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The assassination that sparked war

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Nineteen-year-old Gavrilo Princip was a troubled young man seeking a purpose in life on June 28, 1914. "Wherever I went, people took me for a weakling," he later said. "And I pretended that I was a weak person, even though I was not."

Princip was a Bosnian Serb and a member of the Black Hand, an extremist nationalist secret society, whose primary crusade was to establish a greater Serbia. The Black Hand's chief enemy was Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, or the Dual Monarchy, which in 1908 had annexed the province of Bosnia that bordered the northwest part of Serbia.

The Black Hand's leaders, like the leaders of al-Qaida who plotted the 9/11 attacks, determined a desperate act of violence would serve their cause. Their target was Franz Joseph's nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Princip and a small group were recruited to commit this act of terror, which was intended to be a murder-suicide mission.

On that fateful Sunday 100 years ago, the archduke and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were visiting Sarajevo in Bosnia. Authorities in Vienna were aware of the various threats against the members of the royal family, but they were ignored. A week earlier as Ferdinand embarked on his train journey, he joked that his trip "isn't especially secret and I wouldn't be surprised if there are a few Serbian bullets waiting for me!"

That prediction proved all too true. As the archduke and duchess rode through the streets of Sarajevo in an automobile procession, Princip and his accomplices were among the crowd lining the streets. Suddenly one of the militants threw a bomb at the archduke's car, but it detonated too late, wounding dignitaries in a nearby vehicle as well as bystanders.

Amazingly, the archduke continued with his schedule. Later that day, he and Sophie decided to visit the wounded at the hospital. Their driver, however, took a wrong turn, giving Princip another chance to complete his mission. As the car slowed, he jumped on to the vehicle's running board and fired shots at the royal couple. They both died a short time later. Five weeks after that, the Great War began.

Princip, who was captured before he could kill himself, was convicted of the murders and only avoided the death penalty because he was under 20 years of age. He died in prison in April 1918 after contracting tuberculosis, seven months before the end of the First World War, the bloody conflict his brazen actions had "sparked."

In the past two centuries there have been other political assassinations -- Russian Czar Alexander II in 1881, four U.S. presidents (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy), and such leaders as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. -- but none has arguably had the catastrophic ramifications as the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

As every student of history knows there is a long list of causes of the First World War. Among the most critical were: the alliance system, the arms race, empire building, nationalism and an ingrained military culture that perceived war as a legitimate response to defend a nation's prestige. Connected to this was a 19th-century credo of honour, which dictated that a gentleman or general must uphold his principles, even at bayonet point.

Still, like most major historical events, the Great War did not have to happen.

"A general war could have been avoided up to the last moment on Aug. 4 when the British finally decided to come in," suggested historian Margaret MacMillan in her recent book, The War That Ended Peace.

Instead, the leaders of the great powers made critical decisions, partly the result of a deliberate single-mindedness that welcomed the chance to put troops on the field, yet also the result of nationalist bravado, human failings and foolishness.

Ironically, as MacMillan also pointed out, though Franz Ferdinand was an intolerant bigot, he was also intelligent and astute about Austria-Hungary's future.

"It is one of the smaller tragedies of the summer of 1914," she concluded, "that in assassinating Franz Ferdinand the Serb nationalists removed the one man in Austria-Hungary who might have prevented it going to war."


Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2014 0

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