Sarajevo, June 28th – The Shot Heard Round The World
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Sarajevo, June 28th – The Shot Heard Round The World

An examination of the circumstances surrounding what was quite possibly the single most important event of the 20th Century.

Sarajevo, June 28th – The Shot Heard Round The World

It was quite possibly the single most consequential assassination in history.

But the diplomatic furore, then hostilities, that followed it, swallowed the murder in a cascade of dramatic events, letting it slip from the consciences of many contemporaries.

Once World War 1 started and engulfed the world in its first major global conflict, many men forgot that it was the victim of this political homicide that had propelled them all to war.

In Blackadder Goes Forth, Private Baldrick says that he heard the war had started because “a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich 'cos he was hungry.”

Captain Blackadder informs him that, in fact, the war started when the Archduke of Austro-Hungary (or Austria-Hungary) got shot.

As it turns out, Blackadder is correct, not only in naming the Archduke as the victim of the murder, but in, subsequently, describing the complex alliance system that was meant to prevent the war as “b******s”.

What happened in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914 was really one of many events that could have triggered a war in Europe.

Germany, only united since 1871, sought to make up for lost time by ambitiously acquiring a strong navy and the kind of empire enjoyed by its neighbours.

Despite Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s warnings to the new German Emperor Wilhelm II not to antagonise the other states of Europe, Wilhelm, or “Kaiser Bill”, took no notice.

He soon found himself hemmed in by an alliance between Russia, France, and Britain designed to check him, and allied only with Austro-Hungary and Italy (later replaced by Turkey when war broke out).

Meanwhile, Austro-Hungary found itself at the other end of spectrum – an aging “sick man of Europe” in imperial decline, and beset with problems with its empire within Europe.

The most salient of these issues was proud nationalism and yearning for independence from within the province of Serbia, of which Sarajevo was the capital.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the nephew of Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary (and Croatia and Bohemia).

He was politically significant because Franz Joseph was very old (he eventually died in 1916), and his nephew was next in line for the thrown.

As part of his royal duties, he visited Sarajevo on June 28th as part of a military exercise – bad timing as it turned out, since it was also Serbian National Day, an event channelling a lot of hatred towards the Austro-Hungarian overlords.

Sarajevo was the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a focal point for Serbian nationalism.

It was there that he was targeted by the Black Hand, a secret military society aiming to throw off the shackles of empire and bring about the independent state of Yugoslavia through terrorism and political assassinations.

They planned to attack Franz Ferdinand as he came from the railway station to the town hall.

The Archduke had been warned of the dangers, but he ignored the warnings and, like JFK fifty years later, drove slowly in his car with his top down so that he could see the crowds.

Unlike JFK, the Archduke survived the first attempt on his life when one of the conspirator’s bombs was thrown, bounced off his car, and exploded harmlessly on the street.

Franz Ferdinand stormed into the town hall and chastised his hosts.

Security was now on high alert, and remaining assassins assumed they’d missed their chance – one of them, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, despondently trudged home.

Stopping on the corner of Franz Joseph Street, Princip planned to buy a sandwich…

…then he saw the Archduke, in his car, backing out right in front of him.

The driver had taken a wrong turn and was changing direction when he brought the Archduke face-to-face with Princip.

The boy saw his chance, pulled his pistol and fired two shots, killing the Archduke and his wife before being wrestled to the ground by security.

Start cause of World War One
Gavrilo Princip, on trial for the murder, is front row, centre

The fuse had been lit – war might have been avoided if the major powers had not wanted it, but the continent was awash in militarism.

The reasons for the First World War are varied and complex, but historians mostly agree that alliance systems agreed before the war locked members into a wider conflict once the first domino fell.

Bosnian-Serbs were ready to fight their way free of Austo-Hungary, who, in turn, was looking to punish the petulant province.

Russia, meanwhile, was committed to protecting the Slavic peoples in southern Europe, and, knowing this, Austro-Hungary was counting on German support.

Unfortunately, both sides of the Germany/Austro-Hungarian alliance believed what they wanted to believe: Germany was more concerned about the heavily populated Russia, the fact that she was beginning to modernise, and would soon be more than a match militarily; Austria was more interested in dealing with Serbia, and needed German support to block the Russians.

The result was that both countries were taken by surprise in the east.

Meanwhile, in the west, France and Britain, both with populations of around 40 million, were afraid of Germany’s modern, dynamic economy and 70 million population base.

The Germans played into this fear by activating the Schlieffen Plan, a strategy designed by overcome the problem of fighting on two fronts (with both Russia and France) by aiming to replicate the victory achieved over France in six weeks during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

This, in turn, triggered British involvement because the government in Westminister, afraid of being seen to not help their allies (and imperial competitors) France and Russia, of being left with a power structure on the continent less favourable than the present setup, and appalled by Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality.

Ironically, Germany only marched through Belgium because the French had built a line of forts on the border the two of them shared, and needed to get around them quickly enough to beat them in six weeks and then take on the Russian juggernaut.

And so it was, much of Europe, and then, because of colonial involvement, large parts of the world, were dragged into the worst conflict ever known because a sympathetic Archduke crossed paths with a 19-year-old assassin.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Latin Bridge, where Franz Ferdinand was shot (image: Elooas)
Cause of First World War War One
Latin Bridge seen from the other direction (left; image: BiHVolim) and as it looked in 1913 (right; image: Aloysius)