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Assassination and Miscalculation, to June 1914

Italy went to war with the Ottoman Empire on 29 September 1911, the Italians seeking empire. And before that short war ended, Italy gained from the Ottoman Empire the territories of Tripoli and Cyrenaica (today Libya). Also during that war, Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia thought it opportune to take territory from the Ottomans they thought of was theirs. The war ended in 1912 with Serbia capturing Alessio, a seaport on the Adriatic coast. This success aroused Serb nationalism. Franz Joseph's Austria-Hungary responded by threatening Serbia with war. The Russians, to defend fellow Eastern Orthodox Slavs, pressured their Tsar Nicholas II to call for mobilization of his armies. A Conference of Ambassadors in London calmed things down. Serbia wanted no war with Austria-Hungary and withdrew from the Adriatic coast.

In mid-June 1913, Bulgaria was dissatisfied with its share of the spoils of the war that had just ended, and it attacked its former allies, Serbia and Greece. Serbia emerged from these wars triumphant. Serbs in Bosnia were again elated. Austrian authorities again acted defensively. In Bosnia-Herzegovina they seized local newspapers, expelled student leaders and put schools under direct military rule. The year 1913 ended with leading strategists in Austria favoring war against Serbia and against Russia if Russia intervened. They favored getting the war with Serbia over sooner rather than later when Russia would have had more time to strengthen itself militarily.

In Russia, those around the tsar who favored peace were losing influence to those who were impatient and displeased by German and Austrian economic penetration into the Balkans. And for the Russians the Turks were a traditional enemy. Germany's economic ties with the Ottoman Empire had been growing. Germany sold weapons to Turkey in its recent wars. Following Turkey's defeat in August 1913, Germany began reorganizing Turkey's military, and Russians saw Germany's support and friendship for Turkey as a threat to Russia's shipping passing through the Black Sea into the Mediterranean.

In 1913, Emperor Franz Joseph commanded his heir apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, to observe the military maneuvers in Bosnia scheduled for June 1914 and to visit Bosnia's capital Sarajevo to open a museum. Franz Joseph had visited Sarajevo in 1910 but he had been protected there by a double row of soldiers between him and Bosnian onlookers. For Archduke Ferdinand no such security was planned. A devoutly religious man, the Archduke responded to the danger in Sarajevo with the remark that all was in the hands of God.

So unpopular was Habsburg rule in Bosnia that dozens of teenage boys in Sarajevo jumped at the opportunity to join a conspiracy to assassinate the Archduke. Their leader was a nineteen-year-old, Gavrilo Princip, son of a humble couple who farmed a small plot of land. He had done well as a student but had been beaten by authorities and expelled from high school. He and accomplices received weapons from a group in Serbia called the Narodna Oderana (National Defense) or "Black Hand" — without approval by the Serbian government, which didn't want a war with Austria-Hungary. On their way back to Sarajevo from their weapons-getting trip to Serbia, Princip and his accomplices had to sneak past Serbia's border guards.

Princip and his co-conspirators believed that the Archduke was coming to Sarajevo to prepare an invasion of Serbia. They were wrong, and they were unaware or believed it insignificant that the Archduke was unpopular among Austria's influential conservatives for favoring the same kind of autonomy for the Serbs that had been granted the Hungarians. Archduke Ferdinand, moreover, was one of those who did not want war with Serbia, and he favored granting greater autonomy to ethnic groups within the Empire and addressing their grievances — opinions soon to lose significance.

On 28 June 1914, the Archduke entered Sarajevo in an entourage of automobiles, with the top down on his convertible chauffeur-driven limousine. Alongside the archduke was his wife. When driving out of town, the Archduke's entourage of automobiles made a wrong turn and stopped to turn around. The Archduke's car stopped directly in front of Gavrilo Princip. An officer with a sword, standing on the running board was on the side opposite Princip. Princip stepped forward and fired two shots. One hit the Archduke and the other bullet accidentally struck the Archduke's wife. Both bled to death as the Archduke's car drove over bumpy roads to a local hospital. Princip was beaten and dragged off to prison — destined for death in prison in less than four years and to be a hero to the Serbian people.

On the day of its occurrence, news of the assassination reached Serbia's capital, Belgrade, where people had been enjoying a Sunday holiday. They marched, expressing their joy and singing patriotic songs. The Serbian government wanted no such demonstrations and ordered shops and theaters closed and people off the streets. The following day the government of Serbia wired its condolences to Franz Joseph's government in Vienna.

In Vienna and Berlin, no blame for the assassination was put on the lack of security for the Archduke or on Austria's oppressions in Bosnia. Instead, blame was put on Serbs in general, and Serbia's government was accused of having encouraged nationalism. Austrians believed that the Serbs should be punished. With emotions running high, in some areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina (such as Trebinje in Herzegovina) Austrian police hanged numerous Serbs. In Sarajevo, Moslems and Roman Catholic Croats (not particularly sympathetic to Orthodox Serbs) attacked Serb shops, hotels and homes, damaging property and injuring Serbs.

Oddly enough, Franz Joseph was pleased by the assassination. He had not approved of the Archduke's marriage to a Czech aristocrat woman whom he considered less than qualified to join the royal family. He had made the marriage morganatic. (She and her children were to have no titles or privileges.) Britannica writes:

His statements on receiving the report of the archducal couple's murder at Sarajevo, on June 28, 1914, show that he looked upon their fate as a token of divine retribution.

But Franz Joseph also believed that the Serbs had to be punished, and he chose to go along with those around him who wanted war. Franz Joseph's diplomats went to Germany seeking the Kaiser Wilhelm's support for a military move against Serbia. The Kaiser had been a close friend of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, and he was outraged by their deaths. Without being specific, he gave his backing to Austria-Hungary, agreeing that the Serbs had to be punished. The Kaiser had little respect for the Serbs, having described them as Asiatics and as a part of the Asiatic threat to Western civilization. Furthermore, he assumed that his cousin, Tsar Nicholas II, would agree that the Serbs should be punished, the tsar's family having been the victim of regicide. Indeed, Nicholas proclaimed twelve days of mourning for Archduke Ferdinand.

Wilhelm then went on a sailing vacation off the beautiful coast of Norway. The rest of the world was unaware of Austria-Hungary's plan for war, and the crisis rising from the assassination seemed to have ended. The shots fired by Princip had not made World War I inevitable. Whether there would be war was dependent on various decisions that followed the assassination, and the real march to war was about to begin.


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Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.