The shot that sparked the First World War

We shouldn’t underestimate the killing of Franz Ferdinand in 1914, argues Christopher Clark. This was the event that, above all others, propelled Europe towards disaster...

This article first appeared in the November 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine

Austrian crown prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, leave Sarajevo city
On the morning of Sunday 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Countess Sophie Chotek von Chotkowa und Wognin, arrived by train in the city of Sarajevo and joined a motorcade for the ride to the city hall. 
 
A picturesque view unfolded before the couple as the motorcade swung onto the Appel Quay, driving eastward along the river. Sarajevo lies in a narrow valley watered by the Miljacka, which gushes from a gorge just above the town. On either side, steep hills rise to a height of over 5,000 feet. The hillsides were dotted with villas and houses standing in orchards. Further up were the cemeteries with their glowing dots of white marble, crowned by dark firs and buffs of naked rock. The minarets of numerous mosques could be seen rising from among the trees and buildings along the river, a reminder of the city’s Ottoman past. The previous day had been cool and rainy, but on the morning of 28 June the city was bathed in hot sunshine. 
 
Seven terrorists, organised in two cells, gathered in the city during the days preceding the visit. On the morning of the archduke’s arrival, they positioned themselves at intervals along the Quay, a broad boulevard that runs along the embankment of the Miljaˇcka river through the centre of Sarajevo. Strapped around their waists were bombs no bigger than cakes of soap with detonator caps and 12-second chemical fuses. In their pockets were loaded revolvers. 
 
The abundance of weapons and manpower was essential to the success of the undertaking. If one man was searched and arrested or simply failed to act, another stood by to take his place. Each carried a paper packet of cyanide powder so that he could take his own life when the deed was done.
 
Of the seven would-be assassins, only two would carry out their instructions. The first to go into action was Nedeljko Cabrinovic, who had placed himself on the river side of the Quay. He freed his bomb, broke the detonator against a lamppost and threw it at the passing car. The bomb missed its mark, fell to the ground and exploded beneath the car behind, wounding several of the officers inside and gouging a hole in the road.
 
The archduke responded to this mishap with astonishing sang froid. “Come on,” he said. “That fellow is clearly insane; let us proceed with our programme.” The motorcade lurched back into motion, with the rearmost drivers picking their way around the smoking wreck of the third car. 
 
The remaining assassins, still waiting at their posts, were thus given every opportunity to complete their task. But they were young and inexperienced. Most of them lost their nerve when the car and its passengers came within range. 
 
Gavrilo Princip, the best marksman of the seven, was at first caught off guard. Hearing the bomb explode, he assumed that the plot had already succeeded. He ran towards Cabrinovic’s position, only to see him being borne away by his captors, bent over in agony as the poison burned his throat. “I immediately saw that he had not succeeded and that he had not been able to poison himself. I intended to shoot him quickly with my revolver. At this moment the cars drove by.” 
 
Princip abandoned the plan to kill his accomplice and turned his attention to the motorcade, but by the time he could see the archduke – unmistakeable in his helmet adorned with brilliant green ostrich feathers – the car was moving too fast for him to get a clear shot. 
 

An engraving in Italian newspaper La Domenica del Corriere shows Gavrilo Princip gunning down the royal couple after their car had mistakenly turned into Franz Joseph Street. (AKG)
 

Growing nervous

 
Princip stayed calm, an extraordinary feat under the circumstances. Realising that the couple would soon be returning, he took up a new position on the right side of Franz Joseph Street, along the publicly advertised route by which the motorcade was to leave the city. The ceremonial formalities at the town hall went off without a hitch, though witnesses later recalled that the archduke appeared increasingly nervous.
 
In order to avoid further attacks, it was agreed that the party should drive straight back down the Appel Quay rather than up Franz Joseph Street, as any further prospective assassin would presumably be expecting. But no one thought to inform the drivers of the changed itinerary. The lead car swung to the right into Franz Joseph Street and the car carrying Franz Ferdinand and Sophie made to follow. 
 
This was Gavrilo Princip’s moment. He had positioned himself in front of a shop on the right side of Franz Joseph Street and he caught up with the car as it slowed almost to a stop. Unable to disentangle the bomb tied to his waist in time, he drew his revolver instead and fired twice from point-blank range into the open passenger compartment.
 
Time – as we know from Princip’s later testimony – seemed to slow as he left the shade of the shop awnings to take aim. The sight of the duchess gave him momentary pause: “As I saw that a lady was sitting next to him, I reflected for a moment whether to shoot or not. At the same time, I was filled with a peculiar feeling…” 
 
The recollection of General Potiorek, who was seated in the second car with the two victims, conveys a similar sense of unreality. Potiorek remembered sitting stock still, gazing into the face of the killer as the shots were fired, but seeing no smoke or muzzle flash and hearing only muted shots that seemed to come from far away.
 
At first it appeared as if the shooter had missed his mark, because Franz Ferdinand and his wife remained motionless and upright in their seats. In reality, they were both already dying. The first bullet had passed through the door of the carriage into the duchess’s abdomen, severing the stomach artery; the second had hit the archduke in the neck, tearing the jugular vein. 
 
As the car roared away across the river towards the Konak palace, the duchess teetered sideways until her face was between her husband’s knees. Potiorek initially thought she had fainted with shock; only when he saw blood issuing from the archduke’s mouth did he realise something more serious was afoot. 
 
Franz Ferdinand’s bodyguard, Count von Harrach, heard the archduke speaking, in a soft voice, words that would become famous across the world: “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die, stay alive for our children!”
 
Sophie was already dead by the time the party reached the Konak and the couple were rushed into two rooms on the first floor. Franz Ferdinand was comatose. His valet, Count Morsey, who had run all the way from the scene of the shooting to rejoin the archduke, tried to ease his breathing by cutting his uniform open at the front. Blood splashed up, staining the yellow cuffs of the valet’s uniform. 
 
Kneeling beside the bed, Morsey asked Franz Ferdinand if he had a message for his children, but there was no reply – the archduke’s lips were already stiffening. It was a matter of minutes before those present agreed that the heir apparent was dead. The time was just after 11am. Bells began tolling across the city.
 

Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his wife, Sophie, and their children Ernst (third from right), Maximilian and Sophie. (Library of Congress)
 

Period charm?

In the second half of the 20th century, a kind of period charm accumulated around the events of 1914. It was easy to imagine the disaster of Europe’s ‘last summer’ as an Edwardian costume drama. The effete rituals and gaudy uniforms, the ‘ornamentalism’ of a world still largely organised around hereditary monarchy, had a distancing effect on present-day recollection. They seemed to signal that the protagonists were people from a vanished world. The presumption asserted itself that if the actors’ hats had green ostrich feathers on them, then their thoughts and motivations probably did too. 
 
And yet what must strike any 21st-century reader who follows the crisis of 1914 is its raw modernity. It began with a squad of suicide bombers and a cavalcade of automobiles. Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was the Black Hand, an avowedly terrorist organisation with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge. But this terrorist organisation was extra-territorial, without a clear geographical or political location. It was scattered in cells across political borders, it was unaccountable, its links to any sovereign government were oblique, and difficult to discern from outside the organisation. 
 
Indeed, one could even say that July 1914 is much less remote from us – less illegible – now than it was in the 1980s. Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers – a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914. 
 

Allied troops confront the ‘monster’ of the Central Powers in an illustration that appeared in Le Petit Journal, 20 September 1914. (Leemage)
 
The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s have reminded us since then exactly how lethal Balkan nationalism can be. Since Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo, it has become harder to think of Serbia as the mere object or victim of great power politics and easier to conceive of Serbian nationalism as an historical force in its own right. 
 
From the perspective of the new Europe we are inclined to look more sympathetically – or at least less contemptuously – than we used to on the vanished imperial patchwork of Habsburg Austria-Hungary. These shifts in perspective prompt us to rethink the story of how war came to Europe in 1914, not by embracing a vulgar presentism that remakes the past to meet the needs of the present, but rather by acknowledging those features of the past of which our changed vantage point can give us a clearer view.
 
Among these is the Balkan context of the war’s inception. Of the seven assassins, six were ethnic Serbs. Three (including Princip and Cabrinovic) had only recently crossed the border from Serbia, where they had been supplied with bombs, guns and poison of Serbian manufacture. Princip had been trained in marksmanship by a Black Hand agent in a park outside Belgrade.
 
And there were links between the Black Hand and parts of the Serbian state, whose leader, Prime Minister Nikola Paši´c, appears to have possessed foreknowledge of the attack. Yet Serbia remains one of the blind spots in the historiography of the July Crisis. The assassination at Sarajevo is treated in many accounts as a mere pretext, an event with little bearing on the real forces whose interaction brought war. The truth is that it confronted the Austro-Hungarian authorities with a challenge they were unable to ignore. To convey a sense of the gravity of the situation as they saw it, we need merely ask ourselves how the United States would respond today to the killing of a president-elect and his wife by a Tehran-trained hit squad. 
 
Explaining how the assassinations – and the Austrian response to them – triggered the cascade of decisions that produced a continental war is the stuff of another article. But the assassinations remind us of the power that a single, symbolic event – however deeply it may be enmeshed in larger processes – can wield over history. Like the attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001, the Sarajevo murders changed politics, rendering old options obsolete and endowing new ones with an unforeseen urgency.  
 

Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie lie in state following their assassinations (Corbis)

 

The Balkan powder keg: war in south-east Europe, 1912–13

The Balkan Wars began in Africa. In the autumn of 1911, Italy launched a war of conquest on Tripolitania, a north African province of the Ottoman empire, triggering a chain of opportunist assaults on Ottoman territories across the Balkans. In October 1912, a loose coalition of states – Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece – mounted parallel invasions of the Balkan lands of the Ottoman empire, thereby starting the First Balkan War (October 1912–May 1913). The result was a momentous victory for the Balkan allies over the Ottoman forces, who were driven out of Albania, Macedonia and Thrace. 
 
In the Second Balkan War (June–July 1913), the belligerents fought over the spoils of the first: Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Romania fought Bulgaria for territories in Macedonia, Thrace and the Dobrudja respectively.
 
These cruel conflicts, largely forgotten today, transformed the geopolitics of south-eastern Europe. The kingdom of Serbia’s territorial extent increased from 18,650 to 33,891 square miles; its population grew by more than one and a half million. Three hundred thousand Serbian troops had been put into the field within three weeks of the first mobilisation order in October 1912. The ‘reunification’ of the ‘Serb lands’ (including Bosnia and Herzegovina, provinces of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy), remained a political goal of primary importance. Austria-Hungary thus faced a new and threatening constellation on its south-eastern periphery.
 
In the meantime, the retreat of Ottoman power raised strategic questions that troubled Russian diplomats and policy-makers. If Ottoman power on the Bosphorus were to collapse, who would inherit control of the Turkish Straits, deemed of vital strategic and economic interest to the Russian empire? Concern over these issues heightened the tension between Vienna and St Petersburg during the last 18 months before the outbreak of war. The two continental alliance blocs were drawn deeper into the antipathies of a region that was entering a period of unprecedented volatility. 

 

From Third Balkan War to First World War 

The First World War was the Third Balkan War before it became the First World War. How was this possible? Conflicts and crises on the south-eastern periphery, where the Ottoman empire abutted Christian Europe, were nothing new. In the course of the Balkan Wars, however, the conflicts of the Balkan theatre became tightly intertwined with the geopolitics of the European system. This created a situation in which a conflict of Balkan inception could engulf the continent within five weeks in the summer of 1914.
 
Austria, which had once dismissed the Serbs as “rascally boys” stealing apples from the Habsburg orchard, adopted an increasingly militant view of the Balkan situation. The hawks spoke with ever louder voices, and the leading Austrian dove, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, would perish in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. 
Equally important was Russia’s deepening support for Serbia, now the dominant Slavic power of the Balkan region. Russian policy-makers spoke speculatively of a future quarrel between Austria and Serbia in which Russia would be obliged to intervene. 
 
This trend was reinforced from Paris. As prime minister and minister of foreign affairs (1912–13) and then as president of the Republic (1913–20), Raymond Poincaré extended the remit of the Franco-Russian alliance, assuring the Russians of French support if Russia felt obliged to aid Serbia by waging war on Austria-Hungary. 
 
Should this eventuality arise, a continental war was highly likely, not just because Germany’s treaty commitments to Vienna would be triggered by a Russian mobilisation, but also because German military planning foresaw parallel mobilisations against both France and Russia.
 
British policy-makers viewed these developments with ambivalence. Foreign Secretary Edward Grey recognised the danger inherent in the Balkan inception scenario, but was too committed to the policy of the entente to stand aside when it became a reality in the summer of 1914. The remoteness of the Balkan theatre and the fact that neither Russia nor France had been threatened with war by the Central Powers made it difficult at first to persuade the cabinet and public that British intervention was warranted. Only by shifting the focus of the discussion westwards to the issue of Belgian neutrality and Britain’s ‘moral’ commitment to France was Grey able to make a case for committing Britain to the continental war on 4 August 1914.
 
Professor Christopher Clark specialises in 19th‑century Europe at the University of Cambridge. He is author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Allen Lane, 2012).
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