Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The problem of the succession

The circumstance that Karl, a great-nephew of Franz Joseph, ended up becoming emperor is due to a chain of dramatic vicissitudes. When Karl was born in 1887 no one could have guessed that he would one day ascend the throne, as Crown Prince Rudolf, the only son of Franz Joseph, was the heir apparent.


Rudolf had married Stephanie of Belgium in 1881, a dynastic alliance that despite a positive start soon became unhappy due to their incompatibility. In 1883 a daughter, Elisabeth, called Erzsi in the family, was born. After Rudolf infected his wife with a venereal disease she was unable to have any further children.

After Rudolf’s tragic death at Mayerling in 1889 the succession passed to the nearest male relative of Franz Joseph. According to the provisions of Habsburg dynastic law, daughters were only permitted to inherit the title if there were no male members of the dynasty living.

In principle, the next in line to the throne was Archduke Karl Ludwig (b. 1833), the emperor’s younger brother. However, he was never officially designated heir to the throne – he was only three years younger than Franz Joseph and not a realistic choice: although Karl Ludwig frequently represented his brother on official occasions – earning him the nickname ‘Parade Archduke’ ­– he was otherwise considered unsuitable for this office. Extremely reactionary and anti-liberal in his views, even by Habsburg standards, Karl Ludwig died in 1896 from an infection he had caught from drinking water from the River Jordan while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The succession thus passed to Karl Ludwig’s eldest son, Archduke Franz Ferdinand (b. 1863). At first it seemed as if this candidate would also bow out, as the archduke’s health was seriously affected by a lung complaint. At the Viennese court the numerous adversaries of Franz Ferdinand, whose difficult character made him unpopular, were already backing his younger brother, Archduke Otto (b. 1865), the next in line, as the more likely option. However, Otto, the ‘handsome archduke’, was regarded as the black sheep of the family on account of his scandalous lifestyle. He died of syphilis in 1906.

Franz Ferdinand, having recovered from his illness in the meantime, was officially declared heir presumptive in 1898. Relations between Emperor Franz Joseph and his nephew were however overshadowed by political controversy and personal dislike.

Franz Joseph had never forgiven Franz Ferdinand for insisting on marrying Countess Sophie Chotek, who was not a suitable match according to the strictures of Habsburg dynastic law. For the elderly emperor this was tantamount to a dereliction of duty on Franz Ferdinand’s part: to his mind, the obligation to contract a marriage with someone from one’s own rank in order to ensure the continuation of the dynasty had absolute precedence over individual happiness in love. However, Franz Ferdinand prevailed against all opposition and entered into this morganatic marriage. Although Sophie was raised to the rank of Duchess of Hohenberg, she was ostracized by the Court, which deeply wounded her husband. On the day of his wedding, the archduke was obliged to renounce membership of the imperial family and all associated privileges on behalf of his as yet unborn children. The descendants of this marriage live on today under the name of Hohenberg.

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie at Sarajevo brought an unexpected turn of events. Franz Joseph’s reaction was typical both of his devoutly religious cast of mind and his concern to preserve the dynasty at all costs: he saw it not only as an attack on the honour of the House of Habsburg but also as the will of a higher power to reinstate an orderly succession.

As Franz Ferdinand’s children were excluded from the succession, it passed to the eldest son of the late Archduke Otto, Karl (1887–1922). The great-nephew of Franz Joseph, he had married Zita of Bourbon-Parma (1892–1989) in 1911 – a flawless dynastic alliance intended to secure the future of the dynasty: 1912 saw the birth of the last crown prince, Otto (d. 2011), who was to lead the family into the era after the fall of the empire.

Translation: Sophie Kidd


Beller, Steven: Franz Joseph. Eine Biographie, Wien 1997

Bled, Jean-Paul: Franz Ferdinand. Der eigensinnige Thronfolger, Wien u. a. 2013

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    On the eve of war

    The last decade of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth were a time of modernisation, mechanisation and speed. In 1910, Vienna, capital of the Habsburg empire, had 2.1 million inhabitants and had grown to become an international metropolis. New technologies changed working life and leisure. Railways increased mobility, as did the bicycle, motor vehicle and aeroplane. How did this development manifest itself and what other trends emerged in the last years before the outbreak of the First World War?

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Person

    Franz Ferdinand

    Franz Ferdinand, a nephew of Emperor Franz Joseph, was as heir to throne a controversial figure in Austria-Hungary. He and his wife Sophie were the victims of the 1914 assassination in Sarajevo, which is regarded as the trigger of the First World War.

  • Person

    Karl I.

    The last Emperor acceded to the throne in 1916 and reigned until the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in November 1918.

  • Person

    Franz Joseph

    Thanks to his long reign of 68 years, Franz Joseph was a determining figure of the Habsburg Empire in the last decades of its existence. In 1914, he signed the declaration of war on Serbia that triggered the First World War – a war that he would not live to see the end of.

  • Event

    Assassination in Sarajevo

    Assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in the Bosnian capital.


  • Development

    The Habsburg myth – the dynasty before and after 1918

    The Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty formed the ideological basis for the Habsburg Monarchy, since the existence of the multi-ethnic state was primarily a product of the dynastic history of this ruling house.

    In the latter days of the Habsburg Monarchy, Emperor Franz Joseph personified the imperial idea, although towards the end of his sixty-eight-year reign he was reduced more and more to an abstract symbol, a kind of father figure. His death in November 1916 left a vacuum at the head of the dynasty, which his successor Karl could no longer fill.