The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the drumbeats of war


Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie leave Sarajevo City Hall on June 28, 1914,  where they attended a reception shortly before their assassination. REUTERS/JU Muzej Sarajevo (JU Sarajevo Museum)/Handout via Reuters

One hundred years ago today in Sarajevo, a Serb nationalist shot to death at point-blank range the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife Sophie. Their deaths, we are told, triggered the chain of events that led a month later to the start of World War I -- the Great War, a horrifying, bloody four-year conflict that killed some 14 million people, collapsed empires and redrew large parts of the world's map.

In Sarajevo, the assassination is being marked with commemorations, concerts and exhibitions. The fault lines of a century ago remain all too real, with the country's ethnically divided politics still a cauldron of animosities. "Sarajevo is now a symbol of a century of wars in Europe but we are here to talk about peace and reconciliation," said Joseph Zimet, the head of the organization planning the commemoration.

On the eve of the centennial, Bosnian Serbs unveiled a statue to Gavrilo Princip, the archduke's killer, who is considered a Serbian hero and freedom-fighter. A century after the assassination, the rest of the world would likely consider him -- and the underground, radical nationalist network he was operating within -- a state-sponsored terrorist. The Austrians back then certainly did, and looked at Belgrade, capital of the young nation of Serbia, as the source of the conspiracy.

What happened next, as Winston Churchill put it, was a "drama never surpassed." Ferdinand's death presented leading statesmen in Europe's great powers both a crisis and an opportunity and led to a dizzying series of diplomatic maneuvers, secret negotiations and political escalations that underlay the explosive opening of World War I. A web of alliances between Europe's competing empires -- a "concert" -- led to Russia coming in on the side of the Serbs, Germany countering Russia, and Britain, France and the waning Ottoman Empire also entering the fray.

Sean McMeekin, a professor at Koc University in Istanbul, chronicles the weeks that followed Ferdinand's murder in "July 1914," a riveting account published this year of how the war started. McMeekin and a whole tradition of World War I historians argue that even after Ferdinand's assassination, war was not a fait accompli. Indeed, in Europe and across the pond in the United States, many learning of the archduke's death were less concerned with the drumbeats of war than the question of Austrian succession. The Washington Post, for example, published this largely fluffy piece on the royal who became the heir presumptive:


As we mark the war's centennial, there will be time yet to explore its legacy and effects. What McMeekin and other historians emphasize, though, was that the war was the creation of a coterie of political elites, each fueled by their own lust for greater power.

No one was guiltless in the build-up. This year, in Britain, there's already been an animated debate about how to remember World War I. Conservative Education Secretary Michael Gove lambasted "leftist" historians and commentators who cast it as a "misbegotten shambles," a series of catastrophic mistakes by mustachioed monarchs and cabinet ministers. Instead, Gove argued it was a "just war" against the "ruthless Social Darwinism" of the Germans.

This is a view not shared by many. Germany was punished most in the war's aftermath, with its Kaiser Wilhelm II -- an ambitious expansionist -- made out to be the chief villain. But they were hardly alone in their imperial delusions, with the French, the British and most importantly the Russians -- whose Czarist leadership still harbored plans to conquer Istanbul, that ancient Rome of the east -- all guilty of fanning the flames.

But it's curious to imagine what would have happened had the archduke survived the assassination. A relative liberal, he had "an almost religious aversion to the idea of war with Serbia," writes McMeekin, no matter his contempt for the Serbs.

But there were always larger forces in play. An imperialistic arms race in Europe had been building up in the years before. Ethnic nationalism in the margins of fraying empires asked difficult questions of the delicate "concert" of power that was in place on the continent. A reckoning, many argue, was inevitable.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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Ishaan Tharoor · June 27