Assassination leading to World War I plays out again in tweets #KU_WWI


The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo from an Italian newspaper illustration by Achille Beltrame. (Courtesy of the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo.)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s obvious from their tweets just how much Duchess Sophie and Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria loved each other.

“I wish I could relive every single day again,” the duchess tweeted to the husband she called “Franzi” about their upcoming wedding anniversary. He replied with, “But if I had to marry again, I would do what I have done, without change.”

Franz and Sophie shared one of the greatest love stories of the 20th century, or #franzophie as they might be known today. They were assassinated 100 years ago Saturday on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo.

Their story is just one of several being retold in 140-character long tweets, #KU_WWI, as part of the Twitter reenactment of the event that sparked World War I, in a cooperative project between the University of Kansas and the National World War I Museum in Kansas City.

On Saturday morning, from 9:30 to noon Central time, people portraying the key figures in the assassination are tweeting live from the museum as the public watches. (If you don’t have a Twitter account, you can still follow the action by clicking here.)

The project was inspired by last year’s #QR1863, a “tweet-enactment” of William Quantrill’s brutal raid on the town of Lawrence, Kan., during the Civil War. Recreating history minute by minute as if it were happening now may have been a first for social media.

This may be the second such tweet reenactment. Work on the project to commemorate the centennial of World War I began last fall at the University of Kansas, and has involved faculty, staff and students in a number of departments, particularly the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies and the European Studies Program. Project leader Sam Moore, a recent graduate, with history professor Nathan Wood, developed a tweeter guide. Characters, hash tags and tweets were created as part of a master script, with many of the tweets based on actual quotes from “The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance that Changed the World” by Greg King and Sue Woolmans, which includes letters the couple wrote to each other.

Then students in foreign language classes translated tweets into the language of the historical figure. “They had to learn about the target language vocabulary and translate it in 140 characters,” said Adrienne Landry, outreach coordinator for the KU Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies. “It’s a really great way to teach language and translation skills and culture.”

Landry especially likes the use of languages to develop the characters’ voices and perspectives. “One benefit of using social media to explore a historical event is we’re giving individuals involved their own narrative, perspective and voice,” she said. “So often in history we get bogged down by dates, facts and figures and we sometimes lose sight of the humanity.”

With students leaving town for the summer, the job of portraying the characters fell to residents of Lawrence.

Courtney Shipley, who has a degree in Slavic languages and literature and is a stay-at-home mom of two young children in Lawrence, is tweeting as Duchess Sophie and as her 13-year-old daughter, also named Sophie. Shipley tweeted in the Quantrill project as well.

She pointed out most adults remember just two things from studying World War I in school: trench warfare and mustard gas. They may not even realize that the wife of the archduke was killed along with him.

And it’s doubtful they know the story of Ferdinand and Sophie. He was one of the most eligible bachelors in Europe, she was a lady-in-waiting who came from an aristocratic background but didn’t have royal blood, so she was not considered an appropriate wife. Instead, they carried out a secret courtship for eight years until they finally had permission for a morganatic marriage — which meant she could never rule, her children could not inherit the title and she was publicly humiliated by not being allowed to stand with her husband or be seated next to him at state dinners or even at the theater.

That might be why she was so eager to go to Sarajevo. She was allowed to travel with him in honor of their approaching 14th wedding anniversary.

Shipley had a unique opportunity to research Sophie. She’d already planned a trip to the Czech Republic so it was “a magical, happy accident” to visit one of the couple’s favorite residences and learn even more about the woman she is portraying.

“When you learn about politics in school, you don’t learn about people’s personal lives,” Shipley said. “They (archduke and duchess) were people with children and somebody’s mom and somebody’s dad.”

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, his wife, Duchess Sophie, and their children. (Courtesy of the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo.)
Archduke Franz Ferdinand, his wife, Duchess Sophie, and their children. (Courtesy of the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo.)

She likes taking on a female character in the tweet reenactments. “I can identify or empathize or sympathize or imagine myself in the position of a mom, a sister, a daughter … It’s a good opportunity to think about history in a different way.”

Landry points out that by giving Duchess Sophie a voice, “we equalize her with some of the other historical figures whose names are more recognizable, all of whom are men.”

People will see tweets not only from Ferdinand and Sophie but from world leaders, ordinary citizens like a local deli owner in Sarajevo, and the assassins themselves.

Gavrilo Princip, who fired the shots that killed the archduke and duchess, was just a 19-year-old kid, Landry said. English-speaking people brand him a terrorist, while others see him as a freedom fighter. Students translated part of a documentary about him into English to show other views.

Tweeting began in May with “mini reenactments” to promote Saturday’s event, and people not associated with the project have joined in, Landry said. (Yes, someone’s adopted the persona of Franz Joseph’s Beard.) The “skeleton script” has been uploaded to be tweeted automatically Saturday.

As Landry explained, “I call this the symphony that we wrote over the spring semester and we’re going to play it June 28, and then in the wonderful world of Twitter, people will engage with this symphony and respond and retweet … turning this symphony into an improvisational jazz piece and we have no idea what it’s going to be like at the end.”

Spoiler alert:  Some 17 million people will die in The Great War….the war to end all wars.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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