A hundred years ago: the murder of Sarajevo and Europe’s descent into war

Updated Thursday 26th June 2014

A hundred years ago, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand sparked the outbreak of the First World War

This famous photograph depicting Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on the steps of the Town Hall in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 on their way to their open top car has been reproduced countless times. The photographer and the surrounding dignitaries and onlookers could not know what today everyone studying the photograph knows: that this would be the couple’s last steps taken, their last car journey, and that the events of the next hour would lead to the outbreak of the First World War.
 
Shortly after this picture was taken, the Archduke and his wife were dead, assassinated by a young Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. Together with six other would-be assassins, he had planned to murder the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne on this Sunday during his official visit to the province of Bosnia.
 
In the weeks that followed this murder, during the so-called July Crisis, the government in Vienna, the capital of Austria-Hungary, decided to use the assassination as an occasion to provoke a war with Serbia. In this, it was supported by its ally in Berlin, whose decision-makers promised support, no matter what the outcome of their quarrel with Serbia – either a localised, Balkan war, or a European war which involved Serbia’s protector Russia and its ally France.
 
And in the capital cities of Europe’s other great powers, decisions were taken which escalated this crisis. Thus it was ensured that a European war resulted from the murder in Sarajevo, a place that most Europeans would have had trouble finding on a map.
 
When we look at the photograph we cannot but wish that the driver had chosen a different route that sunny afternoon, or that the couple had decided to abandon the rest of the official programme for the day after they had narrowly escaped a first assassination attempt that morning. The photograph symbolises the tragic nature of the moment it depicts. Millions were to follow Franz Ferdinand and Sophie to their deaths.
 
For a hundred years politicians and diplomats, historians and the general public have argued about the background to the assassination.  Even more controversy has been generated by the argument over the responsibility for the fact that the July Crisis was not resolved peacefully, but led to the outbreak of the First World War. Why did the deed of Sarajevo demand so many innocent victims? We have still not managed to explain the origins of the war which cast such a long and deadly shadow over all of the 20th century and beyond.
 
Of course, after such a long debate we know a lot about the background to the events of the summer of 1914. But many questions remain. Why did the leaders of Europe take decisions which would be of such immense consequences? What were their aims? Why did some want to provoke a war even though they feared that it might spell the end of civilised Europe? Even the most recent debates around the subject don’t provide all the answers but actually raise new ones.
 
Why did the murder of Franz Ferdinand lead to the outbreak of the First World War? The Balkans were at that time likened to a powder keg. Serbia, strengthened and confident following its victories in the two recent Balkan Wars, threatened the Balkan status quo as well as the internal cohesion of Austria-Hungary with its many different minorities, including a large number of Serbs. The official visit of the heir to the throne went ahead despite some prior warnings about a possible planned attack. On their last day in Sarajevo, the couple were murdered by Gavrilo Princip, who shot them at close range when their car had taken a wrong turn and – by chance – stopped right in front of him.
 
The intention of the assassins had been to provoke the government in Vienna. But it had not been expected that it would seize this opportunity to provoke a war against Serbia. Following two wars the Serbian army was exhausted and funds were spent. The country was ill prepared for yet another war.
 
910 605 A map of the Austro-Hungary empire. Click to enlarge
 
But in Vienna, the mood was warlike. The Chief of the General Staff had demanded a war against Serbia on countless occasions in the preceding months. The murder of Sarajevo gave him the pretext which had so far been lacking. Members of the government did not want to settle again for a diplomatic victory which would not eliminate the Serbian threat in the Balkans. Instead, they were determined to provoke a war against Serbia.
 
They did not act alone, however, but asked their ally Germany for help. With its support Vienna wanted to fight a localised war while consciously accepting the risk that Russia might become involved and that the war would thus escalate. The so-called blank cheque from Berlin strengthened the hand of the ‘hawks’ in Vienna and seemed to make this risk acceptable, as Germany would cover Austria-Hungary’s back against Russia. A deliberately unacceptable ultimatum to Belgrade was to be the way to provoke a war against Serbia.
 
However, Berlin offered more than just support, but also pressure to ensure that this time Vienna’s decision-makers would rise to the challenge. Not to do so would risk Austria-Hungary’s great power status and its alliance with Germany.
 
Only once the harsh ultimatum had been delivered to Belgrade on 23 July 1914 did the other powers start to play a role in the July Crisis. Their reactions did not defuse the crisis, even if there were some suggestions for mediation from London. The allied governments of Russia and France agreed that they would not stand by to see Serbia crushed and would not tolerate another Austrian provocation in the Balkans. They assured each other of their support in case of as escalation of the crisis, much like Austria-Hungary and Germany had done at the beginning of July.
 
That escalation resulted in Germany implementing its only deployment plan, generally known as the Schlieffenplan, in order to fight against its enemies in the West and East. The Balkan conflict now became of secondary importance as German troops invaded neutral Luxembourg and Belgium at the beginning of August. With that act they laid the foundation stone for future war guilt allegations. Germany’s violation of the neutrality of its neighbours had precipitated the European war – this is how the rest of the world interpreted the events in August 1914, and how they still understood the outbreak of war in 1919, when the victors met in Paris for peace negotiations.
 
Did Europe ‘slither into war’, in the former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s conciliatory words? With this rethink of the outbreak of the war the accusation of German war guilt had been removed and a comprise interpretation had been found which was acceptable to all the great powers. This consensus of the 1930s is very similar to the most recent interpretations which highlight a shared responsibility.
 
Indeed, we can find evidence of a willingness for war in all capital cities of Europe at the time. Many military leaders demanded a war. And it was not just in Berlin and Vienna that the crisis appeared to be a golden opportunity for a war that many thought inevitable in the long run. Decisions taken in Paris and St Petersburg also helped bring about the war.
 
But if, as was recently argued by Christopher Clark with a much-cited metaphor, there is no ‘smoking gun’ for historians to discover when we try to explain the origins of the war, or rather, that there is one in the hands of every protagonist, then we must ask who drew their gun first, who fired the first shot. And this was without doubt the governments of the Dual Alliance, i.e. Germany and Austria-Hungary.
 
They decided at the beginning of July to use this opportunity for a war against Serbia, and that decision turned the crisis into a war. Austria-Hungary issued the first declaration of war, on 28 July, and followed it up with an immediate bombardment of Belgrade. This was done to ensure any further attempts at mediation would fail.
 
The political and military leadership in these two countries wanted to deal a devastating blow to Serbia and were prepared to risk an escalation into a general and even a world war because they felt they could still win it. However, they could not have known that the war they willed would turn into the seminal catastrophe of the 20th century.
 
An estimated ten million soldiers, and countless civilians,  followed Franz Ferdinand and Sophie to their graves, and of course, the Second World War would claim even more victims. Nobody on the steps of Sarajevo Town Hall could have imagined the events that would follow, and neither could Gavrilo Princip as he nervously waiting on his allotted spot at the corner of Franz Joseph Strasse for the hapless Archduke and his wife to drive by.
 

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