The Assassination that Sparked World War I

Erika Papp Faber

The Assassination that Sparked World War I

Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his family;leaving Sarajevo city hall;in the car; shortly before the assassination; newspaper headlines from St. Louis and from Vienna

In the early 1900’s, two major Serbian groups in Bosnia Herzegovina were seething with nationalistic fervor:  the Black Hand, an armed organization, and Young Bosnia, a loosely-knit group of students and artists. They were united in their opposition to Habsburg rule, and both had plans for terrorist attacks against members of the imperial family.

Despite warnings not to do it,  Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg traveled to Sarajevo, in Bosnia, to observe the military exercises to be held there in June of 1914. They arrived on June 27th, after a rail journey plagued by numerous technical problems with the carriage.  On their arrival, a bomb was detonated at the railroad station, causing injuries to eleven people.  Although some tried to persuade the imperial couple to cancel the rest of their visit, others thought it would be a sign of weakness,  and so it was decided to follow the scheduled program.

They proceeded the following day, June 28th, to a brief visit of the local military barracks, then taking their places in a series of six open automobiles (with Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in the third car which belonged to Czech Count Franz von Harrach), proceeded toward city hall.  Along the route, a smaller crowd of well-wishers had gathered, when a large yellow and black Habsburg banner displayed on the front of a building fell unto the crowd. 

Six assassins had stationed themselves along the route. The first one was dissuaded from using his weapon when he spotted a gendarme nearby. (According to one version of the story, he then threw his weapon into the bushes and fled.)  Another of the conspirators felt sorry for the Archduke and his wife and was unable to carry out the assassination.  But a third one threw a hand grenade at the Archduke’s car.  The chauffeur, noticing the action, stepped on the gas, so that the grenade bounced off the folded back roof, and exploded under the fourth car, two of whose passengers were severely injured.  Some splinters also hit the Archduke’s car, but without causing harm to any of the passengers in that car. The assassin who had thrown the bomb was caught immediately.  

The cars continued towards city hall, where the mayor, not having heard anything about the events, proceeded to welcome the Archduke, who angrily interrupted him:  ”What is the good of your speeches?  I come to Sarajevo for a visit, and I get bombs thrown at me! It is outrageous!”  The painful silence was broken by Franz Ferdinand himself, who finally said, ”Now you can talk!”

Following the welcoming address, Sophie turned her attention to some Muslim women, while the Archduke nervously began to joke, asking, ”Will there be more bombs?” Having sent a telegram about the assassination attempt to Emperor Franz Josef, and following a brief debate, he decided to visit the injured in the military hospital.

Back in the car, the owner, Count Franz von Harrach stood on the car’s left  step to cover and protect the Archduke.  Following the attempted second assault, the route was changed, but in the confusion the police chief forgot to inform the chauffeurs of the change.  Instead of following a wider road along the river that had been cleared in the meantime, the first two cars of the convoy turned into the narrow street originally designated.  The third car with the Archduke and his wife followed them.  When General Oskar Potiorek, the officer in charge of the Archduke’s safety who was in the same car with him, noticed this, he remonstrated with the driver who slowed the car and began to reverse out of the street.

Gavrilo Princip, one of the Black Hand members happened to be in a cafe in the same street at the time, and seized the opportunity.  With a pistol, he took aim at Franz Ferdinand from a distance of five feet.  His bullet struck the Archduke in the neck, and a second bullet hit his wife Sophie in the abdomen. They both died soon afterwards. Princip was immediately caught and arrested. He was eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison, but died of TB in his cell on April 28th, 1918.   

The bodies of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were taken by ship to Trieste, then on to Vienna by train.  Although she did have some Habsburg ancestors, since Sophie was not officially considered to have been of royal blood, she could not be buried in the imperial crypt. They were buried together at Artstetten Castle, the Habsburgs’ summer home.

(Source: Wikipedia)