The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand: Europe on the Brink of World War I

From the Lecture Series: War, Peace, and Power — Diplomatic History of Europe, 1500–2000

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, PhD, University of Tennessee

In 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the Balkans triggered a diplomatic crisis. Six weeks later, Europe found itself on the brink of the 20th century’s first world war.

Painting of the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg
Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg. (Image: Achille Beltrame/Public domain)

The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

On June 28, 1914, the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife were both assassinated in the capital of Bosnia, Sarajevo. The annexation of Bosnia/Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary in 1908 had itself sparked an international crisis. Denounced by Serbia and Russia—who felt that their own interests were being violated—the annexation in 1908 had been a moment when it seemed that general war might very well result. Smoothed over, the situation had cooled down; nonetheless, Serbian nationalists as well as their great Russian patrons had been left infuriated by the humiliation.

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Nationalism was a threatening force as far as the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were concerned. Austria-Hungary was a state of 50 million with many nationalities, some 11 or 12 major ones and many other smaller ones. The visit of the imperial couple was spectacularly ill-timed, and you might almost think, calculated, to further inflame the nationalist passions of Serbs living in the region. The visit came on the precise day that marked the anniversary of a battle from the Middle Ages: the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Serbia had been defeated by the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 and that date had enormous emotional significance for Serbian nationalists.

Painting of the Battle of Kosovo by Adam Stefanović (1870).
Battle of Kosovo (Image: Adam Stefanović/Public domain)

A Haphazard Assassination

It seemed a repetition of historical patterns. The enemy might now be the Austro-Hungarians and the Habsburgs in place of the Ottomans, but the drama still had its emotional significance. The conspiracy of the terrorists who had converged on Sarajevo was a bumbling one, marked by tremendous miscalculation and failure of nerve. At a crucial juncture, it seemed to have failed. Many of the terrorists abandoned the plot.

This is a transcript from the video series War, Peace, and Power: Diplomatic History of Europe, 1500–2000. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

Then a series of accidents, in particular, a wrong turn by the driver of the car of the imperial couple, allowed one young assassin who had given up just previously, the opportunity to strike. He leapt up close to the car as it drove by and at point-blank range emptied his revolver into the car, killing the imperial couple.

The plotters belonged to a Serbian nationalist group whose aim was the union of Bosnia/Herzegovina with the neighboring kingdom of Serbia. While the plotters did have contact with some Serbian officials, the terrorists were not directed by the Serbian government itself, which is what the Austro-Hungarian government claimed in reaction to this atrocity. Austro-Hungarian officials were convinced that a decisive moment had arrived and they needed to take immediate action.

At first, however, nothing appeared to happen. Many people felt this was due to the sort of relaxed and laissez-faire attitude of officialdom in general. In fact, behind the scenes, the officials’ diplomacy expanded the crisis.

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Germany Issues a “Blank Check”

Austria-Hungary reacted, first of all, by consulting its far stronger ally in the Dual Alliance, imperial Germany, and asking whether Germany would support energetic action against Serbia in reaction to this atrocity. On July 5 and 6, 1914, as a result of these communications, the Austro-Hungarian officials received what came to be called afterward a “blank check” from the German officials to act against Serbia with German support. Germany’s power as a backer of the Austro-Hungarian effort was formidable. Germany had a modern army and a strong population of 65 million. The Austro-Hungarians now were emboldened to take decisive action.

They drafted an ultimatum leveled against the Serbian government that, after a strategic delay, was sent to Serbia on July 23, 1914. The ultimatum was designed to be unacceptable: It was going to expire in 48 hours and the Serbs had to respond yes or no. It had demands for Austrian investigations within Serbia, which would have abrogated the sovereignty of Serbia. Many European diplomats were shocked at the content of this ultimatum even though earlier they’d had sympathies for what they saw as the justified complaints of Austria-Hungary.

Image of Map of Europe Alliances, 1914
Map of Europe Alliances, 1914 (Image: historicair (French original) Fluteflute & User:Bibi Saint-Pol (English translation) /Public domain)

Serbia and Russia Prepare for War

Serbia now turned to its ally, its great Slavic patron, the Russian Empire. Russia was a mighty empire with vast potential, both economic and militarily, and 165 million subjects. On July 25, after consultations with the Russians, who had assured Serbia that they would back them as well, Serbia accepted most of the ultimatum; at the same time, it mobilized its army. Serbia prepared for war, and Russia also planned mobilization.

On July 26, the British foreign secretary, Edward Grey, did something characteristic of an earlier period, in the age of the Concert of Europe. He pleaded for a conference to settle the crisis. In the tradition of the Concert of Europe, if there is a crisis, heads of state would call a congress or a conference. Grey was disregarded as events took their course. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia after receiving what it felt was an unsatisfactory answer to its ultimatum by telegraph.

The conflict now expanded beyond merely a regional crisis. On July 30, Tsar Nicholas of the Russian Empire ordered Russian full mobilization, and in a chain reaction of unfolding diplomatic consequences, on July 31, Germany sent Russia an ultimatum, in turn, to either stop mobilizing or to face war with Germany. It also demanded French neutrality and declared that there was now a state of the danger of war.

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A Secret Plan

When the German ultimatum against Russia expired on August 1 without satisfactory answer, Germany declared war on Russia. For a brief ambiguous interval, Germany thought that it might still have a chance of securing British neutrality, but German war plans proceeded all the same.

The key German war plan was the secret Schlieffen Plan, which had been worked out long before as a very detailed mobilization plan. It had been worked out in 1905, and it aimed to meet the threat of war: To meet this challenge by attacking first with lightning speed against France in the west through neutral Belgium. This was an obvious violation of international law, but it was felt necessary by German generals. As the plan unfolded, on August 2, Germany delivered an ultimatum to neutral Belgium demanding that its troops be allowed to pass through. That ultimatum now clarified the British role emphatically.

Image of Schlieffen Plan
The Schlieffen Plan (Image: Tinodela – domain)

In the cabinet, it was agreed that Britain had to enter the war. Strategic questions had come into play, and the crucial Belgian question was the threat of another Great Power occupying Belgium, which is directly across the English Channel and a natural jumping-off point for an invasion of the British Isles. This could not be tolerated.

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Lamps Out Across Europe

British memories of Napoleon played an important role in the deliberations, and when considering the statements of British policymakers in this period, they are often talking about a Napoleonic situation or even comments like, “these Germans are worse than Napoleon.” Clearly, the challenge of Napoleon and his bid for hegemony was present in their minds. Britain was also reinforced by vaster imperial resources—the colonies abroad.

On August 3, Belgium simply rejected the German ultimatum, and Germany declared war on France while invading through neutral Belgium. On the same day, Sir Edward Grey for Britain sent an ultimatum to Germany, and that deadline expired at midnight on August 4. Britain had entered the war. Sir Edward Grey, in a famous statement looking upon this catastrophe as it unfolded, declared, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. They will not be lit again in our lifetime.”

He was right in this regard. Europe was now involved in a general war such as it had not seen since 1815.

Common Questions About the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Q: Why did the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand result in war?

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand came at a tumultuous moment in European rule, including concepts of empire, territory, and the rise of small Balkan nations. Namely, the assassination was the final straw in rising tensions between Austria/Hungary and Serbia.

Q: How did Archduke Franz Ferdinand actually die?

While visiting Serbia, after a few failed assassination attempts, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot to death by Gavrilo Princip.

Q: Who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand?

Gavrilo Princip was responsible for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife. Princip was a Serbian who was protesting the Austrian/Hungarian presence.

Q: How was the USA involved in World War I?

The history is that after Germany and the USA broke ties, a German U-boat sank an American cargo ship called the Housatonic.

This article was updated on August 3, 2020

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