On this day in 1916, with World War I in full swing, the popular monarch Franz Josef of Austria dies at the age of 86, after reigning for 66 years.
The issue of who would succeed the emperor had long been complicated. Franz Josef’s life was marked by tragedy: His only son, Rudolf, committed suicide in 1889, and his wife, Elisabeth, was assassinated in Geneva in 1898 by an Italian anarchist. Both of his brothers died early as well; the first, Karl Ludwig, contracted an illness after drinking contaminated water, while the other, Maximilian, was executed in 1867 by a Mexican firing squad after an ill-fated three-year reign as the country’s emperor. After all this, Karl Ludwig’s son, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, emerged as his uncle’s heir.
Franz Josef had no particular affection for Franz Ferdinand. Like many, he considered the archduke silly and ineffectual, and he disapproved of his marriage to Sophie Chotek von Chotkova, a former lady-in-waiting. Nonetheless, when Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in June 1914 by a Bosnian Serb nationalist, the emperor followed the advice of his foreign minister, Leopold Berchtold, and went ahead with a hard-line approach to Serbia that soon led to the outbreak of a general European war.
Popular until his death, Franz Josef was destined to be the last significant Hapsburg monarch. He was succeeded by his 29-year-old great-nephew, Karl I, who immediately began efforts to reform the creaky old Dual Monarchy. First, he dismissed the head of the Austrian army, Conrad von Hotzendorff, replacing him with the more flexible Arz von Straussenberg. He also refused to swear loyalty to the Austrian constitution, announcing his intention to continue with his liberal reforms. Karl’s liberalism posed a threat to the Hungarian prime minister, Istvan Tisza, whom he pressured to resign in May 1917.
Some of Karl’s greatest efforts were directed toward ending the First World War. In April 1917, he and his foreign minister, Ottokar Czernin, visited Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany to press the need for peace. The empire, they said, could not hold out much longer. At the same time, unbeknownst to Czernin, Karl was already in secret peace negotiations with Britain and France. His wife, Zita, was French; her brother, Prince Sixte Bourbon-Parma, acted as an intermediary in the negotiations. The negotiations foundered when Karl stubbornly refused to cede any territory to the Italians; the following year, France made the negotiations public to great effect during Germany’s spring offensive in 1918. Furious with Karl’s deception, Czernin resigned, and the Germans never again trusted the emperor.
The unraveling alliance between the Central Powers had been pushed to the limit, but did not break…yet. Over the course of 1918 it became clear the tide was turning in favor of the Allies. As hunger and discontent intensified within Austria, Karl continued to press for peace, without success. In October, hoping to satisfy growing nationalist aspirations within the Dual Monarchy, he issued a manifesto establishing a federation of Austrian states. It was too little, too late. With the armistice on November 11, 1918, Karl renounced his constitutional powers. The following March, after attempting to retain his throne, he was forced into exile in Switzerland and was formally deposed by an Austrian court. He attempted several times to return to Hungary, but was denied entrance. The last of the Hapsburg monarchs died penniless in April 1922, on the Portuguese island of Madeira.