The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What everyone gets wrong about the start of World War I

The internal political struggle that sparked a global war.

A portrait of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, who was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The name of the painter is not given. (AP) (AP/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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We are in the homestretch of World War I centennials. After more than four years of tracking everything from the “guns of August” to the Battle of Verdun to America’s entry into the war in 1917, we have reached the centenary of the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, and will soon be rehashing historical debates about the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. But before allowing the Great War to recede from public debate, we should take a look back at the event that triggered the diplomatic crisis that produced the global cataclysm: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

In modern history, there is perhaps no better example of a single, relatively isolated incident having such disproportionate consequences.

Yet to this day, we cannot say with certainty who instigated the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Sarajevo. The Bosnian youths who carried it out insisted the conspiracy was theirs from beginning to end, and many scholars support this. After all, the Bosnians had a clear motive for murdering the Archduke: to rid their homeland of foreign rule (Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908).

What they lacked, however, were weapons, which indirectly led them to a “secret” Serb nationalist society in independent Serbia — the infamous Black Hand. Why did the seasoned Black Hand militants arm the amateur Bosnians for such an important assignment? Or rather, was the plot against Franz Ferdinand a Black Hand operation to begin with, and the Bosnian assassins little more than the Serbs’ “useful idiots,” as other scholars adamantly argue?

These questions are hardly academic — they go to the heart of how we make sense of the Sarajevo assassination and, thus, the broader origins of World War I. Yet most historians who wrote on the war’s origins for the 2014 centenary simply took it for granted that the Black Hand “terrorist network” recruited the Bosnian “suicide bombers” for its own “transnational terror plot” to destabilize the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Just like al-Qaeda today, the argument goes, the Black Hand was a global menace of immense proportions; the inexperienced Bosnians were the “mere instruments” of its malevolence; and the Sarajevo assassination is an apt analogy to contemporary terrorism.

It’s a compelling account in the “age of terror,” yet there is equally compelling evidence that the Sarajevo conspiracy was instigated by the amateur Bosnian nationalists who carried it out. And if this were the case, then what motivated the Black Hand to arm them?

To answer that, we have to understand what the Black Hand really was. Officially known as Unification or Death, the Black Hand was founded by Serbian officers in 1911, with the aim of unifying South Slavs — including Bosnians, Slovenes and Croats in Austria-Hungary — into a Greater Serb or south Slavic (Yugoslav) state. Led by Col. Dragutin Dimitrijevic, known as Apis, it took a bomb, knife and vial of poison as its symbols and swore in its members with clandestine rituals involving blood and blindfolds.

Yet it was hardly secret. By late 1911, the Black Hand wielded influence in the Serbian Foreign Ministry, recruited members at public banquets and openly published an ultranationalist newspaper that was scathing toward Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pasic’s government, which favored a more moderate approach to the same Greater Serb cause. In 1911-12, the Austro-Hungarian and British ministers in Belgrade reported the Black Hand’s immediate goal was to remove Pasic from power.

But then Serbia scored stunning military victories in the Balkan Wars in 1912-13. That not only greatly expanded her size, it also prompted an explosion in nationalist passions. Now the Black Hand clashed with the government over who would rule the newly annexed regions in Kosovo and Macedonia — the army or civilian authorities.

Tensions peaked with an April 1914 decree establishing civilian authority in the new provinces. Most army officers refused to comply and sided with Apis’s Black Hand. With the army united against the prime minister, the political opposition joined the incipient coup. In May, the cabinet drafted draconian measures against the Black Hand for its “impermissible praetorian ambitions.”

On June 2, Pasic resigned and a military takeover seemed imminent until the powerful Russian ambassador, backed by France, restored the prime minister to preserve his Balkan policy. The government had prevailed over its archenemy Apis, though only with foreign support and without a full-on defeat of the Black Hand. Such was the precarious state of affairs in Serbia at the same time the assassins received their weapons, on May 27.

This backdrop raises the tantalizing question: Did Apis arm the young Bosnians not to destabilize Austria-Hungary, but to overthrow his own government? This is exactly what Apis’s associate, Maj. Vojislav Tankosic, asserted after his arrest. If true, then for the Black Hand leader at least, the Sarajevo conspiracy was about Serbian domestic politics rather than international terrorism. After all, wrote one Serb minister, Apis “did everything he could in May 1914 to overthrow the Pasic administration.” An assassination attempt on the Austro-Hungarian heir with weapons from a Serbian military arsenal might well have done the trick.

That begs another provocative question: Did Apis actually want the conspiracy to succeed? Or rather, was he expecting the inexperienced Bosnians to fail in the hope that an assassination attempt, with its links to Serbia, would anger the Austrians enough to gain international support for Pasic’s removal?

Tellingly, every Austro-Hungarian report on the Black Hand from November 1911 through June 1914 emphasized the group’s threat to its own government rather than to Austria-Hungary. None of the empire’s diplomatic correspondence after the assassination, including its belligerent July 23 ultimatum to Serbia, so much as mentioned the Black Hand. If the Austrians failed to connect their intelligence on the Black Hand to the plot against Franz Ferdinand, perhaps that’s because Apis’s motive in arming the Bosnians was less obvious and intentional than we presume.

This is supported by the fact that Apis, like Pasic (whose government has never been implicated in the assassination), did not want war with Austria-Hungary in 1914. In the wake of the costly Balkan Wars, Serbia hardly needed another military conflict, let alone one with a European great power 10 times its size. This is often cited as the reason that Apis organized the assassination — fear that the heir’s visit was a foil for an attack on Serbia. But a successful conspiracy with roots in Serbia was more likely to provoke war than to prevent it, as we now know only too well. That helps to explain why, when other Black Hand members heard of the weapons handover, they forced Apis to call back the conspiracy. (By then it was too late, and the armed and ardent young Bosnians were not taking orders).

This suggests that Apis did not expect the Sarajevo conspiracy to succeed, just as previous attempts by Bosnian youths to assassinate Austro-Hungarian leaders had all failed. Indeed, if he had wanted to kill the archduke, Apis could have deliberately recruited trained soldiers rather than recklessly arming the raw youths whom he not only had never met but also had assumed would face an insuperable security apparatus for the heir’s state visit to Sarajevo. Apis himself allegedly confided that he had wanted the Bosnians only to frighten Franz Ferdinand.

Which means that the Sarajevo assassination was simply rotten luck. After the first of the seven assassins failed to act and the second’s bomb missed its mark, all but one “terrorist-fanatic” fled the scene: Gavrilo Princip. Standing at the corner where the cars were scheduled to turn off the main road, he faced no serious security apparatus. Incredibly, even after the bomb failed to do its job, policing was not enhanced. The imperial party merely altered its advertised route to remain on the main road. But the driver mistakenly took the turn, delivering the archduke directly into Princip’s path.

On Armistice Day, as we reflect upon the past four years of World War I centennials, it’s hard not to feel that such an immense tragedy must have commensurate origins. Yet persuasive evidence indicates an amateur conspiracy given life by an internal political conflict precipitated the cataclysm, rather than some well-orchestrated international terrorist act. That may make for a less riveting historical narrative, but in today’s rancorous political climate, it is certainly no less unnerving.