In the early hours of July 28, 1914, the man who was then first in line to take the throne of Austria, along with his wife, left Philipovic army camp of Bosnia in a line of automobiles, on a drive that would end with death, and start a cascade of events that led to world war. An initial attempt at killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand that morning by throwing a bomb at his car failed, but later that day, the Archduke and his wife, Sophie, were fatally shot in their car in front of Moritz Schiller’s food store on Franz Joseph Street in Sarajevo, Bosnia. It was an assassination that would trigger global conflict, four years of unprecedented death and destruction.
I think that most Americans, like me, were taught very little about World War I in school. Just a quick, passing overview, the gist of which was something about Germany attempting to take over the world, lots of men dying in trenches, and Americans swooping in at the last minute to save the day, to save the world. And there was a little something about some duke or something who was killed. But there was never any explanation, there was no understanding of just how the assassination of one man and his wife could launch the entire world into such a bloody, devastating war.
World War I, known mostly as the Great War before World War II, began a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and then invaded. There had been increasing tensions between these countries, and surrounding countries, for decades. Several treaties and agreements had been struck, creating a divisive and increasingly hostile atmosphere throughout Europe and Russia. Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Kingdom of Italy had formed a Triple Alliance, agreeing to militarily support each other in the event that either of the three was attacked by any other powerful nation. The Russian Empire, the French Third Republic, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland answered with an agreement of their own, the Triple Entente. The dominoes were lined up in place, just waiting for the proper catalyst.
When Ferdinand’s car came to a stop outside the store where Gavrilo Princip had just stopped in to buy a sandwich after his fellow assassin, Nedjelko Cabrinovic, had attempted to kill the archduke with a bomb, Princip reacted quickly, and fired two shots. He hit both the Archduke, and his wife Sophia, who sat next to him in the open car. Both died shortly thereafter. This gave Austria-Hungary the excuse it wanted to issue an ultimatum with several demands to Serbia, an ultimatum that was not expected to be agreed upon. When Serbia agreed to all the demands except for one allowing Austria-Hungary’s participation in an internal investigation into the Archduke’s assassination, the dominoes fell and war was declared. The countries of the world lined up and took their places in the battle, based on the alliances previously formed.
Over 70 million military personnel were mobilized during the Great War. More than 9 million combatants were killed, and at least 7 million civilians died as well. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in the history of the world. So, just who was this man, Gavrilo Princip, who fired those two shots in Sarajevo that set the world aflame? What led him to do it?
Gavrilo Princip was born on July 25, 1894 to Serbian parents whose family had been in Bosnia for centuries, according to Wikipedia. His father was a farmer who earned additional income by transporting mail through the mountains between Bosnia and the Dalmatia region of Croatia. Gavrilo was a good student, and at the age of 13 he moved to Sarajevo to be enrolled in school there. In 1911, Gavrilo joined an organization known as Young Bosnia that wanted Bosnia freed from Austria-Hungary’s control and united with Serbia. In 1912, Gavrilo was expelled from school after involvement in a demonstration against the Austro-Hungarian authorities. He traveled to Belgrade, Serbia and volunteered to join the guerrilla groups under the leadership of Major Vojin Tankosic that were fighting the Turks. He was rejected because he was small, and he returned to Sarajevo, humiliated, but traveled back and forth to Belgrade and eventually he met one of the founders of the Serbian Chetnik Organization, Zivojin Rafajlovic, who had him sent to Vranje where the Chetnik training center was located. There Gavrilo trained to fight and use weapons. This made him a good candidate for the assassination plot against Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Major Vojin Tankosic, who had rejected Gavrilo for his small size and would later admit to supplying the weapons used in the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, was a member of an organization known as Union or Death, commonly referred to as the Black Hand. This group formed on May 9, 1911, and by 1914, when Gavrilo Princip would cross paths with them, they had several hundred members, possibly thousands. Their goal was to bring about the creation of a Greater Serbia, in any way necessary, including the use of guerrilla fighters and saboteurs, and terrorism. Many Black Hand members were also leaders in government positions, and as a result, the Black Hand had influence over government appointment and policy. Even Crown Prince Alexander was a supporter. The Black Hand decided to kill Archduke Ferdinand after learning of his planned visit to Sarajevo, and Gavrilo was recruited for the job, along with two other Young Bosnian members, Nedjelko Cabrinovic and Trifko Grabez.
The assassins were trained, and a short time before Ferdinand’s scheduled visit, they traveled back to Sarajevo with the help of Serbian military personnel, and were joined by four more men. They were supplied with bombs and army pistols from Serbian arsenals. It seems apparent that they had plenty of support from authorities, and the Black Hand’s activities were not very secret to the Serbian government, given its large number of government and army members. Eventually, Prime Minister Pasic learned of the plan, and in hopes of avoiding conflict with Austria-Hungary by keeping the involvement of the Black Hand secret, a rather lack-luster attempt was made to stop the assassins with a recall order. The essay, The Assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand: Trigger For War says this:
This ‘recall’ appears to make Apis (Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic) look like a loose cannon, and the young assassins as independent zealots. In fact, the ‘recall’ took place a full two weeks before the Archduke’s visit. The assassins idled around in Sarajevo for a month. Nothing more was done to stop them. The extensive network of contacts that smuggled them into Sarajevo, fed and housed them, was not utilized to stop them. This calls into question the Black Hand’s and the Serbian government’s desire that the plot truly be cancelled.
Pasic then decided to warn the Austrians. Like the recall order, this was basically an effort to cover himself and the Serbian government, giving them a measure of deniability. But it was a very vague and empty warning. Jovan Jovanovic, the Serbian Minister in Vienna, simply said to Dr. Leon von Bilinski, the Austrian Minister of Finance, that Ferdinand should not go to Sarajevo because, “some young Serb might put a live rather than a blank cartridge in his gun and fire it.” The implied warning was missed or ignored, and no further warnings were given.
Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were murdered in Sarajevo, and the event was used to trigger the armed conflict that had been brewing for some time, that had in fact already been occurring in some areas. It was just the excuse that was needed. And it was delivered to the leaders of these countries through the hands of a young, idealistic man who believed he was fighting for his people, and was willing to die for that effort.
It can be easy, looking back, to speculate that the Black Hand, the Young Bosnia group, any of these secret societies, may have been manipulated and used in order to create desired events, to create the necessary trigger. After all, this has occurred repeatedly throughout history. There are enough examples to keep me busy writing history lessons for some time. But, speculation aside, it is known that members of the Serbian military, and government knew of the assassination plan, and in fact, assisted in various ways to ensure that at least one of the seven assassins would succeed. And for me, that is the most important lesson to be learned from this piece of history.