The centenary of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination

It was a fluke. Tens of millions died, the Soviet Union was born and the 20th century blazed because of an accident. The archduke Franz Ferdinand would no doubt have departed Sarajevo unscathed but his driver made a mistake. It was as trivial as that: a wrong turn up Franz Josef Strasse. 

This weekend the Habsburg family is gathering at Franz Ferdinand’s estate to commemorate the centenary of the assassination. The Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna will say Mass. The hand kissing will never end. 

Everywhere grand pronouncements are being made about the causes of the world’s worst war. But the slaughter was all the more appalling because it didn’t have to happen. Great events don’t need great causes. The rise of nationalism. The collapse of empire. The Teutonic spirit. History can turn on an accident. 

A century ago today, the motorcade of the heir to the Austrian empire left the Sarajevo railway station about 10am heading for the town hall. Franz Ferdinand was in full military uniform with an absurd plume of peacock feathers on his head. Beside him all in white sat his wife, Sophie. Happy crowds lined Appel Quay, the road that ran along river. 

Franz Ferdinand, a choleric man with dead eyes and a passion for hunting, had spent the previous days watching troop manoeuvres in the hinterland of the city but there were no troops in Sarajevo for his ceremonial welcome. Spies had warned of trouble from Serbian nationalists. A veiled warning had even been delivered in Vienna. But only about 100 police were in the streets of the capital to protect the imperial couple. 

The car was a splendid Gräf & Stift sports tourer. The hood was down. Everyone on board was unprotected. Riding with Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were the gallant owner of the car, Franz von Harrach, and the governor of Bosnia, General Oskar Potiorek. The man was a fool. 

Austrian Bosnia and the Kingdom of Serbia lay side by side in the Balkan territory once ruled by the Turks. Driven by dreams of old glory, the Serbs had recently conquered Macedonia and Kosovo. Serb nationalists wanted Austria out of the Balkans. To that end, six amateur assassins with weapons supplied by shady figures connected to the Serbian regime were on the quay waiting to dispatch Franz Ferdinand. 

They botched the job. All but one lost his nerve. When Nedeljko Čabrinović hurled his bomb about 10.10am, Franz Ferdinand’s chauffeur saw it coming and accelerated. The bomb bounced off the imperial car and exploded against the rear wheel of the next, spattering its passengers and a couple of dozen bystanders with shrapnel. 

Franz Ferdinand halted the procession. Harrach was sent to see what had happened. Doctors were called. Čabrinović swallowed a cyanide capsule and dived into the river. The capsule was too old to work – it left him vomiting but very much alive – and the river proved only a few inches deep. Police dragged him away. 

“Come on, the fellow is insane,” said the archduke. “Let us go on with our program.” The remaining assassins melted away as the motorcade – minus three cars and a couple of lightly wounded aides – drove on to the town hall where Franz Ferdinand bellowed at the mayor: “One comes here for a visit and is received with bombs. It is outrageous!” 

Over the next few minutes, in the vestibule of that ugly Moorish building, a number of stupid decisions were made. Arrogance, bravado and deep attachment to protocol all played their part. Potiorek vetoed lining the streets with troops because there was no time to fetch their dress uniforms. When an aide suggested further security precautions, Potiorek asked: “Do you think that Sarajevo is full of assassins?”

The archduke had recovered his sangfroid, dangerously so. “Just watch it,” he joked of the assassin dragged from the river. “Instead of rendering the fellow harmless they will be truly Austrian about it and give him the medal of merit.”

He was determined to complete the morning’s program: a visit to the museum followed by lunch at Potiorek’s residence. But first, as a princely gesture, he would visit the injured aides. It meant a new route for the motorcade: not turning off the quay into the old city but following the river all the way to the military hospital. 

No one told the chauffeurs.

The open Gräf & Stift left the town hall with Harrach on the running board ready to shield the imperial couple from bombs and bullets. Franz Ferdinand had laughed and told him not to bother but Harrach kept to his post – on what would prove to be the wrong side of the car. 

The archduke had asked his wife to go straight to the governor’s residence. She refused. Sophie was only a countess, a morganatic consort who was not allowed to ride in state with her husband in Vienna. Only in the provinces could they be an imperial couple in public. Love and pride took her to her death.

Gavrilo Princip, having failed to fire a shot earlier that morning, had taken up a position outside Moritz Schiller’s delicatessen. Tales of him going there for coffee and a sandwich are a novelist’s invention. He was hanging about with murderous intent on the narrow street the motorcade was supposed to take to the museum. 

More than once Serb terrorists had rejected the tubercular young man as too puny to aid the cause. He had virtually recruited himself for the Sarajevo suicide mission equipped with a cyanide pill, a bomb, a semi-automatic pistol and fanatical sympathies. “I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs,” he later declared. “I do not care what form of state, but it must be freed from Austria.”

On that footpath at a little before 11am, he should have been out of harm’s way. We ought never to have known his name. Then the motorcade blundered into Franz Josef Strasse. “What is this?” Potiorek shouted to Franz Ferdinand’s driver. “We’re supposed to take the Appel Quay!” 

The car swept past Princip and stopped. The street was too narrow for it to turn. As it backed very slowly towards the river, Princip took one step onto the running board and, averting his eyes, fired twice at point-blank range.

The crucial assassination in history made so little noise that Potiorek thought the youth had missed his mark. The imperial couple were still sitting bolt upright as he gave orders to drive to his residence. Harrach was the first to realise the archduke had been hit. He wrote: “As the car quickly reversed, a thin stream of blood spurted from His Highness’s mouth onto my right cheek. 

“As I was pulling out my handkerchief to wipe the blood away from his mouth, the Duchess cried out to him, ‘For God’s sake! What has happened to you?’ At that she slid off the seat and lay on the floor of the car, with her face between his knees.”

Princip’s bullet had cut through Franz Ferdinand’s jugular vein and lodged in his spine. The second shot – intended, it seems, for Potiorek – had pierced the car door, the upholstery of the back seat and entered Sophie’s abdomen almost at her groin. Both were bleeding to death internally. 

Harrach asked the archduke if he was in pain. “He answered me quite distinctly, ‘It is nothing!’ His face began to twist somewhat but he went on repeating, six or seven times, ever more faintly as he gradually lost consciousness, ‘It’s nothing!’”

Wrong again. 

Princip took his cyanide capsule – also useless – tried to shoot himself and was dragged away by police. He was being interrogated within minutes. He did not give up his Serbian contacts. His failed assassin companions, all swiftly rounded up by the police, confessed to receiving help and weapons from over the border. That Serbia had some hand in this was clear. 

Nothing inevitably followed. The emperor Franz Josef seemed almost relieved that a man he loathed was no longer his heir. He was not bent on avenging Habsburg honour. What happened next was not family business. 

Austria had wanted a war with Serbia for years. The assassination was a God-given excuse to fight. The Serbs were presented with an ultimatum designed to fail. War followed in early August. Then and now the rule of history is the same: what matters is not the terrorist outrage but the response. 

Perhaps it’s the deepest lesson of the war, a lesson we don’t seem able to learn. The World Trade Center came down and the neo-cons in Washington who already wanted to invade Iraq got their war. It’s not going so well. 

The imperial couple were buried with muted honours where the family is gathering this weekend at Artstetten Castle, not far from Vienna. General Potiorek proved an incompetent military commander in the war, was sacked and lived until 1933. Harrach survived him by a year. 

Princip, too young to be executed, died in prison of tuberculosis of the bone in 1918. He was a hero to the Yugoslavs after World War I. Memorials to the assassin were torn down by the Nazis and restored by the Communists. Modern Bosnia doesn’t much care for Princip’s memory. The bronze footprints on the footpath disappeared in the wars of the early 1990s. His revolver and the Gräf & Stift with a bullet hole in the door are now in the Museum of Military History in Vienna.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 28, 2014 as "The Big Bang".

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David Marr is a reporter, commentator and biographer.

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