07/16/2014 09:17 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Today in World War I -- July 4-10, 1914


A Botched Murder

On July 4, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife the Countess Sophia were buried at Artstetten, about 50 miles west of Vienna. The Archduke had never been particularly popular in Austria-Hungary. His uncle, the Emperor Franz Joseph, had chosen him only reluctantly as his heir following the suicide of his only son, the Crown Prince Rudolph. So great was his disdain for his heir, that, even though he was in residence in Vienna at the time, he did not even bother to attend his nephew's funeral.

The funeral occurred a week after the assassination of the Archduke and his wife, on June 28, while they were on an official visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. A Serbian "paramilitary organization", today we would call them terrorists, committed to the unification of Bosnian Serbs with the Kingdom of Serbia, had organized an assassination attempt while the Archduke's motorcade traveled along the Apple Quay in Sarajevo. The plot failed, resulting in the injury, from a bomb blast, to a number of the Archduke's aides.

While attempting to find the hospital where his aides were being treated, the Archduke's driver mistakenly turned into Franz Joseph Strasse. Attempting to reverse, he stopped directly in front of Schiller's Delicatessen. Inside, one of the six Serbian conspirators, a 19-year-old student named Gavrilo Princip, was buying a sandwich. Seizing the opportunity, Princip rushed out and fired two fatal bullets at Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The murder set off an avalanche of events that would culminate in a few short weeks with the start of World War I.

What if Franz Ferdinand had lived? Would World War I have been avoided? He did in fact survive the first assassination attempt. Only an unfortunate driver's error gave the Serbian conspirators a second chance to assassinate him. Without that error, or even if the timing had been off by just a few minutes, it is likely that the Archduke would have lived. What then? Without such a dramatic casus belli would the Austrian government have had less reason to confront Serbia? Or would the attempt itself still have given them enough pretext? Is it possible that one of the most destructive wars in human history was the result of a teenager's lunch choice?

Probably not. While it is tempting to speculate that the occurrence, or lack thereof, of such a chance event could have inexorably altered the timeline of 20th century history, such speculations properly belong to authors of historical fiction and not the professional historian.

The Serbian group that organized the assassination attempt went by the name "Unification or Death". They were also known unofficially by the moniker "The Black Hand". It was the paramilitary wing of a secret society called Narodna Obrana (National Defense) which was committed to the creation of a "Great Serbia" that would encompass all of the Serbians in the Balkans. There is no question that this organization enjoyed broad support and received funding from elements of the Serbian government including Prince Alexander, the heir to the Serbian throne and commander of Serbia's military forces.

Several years earlier they had attempted to assassinate the Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph. They had also been implicated in other assassination attempts against other Austrian officials. Regardless of the outcome of the plot against the Archduke, it is likely that Serbian nationalists would have continued their attacks against Austrian officials, choosing whatever targets of opportunity presented themselves, in their quest for Serbian unification. In the summer of 1914, the Balkans were a powder keg primed to explode. Gavrilo Princip and the Black Hand merely provided the spark that would detonate it. Had it not been that spark, it is likely it would have been another.

That does not mean that a war was inevitable. It was not. There is little in history that is inevitable, regardless of how it may seem in retrospect. Nor does it mean that any war that might have resulted would have necessarily been of the scope or destruction that characterized World War I. Regardless of the deep seated animosity between Serbia and Austria, and the general instability of the Balkans in 1914, there were plenty of exits on the road to war that could have led to peace or at the very least a far less destructive war. The fact that none were taken, makes the occurrence of the war and its consequences all the more tragic.

Blog commentary drawn from, Joseph V. Micallef, Understanding World War I: A Concise History