The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Was Actually A Bit Of A Fluke

On September 2, 2015 by Tim Newman

Assassination of Franz Ferdinand - Franz

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is generally recognised as one of the most pivotal moments in European history. Ferdinand’s murder in Sarajevo is widely accepted to have marked the start of World War I and the catalogue of horrors that followed.

Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by members of a group known as the Black Hand. Their main gripe was over land, territory, sovereignty, and all the standard things that people start wars about. The Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck, the man most responsible for the unification of Germany in 1871, was quoted as saying that…

One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.

He pretty much nailed it.

Ferdinand’s assassination is well-known, but how it all actually panned out on the day was quite a debacle. A debacle I will recount for you here.

The man responsible for killing Ferdinand and his wife was a young chap named Gavrilo Princip (below). He was born in a remote area of Western Bosnia, near the modern-day border of Croatia. His family was poor. His parents produced nine children, only three of which survived.

Princip was named after the Angel Gabriel on the recommendation of a Serbian Orthodox priest who advised it would help the sickly boy survive.

Assassination of Franz Ferdinand - Gavrilo Princip

In 1911, aged 17, he joined Young Bosnia, a society that wanted to separate Bosnia from Austria-Hungary and unite it with the neighbouring Kingdom of Serbia. Students were forbidden from joining clubs and organisations, so the society met in secret. He was a highly politicised rabble-rouser and ended up getting expelled from his school for intimidating fellow students into joining demonstrations.

Eventually the young Gavrilo Princip joined the Black Hand, after having initially been turned down for being too puny in stature.

Assassination of Franz Ferdinand - Black Hand Cross And Signatures

Black Hand Ritual Cross And Group member’s signatures

In June, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were invited to open a hospital in Sarajevo. Ferdinand was aware that it could be a relatively dangerous affair, his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph (below) had been the subject of an assassination attempt by the Black Hand there in 1911.

Assassination of Franz Ferdinand - Emperor Franz Joseph

The couple arrived in Sarajevo by train just before 10:00 am, from there Ferdinand, Sophie and a gaggle of political hangers-on were driven in an entourage to the hospital. They rode with the top down so that the crowds could get a good look at the occupants.

Meanwhile, the seven armed Black Hand conspirators lined the route that the cars were set to take. They spaced themselves along the path, all with the vaguest of instructions: kill Ferdinand. This was far from a precise military operation.

The first conspirator to see the vehicle was  Muhamed Mehmedbašić, a member of Bosnia’s Muslim nobility. After the events that panned out that day, Muhamed Mehmedbašić (below) would claim there was a policeman stood directly behind him; so he didn’t act for fear of being arrested and giving the game away before anyone had the chance to kill Ferdinand. On the other hand, it is possible that he chickened out. Fair enough. Either way, he did nothing.

Assassination of Franz Ferdinand - Muhamed Mehmedbašić

Next in line was nineteen-year-old student – Nedeljko Čabrinović (below) – who showed less fear and threw his grenade at the passing vehicle. His grenade was a direct hit, but simply bounced off the back of the Duke’s car. Also, the grenade had a 10 second delay, so whilst Ferdinand’s chauffeur sped away the next car in line took the brunt of the explosion. Two of the occupants, Eric von Merizzi and Count Alexander von Boos-Waldeck, along with around a dozen spectators were wounded.

To avoid arrest Čabrinović swallowed a cyanide pill and jumped into the Miljacka river. Unfortunately (for him) the cyanide pill was out of date and just made him sick and the river was only 10 cm (4 inches) deep. He was quickly yanked out by the police, severely beaten by the baying crowd and promptly arrested.

Assassination of Franz Ferdinand - Nedeljko Čabrinović

Following this failed attempt the cars increased their speed and the crowds went into an understandable frenzy, this meant that the remaining conspirators lost their opportunity to assassinate Ferdinand.

Ferdinand next arrived at the town hall where he is said to have displayed signs of agitation – fair enough. He was so agitated that he at first interrupted the Mayor’s welcome speech:

Mr. Mayor, I came here on a visit and I am greeted with bombs. It is outrageous.

After a gentle word in his ear from his wife he calmed down and the proceedings continued. His speech was handed to him, still soaked in blood from having been carried in the damaged car.

The officials decided what action to be taken next. Some, rather sensibly, advised that the couple should stay in the Town Hall until troops could be mustered. But, despite the obvious threat to his safety, Franz Ferdinand decided to visit the injured victims in the hospital.

As one might imagine, there was a great deal of confusion amongst the entourage and those trying to organise the day’s proceedings. Not everyone was 100% sure what they were supposed to be doing and because of this the Archduke’s driver, en route to the hospital, took a wrong turn into Franz Josef Street.

Here’s where things start working out better for Gavrilo Princip. Princip had given up the attempt and decided to see if he could catch the couple on their return journey, whenever that might be. He had stopped briefly at Moritz Schiller’s cafe. This eatery was situated on, you’ve guessed it, Franz Josef Street.

Assassination of Franz Ferdinand - Moritz Schiller's café.

Meanwhile, in Ferdinand’s car, the driver realises his mistake, stops the car and begins reversing. The car stalls and the gears lock up. One can only imagine what kind of an expression adorned Princip’s face at this point. Princip steps forward and draws his weapon. He fires two shots from roughly 1.5 metres away from the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The first bullet enters his jugular, the second the abdomen of Sophie.

Archduke Franz-Ferdinand             Austria     family

Both victims remained upright on the way to the hospital, but both also died before they reached it. According to Count Harrach, Franz Ferdinand’s last words were…

Sophie, Sophie! Don’t die! Live for our children!

…followed by six or seven utterances of “It is nothing” and a long death rattle.

And then the gates of hell were opened wide.

At the time, Princip was just a 19-year-old boy. Whilst in custody he tried to kill himself with cyanide, but the pills must have been from the same batch as Čabrinović’s, so they were ineffective. He tried to shoot himself but the gun was wrestled from him. He was too young to be given the death penalty, so he received the maximum sentence of 20 years.

Whilst in prison he contracted tuberculosis and died on 28 April 1918, less than 4 years into his stay in prison.

So it was a teenager shooting a posh fella who set the wheels in motion for the millions of deaths that WWI would muster. History is an odd character.







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