Two Bullets, Millions Dead: The Tragedy of 1914

The arrival of the year 2014 has given rise to renewed interest in World War I (1914-18). A look at the new books in the history section of bookstores will confirm this. Apart from the fact that 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the war’s outbreak, why all the interest? I think it is because–despite the passage of time–we continue to be both fascinated and confounded by the sheer madness of it all. How did the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 precipitate a four-year-long, worldwide war resulting in 37 million (it is estimated) deaths? And why was there no leader at the time with sufficient foresight and wisdom to “apply the brakes” to the war machine set in motion by the assassination?

When I was in Vienna in 2009, I visited the city’s oldest museum, the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (don’t you just love those long German words?), its war museum. It was a stellar late spring day in the former Habsburg capital and perhaps for this reason, my husband and I were two of only a handful of visitors that day. We arrived just after opening and “closed the place down” several hours later. (This is an excellent museum and, in our estimation, doesn’t rate as highly in the guidebooks as it should.) On the ground floor is a room devoted entirely to the incident in Sarajevo that ignited World War I. The exhibit includes the car in which the Archduke and his wife were riding when they were gunned down, the Archduke’s ceremonial headgear and uniform with its visible bullet hole, and the settee on which the dying Archduke was lain. To be looking at actual objects from that fateful day in Sarajevo was a sobering experience for me.

Postcard from the Museum

I don’t know whether the story of the assassination of the Archduke and his wife has ever been made into a movie, but I think it has all the necessary elements for a “thriller.” In 1908, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had annexed the former Ottoman territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina, enraging Serbian nationalists who felt that Bosnia-Herzegovina should have become part of the newly independent Serbian nation. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of Emperor Franz Josef I and heir-presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, made a formal visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina accompanied by his wife Sophie. Whether intended as such or not, the timing of the Archduke’s visit was a “poke in the eye” of Serbian nationalists, as 28 June was a reminder to Serbs of their defeat by the Turks on that same date back in 1389. The Archduke and Sophie were taken from the train station in an open car to the city hall for a formal luncheon. After the reception, they were scheduled to inspect Austrian troops holding manoeuvres near the city. Waiting along the route from the train station to the city hall with the intention of assassinating the Archduke were seven young men, members of the Black Hand, a Serbian nationalist terrorist group. The Archduke had rejected the notion of Austrian troop involvement in his security, even though they were nearby. A first attempt was made on the Archduke’s life by Black Hand member Cabrinovic who threw a bomb at the Archduke’s car. It rolled off the back of the car, injuring an officer and some bystanders. The car cavalcade picked up speed and carried on to the reception as planned. When the luncheon was over, the Austrian commander General Potiorek pleaded with the Archduke to leave the city at once by the shortest route as Sarajevo was a seething cauldron of unrest.

The Archduke agreed, but he insisted that he be driven via the hospital so he could visit the officer injured by the would-be-assassin’s bomb. On the way to the hospital, the driver of the Archduke’s car took a wrong turn at the junction of Appel Quay and Franzjosefstrasse. Realizing his mistake, the driver stopped the car and began to reverse. Loitering on the pavement nearby, eating a sandwich, was Gavrilo Princip, the terrorists’ ringleader. Surprised to see his prey right in front of him, Princip dropped his sandwich, pointed his gun at the royal couple, and fired twice. The first bullet struck Sophie, who was pregnant, in the abdomen. She died almost immediately. The second bullet struck the Archduke close to the heart. Princip then tried to turn the gun on himself, but was prevented doing so by bystanders.

It’s “mind-boggling” to think how the driver’s wrong turn that day adversely affected the course of human history. But it wasn’t the assassination per se that led to the outbreak of war; rather, it was the response from the great European powers to it, in particular, the response from Germany. There was no concrete evidence that Serbian officials had any involvement in the assassination, yet one month later, 28 July, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia after obtaining assurances of full military support from Germany. By 4 August Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium and Serbia were officially at war with Austro-Hungary and Germany.

When we look back at 1914 through the “retro-spectroscope” of time, we shake our heads in disbelief at the decisions made by the great European powers. But I don’t think we have reason to be overconfident in the judgment of our present leaders. When future generations look back on the year 2014, they may shake their heads in disbelief at our folly as well, saying: “The P5 + 1 signed a treaty with the “mad mullahs,” removing economic sanctions just when they were starting to have a profound effect. Six months later Iran exploded its first nuclear bomb. What were they thinking?”


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