Unlucky turn: The story of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the cat

 

I don’t recall it featuring in school history books, but several days before his own epochal death 107 years ago this week, Archduke Franz Ferdinand shot and killed a cat. The incident is mentioned in One Morning in Sarajevo, David James Smith’s exhaustive 2009 account of events leading to the assassination:

“On Sunday, 21st June the Archduke was sitting in a car overlooking the meadow [at the family’s Bohemian estate] when a cat began to walk across the grass. He took out his pistol and steadied his arm as he shot […] and killed it outright with a single bullet.”

The nature of the target aside, this was not an unusual thing for Franz Ferdinand to do. Even by the standards of his time, he was a blood sports enthusiast. It is vaguely estimated that he killed half a million animals in his shooting career, ranging in size from birds to stags.

He was an excellent shot, everyone agreed. But as Rebecca West wrote in her epic history/travelogue of Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, he was not the kind to give his quarries a sporting chance. On the contrary, he enjoyed their mass slaughter as much as the skilled targeting of one at a time.

Among his innovations to reduce the chances of escapees in organised hare-shoots, was an improvised “battue” whereby beaters worked in a “pear-shaped” formation, driving all the hares into a funnel towards him, “so that he was able without effort to exceed the bags of all other guns”.  

The cat-shoot may have been more of a challenge, but in retrospect it was an ominous choice. No doubt the association of the species with luck, good and bad, is fanciful. Even so, as Smith adds: “The shot that killed the cat was the last shot the big game hunter ever fired.”

Not that this was the only bad omen on his horizon that summer. After supper one night in May, as recorded by a relative, he remarked: “I know I shall soon be murdered.”

He was generally prone to superstition, thanks to a “medieval upbringing”. But his reasoning then was that “the crypt at Arstetten is now finished”. An expansion of the imperial crypt had been commissioned in 1908 and was indeed completed just in time to house the Archduke and his wife Sophia.

By late June 1914, he was said to be “extremely depressed and full of forebodings”. And even without the benefit of hindsight, he had every right to be. There were so many reasons not to go to Sarajevo then, and so many ways he could have avoided ending up where he did, it is hard now not to believe the event was fate.

He should not have gone there any time that summer – anti-Austrian feeling was on the rise. But if he had to go, it should have been on any date other than June 28th, St Vitus’s Day, a time of patriotic mourning for Serbs ever since the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, when their armies fought to the death against invaders.

And even if his visit had to be then, he could have confined it to its primary purpose, the two-day review of military manoeuvres at Ilidza, just west of Sarajevo, from which as late as the night of June 27th, advisers urged him to go straight home rather than visit the city next day.

Of the six would-be assassins scattered along the quays that Sunday, four were harmless. The best shot and the most determined was Gavrilo Princip. But his chance seemed to have gone when Nedjo Cabrinovic’s bomb bounced off the royal car and exploded under the one behind.

The entourage was well warned then. After the Archduke delivered his speech (from a blood-stained script) at City Hall, they should have stayed put and waited for the cavalry from Ilidze.

Instead, making the return trip up the quays, they at least had the sense to cancel the planned detour into the city centre, which would have involved turning into narrow side streets. But nobody told the driver who turned anyway, before stalling the car exactly where the assassin awaited.

No wonder Rebecca West imagined the spectres of all the animals Franz Ferdinand had killed attending his own end, or that she likened it to one of the battues he had been so good at organising.

“If by some miracle his slow-working and clumsy mind could have become swift and subtle, it could not have shown him a safe road out of Saravjevo,” West wrote, summing up a life of bad decisions. “Long ago he himself […] had placed at their posts the beaters who should drive him down through a narrowing world to the spot where Princip’s bullet would find him.”

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