The Man Who Started World War One
Today we will be exploring the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We will see how this event sparked the flames of World War I, resulting in over 17 million deaths before the war’s end. We will also discover how this assassination not only affected the political climate of the time, but how it has also shaped our current socio-political climate as well.
Franz Ferdinand was born into the Habsburg royal family on December 18, 1863 to parents Karl Ludwig, Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Princess Maria of Bourbon. Since Karl Ludwig was the youngest of the Emperor’s sons, Franz Ferdinand was not initially in line for the throne. This changed, however, when his cousin, Duke Francis V of Modena, died and left Franz as the next legitimate heir.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, and their three children (from left), Prince Ernst von Hohenberg, Princess Sophie, and Maximilian, Duke of Hohenberg, in 1910
As heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand was tasked with touring the territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, reviewing the troops, and performing other state functions. One such tour was scheduled to take place in June 1914. On this tour, Franz Ferdinand was responsible for reviewing the military forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This territory had only just become a part of the empire, being officially annexed in 1908.
As a newly annexed territory, Bosnia-Herzegovina was a source of nationalist discontent. Serbian nationalists felt that the territory rightfully belonged to Serbia and viewed the Austro-Hungarian Empire as invaders. These nationalists sought to gain independence from the empire by assassinating the Archduke. They envisioned Franz Ferdinand’s trip to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, as the perfect opportunity to carry out their plot.
Photograph of the Archduke and his wife emerging from the Sarajevo Town Hall to board their car, a few minutes before the assassination, 1914
On the morning of June 28, 1914, as Franz Ferdinand and his wife were driven through the streets of Sarajevo, a bomb was thrown onto their car. It bounced off of the hood, exploding behind them. Security forces apprehended the attacker and the rest of the tour was instantly canceled. Franz Ferdinand’s car drove down a road and came to a stop. There is debate as to why the car happened to be where it was, but in any event, it stopped in front of another conspirator, Gavrilo Princip, who pulled out a gun and shot Franz Ferdinand and his wife to death.
Gavrilo Princip outside the courthouse
What followed was the collapse of peace in Europe. The Austro-Hungarian Empire accused the Serbian government of the attack and immediately declared war on Serbia. This led to Serbia’s allies, Russia and France, declaring war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This in turn resulted in Germany and Italy, allies of the empire, to declare war on Serbia and her allies. Eventually, most of the world from Britain, France, and the United States in the west to Russia and the Ottoman Empire in the east erupted into what was called the Great War.
The Great War, which later became known as World War I, lasted for four years (1914 to 1918) and resulted in the deaths of over 17 million people. This war saw the end of four major empires, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The map of Europe was redrawn, seeing many smaller countries where fewer, larger empires had once thrived. Most significantly, however, Germany fell into economic ruin, resulting in twenty years of hardship which sowed the seeds for the next major war, World War II.
The aftermath of World War II has created the socio-economic conditions of the world we live in today. Tensions between East and West are a direct result of this conflict, as well as alliances and pacts between nations across the globe. Were it not for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, World War II would likely have never occurred, as it is questionable whether World War I would have ever happened. In the end, his death led to the deaths of over 80 million people in two world wars.
“One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” – Otto von Bismarck (1888)
“I am the son of peasants and I know what is happening in the villages. That is why I wanted to take revenge, and I regret nothing.” – Gavrilo Princip
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