Most readers of The Times had never heard of Sarajevo in June 1914. The assassination of a visiting Austrian royal by a Balkan nationalist fanatic therefore passed with little comment at British breakfast tables at the end of that month. Yet the two pistol shots fired into the back of a limousine by Gavrilo Princip on  28 June triggered the greatest war in history. To mark the 100th anniversary of that fateful day, MHM Editor Neil Faulkner delivers a behind-the-scenes analysis of history’s most momentous terrorist attack.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, 50-year-old nephew and heir of the ageing Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef, never smiled. He would sit in his box at the theatre with his face frozen in a cold stare, acknowledging neither audience nor performance.

He and his wife, the Countess Sophie Chotek, were marginalised at court because of her relatively modest birth and official disapproval of their marriage; yet he lacked the charm and ease which might have enabled him to acquire friends elsewhere. Bulging in his stiff military uniform, bull-necked and with upturned handlebar moustache, he glared fixedly out of official portraits, expressionless, rigid, pickled in aristocratic hauteur.

Literature and the arts bored him;  his principal occupation was hunting.  The walls of his palace at Konopischt  in Bohemia were hung with numerous  of the 5,000 stags and 200,000 other animals he was reputed to have shot.

Eager to succeed to the imperial throne – openly impatient, indeed, at his 84-year-old uncle’s failure to die – he took his official responsibilities seriously. He ventured strong (but bigoted) opinions on the future of the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire, making plans for its reorganisation, in particular wanting to ‘Germanise’ and centralise it by sidelining the Hungarians. He firmly opposed the military adventurism of the more hawkish elements in the government, but only because he saw the army’s primary role not as fighting foreign wars – notably,  as some proposed, against the rising  power of Serbia – but as the repression of ‘Jews, Freemasons, socialists, and Hungarians’ at home.

A royal visit

In late June 1914, accompanied by his wife, he travelled to the province of Bosnia-Herzegovina to observe the annual army manoeuvres. As Inspector-General of the Armed Forces, attendance at such occasions was a routine duty. But there were special reasons for coming to Bosnia just now – and for including an official visit to Sarajevo, the provincial capital, in the itinerary.

Austria-Hungary had been granted a protectorate over the province by the other European Great Powers at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 – an attempt to maintain a ‘balance of power’ in the Balkans after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in the Russo-Turkish War. In 1908, taking advantage of Russian weakness following her defeat in the war against Japan and the turmoil of the 1905 Revolution, the Austrians had annexed the province outright.

The awkward couple. Franz Ferdinand and his wife Countess Sophie Chotek with their children. Though he was heir to the throne, the pair had been marginalised at court, victims of the suffocating snobbery of the antiquated Habsburg regime.

The Austrians conceived their control of Bosnia as a check on both Russian ambition and Slav nationalism in the Balkans. The last two years had been especially worrying in this respect: the Russian-backed Kingdom of Serbia had emerged victorious and much-strengthened from the two Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, such that her beacon shone more brightly than ever as a symbol of national liberation for the oppressed Slav peoples living under Austrian rule.

The Slav menace

Of Austria-Hungary’s 50 million people, 12 million were Germans, 10 million Magyars, and almost all of the rest Slavs of one sort or another – Czechs, Poles, Little Russians, Slovaks, Slovenes, Serbs, and Croats. In Eastern Europe more widely, Germans and Magyars were massively outnumbered, for the Slavs were the ancient people of the region, a broad culture-group that had formed in the middle of the first millennium AD and then spread out to occupy most of the great land-mass framed by the Baltic, the eastern Mediterranean, the Alps, and the Urals.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pan-Slavism had become a  potent weapon in the diplomatic armoury of Russian Tsarism, and this, coupled with the recent emergence of independent national states in the Balkans,  was causing deep anxiety in Vienna and Budapest. The Germans and Magyars who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire lived in fear of a tidal wave of insurgent nationalism: the Slavic hordes, it seemed, were shaking at the bars of what some of their leaders chose to call ‘the prison-house of nations’. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand came to Bosnia to wave a mailed fist.

The day chosen for the imperial visit to Sarajevo – 28 June – was a deliberate affront to nationalist opinion. It was  the Feast of St Vitus, an occasion  to remember the Turkish victory  at Kosovo in 1389, which had led  to the destruction of the Medieval Kingdom of Serbia. Traditionally a  day of mourning, the re-emergence  of an independent Serb state during  the 19th century had invested the festival with new meaning: there was now much to celebrate, and much to hope for – not least in occupied Bosnia.

So Sarajevo was decked with flags  when the motorcade of plume-hatted Austrians entered that morning – but they were flags for St Vitus and Kosovo, not for Franz Ferdinand.

‘Lesser breeds’

Nonetheless, security was lax: just 120 police lined the four-mile route of the official visit. ‘Do not worry,’ said one army officer in response to local police fears. ‘These lesser breeds would not  dare to do anything.’

As a precaution, however, the  Archduke wore seven protective amulets inside his tunic, and his wife carried a bag of holy relics: Medieval talismans as security against the revolvers and bombs of modern Balkan assassins.

Sarajevo was certainly full of  enemies. Some of the crowd standing on the pavements would cheer as the motorcade went by; others would  simply watch. Among those waiting without an inclination to cheer was a penniless 19-year-old Bosnian Serb student called Gavrilo Princip.

Sarajevo – this town of flags and ‘lesser breeds’ – was a microcosm of Bosnia’s complexity. Squeezed into a narrow gorge, the town was built on the banks of the River Miljacˇka, with steep wooded hills all around. There were nine bridges over the river, numerous minarets on the skyline, little houses rising up the slopes, and a labyrinthine oriental bazaar of tailors, shoemakers, leatherworkers, carpet-sellers, and coppersmiths. Street-clowns sang songs and played tambourines, and at dusk exotically veiled women offered themselves.

The town’s 50,000 inhabitants were a mixture of Orthodox Serbs, Roman Catholic Croats, Muslims, and Jews. Under the Ottoman Turks, prior to the Austrian takeover in 1878, the Muslims had formed a dominant caste. In the surrounding countryside, they often remained so, for little had changed under Austrian rule, and the mainly Christian peasants, impoverished and illiterate, still routinely paid a third of their crop each year to Muslim feudal landlords. This was the world into which Gavrilo Princip had been born.

Three men awaiting their date with destiny: Princip (shown on the right) and two other Black Hand terrorists photographed on a park bench shortly before the assassination.

Balkan backwardness

You had to bow your head to enter Princip’s family home in a windy mountain village in north-west Bosnia. Inside it was dark, for there were no windows, and the floor was of beaten earth. When the door was shut behind, the only light came from an open fire and from the hole in the roof through which the smoke escaped. The main room contained a wooden table, a  stone bench, a water barrel, some earthenware pots and cooking utensils  on a shelf, and not much else.

Such was his parents’ poverty that six  of Gavrilo’s nine siblings died in infancy, and he himself contracted in childhood the tuberculosis that was destined to  kill him at the age of 23. Millions lived like this in Bosnia and across the rest  of south-eastern Europe.

Herein lay the deepest root of the Balkan crisis: its rural backwardness, its lack of development, its continuing stagnation in essentially Medieval conditions of life. Austria-Hungary  had its Bohemian coal-mines and textile mills, its Skoda arms-works, its Viennese proletariat. Italy had the car-plants of Turin, and the banks, cinemas, and department stores of Milan. But in the Balkans, towns were few and small, factories of any size exceptional. Sarajevo had neo-classical buildings, electric trams, and a tobacco factory; but it was the bazaar that revealed its true character.

The two modern urban classes – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat – were weak throughout the Balkans; liberalism and socialism were but delicate flowers tended by a minor intelligentsia of teachers, writers, and students. The dominant politics of the region were variants of nationalism.

Slav nationalism

This is easy enough to understand. For those living under occupation, all social problems expressed themselves in foreign accents. Every form of authority – the official, the policeman, the judge, the tax-collector, even the petty-clerk – was that of an alien power. This pervasive characteristic of everyday life was experienced with special intensity by  the frayed-shirt intelligentsia of young men from rural backgrounds that formed in towns like Sarajevo.

They had memories of poverty and annual tribute to absentee landlords in their villages. They had been reared on stories of legendary haiduks – traditional rural bandits who lived in defiance of authority. Now, culturally awakened by literacy and migration to an urban world of high schools and street cafés, they saw careers they might aspire to colonised by foreigners and lackeys. Nationalism came naturally to angry young men like Gavrilo Princip.

Yet Balkan nationalism was no highway to modernity: it was a twisting track leading to a precipice. The exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who had covered the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 as a war correspondent, thought the efforts of a backward country to modernise gave it less the manner of ‘a ship that cuts its own way through the wave’ than that of  ‘a barge being towed by a steamship’.

His point was that Serbia and Bulgaria in the early 20th century could not, as their leaders might have hoped, simply repeat the history of Italy and Germany in the mid 19th. The Balkan mini-states that had emerged were too small and too late-developing to be anything other than economic and political subordinates of Europe’s established Great Powers.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire straddled Central Europe, its 12 million Germans and 10 million Magyars ruling over almost 30 million subject people. This ‘prison-house of nations’ was a powder-keg in an age of nationalism. The annexation of Bosnia in 1908 (note the location of Sarajevo on the map) had merely added to the rising tension.

 

The Eastern Question

These states filled the space created as the decaying Ottoman Turkish Empire – which had controlled the whole of the Balkans at the start of the 19th century – succumbed to a combination of resistance from oppressed peoples and encroachments by imperial rivals.

The Serbs had achieved a degree of independence as early as 1815, a product of two peasant revolts and the patronage of Russia. The Greeks had achieved  full independence by 1830, following  a ten-year war in which Ottoman naval power had been destroyed by a combined British, French, and Russian fleet.

Subsequently, the Western powers  had been less enthusiastic about Balkan revolution, and the British and the French had propped up ‘the sick man of Europe’ during the Crimean War of 1853-1856  as a bulwark against Russian expansion into the eastern Mediterranean. It was the great crisis of 1875-1878 that definitively transformed the Balkans into a primary focus of geopolitical conflict. Whereas the Crimean War had been engineered by the Great Powers, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 was a direct consequence of the growing dynamism of Balkan nationalism itself. The ‘Eastern Question’ acquired its own momentum – and the potential to rock the whole of Europe.

A revolt started in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1875, and quickly spread across the region, provoking genocidal Ottoman atrocities in Bulgaria, all-out war between the Ottomans and an alliance of Serbia and Montenegro, and finally a full-scale Russian invasion to protect the Tsar’s Balkan clients. Russian intervention guaranteed Ottoman  defeat, but the Great Powers, desperate  to contain the conflict, intervened in 1878 to impose a settlement and restore  a ‘balance of power’.

The Treaty of Berlin confirmed the independence of Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, and Bulgaria, ceded some territory to Russia in the Caucasus and  at the mouth of the Danube, gave Austria-Hungary a protectorate over Bosnia-Herzegovina, but left the Turks in control of the whole of the Southern Balkans except for Greece. The various Balkan rivals, some happier than others, relapsed into armed truce.

An over-dramatised contemporary magazine illustration of the assassination in Sarajevo. In fact, the assassin was buying himself a sandwich when he found himself suddenly and quite unexpectedly face-to-face with his target. Both Franz Josef and his wife had been shot before either realised anything was happening.

The Balkan cockpit

The settlement held, more or less, for a generation. But by the time  of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s  visit to Sarajevo in the summer of  1914, the region was in the throes  of a second protracted crisis. The  crisis had begun in 1908 with the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (an Austrian coup), had passed in 1912-1913 through two successive  Balkan Wars (a Russian coup), and  was now poised for a third.

The Balkan Peninsula, which was approximately the size of Germany but had only a third of the population (22 million), was divided among no  less than eight states.

Turkey retained a tongue of Europe extending 250km west of Constantinople. Austria controlled Dalmatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina in the north-west.  Six independent states controlled the rest: Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, and Albania. Each of these had its own dynasty, army, currency, and customs system. Each contained pieces of other nationalities, and was in turn missing pieces of its own. Each was dominated sociologically by its own state apparatus, and ideologically by raucous nationalist rhetoric. These characteristics of the Balkan states were a function of economic backwardness, political fragmentation, and the self-interested interference of the Great Powers.

As the old Ottoman order collapsed, new national elites had formed around the embryonic state apparatuses themselves. Strong national identities had been forged in the risings of oppressed peoples against Ottoman rule, and these now became templates of state-formation; but in the absence of any social ballast in the form of strong urban classes, the state became over-developed to compensate for society’s under-development.

The Balkan Wars

The new mini-states then confronted one another as rivals, even as they found themselves overshadowed by the three great imperial powers jostling for advantage in the Balkan cockpit – Ottoman Turkey, Habsburg Austria, and Tsarist Russia. Large armies inspired by militant nationalism were the result. Bulgaria and Serbia both mobilised one fifth of their entire male population in the Balkan Wars, outnumbering the Turks almost two-to-one – though it was the Balkan peasant-soldier’s hatred of the Turkish oppressor that ensured victory.

But the nationalism of the oppressed had become a tool of corrupt military elites who functioned as clients of  the Great Powers. The two wars of 1912-1913 revealed that Balkan nationalism had two faces.

The First Balkan War had pitted an uneasy alliance of Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro against Ottoman Turkey. The Balkan states drove the Turks out of Macedonia in the first two months of the war (October-December 1912), and then, after an abortive armistice, went on to capture the three key remaining fortresses of Adrianople, Ioannina, and Scutari (March-April 1913). The Turks held their enemies at the Chatalja Lines outside Constantinople, but Turkey-in-Europe was reduced to an enclave just 40km deep.

The Great Powers were stunned by the outcome. It revealed unsuspected Ottoman imperial weakness, equally unsuspected Balkan national strength, and had the effect of destabilising the entire European state system. The Powers united to broker a peace settlement. But it proved short-lived, for the Balkans had taken on a political life of its own.

The victors fell out, and in a Second Balkan War (June-August 1913), Bulgaria was set upon by Turkey, Romania, and her former allies Serbia and Greece. Though her armies fought valiantly, they faced attacks on all sides and were comprehensively defeated.

By the Treaties of Bucharest and Constantinople, Bulgaria was stripped of territory north and south. Turkey regained Adrianople and her territory again extended 250km into Europe. Romania took the fertile southern Dobruja, Greece most of the Aegean coast, and Serbia the well-populated Vardar valley in western Macedonia.

Petty nationalisms and  mass armies

Armies of Balkan peasant-soldiers had no sooner thrown the Turk out of Macedonia than the warlords who commanded them had turned on each other in a squabble over the spoils. Thus was the manhood and treasure of the Balkans wasted by militarised mini-states whose only function was to keep the region divided, underdeveloped, and  a prey of imperial sharks.

The Second Balkan War merely reset the stage for a third. Bulgaria had been the bait that momentarily absorbed the energies of predatory neighbours, allowing Turkey to recover some lost ground in alliance with former enemies. But overall, both Bulgaria and Turkey were losers, making them the potential revanchist protagonists of any future conflict. Serbia, by contrast, had made huge territorial gains at the expense of each. The battle-lines of the next war had thus been drawn – Austria, Turkey, and Bulgaria against Russia, Serbia, and Romania; and the centre of gravity in the Balkans had shifted from Macedonia, cockpit of petty nationalisms in the conflicts of 1912-1913, to Serbia itself.

The socialist Tucović defined his  native Serbia as a ‘bureaucratic peasant country’. It comprised a bloated bureaucracy and officer corps sustained by high levels of taxation and military conscription imposed on an overwhelmingly peasant population.

In the absence of class-based parties and any strong drive for internal reform, the factionalised politics of the elite focused on relations with Austria-Hungary. There were three broad tendencies. The most conservative faction was pro-Austrian, and had been dominant under the ruling Obrenović dynasty until 1903. In June of that year, however, a group of nationalist army officers inspired by one Dragutin Dimitrijević, alias Apis (‘the Bee’), had stormed into the palace, shot the king and queen, mutilated their bodies with sabres, and then hurled the remains  out of a window.

The anti-Austrian Karadjordjević dynasty had immediately been restored to power. Apis and the extreme nationalists thereafter maintained a shadowy influence behind the constitutional screen provided by a third group, the mainstream moderate nationalists of Nikola Pašić’s Radical Party. In 1914, Apis was still a senior figure, being head of military intelligence, and Pašić had become prime minister.

The blood-stained tunic in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand died on 28 June 1914.

The Black Hand

The Radical Party’s ascendancy was  based on nationalist rhetoric, peasant votes, and opportunist practice. Its veteran leader was totally without initiative, instinctively following a policy of compromises, deals, and persistent temporising. This, explained Trotsky, who covered the Balkan Wars as a radical journalist, was the secret of Pašić’s political success, for in this way he expressed ‘a whole epoch in the development of Serbia – an epoch of weakness, manoeuvring, and abasement’.

Apis, by contrast, was a blood-and-iron nationalist, a hawkish advocate of ‘Greater Serbia’ – or ‘Yugoslavia’ – that is, a Serb-dominated union of the South Slavs such as could be constructed only through the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

But Serbia was not Prussia (nor even Piedmont), so the extreme nationalists were obliged to pursue their schemes not through diplomacy and war, as Bismarck and Italy’s Cavour had done, but by secret conspiracies. Apis, in addition to his senior military post, was the leading figure in a terrorist network known as ‘Union or Death’ or, more commonly, ‘the Black Hand’.

This network connected senior Serbian army officers and officials – not to mention the Russian military attachés at the Belgrade consulate – with the coffee-shop society of young idealists  like Gavrilo Princip.

Terrorist foot-soldiers

Princip had escaped the spiritual suffocation of a mountain village by attending secondary school in Sarajevo, where he had joined Young Bosnia, a middle-class nationalist organisation committed to ending Austrian rule. The annexation of 1908 had radicalised the young nationalists, for its implication was that without action to reverse it, Austrian rule would become permanent.

When the Metropolitan of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Sarajevo held a special service to celebrate the event, inviting ‘all the worshippers to kneel down and pray for divine blessings for the Emperor Franz Josef and the Habsburg dynasty’, everyone obliged except for a group of high-school boys that included Gavrilo Princip: his first public protest.

Later, in Belgrade, he applied to join the Serbian army, but was rejected as  ‘too small and weak’. A year-and-a-half  later, in the spring of 1914, he was back  in Belgrade, this time applying to become an assassin. ‘I am an adherent’, he declared, ‘of the radical anarchist idea which aims at destroying the present system through terrorism.’

By 25 June, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife arrived outside the town, Princip was already back in Sarajevo, equipped by the Black Hand with four revolvers, six bombs, and suicide pills for himself and his six associates in case they got caught.

The annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina had been Austria’s pre-emptive strike against the corrosive effect of Serbian nationalism on the loyalty of her South Slav subjects. But it had turned educated young men from Bosnian villages into terrorists. In the absence of a mass movement to fight the poverty and oppression that enraged them, Princip and his associates were driven to the desperate methods of the weak and powerless. If the people could not – would not – liberate themselves, perhaps a dedicated group of popular champions might act on their behalf.

Four years before, also in Sarajevo,  a 24-year-old Serb, Bogdan Žerajić, had fired five shots at the Austrian military governor (all misdirected) before turning his gun on himself. Žerajić was revered as a hero by Young Bosnia. Nationalist youth became devotees of the cult of the assassin, and all pledged themselves to avenge the martyr.

Three Black Hand terrorists on their way to trial in Belgrade:
Princip (marked 1), Ilić (2), and Čabrinović (3).

Two bombs

On the day of the Archduke’s visit to Sarajevo, the terrorists of the Black Hand distributed themselves along  the central part of the Appel Quay, the main road through the town, which ran parallel with the River Miljačka – the route to be followed by the official motorcade as it passed on its way to the main reception at the Town Hall. All of them were frightened and nervous. Some were still teenagers, none had any experience handling weapons, and they were poised to carry out a cold-blooded murder and then, if necessary, commit suicide.

Mehmedbašić froze at the critical moment and never threw his bomb: there was a policeman standing in his way, he later explained. Čabrinović had to ask another policeman which was the Archduke’s car, and, on being told, primed his bomb and hurled it.

But the chauffeur saw it coming and accelerated, so it bounced off the back of the Archduke’s car and exploded under the one behind, injuring two of the occupants and a dozen or so people on the side of the road.

The front two cars of the motorcade then raced away to the Town Hall, passing the other waiting terrorists at speed, while the police arrested Čabrinović – whose cyanide capsules had merely caused him to retch – along with several other people seized in the vicinity of the attack.

Two pistol shots

The conspiracy seemed to have misfired. The authorities were now on alert, and when the Archduke’s car headed off again after the Town Hall reception, though the hood remained down, it  was driven deliberately fast.

But, however amateur, the terrorists had spread themselves like a net across central Sarajevo, greatly increasing the chance that at some point their target would be ensnared. He, meantime, had decided to visit the wounded in the town hospital.

Franz Ferdinand’s chauffeur did not know Sarajevo, or perhaps had not been informed of the change of plan, and he took a wrong turning into Franz Josef Street. Called to stop and continue instead along the Appel Quay, he braked and came to a dead halt prior to backing up. A thin, pale, sunken-eyed youth standing two metres away stepped forwards, levelled a revolver, and fired two shots into the back of the car.

One bullet struck Franz Ferdinand in the neck. The other hit Sophie Chotek in the abdomen. Within 15 minutes both would be dead.

Gavrilo Princip then tried to shoot himself, but his revolver was knocked way. He next managed to swallow his cyanide capsule, but puked it up. So he was hauled away in a mêlée of police and spectators (to die of tuberculosis in an Austrian prison in April 1918).

As news of the assassination spread, a vicious anti-Serb pogrom erupted across the town. Shops, schools, and churches were vandalised. Two hundred suspects were arrested. Some were summarily hanged in the state prison. Others were murdered by sectarian lynch-mobs. A third war was beginning in the Balkans.

This time, though, it would spread  to engulf the world.


This feature appeared in issue 41 of Military History Monthly.