The Incident That Brought About World War I

WARS | April 14, 2019

Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie. Source: (history.com)

One of the weirdest events in history is the way World War I actually started. A group of terrorists known as the Black Hand planned the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Their plan did not go as expected. If it had not ultimately caused so many deaths then and throughout the war, it would have made for a great comedy. The initial assassination attempt was foiled through an unusual set of circumstances.

This group included 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip who, through a chance occurrence, was able to pull off the assassination anyway. This was the match that started the fiery chain of events that eventually led to Adolf Hitler and the slaughter of six million Jews. 

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and His Wife. Source: (lazerhorse.org)

A Little Background

Because both Emperor Franz Josef’s sons had died (one at birth and the other from suicide), his nephew, Franz Ferdinand was next in line to inherit the throne. The two of them did not see eye to eye on the best way to rule the country. Franz Ferdinand had hopes of being more like the United States allowing the people of more than one nationality to influence governmental decisions.

When Ferdinand met his future wife, Sophie, it brought up more issues between them. Emperor Josef was not happy because she was not a direct descendant of royal blood, so he placed certain restrictions on what she could or could not do as the archduke’s wife. One of those restrictions was not being allowed in public with him except under certain circumstances.  

Gavrilo Princip. Source: (npr.org)

Background of Gavrilo Princip

Gavrilo (named after the angel Gabriel) was born in the Western part of Bosnia in a poor family. He was one of nine children, but only three lived and he himself was sickly. His parents were strict in their Serbian Orthodox Christian belief. When he was a young boy, he was a straight A student, but by the time he was 17, things had drastically changed. He joined a secret society called Young Bosnia. The group wanted to see Bosnia separated from Austria-Hungary and become united with Serbia. At one point during this time, he had gotten expelled from school because of his tactics in trying to recruit others into helping with the demonstrations. Later, he joined the group called the Black Hand.       

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie. Source: (history.com)

Sarajevo Visit Planned

There were only rare circumstances when Duchess Sophie was allowed to accompany her husband. The archduke had been invited to come to Sarajevo, which he finally agreed to do despite the fact that it was not ideally safe because of Bosnian nationalism. Duchess Sophie decided to take this opportunity to go with him, as she was quite concerned for his safety. Previously, there had already been an assassination attempt on Emperor Franz Josef’s life.

The plan was to only be there unofficially for a few hours. They traveled in a 1911 Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton with the top down so the people could see them.

Attempted Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Source: (newhistorian.com)

Initial Attempt

There were six members from the Black Hand group who attempted to carry out their assassination plans that day. The group was armed with their weapons spread out in the crowd along the route where Ferdinand and Sophie were traveling that day in 1914. The first one did not use his weapon either out of fear or missed opportunity. The second (or third) one in the group did throw his grenade, but it bounced off their convertible cover that was down and went up under the car behind them. With a 10 second delay on the bomb, there was enough time for them to speed away, but the bomb did explode and injured 20 people nearby. That member of the group, Nedeljko Cabrinovic, attempted to kill himself by swallowing a cyanide pill to avoid being arrested. That too failed as the pill was out of date and only made him sick to his stomach. On top of that, he jumped into a river that was only 4 inches deep.  

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and Duchess Sophia. Source: (military.wikia.com)

Successful Attempt

After the failed attempt at their lives, the Archduke and Duchess went on to the town hall to give their speech. Ferdinand began his speech by complaining about how he was greeted with bombs and guns until Sophia whispered something in his ear. He then continued on with his speech. Afterward, they changed their intended plans and decided to go visit the wounded in the hospital.

With so much confusion, the driver unknowingly took a wrong turn onto Franz Josef Strasse. When he realized his mistake, he quickly backed up to turn around, but as he did the car abruptly stopped and shut off. Before he could get the car restarted, Gavrilo Princip comes out of a sandwich shop. Since the group had failed in their mission, he went over to Franz Josef Strasse to a delicatessen to get a sandwich. When he saw them, he took advantage of the opportunity and pulled out his gun and shot two bullets at them. One went into Ferdinand in his jugular vein, and the other one went into Sophia’s stomach. They both sat upright in the vehicle until they reached the location of where they were staying, but died from their wounds not long after.  

The Sarajevo Trial. Source: (sr.wikipedia.org)


Gavrilo Princip also tried to avoid being arrested by taking a cyanide pill that was supplied to him, but, just like the one Nedeljko Cabrinovic took, it was out of date and only made him sick. Because of his age, he was not given the death penalty but sentenced to 20 years in prison. After only four years into his sentence, he died of tuberculosis.

One month later, World War I began.  

Tags: archduke franz | world war one | assissination

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