The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Created | Updated Jun 29, 2006
On 28 June, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Hapsburg1 heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina. His death led to Austria declaring war on Serbia, actions which triggered World War I.
The Hapsburg Empire, which can be traced back to the 10th Century in Switzerland, had its roots in all the major courts of Europe, including that of England. However, over the centuries, its power declined. In 1867, the Hapsburg lands were reorganised into the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy2 by which time, dominance of Italy was lost and the German Confederation had been surrendered to Prussia (although alliances were still strong).
The 25 German states were united into the German Empire in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War. The Empire's foreign policies were essentially cautious, with the 'Iron Chancellor' Otto von Bismarck focusing his energies on maintaining cordial relations with the other European powers, and keeping France (still smarting from defeat and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine) as isolated as possible. But when Kaiser Wilhelm II came to the throne in 1888, Bismarck was sacked and policy shifted towards aggressive colonial expansion, as Wilhem sought a 'place in the sun' for the German Empire. This new enthusiasm for colonialism triggered a series of international crises in the early years of the 20th Century, and the rapid expansion of the navy threatened France and Britain. British power was dependent on her navy, and German naval expansion challenged Britain's policy of always having a navy as large as her two nearest rivals combined.
Meanwhile, the decline of the Ottoman Empire and rise of nationalism in the Balkans threatened the stability of Austria-Hungary, which contained large ethnic minority groups. Russia, who saw herself as the 'mother' of the Slavic peoples, backed their claims for independence but had been forced into a humiliating climb-down in 1908 when Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. For the Bosnian Serbs, this quashed any hopes of restored nationhood.
Austria-Hungary could not afford any further increase in nationalism, and Russia could ill afford to back down a second time. Conditions were ripe for a diplomatic incident to start war and it was the political murder of Franz Ferdinand that became the catalyst.
Biography of Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand (full name: Franz Ferdinand Karl Ludwig Josef von Habsburg-Lothringen) was born on 18 December, 1863 in Graz, Austria. As the eldest son of Archduke Karl Ludwig of Austria (younger brother of Emperor Franz Josef), there was no reason at this stage to believe he would ever be heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. He pursued a career in the army (rising through the ranks from second lieutenant to Inspector General) after a strict education in history and moral character and the pursuit of hobbies such as hunting and travel. But in 1889, with the death of Ferdinand's cousin Crown Prince Rudolf, and the subsequent death of Karl Ludwig in 1896, everything changed. Franz Ferdinand became the new heir to the throne. His marriage to Sophie Chotek von Chotkova in 1900 was denied by Emperor Franz Josef for a good while because she was considered beneath his station but they were finally allowed to marry on the condition that any children they had would be denied any rights of succession. Franz Josef did not attend the wedding.
Franz Ferdinand's killer, Gavrilo Princip, was one of seven members of Mlada Bosnia (Young Bosnia), a Bosnian Serb terrorist organisation controlled by military intelligence in neighbouring Serbia. As ethnic minorities in Bosnia, these Serbs wanted to eliminate Ferdinand and the ruling powers because they were desperate for independence from Austria-Hungary, wanting instead to become part of Serbia. In actual fact, Franz Ferdinand was an advocate of Austria Hungary's minorities having a greater say in matters which concerned them and in providing greater autonomy for the provinces, but only within the framework of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which wasn't enough for the Bosnian Serbs. All seven members of Mlada Bosnia had tuberculosis, which was a terminal illness in 1914. Under this death sentence, they had nothing to lose by risking their lives for the Serbian cause.
Franz Ferdinand was perhaps unaware of the historical significance of the day he chose, as Inspector General of the Armed Forces, to visit imperial troops in Sarajevo. That particular date, 28 June, was a national holiday there, marking a tragic point in Serb history. St Vitus Day commemorated the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, where Serbia's Christian Knights had been defeated by the Turks and the country lost its freedom for the next 500 years. Serb nationalist feelings were therefore, running high.
Initially, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand looked as if it was going to be a botched job. It was a beautiful morning and crowds of onlookers waved flags and flowers as the motorcade passed through the streets. Unusually, Franz was sharing the political engagement with his wife, Sophie, to celebrate their impending 14th wedding anniversary (on 1 July). They shared an open-topped limousine with Bosnia's military governor, General Potoirek.
The seven assassins were inexperienced with weapons and had been supplied with pistols and dynamite (or bombs) allegedly by Black Hand, another nationalist Serb group. At 10.15am, the six cars passed the first gunman, Mehmed Mehmedbaši. He didn't get a clear line of sight to take the shot so gave up for fear of ruining the operation and alerting the authorities.
A little further on, another assassin, Nedjelko Cabrinovic, threw a bomb or stick of dynamite at the cars. He missed Ferdinand, whose driver sped ahead in panic, but hit the following vehicle, which was destroyed, severely wounding the passengers, a policeman and several members of the public. Swallowing a cyanide pill (each assassin had been equipped with one), Cabrinovic jumped into the nearby River Miljacka. Unfortunately for him, his suicide wasn't to be; the pill didn't work, the river was only four inches deep and he was dragged out by the angry crowds.
Ferdinand and the rest of the procession reached the town hall and while he planned to continue with the afternoon's engagements (lunch at the governor's residence and a museum visit), Ferdinand was anxious to check on those injured by Cabrinovic's bomb, who were now in hospital. The change of route took his car along Appel Quay but as the driver turned down Franz Joseph Street, General Potoirek shouted that he was supposed to continue along the Quay.
It was as Ferdinand's driver reversed that he happened to pass assassin Gavrilo Princip who was in a nearby café. Spotting his opportunity, Princip rushed up to the car and fired two shots. Statements vary on exactly where Ferdinand and his wife were hit; however, most believe that Sophie was shot in the abdomen, while the second bullet caught Franz Ferdinand in the neck.
Their bodyguard for the day, Count Franz von Harrach, who was positioned on the running board of their car, failed to protect his charges. He did, however, provide a valuable eyewitness account after the assassination:
As the car quickly reversed, a thin stream of blood spurted from His Highness's mouth onto my right cheek. As I was pulling out my handkerchief to wipe the blood away from his mouth, the Duchess cried out to him, 'In Heaven's name, what has happened to you?' At that she slid off the seat and lay on the floor of the car, with her face between his knees.
I had no idea that she too was hit and thought she had simply fainted with fright. Then I heard His Imperial Highness say, 'Sopherl, Sopherl, don't die. Stay alive for the children!'
At that, I seized the Archduke by the collar of his uniform, to stop his head dropping forward and asked him if he was in great pain. He answered me quite distinctly, 'It's nothing!' His face began to twist somewhat but he went on repeating, six or seven times, ever more faintly as he gradually lost consciousness, 'It's nothing!' Then, after a short pause, there was a violent choking sound caused by the bleeding.
Ferdinand and his wife were taken to the governor's residence but died of their wounds shortly afterwards. Princip, like Cabrinovic before him, swallowed a cyanide pill but it was too weak and he vomited it back up. His gun was seized from him and he was arrested and beaten by officers. Cabrinovic and Princip later died of tuberculosis in prison.
Austria-Hungary issued Serbia with various ultimatums after Ferdinand's assassination (no more anti-monarchist propaganda, a fast trial and sentencing for the assassins and a purge of its military), which weren't entirely met. So on 28 July, 1914, assured of German military support, Austria declared war on Serbia. This act had swift repercussions around Europe.
Russia mobilised its armies in Serbia's defence, which triggered France to join in. Under the terms of its spoken alliance or 'entente' with Russia, and further motivated by fears of a German invasion and a wish to reclaim Alsace-Lorraine, France moved to support Russia and Serbia.
Germany took this as an act of war against its Austro-Hungarian ally and mobilised its armies in early August in a large advance on the Western Front. The Germans invaded France through Belgium, whose neutrality was guaranteed by Britain. Britain used this as an excuse to enter the war and sent forces to France. Britain's foreign policy at the time dictated that no one power should dominate Europe, particularly the coastline facing the British Isles. Germany's actions therefore, drew the UK away from its colonial ambitions and towards attempting to re-balance European powers.
Although Ferdinand's assassination acted as a spark, Europe was pretty much a powder-keg at this time because of the system of alliances and the sheer number of warmongers spoiling for a fight in all countries. As the European war progressed, events then escalated into World War I. It was German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck3 who aptly predicted:
If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.