Perhaps it is too pithy to say that one man – or the death of one man – began the cataclysm that resulted in the deaths of millions. In many ways, however, it is an accurate statement. We have seen that the Europe of the early twentieth century was a seething mass of tension, animosity, and alliances, and that direct conflict was highly likely. We should not fall into the trap, however, of suggesting that what eventuated from all of this – the First World War – was in any way inevitable. Indeed, if it were, it is surprising that war had not broken out sooner. Instead, the spark that led to mass mobilisations was indeed the death of one man, and the people who engineered his murder never had any intention of beginning a Europe-wide general war. How this happened will be discussed in this series of posts. This particular post, however, will focus on the planning for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, and the execution of that plot. Later posts will consider the responses of the various states of Europe, and why this murder became the casus bellum for what would be termed the “war to end all wars.”
Since revolting against Ottoman rule in 1835, the Kingdom of Serbia had been a vocal champion of Slavic independence in the Balkans. Throughout the latter nineteenth century, as Ottoman influence in the region receded, Serbia continually positioned itself as a young but important powerbroker, and its continued friendship with Russia guaranteed its border security. Slowly but surely, other countries – Bulgaria, Rumania, Montenegro – managed to extricate themselves from under the Turkish yoke. Serbia’s relationship with these neighbours, however, was strained at best. As one of the first Balkan Slavic countries to gain independence, it had seen itself as the magister of the region. This was viewed with discomfort by the other Balkan states, which had only just gained their hard-won independence, and were not about to see it fettered away by aligning themselves to Belgrade’s vision of a “Greater Serbia.” For Serbia, the hoped-for regional dominance was further compromised by rampant illiteracy and a primitive agrarian-based economy that left the kingdom well behind other European powers. Serbia strove for grandeur but lacked the regional support or the domestic wherewithal to accomplish it.
This sat uncomfortably with both pan-Slavic and Serbian nationalists, who saw the state not only fail to take its supposedly rightful position at the head of the Balkans, but also squander and woefully mismanage relations with fellow Balkan states. Consequently, as official Serbian policymakers faltered, other semiofficial or disavowed organisations emerged to promote Serbia’s role in a pan-Slavic future. In September 1901, a cabal of army officers led by Captain Dragutin Dimitrijevic (codenamed “Apis”) formed Ujedinjenje ili smrt! (Unification or Death!), a semi-secret organisation committed to the liberation of Slavic territories from empires that still held land in the Balkans, and the unification of these territories, and those that had already gained independence, under the Serbian banner, to form a large Serbian state. This first aim put the group, commonly known as the Black Hand, firmly in conflict with both the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had eagerly stepped in when Ottoman influence in the region began to wane. In particular, the Black Hand interested itself in the affairs of the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which were occupied by Austria-Hungary as stipulated in the Treaty of Berlin, and officially annexed in 1908. To this end, the Black Hand provided its support, both material and moral, to a small Bosnian nationalist organisation known as Young Bosnia. Young Bosnia’s small membership was mostly made up of radical university students, seeking Bosnia’s independence from Austria-Hungary. This, of course, immediately drew the nascent group to the attention of Apis, who saw it as a possible means of striking at Austria-Hungary and fulfilling part of the Black Hand’s charter, while not necessarily opening Serbia to censure.
The rise of the Black Hand, and its less adventurous but still vehemently nationalist counterpart, Narodna Odbrana, was only possible as long as Serbian political power remained weak. Without government or legal oversight, these groups were able to infiltrate themselves into the ultranationalist cabals of the country, and extend their influence further into other Balkan territories, such as Bosnia. Part of the reason this was possible was the ever-present fear among government figures that the ultranationalists would turn on them. Certainly, there was precedent for this. Apis had formed Black Hand as a conspiracy, not against Austria-Hungary, but against the Serbian royal family, who he and his colleagues saw as weak, vacillating, and unwilling to truly challenge Serbia’s foes. In 1903, Black Hand operatives stormed the Old Palace in Belgrade and, having tricked King Alexander and Queen Draga out of hiding, viciously and brutally murdered the pair, throwing their dismembered bodies out the window of their bedchamber, and on to a pile of horse manure outside. The coup also claimed the lives of the prime minister, and the minister of war, as well as the queen’s two brothers, and the king’s aide-de-camp. The rebels placed a new dynasty on the throne, in the person of King Peter Karadordevic. Remarkably, though, the response among Serbian society, and especially in Belgrade, where the brutal assassinations had occurred, was muted by indifference. King Peter never forgot this, and from the moment he took to the throne he assumed a largely ceremonial role, choosing to surrender real power to the cabal.
This lesson was also learned by the Serbian statesman Nikola Pasic, a mainstay in the Skupstina, who had previously served – and would in the future serve – on many occasions as prime minister. Pasic was deeply intelligent, fiercely loyal to his country, and intensely popular. He was also cripplingly indecisive, and keenly aware that the rise of Black Hand and other, similar organisations had, by definition, created a conflict of loyalties for the Serbian Army in particular. On the one hand, Pasic and the government had to weigh up Serbia’s role as a power in Europe, including maintaining cordial relations with its neighbours. On the other hand, the Black Hand demanded Serbia’s expansion and elevation of its power. The former was the prudent option. The latter, however, appealed to the ambitious army officer corps. It is no coincidence that the Black Hand had been formed by a close-knit group of officers. Matters were not improved by Austria-Hungary’s actions; in 1906, for instance, Vienna, aiming to squeeze Serbia economically, closed its borders to Serbian pork – the very foundation of the Serbian export economy. Belgrade’s response was to seek new means of exporting pork, which ultimately came to fruition when France signed a favourable import treaty with Serbia, but this was a long process, and the army increasingly agitated for a military counterstrike against the Habsburg Empire. This pressure only increased after Austria-Hungary’s formal annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908.
At the centre of Serbia’s power structure, therefore, a strange and dangerous duality had formed. On the one hand, the legitimate government institutions, often led by the sober Pasic, tried to use diplomatic leverage to solve its foreign policy problems, which were chiefly caused by its troubled relationship with Austria-Hungary. On the other hand, Serbian ultranationalist organisations called for more punitive policies, and demanded the expansion of Serbia into a regional powerhouse. This could only come at the expense of Austria-Hungary; thus, for all intents and purposes, groups like the Black Hand and Narodna Odbrana were agitating for war with the Habsburg Empire. In order for this to be successful, these groups banked on Russian support, believing that the paternalistic relationship between Russia and Serbia would oblige St. Petersburg to arm its Balkan ally and provide a brotherhood in arms against Austria. Coupled with the impression that Austria-Hungary was falling into an irreversible decline, this sentiment resonated with many in the army, to the extent that it is fair to say that a large proportion of the Serbian Army was either sympathetic to or directly influenced by either Narodna Odbrana or Ujedinjenje ili smrt! To an astute politician like Pasic, it was clear that, even though he was popular within the civilian electorate, this would mean little if he were to antagonise the Black Hand, which could very well engineer his downfall or murder. As a result, even though the Black Hand was technically illegal, the Pasic administrations tended to turn a blind eye to its operations.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: Battleground by Proxy.
“War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans”, Otto von Bismarck had once warned; if he had survived to 1908 he would no doubt have predicted that the flashpoint would be Bosnia. Here, the difficulties of Austro-Serbian relations came into sharp relief. Austria-Hungary had been promised the right to annex the former Ottoman provinces at the Congress of Berlin, and had it been permitted to do so then, in 1878, it would perhaps have been countenanced by Belgrade. But circumstances had changed by 1908. Austria’s seemingly irresistible decline had taken hold, its animosity towards Serbia shown by its actions in the so-called “Pig War”, when it had forbidden the export of Serbian pork through its borders, and the formal annexation of these ethnically Slavic provinces rankled the pan-Slavic radicals of Narodna Odbrana and Black Hand. Matters were not helped by the insistence of the Hungarian ministries that Bosnia and Herzegovina be formally attached to Hungary, not Austria; Hungary’s circumspection in extending equal rights to non-Hungarian ethnicities was well-known among pan-Slavists. Even Archduke Franz Ferdinand recognised the dangers of this, in both a domestic and an international sense; writing to the head of the Military Chancellery, Alexander von Brosch-Aarenau, the heir to the throne noted:
If the annexation has to be realised, I give my assent under only one condition, that both provinces should join the Empire and the crownlands. If Hungary demands that these provinces belong to St. Stephen’s Crown [i.e. Hungary] – and this will happen – we should not yield under any conditions, even if it means evading the annexation and leaving things as they are.
Central to the Hungarian opposition to Bosnia and Herzegovina being joined with Austria (rather than Hungary) was the fact that this would strengthen Slavic influence in Austria. This, however, was precisely what Franz Ferdinand wanted. As has been previously noted, the archduke believed that the Austro-Hungarian Empire required reform at a fundamental level; central to this was his notion of extending electoral franchises to all the major minorities, including Slavs.
Franz Ferdinand was also aware of another danger lurking in the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The archduke differed in many respects from his uncle – indeed, in most matters of state they butted heads, and Franz Ferdinand’s concept of the United States of Great Austria would likely have horrified the old Franz Josef – but in two issues they were of one mind: they both believed in the need to safeguard Austria, and they both believed that Serbia posed an existential threat to their crown. Upon the annexation of the provinces, the archduke wrote to the Austrian foreign minister, Baron von Aehrenthal, congratulating him for “[showing] Europe once again that we are still a great power!” However, he continued, “the main thing is to keep the peace in Bosnia with an iron rod. Any attempt at a putsch or an infiltration by the [Serbs] from across the borders must be met with execution by shooting, hanging etc. We have to keep an especially tight rein on the Serbs […] and every emissary from Serbia must be thrown out forthwith.” The Serbian foreign minister, Milovan Milovanovic, responded in kind: “[O]ne thing I know for certain, I can feel it – that Bosnia and Herzegovina will not remain in Austria’s possession for long. […] I will put my life on it that Bosnia will be free by 1920. Who knows whether any of us will witness it…and who knows how it will all come about?”
Austro-Hungarian hegemony over Bosnia and Herzegovina had caused outrage, and nearly war, in Serbia. In Bosnia, for all Franz Ferdinand’s rhetoric of iron rods and discipline, the situation was not nearly so inflamed as Serbian rhetoric suggested. Little had changed for the peasantry, who were the overwhelming majority of the population, nor for the small but growing bourgeoisie. However, Austrian involvement had brought about an education revolution, and universities had opened their doors to a wider range of students. Much like the undergraduates of Russia, who would be introduced to Marxist theory, Bosnian youths entering university were soon seduced by the allure of nationalist theories, and by the late 1900s there was a growing network of Narodna Odbrana cells within urban Bosnia, with which these radicalised students could make contact. One of these students was named Gavrilo Princip.
Plan and Action.
That Princip’s organisation, Young Bosnia, turned to assassination as a tool of political change is not surprising at all. In 1910, one of their number, Bogdan Zerajic, had attempted to murder the Austro-Hungarian governor of Bosnia, Varesanin, by unloading the magazine of a revolver at him. Zerajic missed with every shot, save the one he reserved for his own temple; nevertheless, he quickly became a martyr to the cause. Varesanin’s eventual replacement, Oskar Potiorek, was similarly a logical target, and there is no doubt that the young radicals who made up Young Bosnia plotted his assassination as well. Yet the assassination, when it came, was not directed against Potiorek, but against Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne himself.Why Franz Ferdinand was targeted for killing is difficult to say. Young Bosnia may have been enthusiastic, but it was hardly a competent or overly ambitious terrorist group, and choosing to kill the heir to the throne would entail problems far beyond those encountered even in attempting to kill the governor. Franz Ferdinand’s security was likely to be very tight, compared to Varesanin’s. Moreover, Franz Ferdinand was a far more important personage than Varesanin, or Potiorek. His ascension to the throne was only a matter of time, given the advanced years of Franz Josef; his death would therefore attract a much greater Austrian response. Such dangerous, weighty plans were unlikely to originate in Sarajevo, amongst the handful of gun-toting university students.
Across the border in Serbia, however, it was a different story. Bosnia had very little to gain from the death of Franz Ferdinand. Serbia – or, rather, the Serbian state – could hardly countenance such a plan either; if Serbs were found to have been responsible, it would surely mean war, and Pasic and his political allies had tried hard to avoid such a disastrous eventuality for years. But amongst the Serbian nationalists, and particularly amongst the members and sympathisers of the Black Hand, Franz Ferdinand’s upcoming visit to Sarajevo was too tempting an opportunity. The Black Hand stood for the liberation of Slavic territory from under Austro-Hungarian influence, and unification of all the Slavic states under Serbia’s wing. The second necessitated the first, yet this presupposed that the Balkan areas of the Empire would want to secede from Vienna’s leadership. Franz Ferdinand, however, was dynamic, progressive, and reform-minded. His plan for a European United States would extend unprecedented rights to the Slavic people of the Empire. To the proponents of Greater Serbia, the prospect was a nightmare; if they could not entice their fellow Slavs away from Habsburg control, how could they possibly succeed in their ultimate goal? Apis – by now, head of Serbian Intelligence as well as the (supposedly illegal) Ujedinjenje ili smrt! – would no doubt have been aware that, with Franz Ferdinand disposed of, his ambitions to reform the Empire would also die, since the remaining triumvirate – the ailing Franz Josef, the fiercely parochial Hungarian Prime Minister Istvan Tisza, and the mercurial army chief Baron Conrad von Hötzendorf – were all staunchly reactionary traditionalists. Were the reforms to die, so too would the threat to the attractiveness of pan-Slavism.
Some – including Apis’ biographer, David MacKenzie – suggest another, more pressing motive. Apis may have had delusions of expanding Serbia’s role in the region at the expense of Austria-Hungary, but he was still a Serbian Army officer. Serbia had just fought the two Balkan Wars and, while the country had enjoyed significant victories, the army was by now in terrible disarray, battered and exhausted by years of fighting. If Serbia were compelled now to go to war, it would surely be a catastrophe on an unimaginable scale. According to MacKenzie, Apis may have believed that Franz Ferdinand (who had, during the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, shown no love for the Serbs) was pressing for preemptive war against Serbia. As evidence for this, it had been Franz Ferdinand who had placed Conrad von Hötzendorf at the head of the army, and Hötzendorf was notorious for advocating war against Serbia. Between New Years Day 1913 and New Years Day 1914, for example, Hötzendorf had officially recommended to the Kaiser that Austria-Hungary invade Serbia on no fewer than twenty-five occasions. It is worth noting that, by this point, Hötzendorf had fallen out of favour with Franz Ferdinand, and his insistence on war was so frequent that he was routinely ignored at court. Nonetheless, his previous relationship with the archduke, and his dogmatic approach to the Serbian question, may have led Apis and the Black Hand to the conclusion that Franz Ferdinand would himself soon be pushing for an Austro-Serbian war. Killing him, therefore, might derail or at least delay the Austrian war party, and since Serbia was in such a deplorable state of military readiness, this could prove to be Belgrade’s last, desperate chance.
If MacKenzie is right, and Apis was driven by a fear of Franz Ferdinand declaring war, then Apis woefully miscalculated. Though his rhetoric against the Serbs often took a hard line, the archduke was frequently the voice of reason at the Austrian court, counselling his uncle away from the obstreperous cries for war that emanated from the bellicose Hötzendorf. Indeed, one must wonder how murdering Franz Ferdinand could possibly relieve the threat of war, since Hötzendorf, the most hawkish of Franz Josef’s courtiers, would remain in his role as chief of staff and head of the army. If anything, if Serbia were fingered as the culprit for the assassination attempt, Apis would have all but assured war.
Be this as it may, Apis went ahead with his plan. In order to carry it out, he turned his attention to the ties between the Serbian nationalist organisations, such as Naredna Odbrana and his own Black Hand, and the Young Bosnian group. The plot was to involve only Bosnians, in an effort to obfuscate the role that Serbia played in it. Apis’ planning was quite meticulous; weapons would be shuttled over the border to Bosnia by trusted border guards, illiterate peasants would provide the assassins transport without realising precisely what they were doing. He even procured the services of a second cell of assassins, led by Bosnian Danilo Ilic, with the express aim of misdirecting authorities. Ilic’s cell was made up of loyal Young Bosnians with a proven track record of failure and incompetence; Apis hoped that they would be captured, and since they knew nothing of the true plot, they could hardly betray Apis and the Black Hand as being complicit.
Even in planning, however, we see severe flaws. The assassins to be sent on this mission – Nedeljko Cabrinovic, Trifko Grabez, and Gavrilo Princip – were all Bosnians, but they had all recently spent time in Belgrade. Indeed, at his later trial, Princip would accidentally let slip that Grabez’s more radical views only developed “after he came to Belgrade.” Their handler, Milan Ciganovic, was chosen for being a Bosnian, but he too could easily be traced back to Serbia, since he was not only a member of the Black Hand, but also a worker on the Serbian state railway. Moreover, the weaponry they were provided – revolvers and bombs – had all been procured from the Kragujevac Arsenal, which supplied the Serbian Army. In short, much as Apis wanted to have the finger of blame pointed at local Bosnians, he could not entirely hide the Princip cell’s links to Belgrade. Thus, if Princip and his coconspirators were caught, there was a high probability that the trail might lead Austro-Hungarian authorities back to Serbia.
Regardless of these flaws, the plan went ahead. Princip and his cohort were smuggled across the border. They planned to bomb Franz Ferdinand’s motorcade as it passed them on the Emperor Bridge in Sarajevo – precisely where Bogdan Zerajic had taken his own life, having failed to kill Governor Varesanin.
Serbian Officialdom and the Plot.
The plot to kill Franz Ferdinand involved extraordinary resources and conspiracies. In order for it to succeed, Apis required the complicity of Serbian Army guards. He required the ability to remove weapons from a government arsenal, without raising alarms. He required that known Young Bosnia activists be trained, paid, and prepared for action, all in Serbia. He also extensively used his own, official intelligence network, in order to garner information about the archduke’s visit to Sarajevo. In short, he used resources that were only available to him through official channels.
So, how much can we see the hand of the Serbian government in this plot? At first glance, the conspiracy appears totally out of character for Pasic and his cabinet, who strove to keep Serbia at peace. Through diplomatic links, Pasic could not expect anything but war if Franz Ferdinand were killed and Serbia found complicit, given the known character of Hötzendorf and his retinue. Pasic had time and again shown himself to be a cautious politician, unwilling to take risky, decisive action. Certainly, given all the factors we have mentioned, this particular plan went well beyond “risky”, towards the realm of suicidal insanity.
Yet we cannot entirely absolve Pasic of knowledge. Indeed, we know he knew something. Pasic warned the Serbian cabinet, at least a month before the murder, that a plot was afoot “to go to Sarajevo to kill Franz Ferdinand.” Nor did Pasic think the attack would take place using feather dusters and hope. Throughout May and June 1914, he received reports of weapons being smuggled over the border to Bosnia. The reports had so troubled Pasic that he had ordered the borders closed and the border guards investigated, but this happened more than a fortnight after the first worrying reports had been received, and was therefore a useless measure if the prime minister wished to stop the assassination attempt.
So, the arithmetic confronting Pasic was thus: a plot to kill the heir to the throne of Serbia’s greatest enemy was in the offing. Weapons had been smuggled across the border. Were Franz Ferdinand to be killed, the consequences would be dire. Clearly, Pasic’s only option was to warn Vienna and Sarajevo.
Or was it? For while Serbian complicity in the death of Franz Ferdinand would be catastrophic, for Belgrade to attempt to stop the assassination might have other, more immediate consequences. The Black Hand, it should be remembered, had significant support from that vital powerbroker, the military. Its leader was the head of military intelligence. The preparation for the Princip cell’s mission had only been possible through army complicity. By inference, then, if Black Hand wanted Franz Ferdinand dead, then the army wanted Franz Ferdinand dead. Past experience had shown that the title of prime minister would not be enough to save a politician who strayed into disfavour with the army; one need only recall the horrific bloodbath from Apis’ coup in 1903 to realise the precarious position Pasic would have put himself in, had he betrayed Black Hand’s plot to the Austrians. And then there was the matter of the Austrians themselves. If Pasic were to warn them, he would have been admitting to a Serbian plot to kill the heir to the throne. In essence, he would be providing Vienna with just what Hötzendorf had wanted for so long: a reason for war.
Therefore, in spite of the danger, Pasic reverted to type. He did nothing, perhaps hoping against hope that the plot would fail, and Serbia’s link to it would not be discovered.
On 28 June 1914, Sarajevo was bedecked in patriotic imperial bunting, and the streets lined with crowds, to witness the six-vehicle motorcade that carried in its midst Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. As the cars drove along Appel Quay, one of the men in the crowd moved forward, bomb in hand. Nedeljko Cabrinovic hurled the explosive device at the cars but, though it hit Franz Ferdinand’s vehicle, it bounced off the bodywork and exploded underneath the car trailing behind, wounding its passengers as well as several bystanders. Cabrinovic’s next act – an attempt at suicide, to avoid capture – was about as successful as his attempt to kill the archduke. Swallowing cyanide, he threw himself into the Miljaka River. However, the river was only a few centimetres deep, precluding drowning, and the dose of cyanide had degraded, and was so weak that it merely caused him to vomit. While Cabrinovic was pulled from the river and set upon by the enraged crowd, the motorcade sped away, precluding Princip and the remaining conspirators (including Ilic’s cell) from taking action themselves.
Upon arriving at the town hall, the furious and shaken archduke remonstrated with the hapless major of Sarajevo, but soon calmed down. It was then that, in an act of humanity, Franz Ferdinand sealed his own fate. He declared that he would not continue with the official portion of his visit to the Bosnian capital. Instead, he wished to visit the people who had been wounded in the attempt on his life, and pay his respects at the local hospital. Thus resolved, he, Sophie, and Governor Potiorek returned to their car, heading back down towards Appel Quay.
Gavrilo Princip, meanwhile, had slinked away from the site of the botched assassination attempt. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, he intended to rid himself of his weapons and go into hiding. But, as he debated with himself, a car pulled directly in front of him. Franz Ferdinand’s driver, unfamiliar with Sarajevo, had taken a wrong turn and, upon being corrected by Potiorek, attempted to reverse. The confusion left the car stationary for approximately twenty seconds, and it gave Princip the opportunity to draw his revolver, aim at the archduke, and fire. Franz Ferdinand was hit first, but when Princip aimed for Potiorek, he misfired, striking the duchess instead.
The bullet that hit Franz Ferdinand passed through his jugular vein, causing extensive bleeding that could not be staunched. The one intended for Governor Potiorek had passed through Sophie’s side, and though it was not immediately recognised that she had indeed been shot, Sophie was the first to die. As befitting two people in love (as Franz Ferdinand and Sophie certainly were – a rarity for royal couplings at this time), their last thoughts were of each other. Sophie, upon seeing the blood dribbling from the corners of her beloved husband’s mouth, managed to cry out in despair: “My God! What has happened to you?”, before she collapsed to the floor of the car. The archduke, in shock and rapidly losing blood, pleaded with his wife not to die, and to “live for my children”, before he, too, succumbed to his wounds.
The heir to the Habsburg throne and his wife were dead, killed by an assassin with a revolver. This alone would have made the shocking event a cause celebre. But the story did not end on the streets of Sarajevo. Authorities reacted quickly; Gavrilo Princip, attempting suicide by cyanide, discovered that his capsule, like Cabrinovic’s, had oxidised, and he was arrested, in excruciating pain but without the comfort of death. With the conspirators in captivity, Pasic’s worst fears were realised. The Austro-Hungarian government immediately suspected Serbian involvement, and with Princip in its hands it had proof. How it would use this proof, and how it would react to the Sarajevo outrage, is the subject of the next post in this series.
- Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. London. Allen Lane. 2012.
- Dedijer, Vladimir. The Road to Sarajevo. London. MacGibbon & Kee. 1967.
- Glenny, Misha. The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers 1804-2011. New York. Penguin. 2012.
- MacKenzie, David. Apis: The Congenial Conspirator. The Life of Colonel Dragutin T. Dimitrijevic. New York. Columbia University Press. 1989.
- MacKenzie, David. The “Black Hand” on Trial. Salonika, 1917. New York. Columbia University Press. 1995.