Article by Bradley Bosson. Edited and researched by Rob Russell.
On the 28th of June, 1914, the first shot of World War One was fired, not on the battlefield but in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb who was a member of the Serbian nationalist group; Unification or Death (commonly known as the Black Hand). The assassination of Franz Ferdinand has huge significance in history, due to it being the spark which led to Europe descending into the most brutal war it had ever seen. The First World War, commonly known as the ‘Great War’ at the time, marks the transition to an ‘industrial’ style of warfare and the mechanisation of killing people on the battlefield. Whilst the assassination is a key cause of the escalation of events leading to the war, it is important to appreciate the context of Europe at the time so that a greater understanding of the assassination can be formed.
So what was the background to the assassination? Early twentieth century Europe was essentially two alliances which included all of the major powers at the time; the Triple Entente and the Central Powers. The Triple Entente consisted of the British Empire, French Empire and the Russian Empire whilst the central powers consisted of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, German Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Inevitably, this alliance system could lead to local disputes exploding into conflict which would engulf the entirety of Europe; this is what happened due to that fatal day in June.
Bosnia had been annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1908, which was believed to be Austro-Hungarian territory due to the Treaty of Berlin of 1878 and due to the retreat of the Ottoman Empire from the Balkans. However, there was a strong feeling of Serbian nationalism in Bosnia at the time, as Bosnia had a large Slavic population who felt that they should be absorbed into neighbouring Serbia rather than be a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite being outside of the official alliance system, Serbia had a very strong relationship with the Russian Empire, who had a deep rivalry with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Already it is clear how this isolated incident between a Serbian-nationalist group in Bosnia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire could soon bring the entirety of Europe into a large-scale war.
The assassination itself took place when the Archduke was visiting Sarajevo, to indicate his intent of introducing increased federalism and more autonomy for the Bosnian people. The Black Hand saw this as a great opportunity to strike a blow against what they saw as an unjust occupation by a tyrannical Empire. Six assassins went to the parade through Sarajevo in which the Archduke would be a part of. Lining up along Appel Quay (the road which the motorcade would be travelling down) in different positions, the six assassins awaited the arrival of the archduke. The first two assassins – Muhamed Mehmedbašić and Vaso Čubrilović – both lost their nerve and failed to act. Nedeljko Čabrinović – the third assassin – managed to throw his bomb, but it did not hit the intended target and hit the car behind Ferdinand. Cvjetko Popović, Gavrilo Princip and Trifun Grabež – the other members of the group – were unable to act as the motorcade passed them at high speed. It seemed to have appeared that they had missed their opportunity. However, Ferdinand and his wife Sofia insisted on visiting the injured in hospital rather than conducting their official program which they had initially intended on. This would be a fatal error for them both. Thinking that he had failed, rather than following the Archduke, Princip visited a cafe on one of the side streets on Appel Quay. The driver of Ferdinand’s car took a wrong turn and had to reverse on to the side street in order to turn around, in doing so the car had stalled, Princip could not believe his luck. He took out his pistol and fired two shots into the car, hitting both the Archduke and his wife Sofia. Princip was immediately arrested and the Archduke and Sofia died later that day.
As a result of the assassination, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to the Serbian government demanding them to respect their claim to Bosnia and Herzegovina and suppress all anti-Austrian groups and publications. Serbia would also have to accept an Austro-Hungarian investigation into the assassination. Austria-Hungary’s ally Germany had pledged their support, Russia therefore stood firm and maintained their support for Serbia. This is when the alliance system in Europe had caused a small local conflict to explode into a Europe-wide affair. On the 28th of July 1914, Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia, officially starting the First World War which would last for four gruelling years and change the face of Europe forever.
Princip’s actions that fateful day in Sarajevo changed the course of European and world history completely. It is why the 28th of June 1914, is a day that shook the world.
- The bullet which Princip fired often referred to as ‘the bullet that started World War I’ can be found in a museum in the Czech Republic.
- Gavrilo Princip attempted to commit suicide with a cyanide capsule in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, however he vomited the out of date poison and was resultantly arrested.
- Princip avoided the death penalty by virtue of his age, being short of his twentieth birthday at the time of the assassination.