Sarajevo - assasination of Franz Ferdinand

The assisnation of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo by Serbian nationalists was the final spark that caused World War One

On 28th July 1914 the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated at Sarajevo in Bosnia by members of the Serbian Black Hand Group. This event set of a domino effect dragging all the major European Great powers into what would become a global conflict lasting almost five years.

The events and attitudes of the previous twenty years or so saw a radical change in south eastern Europe, the birth of nations and a clash of imperial and national ideals that eventually brought about the collapse of most of these once mighty empires.

Imperialism, nationalism, personal ambition, distrust, revenge and greed were some of contributing factors to the event at Sarajevo and the eventual outbreak of war.

Assassination at Sarajevo - 28th June 1914

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was heir to the Austrian throne. Austria-Hungary had possessions in Bosnia-Herzegovina near Serbia. In order to intimidate Serbia and remind them that Austria-Hungary was a powerful military state they sent 70,000 troops into Bosnia-Herzegovina on manoeuvres. Franz Ferdinand was a Field Marshal of the Austrian Army and as such he and his wife Sophie were invited to Bosnia-Herzegovina to direct the army manoeuvres that were to take place there during June 1914.

The visit carried a great deal of risk as a large proportion of the population were against Austrian rule and favoured a union with neighbouring Serbia. The area was hotbed of nationalism that could erupt at any moment. Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, head of the Intelligence Department of the Serbian General Staff, was also secretly the head of a terrorist organisation called the Black Hand Group that were totally opposed to Austrian rule.

Franz Ferdinand's visit was a great opportunity to stir up Bosnian opposition to Austria and Colonel Dimitrijevic was keen to exploit it. Accordingly Dimitrijevic sent a party of assassins, including Gavrilo Princip, Nedjelko Cabrinovic and Trifko Grabez, to Bosnia to kill the archduke. Each man was issued with a revolver, some bombs and a capsule of cyanide to commit suicide after the event. These men were all suffering from tuberculosis and knew they did not have long to live and so were willing to sacrifice what little life they had left for what they believed to be a just cause.

The plot to kill Archduke Ferdinand became known to the Serbian Prime Minister, Nikola Pasic, who, even though he was in agreement with the Black Hand group's objectives, was worried that the assassination would lead to war and so ordered that the three assassins be arrested before they left Serbia. The orders were never carried out and the three men duly arrived in Bosnia and joined several other conspirators: Cvijetko Popovic, Danilo Ilic, Muhamed Mehmedbasic, Veljko Cubrilovic, Vaso Cubrilovic and Misko Jovanovic.

Shortly before 10 o'clock on Sunday, 28th June, 1914, Franz Ferdinand and his wife were met at Sarajevo station by General Oskar Potiorek, Governor of the Austrian provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina. He was waiting to take them by car to the City Hall for the official reception. Franz Ferdinand, his wife Sophie, General Potiorek and Count von Harrach were in the second of a procession of cars. In the front car was Fehim Curcic, the Mayor of Sarajevo and Dr. Gerde, the city's Commissioner of Police.

The Archduke's car's top was open so that the crowds could see its occupants. Seven members of the Black Hand group were waiting along the route to assassinate the Archduke as he drove past. The first member was Muhamed Mehmedbasic who lost his nerve and allowed the Archduke to pass by unharmed. The next conspirator was Nedjelko Cabrinovic who threw a bomb at the archduke's car. When he saw something flying towards the car the driver accelerated and the bomb missed and exploded under the following car seriously injuring Eric von Merizzi and Count Boos-Waldeck and some spectators. Cabrinovic then swallowed his cyanide and jumped into the River Miljacka but the poison failed to kill him and he was dragged from the river and taken to the local police station for interrogation.

The archduke's driver then drove at speed to the City Hall past the other members of the assassination squad who decided that it would be useless to attempt to kill the archduke and let him pass unchallenged. After attending the reception at City Hall Archduke Franz Ferdinand insisted on visiting the other members of his party that had been injured in the bomb explosion. Despite strong opposition from Baron Morsey Sophie refused to leave her husband and accompanied the archduke to the hospital. General Potiorek changed the route so that the car would travel straight back to the hospital avoiding the city centre but he forgot to tell the driver. On the way the driver took a right turn off Appel Quay on to Franz Joseph street where Gavrilo Princip was standing. General Potiorek immediately ordered the driver to stop, who then backed up slowly past the waiting assassin. Princip approached the car, drew his gun and from a distance of about 2m fired several times into the car.

The archduke was hit in the neck and Sophie was hit in the abdomen. Struggling for breath Franz Ferdinand implored his wife not to die for the sake of their children. They were driven to the Governor's residence but both died shortly after due to their wounds. After shooting Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Princip turned the gun on himself but was prevented from pulling the trigger by others near him.

Princip was arrested and both he and Cabrinovic were interrogated by the police and eventually gave the names of their fellow assassins who were also arrested. Only Mehmedbasic managed to get back to Serbia. The men interrogated by Austrian authorities soon revealed that it had been three men form Serbia, Dragutin Dimitrijevic, Milan Ciganovic and Major Tankosic that had organised the plot and on 23rd July, 1914 the Austrian-Hungarian government issued a demand that Serbia:

  • send the men responsible for the plot to Austria to face trail for their acts
  • prevent the publication of anti-Austrian-Hungarian propaganda
  • remove those responsible for the propaganda from the Serbian military
  • prevent the supply of arms and explosives from Serbia to Austria-Hungary

This became known as the July Ultimatum. Austria-Hungary threatened to recall its ambassador from Serbia if the ultimatum was not answered within 48 hours. After receiving reassurances from Russia that it would honour its promise of support the Serbian government mobilised its army and replied on the 25th July that they would accept most of the terms but would be unable to comply with some of the minor demands as they violated Serbian law.

Nevertheless Austria was determined to take advantage of the situation and on 28th July 1914, with the full support of Germany, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia leading to the outbreak of the First World War.