June 28, 1914
The Spark that ignited
a World War
This month, we commemorate the first centenary of the event that proved to be the catalyst of the First World War– the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This following account of this tragic event comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. For ordering information on this text and our other books, please click here.
|Emperor Franz Josef in 1910|
By 1914, Franz Josef had reigned for 65 years over Austria-Hungary — the third-longest reign in European history. Having come to the throne after the 1848 revolutions, Franz Josef had been a determined opponent of Liberal parliamentarian government. And though he eventually established a parliament for Austria and approved universal suffrage, Franz Josef remained what he called himself — the last of Europe’s traditional kings.
In his private life, Franz Josef had suffered many tragedies. In 1867, Mexican revolutionaries had executed his younger brother, Ferdinand Maximilian, who had become emperor of Mexico with the help of Emperor Napoleon III of France. Then, in 1889, Franz Josef’s only son and heir, Archduke Rudolf, committed suicide. Eight years later, an Italian anarchist assassinated the emperor’s wife, Elisabeth of Bavaria. To Franz Josef, a shy, lonely man with few friends, Elisabeth had given companionship, affection, and support. Suddenly she was gone. “The world does not know how much we loved one another,” said Franz Josef.
|Archduke Franz Ferdinand|
Since Archduke Rudolf had been Franz Josef’s only son, his death meant that the next in line to the throne was the emperor’s nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand von Österreich-Este. Franz Josef was not fond of his nephew. Franz Ferdinand could be proud and impatient; he also was critical of how the empire was ruled. The archduke thought the oppression of Slavs and Romanians in the kingdom of Hungary threatened the future of the Habsburg monarchy. Franz Ferdinand wanted to transform the Dual Monarchy into a “Triple Monarchy” with a Slavic kingdom separate from both Austria and Hungary.
Though Franz Josef sincerely had the good of all his subjects at heart, he knew the Magyar nobles who controlled the Hungarian diet would strongly oppose the formation of a separate Slavic kingdom. The emperor feared that a struggle with the Magyars would end in separating Hungary entirely from the empire. The emperor thus was convinced that Austria-Hungary had to remain what it was — the Dual Monarchy.
|Europe in 1914|
More vexing to Franz Josef than Franz Ferdinand’s political ideas, however, was the archduke’s announcement of his engagement to a Czech countess, Sophie Chotek. Franz Josef objected to the countess not because she was Czech but because, even though she was nobility, she was related to no royal family. An old-fashioned royalist, Franz Josef insisted that Franz Ferdinand marry into one of Europe’s royal houses.
|Franz Ferdinand, Duchess Sophie, |
and their children
Deeply in love with Sophie, Franz Ferdinand refused to give her up. At last, the emperor gave way. Franz Ferdinand could marry Sophie Chotek, but on one condition — that none of their children could inherit the imperial throne. Franz Ferdinand agreed, and he and Sophie were married on July 1, 1900. The emperor, however, refused to attend the ceremony….
Not only were Sophie and Franz Ferdinand’s children barred from inheriting the Austro-Hungarian thrones, but Sophie herself was given none of the respect accorded to the wife of a crown prince. The emperor, it is true, gave her the title, Duchess of Hohenberg, which allowed her to be addressed as “Her Highness”; but in all state ceremonies and gatherings, she could not sit with her husband. Only when Franz Ferdinand acted as a military leader could she be treated as the true wife of her husband.
So when, in June 1914, Franz Ferdinand went to observe the maneuvers of the Austrian army in Bosnia, he took Sophie with him. In the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, the couple could be free from the snubs of the imperial court in Vienna. Franz Ferdinand could appear in state with his beloved wife beside him.
|Colonel Dragutin Dimitriejević|
In March, leaders of the Serbian terrorist group, the Black Hand, had learned of Franz Ferdinand’s planned trip to Sarajevo. Serbian nationalists feared the archduke because his plan to grant Slavs equal status to Austrians and Hungarians in the empire might make Croatians and Slavonians too content with Habsburg rule and thus make them less willing to form a Yugoslav kingdom with Serbia. In Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, Colonel Dragutin Dimitriejević, the head of the Central Committee of the Black Hand, came up with a plan to assassinate Franz Ferdinand when he arrived in Sarajevo. Dimitriejević, known by the code name Apis (“Bee”), prepared three young Bosnians for the task: Gavrilo Princip (age 19), Nedjelko Čabrinović (age 18), and Trifko Grabez (also 18). These men were smuggled across the border, from Serbia into Bosnia, and reached Sarajevo about a month before the archduke’s scheduled visit.
When the Serbian government, which was well informed about the Black Hand’s activities, learned of the plot to assassinate Franz Ferdinand, it ordered Apis to halt it. Apis made some attempt to recall the three young men to Serbia; but, it seems, the effort was only halfhearted. There was still plenty of time to call off the plot, but nothing further was done. Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pasić did tell the Serbian ambassador in Vienna to warn the Austrian government about the planned assassination attempt, though without mentioning the Black Hand; but the ambassador’s warning was not very clear, and the Austrian minister to whom he gave the warning simply ignored it.
|Franz Ferdinand and Sophie in Sarajevo|
Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s visit to Bosnia began as a happy one, for most of the Bosnians who came out to see the crown prince and his consort warmly welcomed them. On the morning of June 28, 1914, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie together reviewed the troops and then, at about 10:00 a.m., proceeded in a motorcade of about six cars to the Sarajevo city hall. The cars passed down the city’s main street, which ran along the Miljacka River. It was on this street that Princip, Čabrinović, and Grabez, along with four other Black Hand assassins, were mingling with the crowd that had come out to watch the archduke’s passing.
Čabrinović made the first attempt on the archduke. Taking a bomb from his coat pocket, he hurled it at Franz Ferdinand’s car; but the bomb missed its target, exploded in the street behind the car and injured several bystanders. Somewhat ruffled by the event, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie continued on to the mayor’s palace, where the mayor gave them a formal welcome.
Following the reception, the motorcade continued along its route, but the archduke’s car took a wrong turn, down Franz Josef Street. Realizing his mistake, the driver stopped the car in order to turn around — only a few feet away from Gavrilo Princip, who had just stepped out of a sandwich shop. Seeing his chance, Princip pulled out his gun, and, walking up to the car, fired at both the archduke and Sophie, hitting him in the neck and her in the stomach. As the car sped way, headed toward the governor’s palace, the injured Franz Ferdinand turned to Sophie and, seeing her collapse, cried out, “Sophie! Sophie! Do not die! Stay alive for our children!”
Sophie died before reaching the governor’s palace, and Franz Ferdinand did not long survive her.
|The bodies of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie lying in state|