It is one of those rare days that come to define a century. Sunday 28 June 1914. The day the first shots of what would become the Great War were fired.
World War I was not inevitable. We should not read history backwards. The assassinations at Sarajevo were a crossroad, not a way station, on the road to Armageddon. The catastrophe that fell upon Europe in the summer of 1914 did not follow a well-worn path. The European apocalypse was not preordained; rather it came about because decision-makers in the capitals of the old continent failed. The first to fail was Austria-Hungary.
On Sunday 28 June, Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian nationalist, took advantage of a unique opportunity. Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were touring Bosnia. By Sunday they reached Sarajevo. There motorcade made its way along the main artery of the city. Earlier that day, 100 years ago, they archducal couple had survived an attempt on their lives by Princip’s co-conspirators. This assassin would prove lucky, the victims luckless.
The driver of the archducal car was not notified of the procession’s change of route. He was eventually informed, and had to change course. This left the car carrying Franz Ferdinand and Sophie idle long enough for Princip to fire his fatal shots. A few seconds were enough. The beleaguered Count Franz von Harrach, a member of the Habsburg retinue, captured the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne’s last words. “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die. Stay alive for the children!”
Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, Apostolic King of Hungary, later expressed similar feelings. His initial reaction was cold. His thoughts were not for the heir, but for the children who had lost their parents.
The incident at Sarajevo did not linger. Franz Ferdinand was speedily buried, his wife, a mere countess, forbidden the honours of a Habsburg funeral. No heads of state attended this poor display of pomp and circumstance. Europe was shocked, but quickly moved on. After all, this was an age where regicide was not uncommon. Franz Joseph’s wife Elisabeth had fallen at the hand of an Italian anarchist, his brother Maximilian the victim of Mexican revolutionaries.
Sarajevo could have been just another example of Habsburg expendability. It was not.
Austria-Hungary chose to use Sarajevo. This was not a policy of revenge or an impulsive act. Cold calculated reason led the Austrian Emperor, over the course of the month of July, to bring his realms to the brink of war. When the crucial moment finally came, the one man who could stop the war machine, the one man who could disperse the gathering storm, simply failed. Fully aware of the consequences, with a stroke of a pen, Franz Joseph signed the declaration of war that would soon lead Europe, and the world, to unfathomable tragedy.
28 June 1914 became a turning point in world history because of Austria-Hungary. Others share the blame. Serbia, Russia, Germany and France. Even Britain. All played their part. Yet it was Austria-Hungary that made the Sarajevo assassinations an intolerable attack on the Habsburg monarchy.
Emperor Fran Joseph and his foreign minister Count Leopold Berchtold saw Sarajevo as the culmination of Serbian aggression. They perceived Sarajevo as the final step in a long line of Serbian actions bent on destroying all of what they stood for: duty, honour and monarchy. In this they were short-sighed.
So preoccupied were they with Serbia, so vile did they perceive its designs, that they ignored the wider geo-political setting. It is no secret that both Berchtold and Franz Joseph, indeed nearly all Austro-Hungarian decision-makers in July 1914, were aware their actions would lead to a general European war involving at least Germany and Russia.
They were prepared to gamble.
Franz Joseph, the one man who had the constitutional power to halt war gave in. Franz Ferdinand, the one man for who peace was paramount was no more.
100 years on, we are quick to see Sarajevo as the start of the twentieth century’s first tragedy. It need not have been that way. It became so because of Austro-Hungarian will. Europe’s concert system failed in the summer of 1914, but Austria-Hungary was the first to fail. Only later did its failure become amplified by the Great Powers. More important, Franz Joseph, the lone figure who had the power to stop a general war, failed.
Matthieu Watson Santerre is a Master’s student in the History of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is currently researching the role of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph on the July Crisis.
Published in The Art of Polemics, Issue 2, on Sept 9th, 2014.