Sunday, June 28, 1914 marked a pivotal turning point in history. Europe in the early 20th century was a house of cards teetering on the brink of collapse. The great powers of the day had engaged in a series of alliances and treaties meant to prevent another massive outbreak of war such as the one that wracked the continent in the early 19th century, when Napoleon conquered much of Europe. However, the network of alliances meant that one small misstep could lead to a war of unprecedented proportions.
That misstep occurred on a sunny Sunday in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, causing a row among Serbian nationalists, who wanted their land to be part of the nation of Serbia. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was visiting Sarajevo with his wife, Sophie, to inspect troops in the regional capital. The visit was also meant to show imperial power and prestige. No doubt, the Serbian nationalists saw it as a slight, and in particular the group known as the Black Hand saw it as an opportunity. The radicals formulated a plan to assassinate the Archduke, who was next in line to succeed to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The royal couple were touring the city in an open car, part of a procession totaling six cars, an unprecedented parade in the remote city. Security was, especially by today’s standards, almost criminally light. The first attempt by the Black Hand to kill the Archduke occurred on Appel Quay, when Serbian nationalist Nedjelko Cabrinovic threw a bomb at the royal car. It bounced off the vehicle and exploded in front of the next car, wounding an officer and bystanders.
The failed attack did not deter the Archduke from his schedule. He attended a reception at the city hall, where the mayor praised his royal guest with a scripted speech. After the speech, he was supposed to go to a local museum, but Ferdinand asked instead to visit the hospital where those wounded in the bombing were being treated.
Organizers gave in to the archduke’s request, deciding to take a different route that avoided the site of the first attack. But, for reasons that remain mysterious, no one bothered to tell the drivers. When the motorcade turned onto the previously planned route, along Appel Quay, to the museum, a military aide laid into the driver. Flummoxed, the driver tried to reverse the car, but the engine stalled.
Unknown to the motorcade, another would-be assassin lurked among the milling crowd. Gavrilo Princip, a 19 year old Serbian nationalist, had lingered among the crowds after his co-conspirator’s botched assassination attempt. Now he found himself not five feet away from his target. The crowd was too numerous for him to successfully throw his grenade, so he drew his pistol and fired two shots. One struck Franz Ferdinand in the jugular, the other struck his wife in the stomach.
Princip was captured after unsuccessfully trying to kill himself with a cyanide pill. Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie died soon after. Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia for the killings. Serbia was supported by Russia, who was allied with France, who was allied with Great Britain and Belgium. Austria-Hungary called on Germany to support it against Serbia and her allies. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, plunging the world into a war that would come to be known as The War to End All Wars. All because of one wrong turn.
“Archduke Franz Ferdinand assassinated.” History.com. 1/3/15. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/archduke-franz-ferdinand-assassinated
State, Paul F. “Simple mistake changes course of history: Wrong turn triggers assassination, launches First World War.” BuffaloNews.com. June 22, 2014. The Buffalo News. http://www.buffalonews.com/city-region/simple-mistake-changes-course-of-history-wrong-turn-triggers-assassination-launches-first-world-war-20140622