A single shot would change the world, leading to the downfall of four mighty empires. It would condemn millions to death and suffering, and destroy the old Europe of emperors and kings.
This one shot was fired in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, and would become the symbolic cradle of the great calamities of the 20th century.
Where it began…
On June 15, 1910, Serbian student, Bogdan Zerajic, fired five shots at the Governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Marijan Varesanin, before turning his revolver on himself.
While public outrage condemned this assassination attempt as an act of madness, there was a radical underground that celebrated the shooter as a hero. This try at “tyrannicide” would lead to a number of terrorist plots, aimed against the ruling elite in the Balkans. Behind them were organisations such as the Black Hand, Narodna Odbrana, Mlada Bosna and several smaller splinter groups that promoted a radical stance for southern Slav nationalism. Groups that had found their major enemy in the multinational commonwealth of the Habsburg Empire.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire long stood at the centre of Europe’s concert of great powers. The dual monarchy, ruling over a multinational empire of Austro-Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Romanians, Ruthenians, Poles and Italians, was, however, on the decline in the early 20th century.
Many saw the empire’s commonwealth as anachronistic; as a relic of a bygone age; much like its ancient 80-something emperor Franz Josef himself. Its future would soon be decided by his heir, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Franz Ferdinand saw himself as an absolute ruler, but politically he was a moderate – a reformer with great energy and a semi-progressive vision for his empire. Rumour had it that he would form a tripartite empire – a federation that would strengthen the southern Slavs by perhaps putting Zagreb on the same level as Budapest. He also stood at odds with the expansionist war hawks, including Army Chief of Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf.
To gather support for his political vision, Franz Ferdinand planned a visit to Sarajevo in late June 1914 to present himself to the Bosnian people (the Empire had very controversially annexed Bosnia in 1908). Military attaches advised postponing or cancelling the visit, thinking there could be violence, but those warnings went unheeded.
Franz’s moderate views were anathema to the radicals in Bosnia, and in independent Serbia. Although in the clear minority, they were the most determined to overthrow, or at least destabilise the region through domestic subversion. The emblem of the Black Hand showed the toolset of political assassination. Next to the obligatory skull and bones were a knife, a bomb and a phial of poison. In underground camps they trained their operatives in guerrilla warfare, espionage, marksmanship and bomb throwing, to act on their ire against Austrian rule in Bosnia.
After their failure to kill governor Varesanin in 1910, they first turned their eyes to his successor, Oskar Potiorek. But why kill a governor if you could kill an Archduke who was the direct heir to the throne of the Habsburg Empire? This would send a guaranteed shockwave through the empire, if not throughout Europe itself. The Empire would not – could not – let this go unpunished. And if a vengeful Austro-Hungarian army marched against Belgrade, then Serbia and her Imperial Russian ally would be forced to act. War had worked out well for Serbia in the years immediately before 1914, and the country had gained lots of territory in the Balkan Wars.
At this time, Europe had deviated from a self-sustaining geopolitical ecosystem and turned towards a power block of alliances, and all through the early 20th century, the continent seemed to be haunted by crisis after crisis. The war in Libya, the annexation of Bosnia, the independence of Albania, the Morocco Crises, it was just ratcheting up and up. So far, a major war among great powers had been avoided, but the balance was off.
Except for the German Empire, Austria-Hungary was politically isolated. Both Russia and France hoped to serve their own goals by backing and guaranteeing Serbian interests. The French and Russians were solid allies with each other and worried about German power. And while the Russians were realistically more in it for themselves than for their Slavic brother Serbia, after their defeat at Japan’s hands in 1905, the Czar was determined to never lose face again internationally. So, if something major would arise that led Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia, Russia would intervene on Serbia’s behalf.
Would this make Germany come to Austria’s help, in turn prompting France to go to war? And if there was war between France and Germany, one would end up being the victor and much more powerful, so Britain would have to cast its lot with someone to be on the victor’s side and keep a balance. But since the Kaiser had been contesting British naval supremacy, that someone would be France. But what about Italy? Italy had an alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, but a defensive one; so how would Italy react to this? Basically, Europe had allowed itself to chain its geopolitical future to the ever more unstable and volatile powder keg that was the Balkans.
To set the fuse to this powder keg, the Black Hand organised bombs and guns for its newest operatives. The ultra-nationalist milieu of Belgrade’s coffee houses often attracted the attention of desperate, forlorn young men, by propagating romantic visions of a greater good, of self-sacrifice for the sake of the fatherland. Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip was one of them. 19 years old, Princip wanted to succeed where Zerajic had failed.
The day it all kicked off
Europe was still at peace on Sunday, June 28, 1914. In the early morning hours, Imperial Archduke Franz Ferdinand arrived with his wife Sophie Chotek von Chotkowa at the train station in Sarajevo. From there, they went by car down to the City Hall via the Appel Quay. There were six vehicles in the royal motorcade. The first car was boarded by the mayor of Sarajevo and the police commissioner, with the royal pair in the car right behind them. The car had the top rolled back so they could wave at the many onlookers and well-wishers that lined the streets.
The day of their arrival was unfortunate, though. It was St. Vitus Day, the day when in 1389 Ottoman forces fought a Serbian Army in Kosovo. The fighting itself was inconclusive, but it depleted Serbian manpower so much that the Serbian Empire could not survive future fights with the Ottomans and soon fell fully under its sway. The choice of date was nothing more than an unlucky coincidence, but the ultra-nationalists saw this as a provocation.
The terrorist cells of the Black Hand had been shadowing the preparations for the visit for several days, planning the best way to attack. There were men positioned at intervals along the Quay, so if one of them was intercepted and searched, another could take his place and accomplish the mission. Armed with loaded revolvers, each also carried a small bomb. These bombs were to be set via detonator caps and 12-second chemical fuses. Each assassin was also carrying a small paper of cyanide powder to kill themselves once the deed was done.
The royal motorcade made its way towards Cumurja Bridge. A first assassin prepared his bomb, but his nerves failed him. A second assassin, standing on the river side of the Quay, grabbed his bomb and broke the detonator cap with a loud bang. The royal car driver, seeing the bomb flying through the air, stepped on the gas, so the bomb bounced off the hood and rolled under the car behind them. The explosion wounded several officers and policemen, as well as a number of bystanders. Sophia was bleeding from the cheek, but otherwise the royal pair was unharmed. The assassin swallowed his cyanide and threw himself off the bridge into four inches of water, and the cyanide only made him vomit. He was taken into custody.
But confusion reigned, as policemen surrounded the scene and the wounded were transported to the hospital. Was this a lone assassin or a madman? Or were their others nearby? They moved on towards the Town Hall. As the general shock wore off, Franz Ferdinand flew into a rage at the mayor, but his wife brought back his composure. He addressed the Bosnian people, thanking them for their warm welcome, then Potiorek proposed cancelling the rest of the tour and driving straight back to the train station, but the Archduke wanted to visit the wounded in the hospital first. However, they did not tell the driver of their change of plans. As the car pulled into Franz Joseph Street, Potiorek yelled at the driver to stop and turn the other way. In a fateful chain of events, the car’s engine was turned off right in front of a perplexed Gavrilo Princip.
He was in the right place at the right time, and as the car moved towards him, he drew his revolver. At point-blank range he fired two fatal shots, one through the door of the car into the Duchess’ abdomen, the second hit the archduke in the neck. Blood pouring through his uniform, Franz Ferdinand loses consciousness after telling his wife to stay alive for the sake of their children. Princip is knocked to the ground before he can shoot himself. Outraged bystanders almost lynch him on the spot, but the police apprehended him. Just after 11am, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, was dead, along with his dreams of reforming the empire.
A successful assassination
The news of the assassination spread quickly throughout Europe. Not only in Vienna, but in Berlin, St. Petersburg, Paris, London, Budapest… everyone in every cabinet knew that this could spark yet another crisis. It would prompt an investigation, a response, and likely an ultimatum, but no-one could guess how far it would go.
And just over a month later, the old world was at war. In itself, the murder of a sovereign was not necessarily the reason for the outbreak of the Great War. There would have certainly been a crisis and there would have been consequences, but this time the deadlock of alliances had fatally trapped its nations. Plans and timetables went into effect. Mobilisation was answered with mobilisation. An unstoppable machine was set into motion and war soon raged all over Europe and then the world.
The Serbian, Eastern and Western Fronts all opened up in the early days of the war and the killing began. This was the very beginning of a war that would change the world forever.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination inspired us to write our song ‘ Sarajevo ‘, which is featured on our album The War To End All Wars. Take a look at the lyrics we wrote here.
If you’re interested in a more visual interpretation of the above story, watch our Sabaton History episode, Sarajevo – Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand