The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, 1914

Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Domenica del Corriere's (an Italian newspaper) illustration of the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Wikimedia Commons

The assassination of an Austrian Archduke was the trigger for World War 1, yet things were so nearly different.

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, because he had 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.


It was inevitable that some upset would be caused, and one man in particular who took offence was Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb who was devoted to giving his life for the cause of greater Serbia in an act of terrorism.
Assassinations and other politically charged murders were rife, and Princip went down this route after being rejected from the Serb army for being too small and weak. Despite being more bookish than charismatic, he managed to enlist the support of a small group of friends, and they decided to kill Franz Ferdinand and his wife on June 28th to make their point.
They had little in the way of goals beyond simply murder, and 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, and as they were far from the only people who wanted Ferdinand dead, they found willing allies: friends to train them, contacts to arm them, and people to smuggle them over the contested border. The Black Hand, a secret society in the Serb army, provided them with pistols, bombs and poison, although how far up in the Serbian military this plot went is still debated. Some people in Serbia may have been aware of the threat, including the Prime Minister, but all that was conveyed to the Austrians – thanks to layers of feuding and politics – were some vague warnings that were quickly dismissed. Even the Black Hand tried to order things stopped, but the messages getting through to Princip were mixed and he refused. By late June, the Balkans were awash with rumour that something was going to happen.

The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

On Sunday June 28th 1914, Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie travelled in a motorcade through Sarajevo; their car was open topped and there was little security. The would-be assassins positioned themselves at intervals. 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 relived he was not going to cause anymore 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 1, 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.
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Wilde, Robert. "The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, 1914." ThoughtCo, Sep. 15, 2016, Wilde, Robert. (2016, September 15). The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, 1914. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, 1914." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 18, 2017).