The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, 1914

Newspaper from 1914 headline reads: "Heir to Austrian Throne Assassinated: Wife by His Side Also Shot to Death: Earlier Attempt on Their Lives Failed"
"Heir to Austrian Throne Assassinated; Wife by His Side Also Shot to Death; Earlier Attempt on Their Lives Failed," New York Tribune (New York, NY), June 29, 1914. New York Herald Tribune

The assassination of an Austrian Archduke was the trigger for World War I, yet things were so nearly different. His death set off a chain reaction, as mutual defense alliances mobilized a list of countries, including Russia, Serbia, France, Austria-Hungary, and Germany, to declare war. 

An Unpopular Archduke and an Unpopular Day

In 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand was heir to both the Habsburg throne and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was not a popular man, having married a woman who – while a Countess – was deemed far below his station, and their children had been barred from the succession. Nevertheless, he was the heir and had both interests in the state and state commitments, and in 1913 he was asked to visit newly annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina and inspect their troops. Franz Ferdinand accepted this engagement, as it meant his usually sidelined and insulted wife would officially be with him.

Ceremonies were planned for June 28th, 1914 in Sarajevo, the couple’s wedding anniversary. Unfortunately, this was also the anniversary of the First Battle of Kosovo, the struggle in 1389 which Serbia had convinced itself saw Serbian independence crushed by their defeat to the Ottoman Empire. This was a problem, because many in the newly independent Serbia claimed Bosnia-Herzegovina for themselves, and fumed at Austria-Hungary’s recent annexation.

Terrorism

One man in particular who took particular umbrage at this event was Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb had devoted his life to protecting Serbia, no matter the consequences. Assassinations and other politically charged murders were not out of the question for Princip. Despite being more bookish than charismatic, he managed to enlist the support of a small group of friends, who he convinced to kill Franz Ferdinand and his wife on June 28th. It was to be a suicide mission, so they wouldn’t be around to see the result.

Princip claimed to have originated the plot himself but he did not have trouble finding allies for the mission: friends to train. The most important group of allies was the Black Hand, a secret society in the Serb army, who provided Princep and his co-conspirators with pistols, bombs, and poison. Despite the complexity of the operation, they managed to keep it under wraps. There were rumors of a vague threat that reached all the way up to the Serbian Prime Minister, but they quickly dismissed. 

The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

On Sunday June 28th, 1914, Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie traveled in a motorcade through Sarajevo; their car was open topped and there was little security. The would-be assassins positioned themselves at intervals along the route. Initially, one assassin threw a bomb, but it rolled off the convertible roof and exploded against the wheel of a passing car, causing only minor injuries. Another assassin couldn’t get the bomb out of his pocket because of the crowd’s density, a third felt too close to a policeman to try, a fourth had an attack of conscience over Sophie and a fifth ran off. Princip, away from this scene, thought he’d missed his chance.

The royal couple continued with their day as normal, but after the display at the Town Hall Franz Ferdinand insisted he visit the mildly injured members of his party in the hospital. However, confusion led to the driver heading to their original destination: a museum. As the vehicles stopped in the road to decide which route to take, Princip found himself next to the car. He drew his pistol and shot the Archduke and his wife at point-blank range. He then tried to shoot himself, but the crowd stopped him. He then took poison, but it was old and simply caused him to vomit; the police then arrested him before he was lynched. Within half an hour, both targets were dead.

The Aftermath

No one in Austria-Hungary’s government was particularly upset by Franz Ferdinand’s death; indeed, they were more relieved he was not going to cause any more constitutional problems. Across the capitals of Europe, few other people were overly upset, except the Kaiser in Germany, who had tried to cultivate Franz Ferdinand as a friend and ally. As such, the assassination didn’t seem to be a major, world-changing event. But Austria-Hungary had been looking for an excuse to attack Serbia, and this provided them with the cause they needed. Their actions would soon trigger World War I, leading to years of bloody slaughter on a largely static Western Front, and repeated failures by the Austrian army on the Eastern and Italian Fronts. At the end of the war the Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed, and Serbia found itself the core of a new Kingdom of the ​Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.