On this day : The 28th June 1914

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The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

On 28th June, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia.

The archduke traveled to Sarajevo in June 1914 to inspect the imperial armed forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, former Ottoman territories in the turbulent Balkan region that were annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908 to the indignation of Serbian nationalists, who believed they should become part of the newly independent and ambitious Serbian nation. The date scheduled for his visit, June 28, coincided with the anniversary of the First Battle of Kosovo in 1389, in which medieval Serbia was defeated by the Turks. Despite the fact that Serbia did not truly lose its independence until the Second Battle of Kosovo in 1448, June 28 was a day of great significance to Serbian nationalists, and one on which they could be expected to take exception to a demonstration of Austrian imperial strength in Bosnia.

The day was already an important one. For Ferdinand, it marked his wedding anniversary and the only day that the emperor would allow him to be seen in public with his commoner wife, Sophie.

For the Bosnian Serbs, whose country was formally annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908, it was a day of anger. Opposition to the Austro-Hungarian annexation led to the formation of the Young Bosnia movement, largely made up of Serbian and Bosniak students. It was The Black Hand Gang, a more radical group within the movement, that plotted the assassination of the archduke.

As he and his wife drive through Sarajevo in an open top car, the seven assassins of the Black Hand are already in position. The first two would-be assassins miss their chance as the archduke’s car passes by. The third man, Nedeljko Čabrinović throws a bomb at the car but it bounces off the hood and explodes behind, injuring twenty bystanders.

Čabrinović attempts suicide but his cyanide tablet is a dud. He throws himself into a river, only to find it is just four inches deep. He is caught by an angry mob and almost beaten to death before being taken into custody.

The archduke, outraged at the attack, proceeds to a town hall meeting. Later in the day he sets off for the hospital to visit the victims of Čabrinović’s attack. Enroute his driver takes a wrong turn into Franz Josef Street where another of the Black Hand Gang, Gavrilo Princip, is sitting in a café.

Princip, a 19 year old Croat previously rejected from joining the Bosnian guerrillas in the First Balkan War due to his small stature, is determined to prove himself. As the archduke’s car backs out of the street Princip opens fire at point-blank range. He fires two shots, hitting the pregnant Sophie in the stomach and Ferdinand in the neck. Ferdinand cries out “don’t die darling, live for our children” but they both perish there in the car. Princip then turned the gun on himself, but was prevented from shooting it by a bystander who threw himself upon the young assassin. A mob of angry onlookers attacked Princip, who fought back and was subsequently wrestled away by the police. Meanwhile, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie lay fatally wounded in their limousine as it rushed to seek help; they both died within the hour.

Though Princip and his fellow conspirators attempted to deflect the blame away from Serbia, the assassination of the archduke was viewed as a provocation by the Austro-Hungarians. Too young to face the death penalty, Princip was tried and sentenced to twenty years in prison. He died in 1918 from a combination of malnutrition and tuberculosis.

The assassination of Franz-Ferdinand and Sophie set off a rapid chain of events: Austria-Hungary, like many in countries around the world, blamed the Serbian government for the attack and hoped to use the incident as justification for settling the question of Slav nationalism once and for all. As Russia supported Serbia, an Austro-Hungarian declaration of war was delayed until its leaders received assurances from German leader Kaiser Wilhelm that Germany would support their cause in the event of a Russian intervention–which would likely involve Russia’s ally, France, and possibly Britain as well. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the tenuous peace between Europe’s great powers collapsed. Within a week, Russia, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Serbia had lined up against Austria-Hungary and Germany, and World War I had begun.

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