Konopiště Castle and World War I

No more than a 30-minute train ride south of Prague you can visit Konopiště castle. This is where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand travelled from when he went to Sarajevo and was assassinated.

The walk from the train station to the castle leads me through a few streets of the town of Benešov (pronounced Ben-eh-shov). Not more than a 10 minute stroll later, I find myself immersed in the woods, all part of the castle grounds. The sound of cars motoring past fades away as my footsteps, soft against the carpet of dead leaves and undergrowth, takes over. These grounds and the castle I will soon see were the home of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke at a time when Czechia didn’t exist.

Franz Ferdinand ended up being Archduke by accident. His cousin committed suicide in 1889, leaving Ferdinand’s father first in line to the Hapsburg throne. Ferdinand became one of the most powerful men in Europe. [1]

A photo of the Konopiště castle grounds - Konopiště, Czechia

The Konopiště castle grounds – Konopiště, Czechia

Ferdinand had established himself in this part of Bohemia since 1887 when he bought Konopiště (pronounced Con-oh-pish-tye) from a Czech noble family. He was initially keen to make good use of the rich hunting grounds. When his destiny changed, he began to see the castle complex as the seat of an Emperor. [2]

The incline in the forest is not steep, barely causing me to break a sweat. I nod at other visitors who drove into the car park rather than trek the way I did. I look back at the 20-minute long walk that I just took, accompanied by my thoughts and a cool zephyr. To my right, the castle looms into view amidst the treetops.

A photo of the castle as you approach - Konopiště, Czechia

Approaching the castle – Konopiště, Czechia

Ferdinand embarked upon large-scale reconstruction to create the kind of place he could feel at home in. He purchased some of the agricultural land around his estate, extending the park to a total of 225 hectares. (For comparison, a rugby pitch is 1 hectare large). Historians believe Ferdinand influenced the project directly because he was an admirer of architecture. [2]

Ferdinand fell in love with the Bohemian Countess Žofie (Sophie) Chotkova. While she had a title, his family frowned upon her ‘lower class’ and didn’t approve of their affair. Ferdinand knew he could only marry her provided his rights of succession couldn’t pass to her, or to any of their children. Furious at how his family treated her, he was more determined to have his Konopiště Castle be the kind of place he could seek refuge in. [2] Doubtlessly, this affected the restoration.

A photo of the lake and forest - Konopiště, Czechia

The lake and forest – Konopiště, Czechia

As I step up, the turrets dwarf me and I crane my neck for a better view. The building is as impressive as you can imagine a proper castle to be. I meander through the main gate, ignoring the mother who chases her giggling son. Around the corner, a view of the dense forest and a lake stretch out. To my right, I see signs to the ticket office and the exhibition area.

Ferdinand married Žofie in 1900. The political centre of the Empire was still Vienna. Ferdinand was able to influence life at Konopiště in a way he couldn’t in Vienna which is why he made it his family home. He was a progressive man who wanted to reform the Empire. [2] At the time, nationalistic feelings had been growing in Europe. Ferdinand was sympathetic to calls for greater autonomy for ethnic groups. [1] He thought a federal structure would help preserve his Empire. He disagreed with the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, sensing this could create problems. The administration ignored him and left him to continue focusing his attention on his family and their home. [2]

Archery lessons - Konopiště, Czechia

Archery lessons – Konopiště, Czechia

Behind the ticket office, I ignore the day trippers and wonder what the moat would have looked like. I look down from my vantage point in the rose garden. It is not a large moat, but is dry now and people are walking around. There is someone dressed in period clothes teaching people how to shoot a bow and arrow. I am suddenly six years old again, wanting to be Robin Hood. The memory surfaces from a synapse long-buried and I duck under the arches to go and live one of my short dreams.

Inside the castle, the tours show the Archduke’s love of art and his huge collections. Apart from genuine works of art, he enjoyed collecting art to document his large Empire. The items on display show his varied interests and his genuine curiosity about the Empire he had inherited. He also founded a collection of items related to St George. This saint was a Roman soldier called George who, filled with Christian faith, battled an unbeatable dragon. Ferdinand saw this story echo his battle against his family to marry Žofie. [2] He was a romantic at heart, and this sense of wistfulness pervades the dusty sculptures and artworks.

A photo of the facade of Konopiště castle - Konopiště, Czechia

The facade of Konopiště castle – Konopiště, Czechia

Despite this tension, Ferdinand was dedicated to his role. As supreme inspector of all defence power in the empire, he was scheduled to take part in military manoeuvres in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. On 15 June 1914, Ferdinand and Žofie left Konopiště castle on their state visit.

On 28 June 1914, the terrorist group the Black Hand assassinated him. [1] Despite being shot in the neck, he cried over Žofie who was bleeding from a stomach wound. “Don’t die!” he pleaded, “Stay alive for our children!” [1]
His aides rushed to help him but could not undo his coat fast enough. His coat lapel had been sewn to the front of his jacket to give him a slimmer look. He died within minutes. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia because of this; an event which led to World War I.

A photo of the Konopiště castle turrets - Konopiště, Czechia

The Konopiště castle turrets – Konopiště, Czechia

I strolled away from this labour of love, lost in thought. I wondered how different the world would have been if Ferdinand had not devoted himself to this castle. And how different the world would have been if he had not found Konopiště to start off with.

 

Have you visited places linked to World War I? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts about them!

References

[1] Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria; wikipedia.org; (Retrieved 2017-07-25)
[2] Konopiště Chateau; Brozovsky, Miroslav; The Institute for the Care of Historic Monuments of Central Bohemia, 1995; ISBN 80-85094-45-2

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