On this day in 1914, at 11:00 am or thereabouts (10:00 am British Summer Time, 09:00 GMT), a young Serb named Gavrilo Princip stepped out in front of a car carrying the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife, Sophia, and fired two shots from an FN model 1910 Browning pistol. The first hit Franz in the neck, the second hit Sophia in the abdomen. By 11:30, both were dead.
It's well known that this event was the spark that ignited the powder keg of the First World War. But how did the powder keg come to be there? Why did Princip take the action he did?
Needless to say, the events that led to the war were many and varied, and played out over a long time. I present here a simplified account - a detailed account would be, and is, the subject of a great many books.
Setting the Scene
Europe at the time was the home of several large empires, referred to as the Great Powers. These were:
Great Britain and The British Empire
Comprising 25% of the earth's land surface and 25% of its population, the British Empire was at the time the most powerful nation on the planet. Ruled by King Edward VII until his death in 1910, when his son George V became King.
France, and her Empire
A long-time rival and enemy of the British Empire, the two were now in an uneasy alliance, with little to gain from conflict with one another.
The German Empire
Formerly a sprawling mass of principalities, kingdoms and republics, had been welded into the German Empire in 1870 by Otto von Bismark. The ruler at the time we are looking at was Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire
Bear with me here, because this one is not simple. The legacy of the Holy Roman Empire, Austria-Hungary (cobbled together from a large and diverse number of nations with fifteen official languages) was the constitutional union of the Empire of Austria and the Apostolic Kingdom of Hungary, and for this reason was also known as the Dual Monarchy. Hungary had only relatively recently been granted equal status to Austria within the Empire, but had always had its own parliament and laws. Croatia-Solvenia was an autonomous country under the Hungarian crown, and Bosnia-Herzegovina was under Austro-Hungarian military and civil rule from 1878 until 1908, when it was annexed and became part of the Empire. At the time we are concerned with, Franz Josef I was emperor, with his nephew Franz Ferdinand as Heir.
The Russian Empire
Existing as a state since 1721, the Russian Empire spanned Europe and Asia from the White Sea to the Pacific, and also included Alaska. Tsar Nicholas II was ruler at the time.
The Italian Empire
Existing as a unified state only since 1861, Italy's empire was a result of its participation in the scramble for Africa.
The Ottoman Empire of Turkey
Powerful throughout the Nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was in decline by the beginning of the Twentieth. Several of its European territories had declared independence from the empire, which Istanbul seemed powerless to prevent.
So things ticked along in the usual grumbling European manner, with the Great Powers eyeing one another suspiciously and carrying out their usual intrigues.
The Bosnian Crisis of 1908 and the Balkan Wars
It was Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 that really set the cat amongst the pigeons.
The neighbouring nations of Serbia and Montenegro were also deeply unhappy about it; 40% of the Bosnian population were ethnic Serbs, and doubtless both they and Serbia would have preferred Bosnia to come under Belgrade's influence. So great was Serbia's pique that it ordered a general mobilisation, and demanded that either the annexation was reversed, or that Serbia should receive compensation in the form of territory. A strip of land was handed over and the Serbians backed down. Russia was similarly annoyed, but with the threat of Germany backing Austria-Hungary and the careful leaking of documents in which Russia had secretly agreed the Austria-Hungary could do as it pleased with Bosnia, Russia backed down but was not at all happy.
Things rumbled on for a time; Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Greece had gained independence form the Ottoman Empire by the early 20th century, but large ethnic populations remained under Turk rule. In 1912, these four nations set up the Balkan League, partly in response the the Ottoman Empires lack of ability to govern itself and also in response to the failure of the other Great Powers to ensure that Turkey would carry out the needed reforms. Confident that they could defeat the Turks, the Balkan League took up arms and the First Balkan War began, ending the same year with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the drafting of the Treaty of London. This ended five centuries of Turkish rule in the Balkans.
Bulgaria was unhappy about the division of the spoils of the war, however, particularly with regard to a secret agreement between Serbia and Greece with regard to Macedonia. Accordingly, it attacked them, and the Second Balkan War began in June 1913. Romania and the Ottoman Empire also joined in, attacking Bulgaria. The war ended with the Treaty of Bucharest, under which Bulgaria lost most of the territory it had gained in the first war.
So what had all this to do with anything?
Well, for one thing, it annoyed the Serbs. The annexation of Bosnia in 1908 led them to set up the Narodna Odbrana (National Defence) and its more radical spin-off, Ujedinjenje ili Smrt (Union or Death), known as the Black Hand. Both organisations were well known to Belgrade - in fact, the Head of Serbian Military Intelligence, col. Dragutin Dimitrijevitch, was the head of the Black Hand. And it was with these organisations, with their help and blessing, that Gavrilo Princip and his fellow conspirators were affiliated.
The Balkan Wars had shown the Serbs that they were strong, and Austria-Hungary's refusal to involve itself in the wars had convinced the Serbs that the Dual Monarchy was weak. Ironically, it was Franz Ferdinand who had been a major influence in preventing Austria-Hungary's involvement in the wars, with the support of Count Stefan Tisza, the minister-president of Hungary.
Secondly, it annoyed the Russians. Forced to back down over the Balkan Crisis of 1908, Russia was smarting where Austria-Hungary was concerned, and felt a strong affiliation with the Serbs, their fellow orthodox Slavs.
Russia had other, pressing concerns. The Russo-Japanese war and the subsequent rebellion within Russia in 1905 had highlighted to the Russians just how precarious their domestic situation was. Agricultural reforms were needed, and mechanisation required. A programme of improvement had been embarked upon, with Russia trading grain for machinery; the problem was that the Black Sea ports were the only ports Russia had on its western end that could remain open all year round. The Turks had briefly closed the Ottoman Straits (the Bosphorus, Sea of Mamara and the Dardanelles) in the First Balkan War in 1912, during which time Russia's Black Sea exports dropped by a third and their heavy industry in Ukraine all but ground to a halt. When the Russians learned that a German general had been placed in charge of the Ottoman troops defending the straits, the Russians really began to worry.
Russia had had to make plans, therefore; in the event of a European war, one of her first acts would be to attack the Ottoman Empire and seize Constantinople and the Straits, in an attempt to keep trade flowing. In an effort to check Germany, Russia had developed strong ties with France, with much in the way of trade and joint defence treaties between the two nations.
And Britain too had allegiance with France, with much of the naval strategy of the two Empires being interdependent.
And so a group of young, idealistic Serbs hatched a plan to strike at the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and attack the heir as he toured the recently annexed province of Bosnia - a province that the Serbs felt should belong to them. And on the 28th of January, on the last day of Franz and Sophia's tour, they struck.