Road To World War 1: Assassination

For one half of Sarajevo he was national hero who fought against imperial oppression… For the other half he is a villain who killed a pregnant woman and brought a flourishing epoch to an end. Srećko Horvat, Guardian News and Media

The heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne is killed

By Roger Childs

Assassination28 June marked the hundredth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. The two pistol shots fired by Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, have sometimes been described as shots heard around the world, but in fact the deaths were not front page news everywhere. Assassinations of political figures were not uncommon in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and no-one at the time predicted that this would lead to a world war. Over a month would pass before armies began to mobilise and troop trains started rolling.

The plot to kill Franz Ferdinand

The19 year old Princip was a member of Young Bosnia, a terrorist society which planned to kill Franz Ferdinand when he visited Sarajevo, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The group were supported and armed by the Black Hand, a Serbian nationalist organisation. Serbia shared a border with Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Why kill the archduke?

Balkans map ~ Bosnia-Herzegovina was inhabited by Slavs, like the Serbs
 ~ Young Bosnia wanted the area to become part of  an independent South Slav state
~ The Black Hand also wanted Bosnia-Herzegovina to be included in a South Slav State, but under the control of Serbia
~ Franz Ferdinand also supported a Slav nation, but as part of the large multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian empire
~The two nationalist groups were worried that the Serbian government might be contemplating an agreement with Austria-Hungary
~ An attempt on the archduke’s life, successful or not, would drive the two countries apart.

Lax security but the assassins were not well organised

Franz Ferdinand had been to Sarajevo in 1910 and a double cordon of soldiers had guarded the route he travelled. However in late June 1914, there were only 120 policemen spread over the seven kilometres the royal motorcade would drive. Meanwhile 70,000 Austro Hungarian troops were on manoeuvres outside the city.

FF and SophieThe six would-be assassins watched the cavalcade pass on its way to the town hall and failed in their assignment:

~ two couldn’t find a good spot in the crowd

~ one lost his nerve when an opportunity arose

~ a fourth felt sorry for Sophie

~ a fifth named Cabrinovic, asked a policemen which car was carrying the archduke and on getting the answer threw a bomb. The driver saw it coming and accelerated. The bomb wounded 20 people, but the royal couple were unharmed, except for the archduchess getting a small piece of shrapnel in her neck.

An assassination by chance

PrincipThe sixth Young Bosnian, Gavrilo Princip, gave up on their hope of killing the royal couple. He was probably the worst shot of the six, having often missed standing targets at the hastily arranged practices.

He decided to have a coffee at a corner café. However, when the cavalcade headed back from the centre of the city, the driver of the royal car was not told of a change in the route. On being informed, he stepped on the brakes and stalled the car close to the café. Princip seized his chance. He fired at point blank range, killing Sophie first and then the archduke.

Legend has it that the archduke’s dying words were:  Sophie, don’t die! Live for our children!

Princip: nationalist or terrorist?

A statue has just been unveiled to Gavrilo Princip in Eastern Sarajevo and a new park has been named after him.  However, opinion is divided on whether he was a genuine freedom fighter or just a cowardly assassin.

Franz Ferdinand ~ It was a crime for Princip to kill an innocent pregnant lady and her husband who came to celebrate the accomplishments of Austria. Asim Sarajlic, local Muslim MP
 ~ They are trying to change history, I learnt in school that he was a great hero and now they are trying to paint him as an aggressor. Bosnian Serb, Nebojsa Grubac  

However whatever opinions are today, at the time Princip had killed the heir to the throne of one of Europe’s major empires. On 28 June 1914 he had lit a long fuse. Whether it could be put out would depend on the how the great powers acted, and whether diplomacy could succeed over nationalistic pride.

The July Crisis was about to begin and would tragically lead to the Guns of August.