The shots hurriedly fired at point-blank range from the steps of a delicatessen in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, found their royal targets, mortally wounding the heir to the throne of the Habsburg Empire and his wife. Those fatal rounds would come to be known as the shots heard round the world, but that colorful wording compresses into one phrase a month of ultimatums and military mobilizations that would lead to a world war and to what has been described as “the primordial catastrophe of the 20th century.”
Indeed, even as black bordered newspapers went up in windows in Vienna and news boys in London hawked their sheets with news of the distant assassination, no leader or private individual anywhere in Europe or elsewhere contemplated that this one event would produce such devastating consequences. Perhaps yet another local war in the Balkans, but nothing more. In London, the political crisis of the moment was Irish Home Rule, in Paris a lurid trial. The German Kaiser already had begun his summer holidays on the Baltic Sea. In America and Asia, the news created headlines but seemed remote from the daily cares of leaders or citizens.
What unfolded from June 28 to the outbreak of continental war a month later has been dissected in 25,000 books — the mistakes, the blunders, the misjudgments, the hubris, the blind march that the statesmen involved knew could produce a catastrophe for Europe, even as they lacked the skill or will to stop it. In the four years of conflict that followed, millions would die, millions more would be physically and psychologically maimed for life. The three decades of chaos that came after and another world war would be a grim sequel in a half century of state-organized violence and murder around the world with a toll of nearly 100 million dead on battlefields, in bombed out cities, in death camps.
And it began in Sarajevo, the picturesque provincial capital of the province of Bosnia, a Balkan land annexed in 1908 by the Austro-Hungarian Empire as the great powers vied to grab bits of territory from the crumbling Ottoman Empire.
Like the Ottoman Empire, the centuries old Habsburg Empire was also tottering, a sprawling multi-lingual, multi-national, multi-ethnic agglomeration that reached from Poland to Italy and that had been falling prey to nationalistic forces unleashed since the Napoleonic Wars a century before. At its head was an old man, Franz Joseph, who had been emperor since 1848, a stolid and lonely figure whose wife had been assassinated, whose son and direct heir died in a romantic suicide and who functioned more as bureaucrat-in-chief than as an assertive ruler.
Around the emperor were competing figures vying for power and influence: Hungarian grandees determined to maintain their prime standing in the Dual Monarchy, fractious deputies in a weak parliament trying to expand power for their ethnic groups, especially Czechs and Slovaks, the diplomats and military men closest to the throne always advocating tougher measures in the restive Balkans but lacking the military means or skills to carry out their schemes. The losing streak of the Austrian military was unblemished by victory for nearly a century. And after the assassination, these advisers pushed for an ultimatum to Serbia, accused of harboring and unleashing the killers. That set off the chain of events that one by one would draw Russia, Germany, France and ultimately Belgium and Britain and Turkey and Italy into war.
The imperial capital of Vienna with its imposing Rococo architecture, was a city in cultural ferment with an intellectual class whose literary and artistic output was already anticipating decline and catastrophe, where a prosperous Jewish bourgeoisie had been governed by a virulently anti-Semitic mayor, a city that not only produced operettas and waltz music but Theodore Herzl and Sigmund Freud.
And now destined to take over all this was Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of the monarch and a political and personal lightening rod in the capital. In the protocol-obsessed court, his wife Sophie never received a proper title because she was considered insufficiently noble. The Archduke’s views about expanding autonomy to the national groups and his caution about deploying military force put him in the middle and often losing side of Vienna’s political power plays. Yet, he was anything but a serene pacifist. On the hunting expeditions popular with the nobility, his killing of stags would run into the dozens.
A combination of imperial power, political insensitivity and ego brought the royal couple to Bosnia and Sarajevo in June 1914. And every step of the way, reading through the accounts, one feels as if watching a video and wishing to hit the pause or reverse button, to stop history and this collection of accidents from unfolding.
First, the Archduke presided over military maneuvers in the annexed province. The political timing barely could have been worse. Serb emotions were at a peak for the commemoration of St. Vitus day (when in 1389 the Ottoman Turks won a decisive battle over Serbs and consolidated their hold over the Balkans). Security officials had warned the Vienna court that this year’s observances would be especially intense because Kosovo, seized by the Serbs in the Second Balkan War the year before, would be participating. (It took nearly another century and a new round of Balkan wars for these names to become familiar to Americans).
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, the royals, observing their wedding anniversary, arrived by train in Sarajevo. Unbeknownst to them their movements were shadowed by two cells of Serb nationalists/terrorists trained for an assassination plot. (The exact role of the Serbian government in organizing the plot has never been fully determined). Despite warnings, security seemed light as they drove through the city in an open car so they could better present themselves to their happy subjects. Suddenly, an explosion, the second car in the motorcade was hit by a bomb thrown by one of the plotters, barely missing the car of the royals.
The Archduke determined to go on with the rest of the day’s program, including a reception at the Town Hall. In route, they passed by a second terrorist, so nervous he could not pull the trigger of his pistol. Meanwhile his first companion had unsuccessfully tried to take a suicide capsule and then jumped from a bridge into a low riverbed before being captured alive.
Only at the Town Hall did the Archduke, known for a terrible temper, lose the cool he had demonstrated up to that time. As a local official nervously greeted him, Franz Ferdinand exploded, “I come here as your guest and you greet me with bombs.”
By this time, the afternoon program had been rearranged; particularly to take the royals down a different street from the one publicly advertised in the Sarajevo papers. But in a catalog of blunders, no one bothered to tell the driver. He went down Franz Joseph Street, the originally planned route, and then was told to reverse direction. The car had no reverse gear and was slowly pushed back up the hill.
And there another terrorist, a barely 20-year-old Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip was standing, although he thought after the two failed attempts his chance to act had passed him by. The car was barely moving. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were easy targets. Princip paused only for a moment at the prospect of shooting at a woman.
Both victims seemed to be aware they had been severely hit. “Sophie, Sophie don’t die, stay alive for our children,” said the archduke. She was already near death. An aide asked Franz Ferdinand if he was in pain, and he responded, “it’s nothing,” and then lost consciousness.
Princip, unable to shoot himself or take his poison capsule, was arrested and would die in 1918 in a Habsburg prison in Terezin, Bohemia. The town would become more infamous decades later as the site of the Theresienstadt Nazi death camp.
The royal couple was taken to a nearby palace and both were pronounced dead soon after. A royal barge would take their remains back to Vienna.
And within a month, across Europe, the armies of the empires of Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, France, and Britain were at war. The Ottoman Empire would join the side of the Central Powers soon after. Only the British and French empires survived, though greatly weakened. Global power would pass to the United States, which refused to wield it for another two decades, until another war enveloped the world. Sarajevo would be battered in yet another Balkan war in the 1990s that saw the dismemberment of the post-World War I Yugoslav federation. A bridge where the assassin was standing, now renamed Latin Bridge, was known during the Yugoslav years as Princip Bridge.
This story first appeared on the European Institute’s website. Michael D. Mosettig was the PBS NewsHour’s foreign affairs and defense editor from 1985 to 2012. He now watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks and writes occasional dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.