedule and route as if nothing had happened? Imagine today's response to such an event.

To be fair, the events that led to the Austro-Hungarian Treaty (e.g. the Austrian defeat against the Prussians in 1866) spelled the beginning of the end for the Hapsburgs. After that, they couldn't even claim to speak for all of the Germans (where their authority originally derived from), much less the rest of the Empire. Throw in a general failure to embrace the Industrial Revolution, the near-total failure to embrace colonialism (minus their few acres in Tianjin), and a general refusal to acknowledge that it wasn't 1813 anymore and it was clear to anyone with eyes that the "old man" was going into the dustbin of history, along with the Ottoman Empire that was in decline for very similar reasons.

Their utter defeat in the Battle of Galicia (an astonishing success by the Russians - over 2 *million* POWs, if memory serves) put the final nail in the coffin for the empire.

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