“That bit of paper wrecked proud old empires.”
– Borijove Jevtic
“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
– Sir Edward Grey; August 4, 1914
On today’s date, June 28 in 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie (above) were assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia-Herzogovina which was a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The assassin, one Gavrilo Princip, was arrested and convicted of the murder. He was only 19 at the time, a minor under the law, and could not be executed. So he was sentenced to twenty years in prison. But he had tuberculosis, and would die in a hospital in 1918. Princip had been a member of a terrorist band which had been agitating in favor of Bosnian independence from the Austrian Empire, and the “bit of paper” was an announcement of the Archduke’s impending visit to Sarajevo, which resulted in the terrorists plot on the Archduke’s life. And the man who spoke of it — Jevtic — was a fellow member of the terrorist band. Sir Edward Grey was the Foreign Secretary of the British Government. Both men were speaking about the consequences of this assassination. Both men were right.
The Assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo on June 28.
The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the Crown Prince, or heir apparent to the throne of his Uncle, Emperor Franz Josef of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Empire took up a large amount of land in Central Europe, and was the sort of old-world multi-ethnic conglomeration of peoples that was not meant to be in this world of emerging national identities: Slavic peoples such as the Bosnians wanting to break off and form their own countries, or to merge with their Slavic neighbor, the Kingdom of Serbia. But the Austrians were determined to hang onto their Germanic-ruled empire, and were certain that Serbia was secretly stirring up rebellion among their Slavic provinces. The Austrians were just waiting for something to happen that would give them an excuse to destroy Serbia once and for all.
The “bit of paper” which informed the Bosnian terrorist group of the Archduke’s planned visit to Sarajevo gave them a golden opportunity to strike what they viewed as a blow for Bosnian freedom, and they had armed assassins waiting. During his motorcade, one of their men threw a bomb which missed. The Archduke’s tour continued to the city hall of Sarajevo. After some official ceremonies there, the motorcade made it’s way through more of the Bosnian capital, but by a different route than the one announced. But the driver made a wrong turn onto the pre-announced route. There they found Gavrilo Princip waiting with a pistol. Jevtic takes up the narrative:
“As the car came abreast (Princip) stepped forward from the curb, drew his automatic pistol from his coat, and fired two shots. The first struck the wife of the Archduke, the Archduchess Sofie in the abdomen. She was an expectant mother. She died instantly. The second bullet struck the Archduke close to the heart. He uttered only one word, ‘Sofie..’ — a call to his stricken wife. Then his head fell back and he collapsed. He died almost instantly.”
The FAR – REACHING Consequences of the Assassination
The Austrian government was determined to use this attack as just the excuse they had been waiting for to pound the Serbian government into submission. But the governments of “the great powers” were locked into a tangled web of alliances from which none of them could extricate themselves. In very short order, Austria declared war on Serbia. Russia, the protector of the Slavic nations declared war on Austria. Germany declared on Russia. France declared on Germany. And England eventually came in on the side of France and Russia. As he watched the lights being lit in he square beneath his balcony, Sir Edward Grey remarked on the shadow of a hideously destructive war looming over Europe. His remark about the lamps going out quoted at the top of this posting has come to be regarded as emblematic of this march into the teeth of Armageddon.
As I wrote in my “Today in History” posting for Nov. 11 , Veterans Day — the day in 1918 that the fighting finally ceased:
“World War One was the world’s introduction to modern war and modern mechanized destruction. And by the time it was over, the little territorial spat in the Balkans over which it had started was long forgotten. Winning the war was the sole purpose behind it — one side simply outlasting the other. For this, an entire generation of young men was about to be slaughtered, en masse. It was insane.
“From the seas of Jutland near the English Channel to the coasts of South America, European colonial holdings in Africa to those in the South Pacific the fighting raged. Soldiers were thrown into hails of machine gun bullets, which were a new method of destruction. Other weapons such as poison gas, the flame thrower, the Tank, and submarines all appeared for the first time in this war. Also with the infamous Zeppelin air raids on London, the war ceased to be a newspaper headline, but instead became a very real thing right on the doorsteps of the Allied homefront. An estimated nine million soldiers were killed and twenty two million were wounded.”
And three Imperial dynasties were swept away, never to return in Germany, Austria, and Russia. As Jevtic had said, that bit of paper which had told them of the Archduke’s visit had indeed wrecked proud old empires. A terrible price to pay for an assassination in the Balkans.
“Dreadnought. Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War” by Robert K. Massie, Random House, New York, 1991.
“Eyewitness to History” Edited by John Carey, Avon Books, New York, 1990.