Shots echoed round Europe

In the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sofia in Sarajevo, how Austria would react to the killing of the heir to the throne of the its empire was uppermost in European minds


Along the banks of the river Miljacka which runs through the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, stands a simple stone bridge. The distinctive Ottoman-style arches and pale yellow stone bathe in the warm light of the Balkan sun, as small groups of tourists walk nearby, quietly taking pictures.

On the northern end of the bridge, a plaque commemorates the event that hurled this small corner of the Balkans into the maelstrom of European history: “From this place on 28 June 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia.” The murder of Franz Ferdinand by a Serb nationalist was one of the main catalysts for the war that engulfed the continent between 1914 and 1918, dragging the late-Edwardian world violently into one of the biggest conflicts of the 20th century.

The events of that day in June have been seared into the common narrative of the first World War. Franz Ferdinand, next in line to the Austro-Hungarian throne, had accepted an invitation by General Oskar Potiorek to inspect the army in the recently annexed region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a lush, mountainous region to the west of Serbia.

On the morning of Sunday June 28th, the Austro-Hungarian heir and his wife Sofia, having spent three days holidaying in Bosnia, arrived at the train station in Sarajevo. From there they travelled through the streets as part of a six-vehicle motorcade, waving to the assembled crowds. Tensions were high in the capital, but security was curiously relaxed.

Unbeknownst to them, seven terrorists had already convened in the Bosnian capital, as part of a planned attack and were stationed at different points along the main quay in the city. It fell to the last one, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, to deliver the two fatal shots killing the Austrian heir and his wife at around 11am.

Remarkably the archduke had earlier in the morning survived an assassination attempt, when one of the seven assassins threw a bomb at the car in which the royalty were travelling. It missed, hitting the car behind, but mildly injuring Sophie. The archduke proceeded with the events regardless, though appeared rattled when he interrupted the Mayor of Sarajevo during his speech at Sarajevo Town Hall, shouting: “I come here as your guest and you people greet me with bombs.”

As the motorcade made its way back through the city streets from the town hall, Princip attacked, shooting from point-blank range. Sophie died almost instantly, the archduke shortly afterwards in the nearby Konak palace. Princip was immediately caught, scooped up by the encircling crowd. Within hours he appeared in court. Photographs of the young men facing trial, alongside pictures of the archduke and his wife meeting well-wishers just hours before their assassination, are displayed just beside the murder site today, a striking reminder of the events of that fateful day one hundred years ago.

The rise of Serbian nationalism
The murder of Franz Ferdinand is often seen as a random, terrorist act, which might not necessarily have led to full-scale war but for the response of the larger European powers.

But in reality, the events that unfolded in Sarajevo had been in train for some time.

Stirrings of discontent were in evidence in the Balkans in the decades preceding the outbreak of the first World War. The Balkan peninsula, an area which stretched down to modern day Greece was sandwiched between the two major geopolitical powers of central and eastern Europe – the Austro-Hungarian empire to the north and west and the Ottoman empire to the east and south.

In 1878 Serbia, which had been a principality of the Ottoman empire for most of the 19th century was accorded independence by the Congress of Berlin, a major summit of European powers which dealt with the re-organisation of the Balkans.

Following independence, the Obrenovic dynasty, which had effectively ruled Serbia during the Ottoman reign, declared Serbia a kingdom. King Milan, and his son Alexandar, alternately held the throne, when the father abdicated in favour of the son. But antipathy towards the crown was growing within Serbia at the turn of the century, bolstered by the powerful army and fuelled by popular support for a rival dynastic line, the Karadjordjevics, who had been in exile for most of the 19th century.

In June 1903, the first major sign of serious instability occurred in Serbia. King Alexandar and Queen Draga were brutally murdered in their palace in the capital, Belgrade. The coup, abetted by the army, brought the Karadjordjevic dynasty to the throne. The deposal was enthusiastically welcomed by most of the Serbian public and the international community, which at first withdrew diplomatic representatives from Belgrade , ultimately recognised the new regime despite the bloody regicide that precipitated its accession.

In parallel to the dramatic regime change under way in Belgrade, at a more populist level Serbian nationalism was on the rise. The idea of an ethnic Serb identity resurged during the second half of the 19th century, bolstered by the region’s newly- achieved independence.

The 14th-century Battle of Kosovo, in which the ancient Serbian leader Tsar Dusan suffer a heroic defeat at the hands of the Turks took on mythic stature in the narrative of Serbian patriotism. The date of the battle – June, 28th, 1389 was significant. The decision of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to visit on the same date in 1914 was seen by many as an incendiary affront to Serb nationalists who resented the visit by the heir.

The idea of a Greater Serbia – an ominous precedent for a vision that would take hold again after the fall of Yugoslavia in the 1990s – gained momentum during the early years of the 20th century and was to be the force behind many of the complex developments that drove the geopolitics of the region. The unification of all ethnic Serbs – not only those who resided in the geographical entity of Serbia, but those who lived in neighbouring regions such as Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia – emerged as a central strain of Serbian politics.

The annexation of Bosnia by Austria-Hungary in 1908 was the first major event to spark an outflow of Serbian patriotism. The region, which was populated by a mix of ethnic Serbs, Muslims and Catholic Croats, had already been occupied by Austria Hungary for about 30 years, but the annexation provoked a furious reaction from Belgrade. New nationalist groups such as the Serbian National Defence Force, were formed, while other irredentist groups were radicalised.

These included the Black Hand group, of which the Sarajevo assassin Gavrilo Princip was a member. The underground group was formed in Belgrade in 1911, on a radical nationalist agenda, and was part of a nationalist sub-culture, with strong army links, that flourished in the capital at the time. The group also infiltrated other regions of the Balkan peninsula, including Bosnia, from where Princip and some of his accomplices themselves hailed.

In parallel to this rise of popular nationalism, politically Serbia was beginning to loosen ties with Austria-Hungary, with whom it had traditionally enjoyed relatively good relations. Under the leadership of the Karadjordjevics and Serbia’s long-standing prime minister, Nicola Pasic, Serbia extricated itself from economic dependency with Vienna, signing a number of trade agreements, including an arms deal, with France. Paris also provided a loan to Serbia, replacing Austria as Serbia’s main source of finance, in a sign of Serbia’s shifting alliances.

Serbian nationalism once more flared up during the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 which pushed Europe perilously close to war.

The actual trigger for the conflicts was Italy’s invasion of Libya in 1911. As the first major attack on the Ottoman empire, Italy’s action paved the way for attacks on other Ottoman-controlled areas, emboldening Serbian and Bulgarian nationalists to take on Constantinople.

The first Balkans War, which began in October 1912 saw Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Greece win victories throughout the Balkan peninsula, pushing back the Western borders of the Ottoman empire to modern day Turkey. Serbia succeeded in almost doubling its territory, expanding mostly south into Macedonia, with Bulgaria acquiring southern Macedonia. The second Balkans War essentially saw Serbia and Bulgaria turn on each other, as they divided the spoils of the first war, with Bulgaria losing most of the territory it had gained the previous year.

Austria-Hungary was deeply unnerved by the events unfolding on its south Eastern borders. In a bid to create a buffer between the Adriatic Sea and Serbia it proposed the creation of an autonomous state of Albania, which was signed off by European powers at a conference in London, in the belief that it would stave off war. Serbia was furious. A tense stand-off which saw 100,000 Serbian troops occupy Albania was finally defused when Serbia was persuaded to withdraw in October 1913. But the damage was done.

When the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand, was murdered just eight months later, the eyes of Europe were on the reaction of Vienna.

The build-up of tensions between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and an increasingly nationalist Serbia to its east in the two decades before 1914 provides the context in which the assassination of Franz Ferdinand must be viewed.

The various instances of conflict that occurred in the previous decade – the annexation of Bosnia in 1908, the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, the creation of the autonomous region of Albania – pushed Austria and Serbia closer and closer to the brink of war.

Arguably, without these precedents, the murder of Franz Ferdinand might not have been so momentous, though the fact that the victim was the heir to the throne may have in any event instigated a response from Vienna. But while the murder of the archduke was ultimately the trigger that sparked the Balkans war in 1914, it does not explain why the event spiralled into a global conflict.

The reason why war was not simply confined to the Balkan area but instead escalated into a broader conflict was the interconnectedness between the events in the Balkans and the wider European context of international relations. Their inextricable involvement of the European powers in the events unfolding in the Balkans due to the various diplomatic alliances that were in place, inevitably invited a response from the major European powers.

Wider European context
Europe had remained in a state of relative calm since the end of the Napoleonic wars, thanks in part to the Concert of Europe of 1815 which aimed to uphold the “balance of power” principle enshrined by the Congress of Vienna, ie a policy of national security based on the principle that no one power becomes more powerful than the other.

By the mid-19th century, and the emergence of new nation-states such as Germany and Italy, this policy was beginning to shift to a policy of alignment.

From the second half of the 19th century, a system of alliances was established between Europe’s largest powers which governed international relations in the run-up to the first World War.

Chief among these was the Austro-German alliance signed in 1879, and the Franco-Russian alliance signed between 1891 and 1894. This was followed by the signing of the “Entente Cordiale” between France and Britain in 1904 and the so-called Triple Alliance between Britain, France and Russia, agreed in 1907, prompted in part by Britain’s fear of the growing threat from Germany.

The Triple Entente, served as a geopolitical counter-weight to the Central Powers, particularly Germany. It also committed the three participants to defend each other in the event of the violation of one of the member’s sovereignty, though the interpretation of how far that commitment stretched differed sharply.

The extent to which the three “Triple Entente” powers – France, Britain and Russia – interacted with the events in the Balkans and the simmering Austro-Serbian tensions differed sharply.

Russia was a key player in the run-up to war. As Austria began to lose influence in the Balkan peninsula and Serbian nationalism grew, Russia increased its interest in the area. This went further than a commitment to protect the ideal of a pan-Slavic, Orthodox region. The geographical location of Serbia close to the strategically-vital Dardanelles was a key concern, while Russia was keen to preserve its interests in the increasingly unstable but strategically-important area.

During the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 Russia itself engaged in a military build-up along its border with the Austro-Hungarian empire in Galicia in present-day Poland, matched by Austro-Hungarian troops. In the event, both sides backed down, but the threat of all-out war was evidence of the underlying tensions that would flare up in 1914.

France had increased its engagement with Serbia in the late 19th century, through the various trade agreements and the provisions of loans to Serbia. Though it remained elusive on the question of whether its alliance with Russia extended to a conflict in the Balkans, by 1913 the new French president Poincare was moving closer to St Petersburg on the issue.

Though Britain was committed to France and Russia through the Triple Alliance, it remained relatively detached from the Balkan conflicts in the run-up to 1914, being preoccupied with the Home Rule crisis. Having built so much of its foreign policy on the principle of “Splendid Isolation” during the 19th century, it was not entirely comfortable with the new alliances, and the commitments they entailed. Right up to the outbreak of war in 1914 Britain adopted a looser approached to the notion of common defence and commitments.

Despite their varying degrees of engagement with the Balkan crises in the run-up to 1914, the response of the Great Powers to the simmering events in the Balkans emerged forcefully with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on June 28th, 1914.

Despite the persistent tensions in the region over the previous decade, a full-blown continental war had not been on the cards. The events of June 28th changed that. Within five weeks, Britain had declared war on Germany on August 4th. So what occurred in the intervening 37 days to escalate a situation that had for so long been a localised conflict into a global war?

37 days: the road to war
The gunshots that killed Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28th echoed throughout the continent almost immediately, as the import of the assassination of the heir to the throne of one of the central powers in the continent was felt.

In the first instance, all eyes fell on Austria. How the empire was going to react to the murder of the heir to the throne, was the critical first move in the chess game unfolded across the continent throughout July 2014.

The reaction in Vienna was predictably one of shock and anger . But the main question of concern to Vienna was whether the Serbian state had been complicit in the attack. While Princip and his accomplices were members of the Black Hand group, rather than agents of the State, there were links between the underground groups and Serbian authorities.

The leader of Black Hand was Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, the head of the Serbian military intelligence. Known as “Apis”, he had been personally involved in the brutal regicide of 1903. Princip and his accomplices had sourced their guns and bombs in Belgrade, receiving training and instructions there, before travelling over the border to Bosnia Herzegoniva to carry out the assassination.

Almost certainly, the Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pasic had some knowledge, however limited, of a plan to assassinate the archduke. Furthermore there is evidence to suggest that he informed officials in Vienna about the plot, but whether the details were too scant, or Vienna simply refused to accept the seriousness of the threat, remains unclear.

Despite the difficulty in proving Serbian involvement in the assassination, almost immediately Vienna committed itself to action against Serbia. One of the ironies of the Sarajevo incident was that Franz Ferdinand had been himself something of a pacifist. His removal allowed the chief of the General Staff, General Cordon, who had consistently favoured action against Serbia in the preceding years, to drive the response to the murders in Sarajevo.

Within a week, Austro-Hungarian diplomat Alek Hoyos arrived in Berlin to meet with Kaiser Wilhelm II It was here that Austria received assurances from Germany that they would back Austrian action against Serbia, a commitment that became known as the “blank cheque” by which Germany pledged unconditional support for Austrian action.

However, despite the consolidation of the German-Austrian position, Austria prevaricated throughout early and mid-July, neither issuing an ultimatum to Serbia nor invading.

On July 16th France’s President Raymond Poincare set sail for St Petersburg. The three-day summit in Russia would be another decisive point in the July crisis. On July 23rd France and Russia issued a joint communiqué to Vienna expressing the hope that Austria would not do anything to compromise the honour or independence of Serbia, underlining their “entire agreement” on the issue.

That same day Austria presented an ultimatum to Belgrade, giving Serbia 48 hours to respond under threat of war. The ultimatum, which accused Serbia of tolerating “a subversive movement” on its territory, demanded that Belgrade would allow Austria-Hungary to take part in an investigation into the crime, and was clearly phrased in the expectation that Serbia would not accept it. On July 28th Austria declared war on Serbia, backed and encouraged by Germany.

Russia at this stage had begun the partial mobilisation of troops. France, still somewhat reluctantly, backed Russia .

Britain, whose involvement was instrumental in turning the conflict into a truly European war, was the last Great Power seriously to engage with the conflict during the July crisis.

The government of Herbert Asquith had been preoccupied with the home rule crisis but with the declaration of war on Serbia by Austria on July 28th, focus switched to the continent. At issue was whether Britain would be prepared to back France in the event of a German invasion. The cabinet was against it, wary of being drawn into a war instigated by Serbia, but at the same time aware of its commitments under the Triple Entente. A similar conundrum faced its relationship with Belgium, to which it had pledged protection under an 1839 treaty.

Diplomacy between Berlin and London intensified in the last week of July, while Britain, at the request of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty , began precautionary naval mobilisation. On August 2nd, Berlin issued an ultimatum to Belgium, which it denounced. On the same day, the British cabinet, which had been reluctant right up to the last moment, finally decided that a “substantial violation” of Belgium had occurred, justifying war. On August 4th, as German troops began moving into south-eastern Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany. The first World War had begun.

The causes of war
The debate still continues about what led Europe into the horrors of trench warfare, mass conscription and unprecedented killing that characterised the first World War. Simmering instability in the Balkans which exploded into the open with the assassination at Sarajevo was certainly the catalyst, but how the various “Great Powers” reacted to those events, as well as the build-up of military armaments in the decades preceding 1914, ensured it was a global war.

That Germany was ultimately to blame for the war has been the dominant narrative – not least because it was specifically elaborated in the post-War Treaty of Versailles. That argument is based on the existence of the Schiefflen Plan, Germany’s grand plan for a military attack on France that would be instigated in the event of Russian mobilisation, which dates back from 1905.

But there were other complex factors at play. The sense that the Austro-Hungarian empire, a multifarious composite encompassing almost a dozen ethnic groups, was a dying entity, which was not prepared to accept a move for independence from one of its regions, was an idea that held sway, even at the time. The question of whether Austria had exploited an isolated event to justify invasion of a smaller state that deserved the right to self-determination, became one of the central issues of the “July crisis” as the Great Powers gradually formulated their response to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

Whatever the causes of the war, the Balkans conflict played a central role in the outbreak of the first WorldWar. Ironically, while most of the continent of Europe finally put its past conflicts behind it after second World War II, facilitated by the creation of the European Union, the Balkans remained one region of Europe that struggled to bury its past. The frightening parallels between the events that led to 1914 and the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, are testimony to the dangerously complex nature of the history of the Balkans peninsula. The events of the 1990s also acted as a reminder to the international community that an understanding of the history of countries of which we know little is essential if peace is to be guaranteed in the future.

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