World War One - the Spark
Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
author Paul Boșcu, February 2015
World War I was sparked by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian heir to the throne, by a Bosnian Serb. This event triggered an international crisis that led to the outbreak of the Great War.

The final trigger for war would be the pent-up pressure of nationalism within the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire. Various nationalist groupings were making their plans. Collectively, they were highly motivated conspirators and in June 1914 they were given their chance to change the world. The culmination of months of plotting was the assassination of the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo on the 28th of June 1914. Franz Ferdinand was the heir presumptive of the Austro-Hungarian throne. As such, he was deemed a primary target by the Black Hand organization.

The most significant group would prove to be the Serbian Narodna Odbrana (National Defence) along with its rather intimidating secret terrorist wing, ‘The Black Hand’. Their intention was to liberate all Serbs from their oppressors to create a Greater Serbia, and in particular to reverse the formal annexation of Bosnia by the Austrians. To this end they had recruited a formidable membership within an interlinked nest of organizations such as ‘Young Bosnia’. The annual summer maneuvers of the Austro-Hungarian army were centered in Bosnia. The army, increasingly frustrated by what it saw as lax government in Austria and Hungary, determined that its administration of Bosnia-Herzegovina should be a model of effectiveness. Franz Ferdinand himself advocated repression and active Germanization. He was also a staunch Catholic: in Bosnia, Catholics were the minority, making up 18 percent of the population, while 42 percent were Orthodox. Many Bosnians looked wistfully to Serbia.

Please support History Lapse by making a $5 donation (PayPal, credit card or bitcoin).

bitcoin: 1PpagscXKttC5FidgV2WQNRaBgSPwjvP9Z
The final trigger for war would be the pent-up pressure of nationalism within the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire. Various nationalist groupings were making their plans. Collectively, they were highly motivated conspirators and in June 1914 they were given their chance to change the world. The culmination of months of plotting was the assassination of the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo on the 28th of June 1914. Franz Ferdinand was the heir presumptive of the Austro-Hungarian throne. As such, he was deemed a primary target by the Black Hand organization.

The most significant group would prove to be the Serbian Narodna Odbrana (National Defence) along with its rather intimidating secret terrorist wing, ‘The Black Hand’. Their intention was to liberate all Serbs from their oppressors to create a Greater Serbia, and in particular to reverse the formal annexation of Bosnia by the Austrians. To this end they had recruited a formidable membership within an interlinked nest of organizations such as ‘Young Bosnia’. The annual summer maneuvers of the Austro-Hungarian army were centered in Bosnia. In March it was announced that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand would attend the maneuvers and would visit Sarajevo.

The army, increasingly frustrated by what it saw as lax government in Austria and Hungary, determined that its administration of Bosnia-Herzegovina should be a model of effectiveness. Franz Ferdinand himself advocated repression and active Germanization. He was also a staunch Catholic: in Bosnia, Catholics were the minority, making up 18 percent of the population, while 42 percent were Orthodox. Many Bosnians looked wistfully to Serbia.

Franz Ferdinand was apprehensive about the visit, with good reason. Five assassination attempts had been made against representatives of the Habsburg administration in the previous four years. In the circumstances, and even without the benefit of hindsight, the early announcement of the visit of the heir-apparent, and the extraordinarily lax security associated with it, were inexcusable.

Serb subjects were implicated in Franz Ferdinand's assassination. Austria-Hungary's assumption, and indeed determination that this was the case, was shared by most of the other great powers. But the involvement of the Serb government specifically remains a moot point. Sensible diplomacy had settled crises before, notably during the powers' quarrels over position in Africa and in the disquiet raised by the Balkan Wars. Such crises, however, had touched matters of national interest only, not matters of national honor or prestige.

In the intervening period, Serbian intelligence officers covertly provided the conspirators with weapons and training, before facilitating their re-entry into Bosnia. On that fateful day the putative assassins were spread out in the waiting crowd on the streets of Sarajevo as the cars containing the Archduke and his entourage passed by. The assassins were members of a student organization called the Young Bosnians which had ties to the Serbian Black Hand organization.

The driving force in the Black Hand was Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, known as Apis. Apis was chief of intelligence in the Serb general staff: he had used his position to help the Black Hand penetrate the army, and also to carry its activities into Austria-Hungary. Dimitrijevic’s objective, and that of his organization, was not the federal Yugoslavia favored by the Young Bosnians but a Greater Serbia, with the implication that the Serbs would dominate the Croats and Slovenes in the new state. Apis was in contact with the Russian military attaché in Belgrade, but it does not follow that Russia was privy to the assassination. Apis's stock in trade, regicide, was not congenial to the Romanovs. Apis, for his part, wanted the achievement of a Greater Serbia to be that of Serbia itself, not of Russia.

Major Vojislav Tankosic of the Serb army provided the four revolvers and six bombs with which the conspirators were equipped. Captain Rade Popovic commanded the Serb guards on the Bosnian frontier and had seen Princip and his associates safely into Bosnia from Serbia some four weeks before.

The assassins’ initial efforts were less than lethal: one lost his nerve, while a second hurled a hand grenade which wounded people in the car behind the Archduke’s. The others missed their chance as the car accelerated away. But then in the confusion that followed, the Archduke’s car got lost, stalled and by a dreadful coincidence rolled to a stop within a couple of yards of one of the hitherto frustrated assassins: a 19-year-old student named Gavrilo Princip. Whipping out his revolver, Princip fired twice at point blank range into the open-top car. He did not miss.

The archduke and his wife were driven from the station at Sarajevo to the town hall, along the Appel quay. No soldiers lined the route. Nedeljko Cabrinovic, a Bosnian youth, threw a bomb, which bounced off the archduke's car, and then exploded. It wounded two officers in the following car and a number of bystanders. The archduke went on to the town hall. He then decided to visit the wounded officers.

By the time the car had conveyed the bodies of the archduke and his wife to the governor's residence, both were dead. It was their wedding anniversary. It was also the day of the battle of Kosovo: in 1389 a single Serb, after defeat at the hands of the Turks, had penetrated the Ottoman ranks and killed the Sultan.

On the running board Count Franz von Harrach was a horrified witness: ‘As the car quickly reversed, a thin stream of blood spurted from His Highness’s mouth onto my right cheek. As I was pulling out my handkerchief to wipe the blood away from his mouth, the Duchess cried out to him, ‘For God’s sake! What has happened to you?’ At that she slid off the seat and lay on the floor of the car, with her face between his knees. I had no idea that she too was hit and thought she had simply fainted with fright. Then I heard His Imperial Highness say, ‘Sophie, Sophie, don’t die. Stay alive for the children!’ At that, I seized the Archduke by the collar of his uniform, to stop his head dropping forward, and asked him if he was in great pain. He answered me quite distinctly, ‘It is nothing!’ His face began to twist somewhat but he went on repeating, six or seven times, ever more faintly as he gradually lost consciousness, ‘It’s nothing!’ Then came a brief pause followed by a convulsive rattle in his throat, caused by a loss of blood. This ceased on arrival at the governor’s residence. The two unconscious bodies were carried into the building where their death was soon established.’

At the junction of Franz Josef Strasse and the Appel quay, confusion arose as to the route to be followed. The driver began to reverse the car. Gavrilo Princip was at the corner, having failed earlier in the day to take his opportunity on the Appel quay. He stepped forward and shot both the archduke and his consort.

The first bullet hit Franz Ferdinand in the neck, while the second tore open the stomach of his pregnant wife Sophie as she tried to protect her husband.

Princip and his colleagues embraced the idea of a Yugoslavia, of a South Slav independent state, and rejected gradualism and reformism as means to achieve that end. Violence, they reckoned, would provoke Austro-Hungarian repression and so increase South Slav hatred of Habsburg government. Terrorism, tyrannicide, direct action, the decisive role of the individual in history—all these themes appealed to the conspirators.

The Serbian conspirators were arrested and interrogated. As the interrogations went on it became apparent that the Serbian state was very involved in the assassination. The Serbian Prime Minister, Nicholas Pasic, was placed under intense pressure by the furious Austrians. Their annoyance was genuine but the crisis with Serbia also provided a convenient way out for them. If Germany could counterbalance the threat of intervention from Russia, then perhaps the upstart Serbians could be dealt with once and for all. The evidence of Serb complicity, official or not, in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, exposed by the conspirators' confessions, was enough to persuade many in the imperial government that a war against Serbia was now a necessity.

Princip and his co-conspirators were swiftly arrested and interrogated. Although as Bosnians they were Austro-Hungarian citizens, it soon became manifest from confessions extracted by the 2nd of July that the Serbian state was deeply implicated – even if at arm’s length – in the assassination.

Before reacting publicly, Austria’s Foreign Minister, Count Leopold von Berchtold, sent his emissary to Berlin asking for support in dealing with his country’s now irreconcilable differences with Serbia. What was Germany to do? She could of course abandon Austria-Hungary, her only real ally, but that would leave her more isolated in Europe than ever.

A soundly trounced Serbia would quash the endless calls for Slavic autonomy for at least a generation. The rickety structure of the Austro-Hungarian Empire might even survive the death of the elderly Emperor Franz Josef I. War offered hope where before only disintegration had beckoned.

Franz Ferdinand was not the sort of personality who commanded popularity, and his demise in itself did not cast the empire into deepest mourning. But as the Serb press crowed, so the Austrian and even Hungarian newspapers retaliated, and indignation that the heir-apparent should have been eliminated — apparently — by a foreign power took on a totally justifiable note of grievance.

The crisis in the summer of 1914 left the Germans little option but to support their Austro-Hungarian allies. However, they left no doubt that the Germans had their own aggressive agenda. The Kaiser and then the German Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, offered their full support to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in whatever course they decided to pursue in bringing Serbia to heel – even if it meant provoking war with Russia and hence a general European war.

The German military was prepared to take risks, to go the very brink of war and beyond to seize the moment should it be given any kind of legitimate pretext. This policy had been explicitly spelled out by the Chief of General Staff, General Helmuth von Moltke, on the 1st of June 1914, well before the assassination crisis: ‘If only things would finally boil over – we are ready; the sooner the better for us.’ Although he was prey to some wavering, this remained Moltke’s default position throughout the crisis.

On one level, some German politicians seem to have believed that a quick war could be fought between Austria and Serbia which might lance their ally’s most annoying carbuncle without triggering a general European conflagration. But, on the other hand, the powerful German military leaders were all too aware that if there was to be a European war, then it would be better for it to take place before Germany’s enemies had gained even greater strength.

After considerable dithering, on the 23rd of July the Austrians finally issued their ultimatum, which contained ten stringent demands of the Serbs, requiring answers within just two days. At the same time, clearly anticipating a rejection of those demands, they began to mobilize their forces.

Serbia was required not only to desist but also publicly to condemn all forms of nationalist or separatist propaganda, while allowing Austro-Hungarian officials to supervise the detention, interrogation and punishment of all Serbs implicated in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

Austria-Hungary cited Serbia's failure to suppress the terrorism emanating from within its borders as evidence that Serbia had failed to honor its undertaking of 1909 to sustain good relations with Austria-Hungary. It asked the Serbian government to take action against those Serbians implicated in the plot, and to include Austro-Hungarian representation in the suppression of anti-Austrian activities within Serbia. Serbia was granted forty-eight hours within which to reply.

By accepting most of the terms but not all— the Serbs refused to allow Austro-Hungarian representation in Serbia's internal investigations—Serbia appeared the injured party and won widespread support. The European climate, so apparently favorable to Austria-Hungary up to the 23rd of July, turned distinctly frosty after that. The diplomatic solution, to which Belgrade had at least technically opened the path, was of no interest in Vienna. Within fifteen minutes of receiving the Serb reply, the Austrian ambassador in Belgrade announced that it was unsatisfactory and that diplomatic relations between the two states were at an end. The Austro-Hungarian army began to mobilize against Serbia.

After ordering the precautionary mobilization of their relatively small army, the Serbs buckled, unwilling to face war without the explicit backing of Russia. Then, as the deadline loomed, significant news came through to Belgrade from Russia. In a moment the situation had changed: Tsar Nicholas II ordered the mobilization of the Russian Imperial Army. This was a key moment of the crisis. The Serbians naturally took some heart at this concrete evidence of Russian support.

Tsar Nicholas II proclaimed the ‘Period Preparatory to Mobilization’ whereby among other measures the youngest reservists were called up to their units. The Russian decision for general mobilization preceded any reaction from Germany.

The Russians were well aware that their programme of rearmament and improved railway links to the German Eastern Front had not yet really come to fruition. Although they had recovered their military strength after the debacle of the Russo-Japanese War, this represented a very bold step. Yet at the same time they clearly felt that they could not allow Serbia to be overwhelmed.

As the Austro-Hungarians had brusquely rejected Russian requests for compromise, the Russians wished to add more bite to their diplomatic representations. Also, risks could be taken because, if the worst came to the worst, then although they would have to fight a war with Austria-Hungary and Germany, they would have the guaranteed support of the French, and perhaps even of the British. If the war went well, then perhaps they could finally dismember Turkey and at last secure Constantinople and that long-coveted route to the Mediterranean.

In the Serbian reply to the Austrian ultimatum, although they still accepted the broad thrust of the Austro-Hungarian demands, they had the temerity to attach conditions to various points and utterly rejected the concept of Austrian officials prosecuting the investigation of the assassination from within Serbian territory. This in turn was rejected out of hand by the Austrians, and a declaration of war with Serbia was obviously imminent.

The French government was determined to preserve the integrity of the Triple Entente, which not only meant not letting Russia down but also making sure they did not invite any blame for their own actions that might lose them British support. Broadly passive as the crisis unfurled, they warned the Russians to be prudent, yet at the same time restated their commitment to join Russia should war be forced upon them.

The French may not have sought war in the summer of 1914, but equally they did little to avoid it, buoyed up by the opportunity to finally gain revenge on Germany, backed by both Russia and Britain.

The mobilization orders to the French fleet assumed that the joint Anglo-French operational plans would be put into effect: in practice Britain had neither committed itself on this point nor yet sent an ultimatum to Germany.

France's sense of now or never was contributed to by an inflated expectation of the likely British response. Paul Cambon, France's ambassador in London, had listened to those British friendly to the Entente rather than those who were not: his dispatches reflected the expectation generated by the Anglo-French naval agreement of 1912, that in the event of war with Germany the Entente would become a definitive alliance.

The British were aghast as they observed these distressing developments. They attempted to calm the situation. Their Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, proposed to convene a Four Power Conference – Britain, France, Germany and Italy – to defer the crisis, allow mediation and give Serbia, Austria-Hungary and Russia the chance to step back from the brink.

The Prime Minister, Sir Herbert Asquith, summed up his frustration in a private letter: ‘Austria has sent a bullying and humiliating ultimatum to Serbia, who cannot possibly comply with it, and demanded an answer within 48 hours – failing which she will march. This means, almost inevitably, that Russia will come to the scene in defence of Serbia and in defiance of Austria, and if so, it is difficult for Germany and France to refrain from lending a hand to one side or the other. So that we are in measurable, or imaginable, distance of a real Armageddon. Happily, there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators.’

Britain was the only great power to debate its entry to the war in parliament; it was also the only state that did not see its own territorial integrity under direct threat. The decision to fight, therefore, had to be justified to more people than was the case in other countries, but itself rested on a more indirect danger. The reluctance of the Foreign Office to treat foreign policy in an open way, Sir Edward Grey's own tendency to keep diplomacy from the cabinet — both these factors meant that British opinion had to be educated, coaxed, and given time to develop, in late July.

The Four Power Conference proposal was traditional diplomacy in accordance with the loose arrangements whereby any serious crisis would prompt a Great Power conference and allow a compromise answer that, while it might not please everyone, would at least avert war. But Germany's experience of such conferences, after the two Moroccan crises, was — as it had been for its ally — one of humiliation. The Germans rejected the British proposal, on the grounds that the affair was Austria-Hungary's alone.

Liberalism's affection for the rights of small nations did not extend to Serbia. The Manchester Guardian was of the view that, 'if it were physically possible for Serbia to be towed out to sea and sunk there, the air of Europe would at once seem cleaner'. Grey told the Austro-Hungarian ambassador that, if his country could fight Serbia without provoking Russia, he could 'take a holiday tomorrow'.

Asquith recognized the implications of the Austrian ultimatum for European relations and the possibility of a 'real Armageddon', but still reckoned that the British could be 'spectators'. He could not at first see why a German victory would upset the balance of power in Europe, on the grounds that it had not done so in 1871. As much as a week later he told the archbishop of Canterbury that the Serbs deserved a 'thorough thrashing'. His major concern in July was Irish home rule.

By this time the Austrians were intent on a violent resolution. A minor clash on the border with Serbia provided an all-too-convenient excuse for them to declare war on the 28th of July. In Berlin the Kaiser was wavering, and indeed engaged in an exchange of friendly telegrams with his blood relative Nicholas II, but by this time it was too late. The decisions that mattered had already been taken. At the same time, German diplomats were preoccupied with trying to ensure that the British did not come to the assistance of the French and Russians.

Asquith was not impressed by the German efforts as he pondered anew on the overall state of affairs on the 30th of July: ‘The European situation is at least one degree worse than it was yesterday, and has not been improved by a rather shameless attempt on the part of Germany to buy our neutrality during the war by promises that she will not annex French territory (except colonies) or Holland or Belgium. There is something very crude and childlike about German diplomacy. Meanwhile the French are beginning to press in the opposite sense, as the Russians have been doing for some time. The City, which is in a terrible state of depression and paralysis, is for the time being all against English intervention. I think the prospect very black today.’

Grey made his commitment to the Entente clear to Germany, and was justified in doing so by Germany's own confirmation that it intended to march through France and Belgium. The obligation to defend Belgian neutrality was incumbent on all the signatories to the 1839 treaty acting collectively, and this had been the view adopted by the cabinet only a few days previously. But now Britain presented itself as Belgium's sole guarantor. Its neutrality became the symbol around which Asquith could rally the majority of his cabinet.

At this stage a general European war was inevitable. So it was that on the 31st of July Germany ordered a preparatory level of mobilization and issued two stern ultimatums: one to Russia demanding that she completely demobilize within twelve hours, the other to France requiring a declaration of neutrality within eighteen hours, allowing the German occupation of frontier forts to demonstrate good faith. Such demands were, of course, impossible either to concede or implement. On the 1st of August Germany mobilized and formally declared war on Russia, while the French ordered a general mobilization for the 2nd of August.

Even then the Kaiser was wavering, wrongly believing that there was some prospect of France and Britain remaining neutral if France was not attacked. Inspired by this belief, Wilhelm made a farcical attempt to jettison the whole of the German war plans, suggesting that they attack only Russia. Such proposals were abruptly rebutted by Moltke, who pointed out in no uncertain terms that German troops were already moving against France. Such a change at this late stage was simply impossible.

This would indeed be a Great European War, although, to no one’s surprise, on the 2nd of August Italy bailed out of her alliance with the Central Powers, announcing primly that popular pressure precluded Italian involvement in what she considered to be a war of aggression by her former German and Austro-Hungarian allies.

The Italians, Triple Alliance partners to Austria-Hungary and Germany, stood on the strict terms of the treaty and declared their neutrality. War was not to come to their little kingdom for another fourteen months.

The British still had no real stomach for war, but as a signatory of the 1839 Treaty of London, Britain had long been a guarantor of Belgian neutrality, so if Germany invaded Belgium this would be a potent factor in overwhelming British reluctance to get involved. Slowly, Britain found herself sliding into war. On the 2nd of August, she promised naval support to the French should Germany attack the coastline of northern France. The same day, a German ultimatum demanded Belgium throw open her borders to allow the passage of the German Army through to France. On the 3rd of August, Germany formally declared war on France.

When the Foreign Secretary spoke before the House of Commons on the 3rd of August, all realistic hope of keeping Britain out of the war had evaporated: ‘What other policy is there before the House? There is but one way in which the Government could make certain at the present moment of keeping outside this War, and that would be that it should immediately issue a proclamation of unconditional neutrality. We cannot do that. We have made the commitment to France that I have read to the House which prevents us from doing that. We have got the consideration of Belgium, which prevents us also from any unconditional neutrality, and, without those conditions absolutely satisfied and satisfactory, we are bound not to shrink from proceeding to the use of all the forces in our power. If we did take that line by saying, “We will have nothing whatever to do with this matter” under no conditions – the Belgian Treaty obligations, the possible position in the Mediterranean, with damage to British interests, and what may happen to France from our failure to support France – if we were to say that all those things mattered nothing, were as nothing, and to say we would stand aside, we should, I beli

Sentimentality over ‘poor little Belgium’ undoubtedly played well to the gallery of the British public at large, but there was also a degree of hard-nosed calculation that underpinned the British road to war: Germany was already strong – perhaps too strong – and should she emerge victorious in a war with France and Russia, then the balance of Europe would be shattered for generations. Nor had the German naval threat been forgotten and the idea of German control of French and Belgian ports could not be stomached.

When Germany declared war on Belgium on the 4th of August, the British reaction came the same day. At 19.00 an ultimatum demanding that the Germans commit to an immediate withdrawal from Belgium was personally delivered by Sir Edward Goschen to the German Foreign Minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg. It was a fraught meeting. Of course Germany would not, indeed could not comply – and so with the expiry of the ultimatum at midnight on the 4th of August 1914, Britain was at war with Germany. The Great War had started.

The British Ambassador to Berlin, Sir Edward Goschen, later described his meeting with the two German officials: ‘I found the Chancellor very agitated. His Excellency at once began a harangue, which lasted for about twenty minutes. He said that the step taken by His Majesty’s Government was terrible to a degree; just for a word – “neutrality”, a word which in war time had so often been disregarded – just for a scrap of paper Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation who desired nothing better than to be friends with her. All his efforts in that direction had been rendered useless by this last terrible step, and the policy to which, as I knew, he had devoted himself since his accession to office had tumbled down like a house of cards. What we had done was unthinkable; it was like striking a man from behind while he was fighting for his life against two assailants. He held Great Britain responsible for all the terrible events that might happen. I protested strongly against that statement, and said that, in the same way as he and Herr von Jagow wished me to understand that for strategical reasons it was a matter of life and death to Germany to advance through Belgium and

The British statesman Sir Edward Grey memorably expressed the start of the war: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’ At a stroke, the European hostilities had taken on a truly global complexion. This would be the first world war.

The speed of events outstripped the speed of communications. Insufficient time elapsed for reflection and calculation. But the postures which the powers adopted were themselves reflections of the previous crises, and the decisions taken earlier narrowed the options available later. Russia had to support Serbia because it had not done so in 1909; Germany had to support Austria-Hungary because it had backed down in 1913; France had to honor the commitments to Russia; Britain's apparent success in mediation in 1913 encouraged a renewed effort in 1914.

Such explanations are unfashionably political and diplomatic. Economic and imperial rivalries, the longer-range factors, help explain the growth of international tension in the decade before 1914. Economic depression encouraged the promotion of economic competition in nationalist terms.