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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)


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

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.

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