We must not oversimplify the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, argues historian Paul Miller-Melamed. Instead of being a “flashbulb event” which “shook the world”, he says the political murder was met with relative apathy and indifference…


The “first shot of the Great War,” wrote the great historian AJP Taylor in his celebrated (and still in print) The First World War: An Illustrated History (1963), was fired by a Bosnian grammar-school boy named Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. The “first victims” of that war, according to other authors and Austrian monuments, were the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary (the Habsburg Monarchy), and, accidentally, his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg.

These are metaphors, of course – there was no war when the infamous Sarajevo assassination took place, and there would not be one for another month. Moreover, if anyone bears blame for war’s outbreak in July 1914, then it’s the leaders of Europe’s Great Powers rather than the Bosnian peasant Gavrilo Princip. Yet how much easier it is to assume a synonymous relation between the Archduke’s murder and Armageddon.

This assumption is what makes studying the Sarajevo assassination so fascinating. How do we wrap our heads around the vast and discomfiting disproportionality between a single deadly act and an act of war that would leave millions dead?

Language like the “first shots of the First World War” and crude analogies between this amateurly organised political murder and modern-day mass terrorism represent two such means of grappling with the origins of what American diplomat-historian George Kennan famously called “the great seminal catastrophe of the [20th] century.” But there are myriad others. Most histories of the Sarajevo assassination, whether in scholarly books or news journalism, strive so hard to make the murder live up to its legacy that they often distort and decontextualise it beyond recognition. And that’s a bigger problem than a clever metaphor – it’s mythology.

Contrary to popular depictions of hardened ‘terrorist-assassins’, these young Bosnians were total amateurs, who had recently learned to fire a gun or ignite a grenade

From its “violent” Balkan setting to the vastly bungled execution, Ferdinand’s political murder has been manipulated and fabricated, embroidered and mythologised. Foremost, it had to happen in this “savage patch” of “civilised Europe,” wrote a historian in the 1930s, following a long and ongoing tradition of stereotyping the Balkans as dangerous and unruly, primitive, and war prone.

Nearly 80 years later, another scholar depicted the murder as a “random event in an Austro-Hungarian backwater”. To be sure, Sarajevo was not Vienna, though ever since assuming the administration of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878, Austria-Hungary had poured enormous resources into the region’s development. And after unilaterally annexing it in 1908, the Habsburg monarchy itself came exceedingly close to provoking that other Balkan power, the Russian empire, into a European war.

When tensions calmed and the Habsburg kaiser defiantly visited his contested provinces in May 1910, an assassin stalked him in Sarajevo. Franz Ferdinand himself was cautioned against going to Bosnia for military inspections in 1914, in light of the numerous assassination attempts in the region. Even on the eve of his procession through Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand was forcefully warned by Bosnian officials and men in his own entourage about the dangers of driving through the capital in an open air auto on a Serb national holiday. It was Vidovdan, or St Vitus’ Day.

Serb nationalism is the other set piece of supposed Balkan brutality. The kingdom of Serbia, though having one-tenth the size and population of the Habsburg empire, coveted its south Slavic provinces – Bosnia above all – as its rightful irredenta. Princip and his accomplices were mostly Bosnian Serbs – that is, Orthodox Bosnians, not Serbian citizens. Clearly, it was the height of insensitivity to organise the archduke’s procession through Bosnia’s capital on Vidovdan, though there’s no evidence that this timing was purposeful.

More importantly, it had little to do with the motivation for the assassination. As Habsburg subjects rather than ‘Serbs’ or, even, ‘Serbian nationalists’, as they are regularly and wrongly portrayed in critical literature and film, the Bosnian assassins had been planning the political murder well before they learned the exact date of the archduke’s visit.

What mattered to the conspirators was their innate hatred for Habsburg rule rather than their intense love of Greater Serbia, let alone of socialism, anarchism, or any other of reigning ideologies in the late 19th century. The unification of all South Slavs (Yugoslavism) was certainly on their minds, as court records reveal, though they cared little about the actual political form as long as it delivered them from Habsburg control.

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Many writers understand this, and thus nudge the Serbian influence and ideology into the background. For these ‘conspiracy-from-below’ theorists, however, it’s typically not enough to paint the Bosnians simply as “freedom fighters” – after all, they committed murder, and Franz Ferdinand himself was no tyrant. Rather, they must have been totally “desperate”, and so racked with tuberculosis that they were ready to go to any length on behalf of their Bosnian people. The socio-economic situation of peasants in Bosnia like Princip was certainly dire, but there is no direct evidence that any of the Bosnian plotters were terminally ill. This is a myth, though a relatively empathetic and mild one.

Photograph of Gavrilo Princip
Photograph of Gavrilo Princip. (Photo by Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Far more serious, and subversive, are allegations that insidious nationalist forces inside Serbia planned the assassination and recruited the young Bosnian “puppets” to do their Greater Serb bidding. One “secret”, “terrorist” organisation in particular – Unification or Death (more menacingly known as the Black Hand) – was the purported “mastermind” behind the Sarajevo conspiracy. Yet again, the evidence is insufficient. The Black Hand was real, and a really menacing military faction for the Serbian government which, it insisted, was not moving fast enough on the Greater Serb project. But its leaders were not stupid, and they knew that an assassination of the Habsburg successor risked war for which Serbia was ill-prepared.

The Sarajevo assassination did not ‘spark’ the world war, but rather a diplomatic crisis that the leaders of ‘civilized’ Europe failed to resolve diplomatically

It may have been a Black Hand member who helped the assassins obtain their weapons and training in Belgrade, but there is no direct connection to Unification or Death itself, let alone to the Serbian government. Nor did Austria-Hungary contend one in its 23 July Ultimatum to Serbia, which does not specifically mention the Black Hand. Whatever historians may say about this “terrorist network” pulling the strings of the Sarajevo conspiracy, it was three young Bosnians living in Belgrade – two students and a typesetter – who decided on the political murder and executed it imperfectly.

How can we say this, given that archduke ended up dead? Contrary to popular depictions of hardened terrorist-assassins, these young Bosnians were total amateurs, who had recently learned to fire a gun or ignite a grenade. After the first assassin failed to act and Nedeljko Čabrinović’s bomb missed its mark, the remaining “suicide bombers” fled the scene. Princip was the sole exception, and he only “succeeded” thanks to a “wrong turn” taken after Habsburg authorities tweaked the procession route in light of the bomb attack. In other words, this “wrong” turn was the right turn (and a right turn) according to the original itinerary of the procession, and thus there the assassin was stalking.

Princip, in short, was not on that street corner by “chance.” Nor was he “consoling himself with a sandwich” from Schiller’s delicatessen when the archduke “happened” to drive up. Yet ever since the documentary Days That Shook the World (2003) informed viewers that Princip had “just eaten a sandwich, and . . . completely by chance, fate has brought the assassin and his target within ten feet of each other”, the legend of Princip’s sandwich and utter happenstance has seeped into serious and popular literature alike. Today, students learn about it and academics assure us that Princip was “loitering on the corner” or “standing idly by” or “milling about” or snacking on a sandwich when “destiny” struck and the “cursed” car “suddenly” halted before him.

Princip’s sandwich and serendipity may just be another myth, but there’s something more convincing about the notion that Princip’s pistol shots “shook the world”. According to one historian, the political murder was a “flashbulb event” that imprinted itself on the minds and memories of all contemporaries, much like 9/11 or President Kennedy’s assassination. On the contrary, countless first-hand accounts support the relative apathy and indifference that greeted the political murder. It was considered a tragedy, certainly, but not one which, as British permanent undersecretary of state at the Foreign Office, Sir Arthur Nicolson, wrote eerily to his ambassador in St Petersburg, would “lead to further complications”.

What “changed everything” was not a “Serbian hero’s” poorly aimed bullets (the first of which killed the one person in the car’s rear seat that Princip had wished to spare – the Archduke’s wife, Sophie), but the world historical misfire by Europe’s Great Powers, which first came to light with Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia on 23 July. By then, the Sarajevo assassination was slipping from memory – this was an age, after all, in which political murder was all too common; or, as one American newspaper casually put it, there were other Austrian heirs to replace the archduke.

All this is not to argue that the historical record is in dire need of a good corrective. My intent here is not to set down sound “truths” about the “century-changing” Sarajevo assassination, but rather to illuminate some of this history’s most popular hyperbole – like the “tubercular” assassins’ “random” and “desperate act”; the “Serb” Princip’s “fortuitous” placement on the “fateful” corner; and the insidious role of the Black Hand “terrorists” in organising the intrigue.

Nor do I wish to wage some determined campaign to eradicate the kind of compelling language that often draws people to history in the first place. Although Franz Ferdinand and his wife were certainly not the first victims of the First World War in any literal sense, I hardly expect such rousing expressions to be erased from the literature (let alone from Austrian monuments). In other words, this analysis of how the Sarajevo murder is commonly portrayed is by no means meant as a high-minded lament on how we should approach the subject, nor on how history gets written generally.

The bloody coat of Archduke Franz Ferdinand after his assassination
The bloody coat of Archduke Franz Ferdinand after his assassination. (Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images)

That would have been trivial, and this article has broadly sought to bring attention to the various ways in which this history gets transmitted, such that it’s time we spoke of a Sarajevo myth. Through a combination of metaphorical language (“the most significant moment in modern history”), trite rhetoric (fate, chance), enticing inventions (Princip’s sandwich, fatally ill Young Bosnians, and fanatic Serb “terrorists), easy analogies (to just about every tragedy, including 9/11), and, above all, overinterpretation of the Serb nationalist conspiracy and its “flashbulb” impact, the archduke’s murder has come to embody the kind of blithe simplicity that characterises mythology. This is not an issue of good or bad history, but a means of expressing how we construe and cope with this highly ironic and hopelessly unsettling past.

For as we all, implicitly, know, the Sarajevo assassination did not spark or trigger the First World War, but rather a diplomatic crisis that the leaders of Europe failed to resolve diplomatically. And though it would require a different article to address adequately why that was the case, it does not hurt to bear this in mind the next time we read one about the “first shot of the Great War”.

Paul Miller-Melamed teaches history at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin in Poland and McDaniel College in the United States. He is the author of Misfire: The Sarajevo Assassination and the Winding Road to World War I, due to be published by Oxford University Press on 23 June 2022. Misfire is a new interpretation of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the origins of the First World War, narrated from the perspective of the Balkans