Muhamed Mehmedbašić might have hardly believed his luck. Slowly motoring in front of him, armed with only the lightest of security (60 police officers total between the motorcade and destinations), sat the heir to the hated Austo-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Mehmedbašić, armed with a bomb and accompanied by one of several accomplices, Vaso Čubrilović, had his chance to strike a blow for Bosnian nationalism, even if it was in service to Serbian nationalists. This was the mission he and three others had been trained for.
Ferdinand’s motorcade sped closer to Mehmedbašić’s position at the garden of the Mostar Cafe. And…he hesitated. Mehmedbašić couldn’t do it. His partner, Vaso Čubrilović, despite being armed with a pistol, couldn’t do it either. However, the group’s third conspirator, Nedeljko Čabrinović, could. Čabrinović threw his hand grenade at Ferdinand…and it promptly bounced off his car, rolling under the next vehicle and exploding. 16-20 people were wounded. The Archduke was not among them.
By 10:30am on the morning of July 28th, 1914, it seemed that Europe had come perilously close to an act of war only to be pulled back again from the brink.
Given the decades of carnage that followed, a certain mythology arose about the era before 1914. An image of a world at peace, held together by seasoned diplomats and threatened by aristocratic dilettantes, grew as royalty was replaced by revolutionaries, eager to re-write the history of the preceding nearly 100 years. Europe, after the Napoleonic wars, was supposedly an Elysium peace undone between the monarchies and the anarchists that followed them.
But to believe such a narrative ignores decades of bloody history written between Napoleon’s final exile in Saint Helena and the declarations of war that started on August 1st, 1914. The revolutions of 1848, wars of Italian and German unification in the 1860s and 1870s, the Crimean War, or even the Balkan Wars of 1912/13 showed Europe’s royalist peace was, at best, a facade. Rather, Europe on the eve of June 28th, 1914 was a centuries-long Cold War that was looking for an excuse to steam to a boil.
Continental European affairs had long been a struggle for a balance of power. France had been balanced against a collection of German states on the continent, and checked by Britain abroad. The Italian states were a buffer against Austrian ambitions while Austria played the same role against Ottoman incursions into Europe. Russia was simultaneously a European power and not – an ally for the burgeoning Balkan states, but also an enemy the rest of Europe looked at warily for it’s ambitions in Central Asia – against the Ottomans and also Britain.
This uneasy balance had been permanently altered by the Napoleonic age. Not only had the concept of overthrowing monarchies become en vogue, but it saw that one powerful state could rule all of Europe – and thus potentially the world. France in 1815 was little different than Germany in 1914 – a continental superpower who threatened political and economic stability by seeking dominance. From the end of the Napoleonic wars to 1870, France was viewed as a state-level contagion; unable to be completely isolated and thus needing to be carefully watched and contained by her neighbors.
The unification of Germany flipped this script. Britain, and the rest of Europe, suddenly realized a unified Germany represented a far greater threat to Europe’s balance of power than a clearly weakened France. Germany, unable to comprehend that Britain’s prior alliances were born of political necessity, quickly grew to view their former ally as a future opponent and sought to challenge Britain in terms of naval force and colonial gains. The speedy ascension of Germany’s battleships, including the mega battleship Dreadnought, and the Kaiser’s colonial possessions in Africa and Asia deeply worried European diplomats and monarchs. Germany’s alliance with Austra-Hungary, the Duel Alliance, further inflamed fears that Germany was priming to dominate Europe.
In order to try and maintain the “cold war” atmosphere of dynastic détente, a series of new alliances arose. Mortal enemies Britain and France now had a common fear – Imperial Germany. While Britain still didn’t trust Tsar Nicholas II’s Russia, as the two nations competed in Central Asia in what would be known as “the Great Game”, France wanted to surround Germany, and thus an alliance was born. Russia, fearful of having an allied Germany and Austria-Hungary on its borders, supported it’s fellow Slavic Serbs, who had just recently acquired independence. The political calculations of the previous century, the roots of some of which stretched back further centuries, had shifted. But the motivations that had compelled those prior alliances had not.
The balance of power brought about by these series of interlocking alliances worked as long as nothing tested them. But the potential flashpoints were few and far between. Foreign political conflicts, like the Moroccan Crisis of 1906, saw war between the European powers threatened but come of nothing. Only in the Balkans, where borders and boundaries were constantly shifting, and nationalists on all sides were attempting to seize control, did it seem likely that conflict among the major powers might occur.
Entering into this dangerous mixture was the former Ottoman Vilayet of Bosnia (Bosnia-Herzegovina today) and Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Austria-Hungay had been given control of the region from the Ottomans in 1878 in return for the recognition of Serbia as an independent state. Relations between the two monarchies were healthy, despite Serbian nationalist influences. But the bloody overthrow of the pro-Austrian Serbian monarchy in 1903 completely changed that dynamic. A pro-Russian monarchy took its place, leading a nervous Austria-Hungary to annex Bosnia in 1909, over Serbian protests. Serbian nationals responded with a series of assassination attempts, some successful, against Austrian officials in Bosnia. Thus, the visit from the heir to the Austrian throne seemed especially unwise.
But if Slavic nationalism had any friends in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, it would have been Ferdinand. The Archduke was a major proponent of creating yet a third crown for the Empire – a sort of Austro-Slavic-Hungarian Empire. But instead of regarding Ferdinand’s desire for increased Slavic authority in the monarchy as a boon, Serbian nationals saw it as a threat and an attempt, which it was, to keep Serbian-Austrian nationals loyal to the crown. Ferdinand’s ethnic diplomacy would be his undoing.
Serbian nationalist terrorists had unified, somewhat, under the organization known as The Black Hand. At nearly 3,500 members in 1914, including major Serbian army officials, the Black Hand was the Serbian al-Qaeda or Taliban of its day – a terrorist organization, but one fully supported by a sovereign government. The members of the Black Hand chosen to kill Ferdinand had received training and support from the highest officials in the Serbian military and intelligence community. The Serbian Prime Minister was informed of their smuggling into Bosnia. A half-hearted recall of these sleeper agents was attempted two weeks before the assassination as Serbian officials began to doubt how much Russia would come to their aid if it was discovered that the Serbian government had planned to kill another monarch. The recall either never reached the Black Hand or was ignored. There was no turning back.
Ferdinand and his wife Sophie arrived at Sarajevo’s Town Hall quite shaken. The bomb had failed to harm them, but many of their entourage had been severely hurt. “Mr. Mayor, I came here on a visit and I get bombs thrown at me. It is outrageous,” Ferdinand supposedly complained to his mayoral host. But calmed by his wife, Ferdinand delivered his short speech and left, choosing to visit his wounded compatriots at the hospital. Now more security conscience than before, the driver choose to avoid the heavily-trafficked city center for a side street. At 10:45am, they turned right onto Franz Josef Street, a mistaken turn. Ferdinand ordered the car to back up.
Watching all this, perhaps with slight amazement, was Gavrilo Princip. He had been a part of the Black Hand’s assassination planning, but he was not a Serbian nationalist. Calling himself a “Yugoslav nationalist,” Princip’s only political goal was to see Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs unified…just under any government but Austria’s. Princip had been told the first attempt on Ferdinand’s life had failed, and while trying to get to the city center, where he assumed Ferdinand would go, luck had delivered the Archduke right in front of him. Thus a Serb who wanted unity with other Slavs, on orders from a Serbian nationalist group whose ideology preached Serbian superiority, leveled his gun at a Royal who wanted to provide the same sort of unification to Slavs, only as equals. With two gunshots, the dreams of Gavrilo Princip and Archduke Franz Ferdinand, so similar yet so far apart, died.
Ferdinand was hit in the jugular while his wife, Sophie, was shot in the stomach. Sophie died first, despite Ferdinand’s impassioned pleas that she hold on, and the Archduke’s seemingly more serous wound. Ten minutes after arriving at the Governor’s residence to be treated by trustworthy doctors, both the Archduke and his wife were dead. Princip had been arrested on the spot. His only stated regret was shooting the Archduke’s wife. He claimed he had been aiming for the seated Bosnian Governor, accompanying the couple throughout the day.
The immediate impact showed that the Black Hand did not speak for Bosnia. The next day, riots engulfed Austria and Bosnia – 1,000 Serbian homes and shops were burned and looted. The local police forces did nothing to protect Serbian civilians, whose only crime had been their ethnicity. It was a sign of things to come.
A show trial of Gavrilo Princip would not start until October – by then the world was at war and few cared about the man who started it. While many members of the conspiracy were hung, and Austria-Hungary had gone to war with Serbia over the assassination of it’s heir, Princip’s life was spared, sort of. Too young by Austrian legal standards to face execution, Princip was given 20 years – that’s it. He wouldn’t live to see the end of the war. Imprisonment was brutal for Princip, who suffered from malnurishment and skeletal tuberculosis so bad that it ate away his bones until his right arm had to be amputated. He died weighing merely 88-pounds. Perhaps an execution would have been kinder.
If Princip suffered indignities in captivity, Franz Ferdinand suffered indignities in death – and his slights perhaps caused millions more to perish.
Ferdinand’s rival, Alfred, 2nd Prince of Montenuovo and head of the Royal Court, worked to turn Ferdinand’s funeral into a royal snub. While foreign dignitaries were originally invited, in addition to the entire Austro-Hungarian monarchy, Alfred purposefully chose to keep the funeral to immediate family. He ordered soldiers not to salute Ferdinand’s coffin as it was transported and even tried to make his children foot the bill for the funeral! Alfred’s actions were deemed so cruel, the new Archduke led a minor internal revolt to force Alfred to allow Ferdinand the burial honors according to his rank.
But the real cost of snubbing Ferdinand was unknown to Alfred, or others in the Austrian monarchy. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, soon to become history’s villain for the forthcoming Great War, had communicated his willingness to use the funeral as a summit to prevent a conflict. After all, most of the royal families that were about to declare war would be attending. What better place to calm tempers, as he happened in previous dilemmas?
With Alfred’s snub, perhaps the last best chance to avoid war was missed. There would be peace in the summer of 1914, for now. But it was a peace to end all peace.