The complex causes of World War One are often swept aside to expose the fate of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the personification of the outbreak of the Great War. Behind this textbook depiction is the story of a nonconformist’s tragic death alongside his life’s love, Sophie, both caught up in events that on reflection seem destined to have occurred.
This dark providence was only strengthened as it passed from one conspirator to another, through a hapless chain of transactions culminating on a bright summer’s day in Sarajevo, 100 years ago. Bosnia was primed for violent expressions of nationalism, having first passed under the crushing rule of the Ottomans and now that of the Austro-Hapsburg Empire. The Black Hand, part terrorist cell, part branch of Serbia’s military and government, had targeted the Archduke, nephew to the emperor and heir to the empire, for assassination, and then vetoed the idea, but too late to dissuade the Young Bosnia members who would go through with it.
Serbia’s Prime Minister, Nikola Pasic, had ordered the assassins be stopped from entering Bosnia. When that failed, Pasic ordered his ambassador in Vienna, an ardent Serb nationalist, deliver a warning which became so diluted it ended up quietly imparted to Austria’s finance minister. It is said to have gone like this: ‘Some young Serb might put a live rather than a blank cartridge in his gun and fire it.’
Rather than urgently imparting that Belgrade knew a plot was afoot, or that the would-be assassins were already in Sarajevo, with hindsight, it sounds like a line from the British comedy Blackadder.
On Sunday 28 June 1914, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek had been staying in the nearby seaside resort town of Bad Ilidz, celebrating their 14th wedding anniversary away from a court that shunned their marriage. Because Sophie was merely a countess, the couple’s descendants were excluded entirely from succession to the throne of the Austro-Hapsburg Empire.
The exclusion was all Franz Ferdinand’s uncle, the Emperor Franz Joseph, would agree to after eventually tiring of his nephew’s refusal to give up Sophie, a misfit in the strict criteria that Hapsburgs were to adhere to in marriage. Days after Franz Ferdinand renounced the Austro-Hungarian throne on behalf of Sophie and any children they might have, the couple married with only his mother and sister present from the huge membership of the Hapsburg family.
On St Vitus Day, 28 June 1914
Now, 14 years later, on a vivid and crisp morning, having sent a telegram to their children that they looked forward to seeing them in a couple of days, the couple headed by train to Sarajevo.
Six assassins lined the route the Archduke’s motorcade would take, co-ordinated by Danilo Ilic, a teacher and journalist who had recruited the five Serbs and one Bosnian Muslim to the cause. Each were armed and poised to attack, with Ilic moving between them in an attempt to bolster their courage. Between visiting the military barracks and Sarajevo’s town hall, the motorcade drove down the Appel Quay, which runs alongside the Miljacka River.
The motorcade passed by the first two assassins, who both failed to act. Further along, armed with a pocket bomb, Nedeljko Cabrinovic stood on the river side of the street.
Witnesses recall a loud crack as the percussion cap of the bomb struck against a lamp post, and then a small dark object could be seen arcing through the air on target to land in the Graf & Stift open sports car. Both the driver and Franz Ferdinand saw it coming, the former accelerating and the latter batting it away with his arm. The bomb exploded behind the open-top car as it sped away, destroying the car behind and injuring more than 16 people.
Swallowing his cyanide pill, Cabrinovic jumped into the Miljacka River, but the pill only induced vomiting, and at the height of summer, the Miljacka was only 13 centimetres deep. Cabrinovic was quickly hauled out of the river and severely beaten by the crowd before being taken into custody.
Meanwhile the procession had sped away towards the town hall as the three remaining assassins, including Gavrilo Princip, looked on.
Absurdly, when the Archduke arrived at the town hall, Mayor Curcic stuck to his script, saying that all of Sarajevo honoured him and delighted in his visit. The military governor of Bosnia who had been travelling with the Archduke gave him his assurance there would be no more trouble, apparently telling him that Serb fanatics were only capable of one assassination attempt per day. Franz Ferdinand ordered Sophie to stay at the town hall while, in a change to the rest of the itinerary, he would visit the wounded at the hospital. Sophie refused and so the motorcade set off again.
The official route was still clear of traffic and in the confusion no one had told the Archduke’s driver of the change of plan. So it was minutes later, travelling back along the Appel Quay, that the motorcade turned right into Franz Josef Street and stopped less than two metres from 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, the one remaining member of the six would-be assassins, and its leader.
The car had stopped in response to officials shouting to the driver that he was heading in the wrong direction. Princip fired two shots into the car. While Franz Ferdinand and Sophia remained calm and upright, the shouting continued. Then, as a thin stream of blood began to escape the Archduke’s mouth, Sophie cried, ‘For heaven’s sake! What’s happened to you?’ before slumping into her husband’s lap. Franz Ferdinand called to her, ‘Sophie, Sophie, don’t die! Stay alive for the children.’ While members of his party struggled to loosen his tunic, the Archduke managed weakly, ‘It’s nothing. It’s nothing.’ Within minutes both Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were dead.
Gavrilo Princip was also trying to die. He first attempted to shoot himself in the head, but was stopped by someone in the crowd, and then he swallowed his vial of cyanide which, out of date, only made him vomit.
Although the news was sensational, in the immediate aftermath it gave off little sense of crisis. In Vienna, the 83-year-old emperor seemed somewhat relieved, perhaps not only because of the problematic marriage, but also because Franz Ferdinand had been something of a progressive, advocating that Bosnian Serbs should have a voice in the governance of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The ironies ran freely. In Vienna, the emperor’s private secretary would recall Franz Joseph saying, ‘A higher power has re-established the order which I, alas, could not preserve.’ Thirty-four days later, on August 1, the ink would dry upon the declaration of war.