On a summer day 100 years ago today, two men crossed paths in Sarajevo. One was stout, middle-aged and powerful; the other undernourished, barely out of his teens and a non-entity. The older man was surrounded by luxury and deference; he owned palaces, castles, hunting lodges, art works. The younger had no fixed address but moved from one humble boarding house to another, sleeping on friends’ floors when he was particularly hard up.
The first was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, a centuries-old empire that included most of central Europe. When his aging uncle Emperor Franz Joseph died, he would inherit so many titles that the Austrians would have simply put “etc.” after the first several.
Gavrilo Princip was born into a Serb peasant family in an obscure village in western Bosnia. Life was hard and six of his siblings died in childhood. Change was coming, though, and an older brother left the farm and got a job near Sarajevo. In time, he sent for young Gavrilo and paid for his education. The boy was clever and at first did well in school. He might have become a teacher or perhaps a minor functionary in the Austrian empire. Or he might have emigrated to North America, as so many from the Balkans did in the years before 1914.
Instead the boy was going to kill the Archduke and his wife that day in Sarajevo, and the world was never going to be the same. Within weeks, Europe’s great powers would be at war, soon drawing in the rest of the globe and ultimately remaking the world order in ways that echo to this day.
Oddly, the immediate reaction to the assassination was muted. After all, it was an age of successful attacks on high-profile targets, which had included a Russian czar, an Austrian empress, an Italian king, two prime ministers of Spain and an American president. Political assassinations and other forms of terrorism had the power to shock in 1914, but perhaps not as much as before. The death of the heir to an empire at the hands of a nationalist seeking to liberate his people may well have remained just another violent incident in a troubled part of the world; a tragedy undoubtedly for the couple’s children and friends but a minor footnote in history. With a bit of luck on that day 100 years ago, the assassination might not have happened at all.
But it did, and it became one of the defining events of the 20th century. How that came to be has more to do with the way a fading empire sought to exploit a tragedy to defend its interests than with any passions the assassination ignited.
Gavrilo Princip and Franz Ferdinand had never crossed paths before June 28, 1914, although the Archduke may have looked into his assassin’s eyes at the last moment. They came, after all, from two utterly different worlds and had very different goals. Where the Archduke wanted to preserve his empire, Princip hoped to destroy it and so free his fellow South Slavs from what he saw as a prison.
The late 19th century was an age of heightened nationalism, and that spelled nothing but trouble for the multinational Austria-Hungary, with its 14 main languages and its variety of religions and cultures. Several of its peoples, Czechs for example, or Poles, were demanding more autonomy. The greatest threat came from the South Slavs – a loose term that encompassed Croats, Slovenes and Serbs – who were divided by history and religion but spoke similar languages. If they chose to unite and work for a South Slav state – a Yugoslavia – it would hasten the disintegration of Austria-Hungary. Franz Ferdinand was well aware of the danger, which is why he had floated the idea of a South Slav province within his empire to satisfy their aspirations.
For Princip and his fellow nationalists in Bosnia and the independent state of Serbia, this was the last thing they wanted. They dreamed of an independent South Slav state, or of perhaps joining Serbia. The Archduke was therefore both a symbol of the hated Austrian empire and a very real threat.