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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.

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.

By 1914, Princip had drifted to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, and become part of a loose network of revolutionaries known as Young Bosnia. Liberating Bosnia was their first priority, and their preferred tactic was violence. Like revolutionaries all over Europe, they had been inspired by ideas such those of the Russian anarchists, who argued that a single act of terrorism could topple an unjust regime. Closer to home, they had the example of recent attempts to shoot the governors of Bosnia and Croatia. Support for such actions had come from nationalists within Serbia, some of them close to the government. When the Belgrade newspapers reported in March, 1914, that the Archduke was planning to visit Bosnia for the summer military manoeuvres, Princip and his friends at once saw an opportunity. They started to practise shooting.

For Franz Ferdinand, the trip was to be something of a holiday, a chance to get away from the stifling court etiquette of Vienna and its dismissive treatment of his wife. Sophie's crime for the Austrian court – and Emperor Franz Joseph himself – was that she was a mere aristocrat when Habsburgs had to marry those of royal or princely rank. Franz Ferdinand had been allowed to marry her only on condition that she would never be empress and their children would not succeed to the throne. It was nevertheless an exceedingly happy marriage. She was warm and loving, and the Archduke adored her.

The couple took particular pleasure in visits to the farther parts of the empire or to friends such as Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, where she could be received with full imperial honours. The trip to Bosnia would also be a pleasant way to celebrate their wedding anniversary, which fell on July 1. While Franz Ferdinand was with the army, Sophie would stay in a small mountain resort not far from Sarajevo. Then the two would visit the picturesque city, with its mix of Ottoman and Habsburg architecture.

On June 23, the party set off by train from Vienna, bound for the port of Trieste, where they would board one of the empire's new dreadnoughts for a cruise down the beautiful Dalmatian coast. The lights in the imperial carriage were broken and some in the party joked that it resembled a crypt.

A fateful choice of routes

The Serbian government watched the arrival of the imperial party with concern. Were the military manoeuvres in fact a cover for an invasion? Relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary had been deteriorating sharply since 1903, when a violent coup in Belgrade brought a new anti-Austrian king to the throne of Serbia. Five years later, the breach became irreparable.

As the Ottoman Empire declined ever more rapidly, the Serbian government had begun to hope that it might lay its hands on part of its Balkan territories, including Bosnia. In 1908, however, Vienna, acting with uncharacteristic boldness, suddenly closed off that particular aspiration. The Bosnians – a mix of Serb, Croat and Muslim – would be citizens of the Austria-Hungary, not part of a greater Serbia. The annexation also put paid to Serbia's dreams of expanding westward and gaining part of the Adriatic coast. Franz Ferdinand's visit in 1914 exacerbated resentments that were still raw.

To make matters still worse, the choice of June 28 for a visit to Sarajevo was particularly galling. On that day in 1389, a Christian Serbian prince had been defeated by the Muslim Ottomans at the Battle of Kosovo, and in subsequent years most of the Balkans had fallen under Ottoman rule. The Serbs celebrated it as both their greatest tragedy and a symbol of their patriotism.

Princip and his five fellow conspirators were already waiting in Sarajevo as the imperial party approached the Bosnia coast. With the help of influential figures in Serbia, including the head of its military intelligence, they had obtained guns and bombs from the arsenal in Belgrade and been smuggled across the border.

The Austrian authorities had some inkling that the timing of the visit was poor. The Serbian government had even sent a warning to Vienna through its ambassador, but it was so vague as to be useless. Officials in Bosnia had repeatedly asked that the visit be delayed or that security be stepped up. The local police chief reported that Sarajevo was tense and asked for reinforcements to guard the visitors' route or, at the very least, that its details be kept secret. The governor of Bosnia, General Oskar Potiorek, refused all suggestions; he was determined to show that he had successfully pacified the new province. The committee responsible for arranging the visit spent its time on such matters the Archduke's favourite wine or music.

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.

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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