The world changed dramatically 100 years ago this week. A tragic act set in motion the train of events that launched World War I, a war that, until then, was unprecedented for the scale of its savagery and the number of its victims. But the action that made that deed possible was itself an insignificant one, a little mistake that, had it not spawned the opening calamity of the 20th century, would have passed without notice.
Sunday, June 28, 1914, dawned bright and sunny. The rain had finally stopped, the early morning mist had cleared and by 9 a.m. it had already become quite hot. In short, a picture-perfect early summer day in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, an outpost province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Sometime between 9:30 and 10 a.m., a parade of six automobiles – then an uncommon sight in this remote Balkan region – departed the railway station for the town hall. Local officials – the mayor and the chief of police – were seated in the second car, followed, in the third, by the guest of honor. In the rear seat of the vehicle – a borrowed gray convertible touring car – sat Archduke Franz Ferdinand von Österreich-Este, heir to the throne of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary and, as such, the most important figure after Emperor Franz Josef himself, and Ferdinand’s wife, Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg.
Suitably attired for the occasion – he in the dress uniform of a cavalry general complete with a helmet topped with green peacock feathers and she resplendent in a white veiled hat and white silk gown, red and white fabric roses tucked into a red sash – the couple smiled and bowed their heads to the crowd.
Few police or soldiers had been detailed to provide security and the route of the motorcade had been widely published, a puzzling lapse given that it was to be expected that not all who lined the Appel Quay, Sarajevo’s only major thoroughfare, would greet the royal visitors with a welcoming wave.
Annexed by Austria-Hungary just a few years before in 1908, Bosnia was a turbulent borderland in a turbulent region. Most especially, Serbs in the province bristled under their new rulers, uncomfortable in the multiethnic, polyglot empire – 13 languages were officially recognized – in which they, as a minority, felt repressed. Radical nationalists looked to unite ethnic Serbs across the Balkans in an independent Slavic state and they were willing to use violence to do so. The state they looked to was Serbia, independent only since 1878, one among a number of new nation-states in southeastern Europe carved out of the moribund Ottoman Empire, and all of them itching to expand their borders. Two wars had been fought by and among them in the three years before 1914.
For members of the ominously titled Black Hand, a Serbia-based terrorist group, and its offshoot, Young Bosnia, Ferdinand’s visit offered an opportunity made to order. On this morning, seven young men, members of Young Bosnia, stationed themselves strategically along the route. All were armed with pistols and bombs and given a cyanide pill, which they were instructed to take should they succeed in carrying out their orders: to kill the archduke.
Where the road intersected one of several bridges that crossed the Miljacka River, one of the individuals, after politely asking a policeman which of the cars carried the archduke, knocked the cap off his grenade on a lamppost to detonate it and threw it wildly at the vehicle. It hit the folded-back hood of the convertible and rolled off, exploding a few seconds later against a wheel of the car behind it. Two of its occupants, both army officers, were seriously wounded and about a dozen spectators were hit by bomb splinters. The perpetrator duly swallowed his cyanide capsule and jumped into the river, but due to its depth – a mere 4 feet – he was easily apprehended. The pill failed to take effect, either too old or, the accounts vary, consisting of nothing more than a harmless water-based solution. All of the other conspirators lost their nerve and fled the scene – all save one.
Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old born in Bosnia and living in Serbia, burned with a desire to prove himself equal to his peers. Rejected by the Serbian army due to his small stature and weak constitution, he arrived in Sarajevo intending to prove his prowess by means of assassination.
Ferdinand kept to his schedule and attended a reception at the city hall. The mayor delivered his scripted speech and heaped praise on his royal guest. Unimpressed, the archduke complained vehemently about the less-than-warm welcome he had received. His itinerary then called for him to be driven through narrow, winding streets to the local museum. However, determined to visit those injured in the grenade explosion, Ferdinand asked to be taken to the hospital.
In view of what had happened, organizers felt it best to take an alternate route, thus avoiding the city center. They would drive straight along the Appel Quay directly to the hospital. Unfortunately, no one thought to inform the drivers of the motorcade of the change in plan. Ferdinand’s chauffeur duly turned off the Appel Quay into a side street, the planned route to the museum. Noticing that the altered route had not been taken, a military aide in the car berated the driver, who slowed the vehicle, braked and began to reverse out of the street. Then the engine stalled and the gears locked.
After the botched attempt of his co-conspirator, Princip had remained on the scene, lingering among the milling crowd. Now, by pure chance, he found himself not 5 feet away, either standing on the pavement or seated in a café – again, accounts vary. He seized the moment. Princip reached for a grenade in his pocket, but, hemmed in by the crowd, was unable to swing his arm free to toss it. So he pulled out his pistol – a 1910 9mm Browning Short automatic – and fired two shots at point-blank range, hitting the archduke’s jugular vein with one and the abdomen of the duchess with the other.
Confusion and chaos ensued. Princip swallowed his cyanide pill, only to vomit. He then turned the revolver on himself, but a bystander threw himself on the assassin’s arm. Others in the crowd, together with nearby police, jostled each other in trying to get at the perpetrator. Using the handle of his pistol, Princip struck at the mob, who began to beat him until police were able to wrestle him away.
Galvanized into action, the limousine driver sped away across the Latin Bridge in a dash to the governor’s residence. “In heaven’s name, what has happened to you?” exclaimed Sophie in the flash of time that followed the gunfire, perhaps unaware she had also been shot. Then, mortally wounded, she slid off the seat and lay on the floor. Ferdinand frantically called out: “Sophie dear! Sophie dear! Don’t die! Stay alive for our children!” With blood spurting from his throat, in an increasingly weak voice he repeatedly said, “it is nothing” to an aide who anxiously inquired about his condition. Both were carried into the palace. Sophie had already expired; her husband died about 10 minutes later. A few green feathers from the imperial helmet lay scattered on the floor of the car.
Belying the words of the archduke, we know with the hindsight of history, of course, that what had happened was anything but “nothing.” Although in the immediate aftermath of the assassinations, it appeared that way. Disliked among court circles in Vienna – from the emperor on down – Ferdinand and his equally unpopular wife were buried in a ceremony that lasted a mere 15 minutes. The rest of Europe and the world barely noticed – just another bloody act in the perennially troubled Balkans – and carried on enjoying what many would later remember as one of the most gloriously beautiful summers on record.
But because the killings gave Austria-Hungary a reason to put the blame on Serbia and to impose onerous demands on that country, and because Europe’s major powers were locked in a competing set of alliances, all of them engaged in building ever bigger stores of arms. What began as a localized incident served as the linchpin for a crisis that, within two months, would escalate into a continent-wide conflict. Later, with the entry of the United States and other countries, World War I became history’s first truly global conflagration.
The murder of the royal twosome on a long-ago Sunday highlights an enduring reality. Since history is the record of human experience, in history – as in life – expect the unexpected. You can never know what might trigger a major calamity in world affairs. Seemingly trifling errors in judgment, misperceptions or minor mistakes can lead to momentous consequences. Life is uncertain, and millions may be affected by an event of which they may not even have knowledge. We may not like it, but, in the end, nothing can be done to alter these facts because these things just simply happen. We can only say, like Fanny Price in Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park”: “It could have turned out differently, I suppose. But it didn’t.”
It is not actions such as these but rather the reactions of those with the will and means to act that bring about the consequences. In this instance, a simple error was conjoined by a lucky accident – good or bad depending on the sentiments of the observer – to produce an outcome, indisputable by anyone’s reckoning, of monumental proportions. World War I happened to be an especially brutal, cruel conflict, one that was followed by revolutions, depressions and another world war of even greater magnitude.
Too young to be executed, Princip was sentenced to 20 years, the maximum the courts could give. Languishing in prison, he died there of tuberculosis in 1918. By then, an estimated 9 million young men across Europe had joined him in death, the result of a trivial mistake, a simple wrong turn.
Paul F. State is a writer on topics in travel, current events and history. His latest book, “A Brief History of France,” was published in 2010.