June 28, 1914, was a pivotal date in our high school history books—the end of the long nineteenth century and the beginning of the war that shaped our modern world. As a student I wondered how the assassination of the middle-aged heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a very nineteenth-century archduke, could start a global war. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was hardly a charismatic or incendiary figure. He was 50 years old and his wife Sophie was 46 when they made their state visit to Sarajevo. They were by all accounts happily married and had three children, Sophie, Maximilian, and Ernst, all under the age of fourteen.
Gavrilo Princip was not yet twenty, when he and two companions waited for the motorcade, each armed with grenades, a revolver, and a cyanide capsule provided by an underground group known as the Black Hand. They did not expect to survive the assassination. One of the young men threw a grenade which hit the back of the open phaeton carrying the royal couple, but rolled and exploded under the car behind. This caused some consternation, but after a brief stop, the procession continued. Then, when the phaeton slowed to change routes, Gravrilo shot both the Archduke and Sophie at close range. The young idealist, already in poor health, died of tuberculosis in prison before the war’s end.
Serbian nationalism was an outcome of the political struggle for unification following its independence in 1878, after five centuries of Ottoman rule. At first, the Serbian government was allied with Austria-Hungary, but after the Radical Party took power in 1903, Serbia championed Serbian unification and freedom for Serbs living in both the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires. When Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, effectively surrounding Serbia with imperial lands, Serbian nationalists were outraged and demonstrations ensued.
In Vienna, the military and civilian leaders disagreed on how to react to increased Serbian activism. General Conrad insisted on a pre-emptive strike, but was opposed by both the Emperor Franz Joseph and the Crown Prince, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The general had three hundred suspected seditionists arrested in Bosnia as well as Croatia. Feelings ran high. The visit of the Habsburg heir to Sarajevo was known well in advance, as were the Austrian military exercises in Bosnia that preceded it. In retrospect, it is surprising that the security was so lax.
In focusing on the Balkans, however, it is easy to forget that this was one crisis in a world full of conflict. Starting with the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, the world had seen Britain and France confronting each other in the Sudan, the Battle of Manila Bay, the Russo-Japanese War, the French and German conflict in Morocco, and the Italian attack on Libya. Large empires were beginning to crumble: The Qing Dynasty ended in 1912, the Russian Empire in 1917, the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, the Ottoman Empire in 1920. There was far more than one “trouble spot.”
In the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (Military History Museum) in Vienna you can see the concrete reminders of that day in June—Gavrilo’s revolver, the Archduke’s bloodstained jacket, and the open car in which the couple rode on that fateful day. It is a step back to a point in history where events were about to take an unimaginable turn. If you are an armchair traveler today, take a look at http://www.hgm.at/en/exhibitions/exhibitions/sarajevo.html and then perhaps browse through some of the other exhibits of Austria’s military history,
Gavrilo Princip’s place in history is understandably controversial. He can be seen as terrorist, victim, liberator, or some combination of all of these. . . For more depth on his legacy, I recommend http://origins.osu.edu/milestones/june-2014-assassin-s-shadow-beginning-world-war-i-and-legacy-gavrilo-princip by Brenna Miller. This is also a good time to simply Google “Gavrilo Princip,” which turns up a variety of recent articles about this young and tragic figure.
When historians endeavor to explain the causes of World War I, their narratives of nations and empires tend to become increasingly multilayered and complex. It is somehow simpler to remember that on June 28, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg were assassinated and suddenly a world war began.