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
June 8th, 1914, Sarajevo: The arrest of Gavrilo Princip a 19-year-old Serbian nationalist, assassin of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort, Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images
Sarajevo today: The Latin Bridge and the street corner where Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife Sophia on June 28th, 1914. Photograph: Elvis Barukcic/AFP
Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914) and Sophie moments before their assassination. Photograph: Time Life Pictures
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.