A loving couple. An heir to the throne. A wife shunned by her husband’s family. Two countries bitterly at odds. A shadowy secret organization. Security officials indifferent to their responsibilities. Young men willing to die for a cause. Warnings of imminent danger that go unheeded or are never passed along. Bravery that in retrospect looks like recklessness. Bombs, guns, and cyanide. A chance mistake that puts a victim in the crosshairs of an assassin. Two gunshots.
These may sound like plot points in a Hollywood summer action movie. They are instead the basic facts of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Sarajevo, Bosnia on June 28, 1914. The archduke’s death set off a series of events that culminated in World War I. Directly or indirectly more than fifteen million people would die in the fighting, the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires would all be swept from the scene, and the course of the twentieth century would be fundamentally changed. All triggered by an event that almost didn’t happen.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand visited Sarajevo despite warnings that anti-Austrian sentiment seethed among Serbs in the city. For centuries, Bosnia had been part of the Ottoman Empire. But Ottoman power in the Balkans had rapidly declined in the late nineteenth century, and in 1908 the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia. The move enraged Serbia, which had its own designs on the former Ottoman province. June 28 was a particularly inauspicious day for the archduke’s visit. It was St. Vitus Day, which marked the day the Ottoman Empire defeated the Serbs in 1389, opening the Balkans to centuries of Ottoman rule. Despite the historic defeat, the day symbolized for Serbians inside and out of Serbia their determination to fight off foreign domination.
June 28 also had special significance for the archduke and his wife, Sophie. Franz Ferdinand had married Sophie for love, not money or dynastic connections. She had some of the former and none of the latter. She came from an aristocratic Czech family, but she was not royalty. And royal blood was required to marry the heir to the Habsburg throne. Sophie’s lineage might have mattered less if Franz Ferdinand’s cousin, the son of Emperor Franz Joseph and the first in line to the Austro-Hungarian throne, had not killed himself years earlier. But with his cousin’s suicide and his own father’s death, Franz Ferdinand went from a mere member of the royal family to the heir apparent. And his uncle the emperor had no intention of letting him marry Sophie. It took five years, and repeated urgings from the pope and European royalty, before Emperor Franz Joseph relented. But he exacted a stiff price for his concession. On June 28, 1900, Franz Ferdinand signed an oath of renunciation denying any children of his marriage with Sophie the right to ascend to the throne. Sophie was also denied her husband’s rank, title, and privileges, meaning that in most circumstances she would not be allowed to appear in public with her husband.
The rules were more relaxed outside of Vienna. As the archduke’s trip to Bosnia to inspect local troops wrapped up, Sophie insisted that she spend the final day with her husband in Sarajevo. So on the morning of June 28, 1914, she joined him in an open-air touring car, part of a six-car motorcade, that picked them up at the Sarajevo train station and then headed to their first stop of the day, the Sarajevo town hall.
What Franz Ferdinand and Sophie did not know as they got into their car was that seven assassins were stationed along their route. They had been recruited in Belgrade by members of the Black Hand, a secret society bent on uniting all Serbs in the Balkans under Serbian rule, and then smuggled into Bosnia. They had selected Franz Ferdinand as their target in good part because they feared that his support for political reform in the empire would undermine efforts to expand Serbian claims in the Balkans.
Despite the secrecy surrounding the plot, news of it reached Serbia’s prime minister Nikola Pašić. He feared that the assassination would trigger a diplomatic crisis with the much more powerful Austria. Pašić worried more, though, that exposing the plot might give Vienna a pretext to attack Serbia, or prompt the Black Hand to order his own assassination. So he directed Serbia’s ambassador to Austria to warn a senior Austrian official that the archduke faced grave danger if he went to Sarajevo. The senior official never passed along the warning, perhaps because the ambassador delivered a message so oblique that the Austrian official did not realize that he was being warned.
The assassins had a distinct advantage in carrying out their attack: the archduke’s plans to visit Sarajevo had been public since March, and his motorcade route had been published in the local newspaper. On the morning of June 28, they took up their positions along the planned route. The first two would-be assassins lost their nerve and allowed the car to pass. The third threw a bomb at the archduke’s car. The device bounced off the back of the car before exploding. Several Austrian officers in the next car were wounded, but the archduke and his wife were unharmed.
Franz Ferdinand reacted calmly to the attack. Apparently convinced that calling off the day’s activities would be seen as evidence of Austrian weakness, he said, “The fellow is insane. Gentlemen, let us proceed with the program.” The motorcade drove to the town hall. There the town’s mayor greeted the archduke with a prepared speech that declared that “All of the citizens of the capital city of Sarajevo find that their souls are filled with happiness, and they most enthusiastically greet Your Highness’s most illustrious visit with the most cordial of welcomes.” The Archduke erupted in anger: “One comes here to visit and is received with bombs. Mr. Mayor, what do you say? It’s outrageous!” Sophie intervened and calmed Franz Ferdinand down. The mayor resumed his speech. The archduke gave one of his own, reading from a paper speckled with the blood of one of the Austrian officers wounded in the morning’s attack.
With the speeches concluded, the talk turned to what to do next. Franz Ferdinand dismissed a suggestion that he cut his day short. He instead decided to visit the wounded officers. Sophie, who had been scheduled to leave her husband at the town hall, insisted on going with him to the hospital.
The royal motorcade left the town hall and retraced its steps through Sarajevo. No one, however, had thought to tell the driver of the change in plans. He followed the original route. When he turned onto a side street—oddly enough named Franz Josef Strasse—his passengers shouted that he had gone the wrong way. The driver stopped. The car, which had no reverse gear, was slowly pushed back onto the main street.
It was a fateful mistake. Standing across the street was nineteen year-old Gavrilo Princip, one of the assassins. He had taken up a position there in the event that the motorcade stuck to its original route. He did what his co-conspirators failed to do. He walked up to the archduke’s car and fired his gun twice from point-blank range. The bullets struck Franz Ferdinand in the neck and Sophie in the abdomen. She cried out to her husband: “For God’s sake! What has happened to you?” and then slumped into his lap. The archduke cried out in anguish: “Sophie, Sophie! Don’t die! Live for our children!” He then too collapsed, muttering over and over “It is nothing.” Within minutes both the archduke and his beloved Sophie were dead. It was just after 11:00 a.m.
His mission accomplished, Princip attempted to kill himself, first by ingesting cyanide and then by shooting himself. The cyanide only made him retch, and bystanders knocked the gun from his hand. He was dragged away from the scene by police. He would eventually be tried and convicted for killing Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. He was spared the death penalty because he was under the age of twenty. He died in prison in 1918 of tuberculosis. Three of his co-conspirators were hanged.
The archduke’s assassination sparked the diplomatic crisis that Serbian prime minister Pašić feared. On July 23, Austria issued an ultimatum demanding Serbia allow it to investigate Belgrade’s role in the assassination. Vienna deemed Belgrade’s artfully written response inadequate and on July 28, declared war. It was the domino that tipped over all the others. By August 4, all the major European powers had followed suit. (The Wilson administration proclaimed U.S. neutrality toward the war in Europe that same day.) At first it looked as if the Schlieffen Plan would bring Germany a swift victory—by the start of September German troops were within thirty miles of Paris. But the German armies were overstretched. French and British troops prevailed at the First Battle of the Marne. The prospect of a quick victory evaporated. The Allied and Central Powers began (literally) to dig in for one of the most devastating wars in history. And all of it was triggered by an assassination that almost didn’t happen.