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Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie one hour before they would be shot a killed by Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip as they drove through the streets of Sarajevo. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie one hour before they would be shot a killed by Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip as they drove through the streets of Sarajevo. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

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The Archduke’s assassination came close to being just another killing Add to ...

On the evening of June 27, the imperial couple gave a reception for Bosnian dignitaries. Sophie playfully reprimanded a leading Croat politician who had begged them not to go to Sarajevo the following morning. “You have made a mistake,” she said. “We were all over the countryside and, without exception among the Serbian population, greeted in such a friendly manner, with such sincerity and unrestrained warmth that we are really happy about it.” He replied with feeling that he hoped to hear the same thing from her the following evening, should they meet again.

In Sarajevo, the conspirators were making their final preparations. They did not expect to survive the attempt; each had a cyanide capsule ready. One of their number, Nedeljko Cabrinovic, had given away all his possessions and said farewell to his family. The plan was simple: to station themselves along the route and hurl bombs or fire pistols at their target.

As the imperial party arrived at the Sarajevo railway station the next morning, the sun was clearing away the mountain mists. The Archduke and his wife took their place in an open car, Sophie in a white dress with a red sash and a large bunch of red roses, Franz Ferdinand in the blue dress uniform of a cavalry general. The procession set off for the town hall for a formal reception by the mayor.

Cabrinovic hurled his bomb as the procession passed along the main road beside the river that runs through Sarajevo. It missed the Archduke’s car but exploded under the next one, injuring the passengers as well as several bystanders. Sophie’s white dress was splattered with blood and the Archduke’s speaking notes were soaked.

The shaken party carried on, and there was a hasty ceremony at the town hall. The Archduke’s staff wanted him to leave immediately for the relative safety of the railway station but he insisted on going to the hospital to see an aide who had been badly injured in the attack. So the procession set out again.

It was at this point that accident, as it so often does, intervened in history. The plan was to go the safer, long way around, rather than through the narrow streets of the old city, but the chauffeurs apparently hadn’t been told. The lead car mistakenly turned right too soon and the Archduke’s car followed. General Potiorek shouted at the chauffeurs to back up. Princip was standing there, armed with a pistol. The conspirators had scattered in confusion after the first attempt, and he had wandered back into the crowd with no clear plan. Now he saw his target about six feet away in a stationary car.

At such a range it was hard to miss. He fired twice, hitting Franz Ferdinand as well as his wife. The Archduke said, “Sophie, you must live for the sake of the children.” Both were dead in minutes.

A muted response

News of the assassination spread rapidly through Europe. In Belgrade there was some rejoicing, hastily tamped down by the authorities. Elsewhere, reactions ranged from sympathy to indifference. Many Europeans were already on their summer holidays or about to start. Their governments had other things to worry about. Russia was dealing with a series of increasingly militant strikes; the British feared civil war over the thorny question of Irish home rule; and the French were preoccupied with a complex scandal involving adultery and possibly treason on the part of one its leading politicians. The German Kaiser was sad at the loss of a friend but not particularly concerned that there would be serious repercussions. The French president, who heard the news at a race track outside Paris, noted that most of his guests were of the same opinion.

In Austria-Hungary, the Archduke had not been much loved. He was demanding, frequently bad tempered and authoritarian. His reputed anti-Semitic and anti-Hungarian prejudices did not endear him to many of his future subjects. The funeral in Vienna was noticeably low key. Even in death etiquette held; Sophie’s coffin was both smaller and on a lower dais than the Archduke’s.

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