The spark that set light to a continent: how a conspiracy to kill an Archduke set off a chain of events ending in war.

On 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, assassinated the Austrian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo.

To understand the importance of this event, imagine the Prince of Wales and his wife being assassinated while visiting a dominion of the British Empire.

This outrageous act of brutality was aimed at undermining the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had annexed Bosnia into its multi-ethnic Empire in 1908.

The murder of the royal couple ushered in the so-called July Crisis which ended with the outbreak of war in August 1914.

The assassination has been described as the spark that would set light to a continent that was riddled with international tensions.

However, a European war was not inevitable. Right until the last moment, some European statesmen were desperately trying to avoid an escalation of the crisis by advocating mediation, while others did everything in their power to ensure that a war would break out.

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The murder of the Archduke caused widespread international outrage even though assassinations of prominent individuals were rather more common than they are today: for example, the Austrian Emperor, Kaiser Franz Joseph, nearly succumbed to an assassin in Sarajevo in May 1910, while an Italian anarchist had murdered his wife Empress Elizabeth in 1898.

A map of the Austro-Hungary empire. Click to enlargeOther royal assassination victims included the Serbian King Alexandar and his wife in 1903, the Italian King Umberto in 1900, and the Greek King George I in 1913.

However, we do not remember these acts of violence because their consequences were less serious; on the other hand, we remember the date and place of this infamous assassination in Sarajevo because the events that followed it led directly into the First World War.

Why did the Archduke become a victim of a violent conspiracy?

The assassins can be traced back to the Serbian capital Belgrade, where each of the six young men who waited for the hapless Archduke in Sarajevo along the pre-published official route were radicalised by Serbian nationalist and irredentist organizations.

Serbia had been a threat and irritant to Austria-Hungary, particularly since it won the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 and as a consequence had nearly doubled its territory and increased its population from 3 to 4.5 million.

The government’s aim was to unite even more Serbian territory and people with Serbia—and those people happened to live in multi-ethnic Austria-Hungary, including Bosnia, which had been annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908.

Three of the young conspirators had left impoverished lives in Sarajevo for Belgrade. Trifko Grabež, Nedeljko Čabrinović and Gavrilo Princip were all members of the revolutionary organisation Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia). In the Serbian capital they succumbed to the anti-Habsburg propaganda of several underground organisations such as the ‘Black Hand’ (its official title was ‘Union or Death’), a conspiratorial officers’ group which stood for the idea of a greater Serbia.

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Franz Ferdinand’s Graef & Stift car in the Vienna HeeresmuseumIn the Austrian capital Vienna, the assassination was immediately perceived as a Serbian provocation, even though actual evidence of Serbian involvement in the plot was hard to come by.

It was not known at the time that one of the instigators of this act was indeed a member of the Serbian establishment: the head of the Serbian military intelligence service, Dragutin Dimitrijević (also known as Apis), and members of the ‘Black Hand’ were behind the assassination just as they had been behind the unsuccessful attempt to kill Kaiser Franz Joseph in 1910.

The would-be assassins were trained in the use of weapons in Belgrade and equipped with four revolvers and six small bombs from the Serbian state arsenal in Kragujevac.

In Bosnia, they were joined by three more conspirators: Danilo Ilić, Veljko Čubrilović, and Civijetko Popović. The youngest of their group was just seventeen.

They lined up along the previously announced route that Franz Ferdinand and his wife would take on that Sunday morning, travelling from the train station to Sarajevo’s Town Hall.

However, the first attempt to kill the Archduke failed. Nedeljko Čabrinović threw his bomb on the Appel Quay, but it bounced off the open convertible car.

It exploded underneath the car behind, injuring a few of the passengers and some spectators. The Archduke was unhurt while his wife suffered a small wound on the cheek.

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The couple were hurriedly taken to the Town Hall, and this could have been the end of it all—another failed assassination attempt, like there had been so many others.

A fateful change of plan

But Franz Ferdinand ignored advice to cancel the rest of the tour and insisted the couple visited some of the injured in the hospital before continuing with the official programme.

As a compromise, it was agreed that the convoy should follow a different route and not, as planned, travel down Franz-Joseph-Strasse.

However, tragically, this change of plan appears not to have been communicated to the driver in the first car, who turned into the street as previously arranged.

In the hastily conducted reverse manoeuvre, the Archduke’s car came to a halt right in front of Gavrilo Princip who had positioned himself, by chance, at the exact same spot.

A few metres away from his target he managed to shoot the Archduke in the neck and his wife in the abdomen. Sophie died in the car, and Franz Ferdinand shortly after reaching the residence of the Governor.

The conspirators could not know, and certainly had not planned, that a world war would result from this act of violence, but in the weeks that followed, decisions were made in Europe’s capitals that ensured that the death of this one man would lead to the deaths of millions.