28 June 1914: Uncovering the Sarajevo Assassination
One hundred years ago, the most consequential assassination in modern times occurred. It was the most famous too, since the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo set off a chain of events that led, a month later, to the start of the Great War, a catastrophe that took ten million lives and pretty much destroyed European civilization. The effects of that live on today, in many places: in Iraq, jihadists right now are tearing up the borders of their country that were drawn up by the victors of the Great War, from the corpse of the Ottoman Empire, which suffered its final defeat in 1918.
Despite its infamy, the Sarajevo assassination remains shrouded in some mystery, and that’s what I seek to cut through today. But first, the personal tragedy. It is easy to forget that, behind all the conspiracy and resulting diplomacy and war-making, there is a murdered married couple at the center of this event, gunned down in broad daylight. Three children, aged ten to twelve, were left orphaned. Franz Ferdinand possessed a hard edge with some gruffness, and a bloodlust that was confined to killing animals – he took a staggering 275,000 trophies in his very active hunting career – but he was touchingly devoted to his children and his wife, the former Sophie Chotek, the Duchess of Hohenlohe. As heir to the Habsburg throne, Franz Ferdinand was expected to marry only high nobility, and on matters of protocol his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, was a stickler. Inconveniently, the Archduke, who had been heir to the throne since 1889, when Crown Prince Rudolf, Franz Joseph’s troubled son, died in a bizarre murder-suicide pact with his teenaged mistress, fell deeply in love with a “mere” countess. The price of this match, concluded at the altar after several years of secret courtship, was Sophie’s suffering countless indignities at court – they were forbidden from appearing together at most public events – and their children were not in line for the throne of Austria-Hungary. They died next to each other; Franz Ferdinand’s last words, seeing his wife too had been shot, were: “Sopherl – Don’t die, live for our children.”
They were murdered by a misguided teenager who really was no more interesting or compelling than young spree killers are today. Had Gavrilo Princip been blessed with the Internet, one suspects that he would left us semi-coherent screeds explaining that this was all necessary to validate himself to a cruel world that somehow had failed to misunderstand his cosmic importance. Princip, a Serb, was a maladjusted yet fanatic nineteen year-old from a poor, one-horse town in western Bosnia, which had been a province of Austria-Hungary since 1878. He was radicalized into hatred of the Habsburgs during high school, and he drifted into a circle of radical young Bosnians, mainly but not exclusively Serbs, devoted to overthrowing Austro-Hungarian rule in their country. Their ideology was an amalgam of anarchism and South Slav nationalism, mixed with adolescent angst and anger.
This youthful yet ardent gang was under the influence, and eventually direction, of Serbian military intelligence, whose chief, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, colloquially known as Apis (The Bull), was a violent conspirator with impressive credentials even by high regional standards. He had played a key role in Belgrade’s 1903 palace coup, which saw the king and queen not merely murdered, but butchered with body parts cast onto the street below. Serbia thus earned a reputation as what would latterly be called a “rogue state,” and Apis was at the center of the secret cabal that actually ran things at the top of Serbia’s power structure. The members, mostly army officers, masked many of their activities through a front organization called the Black Hand. Dimitrijević ran extensive agent networks inside Habsburg territory, mainly Serbs – there were more Serbs living in Austria-Hungary in 1914 than actually in Serbia – who were used for espionage, subversion, and sometimes terrorism. Under Apis, Belgrade was waging its own version of Special War in Bosnia, which Serbian nationalists hoped to liberate from Habsburg rule.
To help bring that about, Princip and his motley gang received training and weapons from Apis’s men, including hand grenades and pistols direct from Serbian military stocks, bearing the stamp of the Kragujevac arsenal: there was little effort made to cover tracks. They infiltrated Bosnia in late May, crossing the Drina river with the help of the Serbian military, and made their way to Sarajevo, to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. Their target selection ranks as one of the worst failures of intelligence analysis in all history. Apis and his staff assessed that the Archduke was the head of the “war party” in Vienna that was itching to invade Serbia. The opposite was true. There indeed was such a group and its leader was General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Austria-Hungary’s top general since 1906, a hothead who had repeatedly counseled war on Serbia (and Italy) as salve for the multinational monarchy’s many ills. Conrad’s main opponent here was Franz Ferdinand, a confirmed reactionary who detested war, which he saw as ruinous of the traditional European order. The heir viewed the Austro-Hungarian Army primarily as a bulwark of domestic stability, while Conrad wanted to make it ready for a general European war.
Austro-Hungarian intelligence was aware of the state of ferment in Bosnia, having arrested several of Apis’s agents in recent years, and knew that terrorism emanating from Belgrade was a possibility, but there was no real “actionable intelligence” to speak of when Franz Ferdinand and his retinue set out for Sarajevo. Besides, the reputation of Habsburg spies was at a low ebb since the exposure in May 1913 of Colonel Alfred Redl, the most promising intelligence officer of his generation on the powerful General Staff in Vienna, as a traitor who had been selling all the secrets he could get his hands on to Russia (and, it turned out, Italy and France too) for years. In such a climate of mistrust, it seems doubtful that warnings from the intelligencers would have made much difference anyway.
Franz Ferdinand went to Sarajevo at the end of June to show off Habsburg power in the restless former Ottoman province, which Vienna had formally annexed only in 1908. The trip was pushed hard by Oskar Potiorek, the top general in Sarajevo and the province’s governor, who had excellent ties at court and expected this high-profile royal visit to boost his career and end his Balkan exile. Vain and restless, Potiorek felt he was robbed when Conrad was made General Staff chief since 1906 – the men had been rivals for decades – and in the embarrassing Redl debacle, Potiorek saw his chance at last to bump his nemesis from the army’s top job and take his place. His aide and factotum, Lieutenant Colonel Erik von Merizzi, played down the need for extra security for the trip, claiming this would be an insult to loyal Bosnians, an astonishing claim given that Potiorek’s predecessor in Sarajevo, General Marijan Varešanin, had nearly been assassinated four years before by a Black Hand assassin. Such blindness seems mostly attributable to the fact that Potiorek and Merizzi, who were inseparable, lived in the Konak, their Sarajevo headquarters, seemingly disconnected from reality – one general compared the isolated governor to the Dalai Lama – and unwilling to listen to contrary views. The Archduke’s visit had to be a success for Potiorek’s career to relaunch, therefore it would be, facts be damned.
Perhaps most seriously, the visit included observing major military maneuvers by XV Corps outside Sarajevo on June 26-27, followed by a royal visit to the city on June 28. That stopover was chosen by Franz Ferdinand’s military chancery, not by Potiorek’s staff, a fateful choice given that it was St. Vitus Day (Vidovdan), the holiest day in the Serbian nationalist pantheon that celebrated Serbia’s defeat in Kosovo in 1389, though there is no evidence that anyone in Sarajevo pushed back against something that hardline Serbs would inevitably see as a Habsburg provocation.
The actual story of how the assassination unfolded is tragicomic and riddled with so many absurdities that, were it presented as fiction, it would hardly seem plausible. As it was a long weekend, with the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul falling the next day, much of the court as well as many General Staff officers in Vienna had headed to the Alps on holiday. There was no special intelligence effort to support the visit. It made no difference anyway, as due to lax security in Sarajevo the assassins had no trouble getting close to their quarry. Fresh from observing two days of military exercises, the royal entourage set out from the nearby spa town of Ilidža, where they were lodging, and headed into the city. Franz Ferdinand was in good spirits throughout his Bosnian sojourn, and even Conrad found his interactions with the archduke more pleasant than usual during the maneuvers. The General Staff chief had headed to Zagreb the previous evening, to prepare for a staff ride, and was not present for the fateful visit to Sarajevo.
Although there were six would-be killers in position downtown that morning, the first two failed to act when the three-car motorcade drove right past them at no great speed. The third young assassin, Nedeljko Čabrinović, managed to throw a grenade at Franz Ferdinand’s car, but it bounced off and exploded under the following vehicle, wounding twenty bystanders but in no way harming the archduke. Čabrinović equally failed with his suicide attempt, his cyanide pill inducing vomiting rather than death, and his jump into the Miljacka river proved anticlimactic as the stream was only a few inches deep in summer. He was beaten by the crowd and saved by the police, who promptly arrested him; embarrassingly, Čabrinović’s father was a Sarajevo police official.
Leaving the damaged car behind, the convoy sped up to reach City Hall, where the next event was planned. As the two cars drove past them, with Franz Ferdinand in plain sight, the three remaining assassins, including nineteen year-old Gavrilo Princip, failed to react. Yet Čabrinović’s grenade had impact, as among the wounded was Erik von Merizzi, who was riding in the damaged car and had been taken to the hospital with shrapnel injuries. While Potiorek advocated a quick run to the security of the Konak after the archduke’s speech at City Hall, Franz Ferdinand wished to check on the wounded adjutant and, without guidance from Merizzi – who was the action officer for the entourage – the heir to the throne’s driver took a wrong turn on the way to the hospital. Correcting his error, he placed Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, directly in front of Princip, who was despondent about missing his chance to make history. With his quarry suddenly before him, the terrified teenager closed his eyes and fired two shots with his Browning 9 mm pistol: both fatal, one felled Franz Ferdinand while the other killed Sophie. Oskar Potiorek, from the car’s front seat, watched it all, helplessly. Within minutes both victims were dead. Princip was grabbed by police immediately, while five of the six assassins were in custody within hours. It made no difference now.
Conrad, who was on a train when the assassination happened, was informed of the news upon his arrival around 2:00 pm when he reached Zagreb. His assessment was a common one in Habsburg power circles: “the murder in Sarajevo was the last link in a long chain. It was not the deed of an individual fanatic…it was the declaration of war of Serbia against Austria-Hungary.” Conrad accepted that war with a surprising degree of resignation, given the many times as General Staff chief that he had enthusiastically counseled war on Serbia. Only hours after the assassination, he confided his deepest thoughts, as was his custom, in a letter to his mistress. There can be little doubt that Conrad’s judgment had become increasingly clouded by this long-term affair, with a married woman half his age to whom he constantly wrote anguished letters. He was filled with pessimism, seeing Russia, together with Serbia and Romania, attacking Austria-Hungary now: “It will be a hopeless struggle, but it must be pursued, because so ancient a Monarchy and so glorious an Army cannot perish ingloriously,” he wrote to his beloved Gina.
And indeed it would be. The double murder resulted in the famous July Crisis, the end of which would see most of Europe engulfed in the bloodiest conflagration the world had ever seen. By the close of the first week of July, once Vienna had received its “blank check” from Berlin giving Germany’s support for Austria-Hungary’s attack on Serbia, which was sure to drag in Russia too, Europe was going to war. Even the cautious old Emperor Franz Joseph had had enough of the Serbs and was willing to fight, while virtually the whole military and diplomatic leadership of the Dual Monarchy wanted revenge on the “murder boys” in Belgrade. The lone skeptic, Hungarian Prime Minister István Tisza, relented once it was clear they had firm German backing.
However, it was not until July 23 that slow-moving Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia demanding a thorough investigation of the roots of the assassination. Within two days of its receipt, Serbia rejected the ultimatum, as Vienna had anticipated, and Habsburg generals itching for war desperately hoped. There was never any chance that Belgrade, which understood some of its culpability in the assassination, would agree to all Vienna’s demands, especially the requirement that Habsburg investigators have a free hand to pursue leads in Serbia regarding the assassination plot.
Indeed, the question of who exactly stood behind the plot remains somewhat murky a century later. Little new has emerged in recent decades to flesh out the background to the Sarajevo assassination, mostly because relevant paperwork on the Serbian side, if it ever existed, was long ago destroyed. What is not in doubt is that Apis and his staffers were the drivers of the plot, making the assassination an unambiguous case of state-sponsored terrorism. Myths about alleged specific warnings given by Belgrade to Vienna, yet misplaced, have been debunked long ago, but significant questions remain about major aspects of the conspiracy.
While it has long been apparent that senior members of Serbia’s civilian government had foreknowledge of the plot, and the matter was discussed in some fashion en cabinet before Franz Ferdinand set out for Sarajevo, details are sparse, though it is evident that Prime Minister Nikola Pašić and Stojan Protić, his interior minister, were aware of Apis’s machinations by mid-June, yet they demurred from taking on the fierce colonel, who after all had overseen the brutal murder of Serbia’s king and queen a decade before. Civil-military relations in Serbia were marked by strong fears of mad colonels, and not wanting to know.
Less defined and more sensational still is the matter of Russian involvement. While none have questioned that Apis had a close relationship with Colonel Viktor Artamonov, the Russian military attaché in Belgrade, accessible records do not explain what role, if any, Artamonov had in the plot. To make matters murkier still, just before his execution by his own government at Salonika in June 1917, after being accused of involvement in yet another plot, this time against his own leaders, Dimitrijević boasted in writing of his role behind the Sarajevo plot and admitted that Artamonov funded the terrorist operation, something that Yugoslavia’s Communists revealed in 1953 to discredit the royal regime that preceded them in power in Belgrade. As Artamonov died in exile in 1942 without fully explaining his role in the assassination, the matter is likely to remain unresolved in perpetuity, especially the tantalizing question of whether Artamonov’s support to the plot was his own initiative or something undertaken by direction from St. Petersburg.
Given that Russian radio intelligence was able to read Austro-Hungarian diplomatic ciphers before the war, it seems likely that St. Petersburg was aware of what Vienna’s probable reaction to the assassination would be and, as Sean McMeekin has recently observed, the Russians subsequently acted as if they have something to hide: “gaps in the record strongly suggest a good deal of purging took place after 1914,” to cover whatever tracks Artamonov left behind. The attaché conveniently managed to be out of Belgrade on the day of the assassination, yet it was well known in Serbian military circles that, in the weeks before the assassination, he and Apis saw each other almost daily. A Serbian colonel who was close to Apis conceded that Artamonov had encouraged the plot: “Just go ahead! If you are attacked you will not stand alone!” While the colonel later retracted his statement, it seems very likely that St. Petersburg knew more about the plot that it later proved politic to admit.
Given the sometimes discombobulated nature of the Imperial Russian system, with their penchant for obfuscation and provocation even inside their own government, it cannot be ruled out that spies and generals took it upon themselves to help their “brother Serbs” with financing the assassination plot without authorization from “the top.” Given the lack of evidence, there is room for speculation, but there is no serious doubt that Apis was behind the conspiracy and the Russians funded it. A century later, however, there is no reason to think the complete story will ever emerge.
Remembering the murders and their consequences remains freighted with historical baggage down to the present day. Gavrilo Princip died of tuberculosis in a Habsburg jail in Bohemia in April 1918. He did not get the death penalty, despite his obvious guilt, since “oppressive” Austria-Hungary that he so hated would not execute a teenager, the assassin having been a month shy of his twentieth birthday when he killed Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. The Habsburg Empire, whose destruction he sought, would outlive Princip by only half a year.
Franz Ferdinand and Sophie lie buried together at Schloss Artstetten, about an hour west of Vienna, not with the rest of the Habsburgs in Vienna’s famous Capuchin Crypt. In Austria, they are remembered as the first victims of the Great War, while Vienna’s grand Military History Museum has a room devoted to the assassination, including the royal limousine (complete with bullet hole), Princip’s pistol, Franz Ferdinand’s torn and blood-stained tunic, plus the couch where he was pronounced dead (which Potiorek, whose reputation never recovered from the events of June 28, 1914, strangely kept as a prized possession until his own death in 1931).
In his native land, the memory of their murderer is deeply conflicted. There is no shared history of this event, nor practically any others in Bosnia’s recent past. To Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats, Princip is simply a terrorist who heralded war, chaos, and decades of Serbian hegemony. Yugoslav Communists long lauded him as a revolutionary icon, and the place where Princip stood as he fired the fatal shots was commemorated with two bronze footprints. In 1992, when Bosnia was again plunged into war, locals tore them out of the concrete. Today, there is a small museum located where the cafe was where Princip was waiting, despondently, until his moment appeared.
For many Serbs, however, the assassin remains a hero who sacrificed for Serbdom. His defenders cite regicide as legitimate; on the killing of Sophie they have less to say. “Gavrilo Princip’s shot was a shot for freedom,” explained a top Bosnian Serb politician for the unveiling of a statue of the killer, just in time for the hundredth anniversary. While poor and decrepit Bosnia has more serious problems than this one, the hailing of Princip as an icon cannot be regarded as a sign of political health in that sad country, which has been deeply troubled, to one degree or another, for a century now.
[This article is derived from my forthcoming book The Fall of the Double Eagle, which has full source citations. Read it if you want the full sordid story of how the Sarajevo assassinations led to World War — and Austria-Hungary’s demise.]