The assassination of Franz Ferdinand

Updated Tuesday 3rd December 2013

The spark that set light to a continent: how a conspiracy to kill an Archduke set off a chain of events ending in war.

On 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, assassinated the Austrian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo.

To understand the importance of this event, imagine the Prince of Wales and his wife being assassinated while visiting a dominion of the British Empire.

This outrageous act of brutality was aimed at undermining the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had annexed Bosnia into its multi-ethnic Empire in 1908.

The murder of the royal couple ushered in the so-called July Crisis which ended with the outbreak of war in August 1914.

The assassination has been described as the spark that would set light to a continent that was riddled with international tensions.

However, a European war was not inevitable. Right until the last moment, some European statesmen were desperately trying to avoid an escalation of the crisis by advocating mediation, while others did everything in their power to ensure that a war would break out.

Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

The murder of the Archduke caused widespread international outrage even though assassinations of prominent individuals were rather more common than they are today: for example, the Austrian Emperor, Kaiser Franz Joseph, nearly succumbed to an assassin in Sarajevo in May 1910, while an Italian anarchist had murdered his wife Empress Elizabeth in 1898.

910 605 A map of the Austro-Hungary empire. Click to enlarge Other royal assassination victims included the Serbian King Alexandar and his wife in 1903, the Italian King Umberto in 1900, and the Greek King George I in 1913.

However, we do not remember these acts of violence because their consequences were less serious; on the other hand, we remember the date and place of this infamous assassination in Sarajevo because the events that followed it led directly into the First World War.

Why did the Archduke become a victim of a violent conspiracy?

The assassins can be traced back to the Serbian capital Belgrade, where each of the six young men who waited for the hapless Archduke in Sarajevo along the pre-published official route were radicalised by Serbian nationalist and irredentist organizations.

Serbia had been a threat and irritant to Austria-Hungary, particularly since it won the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 and as a consequence had nearly doubled its territory and increased its population from 3 to 4.5 million.

The government’s aim was to unite even more Serbian territory and people with Serbia—and those people happened to live in multi-ethnic Austria-Hungary, including Bosnia, which had been annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908.

Three of the young conspirators had left impoverished lives in Sarajevo for Belgrade. Trifko Grabež, Nedeljko Čabrinović and Gavrilo Princip were all members of the revolutionary organisation Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia). In the Serbian capital they succumbed to the anti-Habsburg propaganda of several underground organisations such as the ‘Black Hand’ (its official title was ‘Union or Death’), a conspiratorial officers’ group which stood for the idea of a greater Serbia.

Franz Ferdinand's Gräf & Stift open-roofed car Creative commons image Icon By Alexf (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license Franz Ferdinand's Graef & Stift car in the Vienna Heeresmuseum In the Austrian capital Vienna, the assassination was immediately perceived as a Serbian provocation, even though actual evidence of Serbian involvement in the plot was hard to come by.

It was not known at the time that one of the instigators of this act was indeed a member of the Serbian establishment: the head of the Serbian military intelligence service, Dragutin Dimitrijević (also known as Apis), and members of the ‘Black Hand’ were behind the assassination just as they had been behind the unsuccessful attempt to kill Kaiser Franz Joseph in 1910.

The would-be assassins were trained in the use of weapons in Belgrade and equipped with four revolvers and six small bombs from the Serbian state arsenal in Kragujevac.

In Bosnia, they were joined by three more conspirators: Danilo Ilić, Veljko Čubrilović, and Civijetko Popović. The youngest of their group was just seventeen.

They lined up along the previously announced route that Franz Ferdinand and his wife would take on that Sunday morning, travelling from the train station to Sarajevo’s Town Hall.

However, the first attempt to kill the Archduke failed. Nedeljko Čabrinović threw his bomb on the Appel Quay, but it bounced off the open convertible car.

It exploded underneath the car behind, injuring a few of the passengers and some spectators. The Archduke was unhurt while his wife suffered a small wound on the cheek.

Creative commons image Icon Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license The couple were hurriedly taken to the Town Hall, and this could have been the end of it all—another failed assassination attempt, like there had been so many others.

A fateful change of plan

But Franz Ferdinand ignored advice to cancel the rest of the tour and insisted the couple visited some of the injured in the hospital before continuing with the official programme.

As a compromise, it was agreed that the convoy should follow a different route and not, as planned, travel down Franz-Joseph-Strasse.

However, tragically, this change of plan appears not to have been communicated to the driver in the first car, who turned into the street as previously arranged.

In the hastily conducted reverse manoeuvre, the Archduke’s car came to a halt right in front of Gavrilo Princip who had positioned himself, by chance, at the exact same spot.

A few metres away from his target he managed to shoot the Archduke in the neck and his wife in the abdomen. Sophie died in the car, and Franz Ferdinand shortly after reaching the residence of the Governor.

The conspirators could not know, and certainly had not planned, that a world war would result from this act of violence, but in the weeks that followed, decisions were made in Europe’s capitals that ensured that the death of this one man would lead to the deaths of millions.

Next: read about the reactions to the assassinations in The July Crisis: Immediate Reactions

This page is part of our collection about the origins of the First World War, created to support the BBC One series Britain's Great War.


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

More warlike than we'd like to think? The Labour government of 1945 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

History & The Arts 

More warlike than we'd like to think? The Labour government of 1945

The Welfare State was the defining act of the Clement Atlee's government. But does that overshadow a strong hand played in defence of the realm?

Breaking the Seal: Church records Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

History & The Arts 

Breaking the Seal: Church records

Bettany Hughes reveals what church records can tell us about life in the past.

Welsh history and its sources Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 1 icon

History & The Arts 

Welsh history and its sources

This free course, Welsh history and its sources, is a teaching and learning resource for anyone interested in Welsh history. It contains study materials, links to some of the most important institutions that contribute to our understanding of the history of Wales, and a pool of resources that can help you understand Welsh history and the way it is studied. Included in the material is a taster of the Open University course Small country, big history: themes in the history of Wales (A182).

Free course
25 hrs
The Making of Bloody Omaha 1: Starting out Creative commons image Icon peprice under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

The Making of Bloody Omaha 1: Starting out

News that an English military enthusiast had dug up a forgotten German gun battery near the landing beach prompts Timewatch to revisit Omaha.

Icons of Wales: Who's the missing icon? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University article icon

History & The Arts 

Icons of Wales: Who's the missing icon?

Which Welsh icon is missing from the Icons of Wales booklet? See suggestions from our panel and vote for your missing icon

VE day half a world away: How New Zealand celebrated victory in Europe Creative commons image Icon Pikerslanefarm under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

VE day half a world away: How New Zealand celebrated victory in Europe

After years of war, New Zealanders reacted to the fall of Berlin by cutting loose - but not too loose. As the official history explains, it wasn't quite the same when Japan surrendered.

After Waterloo: What happened next? Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Bibliothèque Nationale de France article icon

History & The Arts 

After Waterloo: What happened next?

After the collapse of Napoleon's army two hundred years ago, what happened next? We catch up with the news from July 3rd, 1715

Late nineteenth-century Britain and America: The people and the empire Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 3 icon

History & The Arts 

Late nineteenth-century Britain and America: The people and the empire

Historians on both sides of the Atlantic have argued that the empire was not an issue of popular interest in late nineteenth-century Britain and the United States. In this free course, Late nineteenth-century Britain and America: The people and the empire, we shall look more closely at the evidence available to assess the truth of this argument. Were the working people, as opposed to the political leaders, interested in the issue of expansion? Was such interest evident only among certain sections of the community? Was it predominantly an enthusiasm for empire, or not? We shall also try to identify some of the reasons underlying the nature of the response. And we shall be interested in how far politicians found it worth their while to 'play to the gallery' and to manipulate popular opinion. Through it all, we shall be facing some acute problems of evidence: is it possible to discover what 'ordinary' people thought about expansionism?

Free course
4 hrs
Dundee, jute and empire Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 1 icon

History & The Arts 

Dundee, jute and empire

Britain was the first country to industrialise, and it acquired the largest empire ever during this same period. But its sphere of economic influence extended far beyond the boundaries of the formal British Empire. This free course, Dundee, jute and empire, focuses on the economics of empire, using a case study of one town, Dundee in eastern Scotland, to explore this huge topic.

Free course
12 hrs