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Assassination and Miscalculation, to June 1914

Italy went to war with the Ottoman Empire on 29 September 1911. The Italians were seeking empire, and before the war ended in October 1912 Italy gained from the Ottoman Empire the territories of Tripoli and Cyrenaica (today, Libya). During that war, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece thought it an opportune time to take territory from the Ottomans they thought of was theirs. It was another short war, ending in 2012. Serbia captured Alessio on the Adriatic coast in November, and this success aroused Serb nationalism in Austria-ruled Bosnia. Franz Joseph's Austria felt threatened, opposed Serbia's acquisition of a seaport on the Adriatic, and it threatened Serbia with war. The Russians, to defend fellow Eastern Orthodox Slavs pressured the tsar 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 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 than later when Russia would have had more time to strengthen itself militarily.

In Russia meanwhile, those around the tsar who favored peace were losing influence to those who were displeased by German and Austrian economic penetration into the Balkans. Germany's economic ties with the Ottoman Empire had been growing and it had sold weapons to Turkey in its recent wars. Following Turkey's defeat in August 1913, Germany began reorganizing Turkey's military, and these 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, the son of a couple who farmed a small plot of land, who had done well as a student. He had been beaten by authorities and expelled from high school. In Serbia, he and his 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. and on their way back to Sarajevo the youths 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 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 favored peace. He was one of those who did not want war with Serbia. He advocated granting greater autonomy to ethnic groups within the Empire and addressing their grievances, He criticized the Hungarian landlords for mistreating their Serb dependents.

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. 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. And Princip was beaten and dragged off to prison – destined for death in less than four years and to be a hero for 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 began marching, 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 they blamed Serbs in general. They accused Serbia of having encouraged nationalism. Austrians believed that the Serbs should be punished. In some areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina – such as Trebinje in Herzegovina – Austrian police hanged numerous Serbs. In Sarajevo, Moslems and Croats (Roman Catholics) 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. 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.

Despite welcoming the assassination, Franz Joseph believed that the Serbs had to be punished for the sake of protecting his empire, and he chose to go along with those around him who wanted war. Franz Joseph's diplomats went to Germany seeking the Kaiser'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, saying 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, the Russian tsar, Nicholas II, would agree that the Serbs should be punished, the tsar's family having been the victim of regicide. Indeed, Nicholas had 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 – unaware of Austria-Hungary's plan for war – the crisis over the assassination seemed to have ended. But the real march to war was about to begin.


Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.