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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 ...

That the killing set off a chain of events that led Europe in five weeks from peace to a general war – a war whose scale and destructiveness few had imagined possible – was the result of what those in power chose to do next. There had been much more dangerous crises recently in the Balkans; two wars among its nations, one in 1912 and the second a year later, had threatened to drag the great powers into a wider conflict. Yet those had been settled by international agreement.

What made it different this time was that the hawks in the Austria-Hungary capital of Vienna – and they included the chief of the army – seized on the chance to deal once and for all with Serbia, even at the risk of a general war. They did not have firm evidence that the Serbian government was complicit in the assassination, but they felt they had enough to go on. European public opinion was likely to be on their side, especially in the immediate aftermath of the deaths. They decided to present an ultimatum to Serbia that, if accepted, would bring Serbia under Austria-Hungary’s control and, if refused, provide the pretext to attack.

The danger was that the war might rapidly become more than a local one; that Russia might well intervene to support Serbia. In recent years, the Russians had made much of their little Slavic brother. Their interest was more than mere sentiment, though; the long-term goal was to gain control of the crucial strait from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean through which some 40 per cent of Russia’s exports flowed. As well, Serbia was one of the largest nations in the region and made a useful ally.

The only way Austria-Hungary could counter the Russian threat was to have the firm backing of Germany, which in those days shared a border with Russia. The worry was that Berlin would decide, as it had done before, that it would not commit itself to backing Austria-Hungary if it meant risking a large-scale conflict.

On July 6, just over a week after the assassination, the German government took the step that brought a European war much closer. It gave Austria-Hungary what came to be known as the “blank cheque” – it would support its ally, come what may. But if Germany found itself at war with Russia, it would also have to attack Russia’s ally France, which might in turn bring in Britain on the side of the French. The previous decade’s alliances and treaties, which had effectively divided Europe into two armed camps, helped to propel the continent toward the brink.

Secure in the backing of its ally, Austria-Hungary prepared an ultimatum to Serbia. It was designed to be unacceptable. The Austrian ambassador in Belgrade delivered it on July 23 and demanded a reply within 48 hours. The Serbian government struggled in vain to come up with an acceptable response. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war. Two days later, Russia announced that it would mobilize its armies against both Austria-Hungary and Germany. Germany followed by a declaration of war on Russia on Aug. 1 and on France on Aug. 3. The following day German troops violated Belgian neutrality on their way to attack France and that helped to tip British opinion in favour of intervention. At 11 p.m. that evening, Britain, speaking as well for its empire – Canada included – declared that it was at war with Germany.

We all know something of what that war, started so casually, cost. The bill includes more than 9 million men dead and many more injured, regimes toppled, and empires destroyed. Europe and indeed the world were never to be the same.

And we still live with its consequences, whether it’s the shells and bombs that still explode to kill the unlucky along the old battle fronts, or the turmoil in the Middle East where the borders were set as a result of the war.

Princip died in an Austrian prison in 1918 and never expressed a word of regret for what he had set in motion.

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