Empire At The Point Of A Dagger – The Failed Assassination of Emperor Franz Josef

On a late winter’s day, in mid-February of 1853, two men stood near a bastion on the ramparts of Vienna’s old town watching soldier’s exercise in a yard below them. It was just past lunch hour. One of the men, the most powerful in Central Europe at that time, Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef, was dressed for the weather in a heavy coat and cap. These were to help shield him from the winter chill. Such unassuming attire was also about to save his life.

A Viennese Lady, Half-Irish Count & A Butcher – The Emperor’s Personal Security
For not far away another man was moving toward the emperor rather quickly. He brandished a knife, which he wanted to plunge into the monarch’s back. Watching this scene unfold was an unsuspecting Viennese woman. Realizing that something quite sinister was about to occur, she suddenly let loose a piercing scream. As the emperor turned around to see what was happening, he inadvertently caused the would be assassin to miss the mark. Instead of plunging the dagger into Franz Josef’s back, it grazed his neck which was semi-protected by a stiff coat collar. The emperor reeled from the blow. His companion, the half-Irish Count Maximilian O’Donnell, used his saber to strike down the assailant. A butcher, Joseph Ettenreich, rushed over and helped further subdue the attacker. Ettenreich would be ennobled for providing assistance. Meanwhile, the emperor was bleeding quite badly.

Portrayal of the assassination attempt on Emperor Franz Josef

Portrayal of the assassination attempt on Emperor Franz Josef on February 18, 1853 (Painting by J.J. Renner)

At first glance, it seemed that Franz Josef had not escaped this brush with fate. Blood was pouring forth from the wound and the situation looked dire. Fortunately for Franz Joseph, it turned out to be much more superficial than first thought. Doctors were able to treat the bloody gash. He spent several weeks bedridden, but would recover. Just over a week after the incident, his attacker, an ethnic Hungarian, by the name of Janos Lebenyi was executed. Lebenyi was a supporter of the exiled Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth. Kossuth led the Hungarians in revolt against the Habsburgs in 1848-1849. Franz Josef – along with assistance from Russian forces – had brutally suppressed the revolution. In the years that followed, Hungarian resistance had changed from passive to active resistance, that was until Lebenyi attempted to take matters into his own hand. Like his fellow countrymen, he had come close to success, but in the end the attempt failed. Franz Josef had survived to live another day, for that matter he survived to reign another six decades. As for Janos Lebenyi, his name has been lost to history.

The Course of Empire – Destiny By Luck
Franz Josef’s most notable historical achievement is the fact that he was able to survive for so long. He is well known as one of the longest reigning monarchs in history, in total, he ruled for sixty-eight years. Quite the feat, when one considers that he presided over a multi-ethnic empire challenged by the forces of radical ideologies, nationalism and the changes wrought by the industrial revolution. His reign was longer than the average life expectancy of a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. He escaped the chances of war, of disease, even defying age for the last decade of his reign. It seems that he was destined not for greatness, but survival. Another way of looking at it though, is that he was just lucky.

What really saved Franz Josef’s life that mid-winter’s day? The best explanation is that it was the warning invoked by the full throated scream of an anonymous lady. The difference between her reaction and Lebenyi’s murderous intention, allowed for the moment that saved the emperor’s life and preserved him to preside over the slow, yet precipitate decline of the Habsburg Monarchy. That voice of warning, was the difference between a short reign where he was reviled by the majority of his subjects and a reign of almost seven decades, where his life and personage became inseparable from that of the monarchy’s. The life saving scream and the emperor’s reaction, were all part of that fateful moment, when the future course of an empire was nearly cut asunder by the point of a dagger.

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