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

From a lecture series presented by Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D.

In 1914, the assasination 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

The Assasination 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. That had been 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
Battle of Kosovo

A Haphazard Assassination

It seemed a repetition of historical patterns. The enemy might now be the Austro-Hungarians and the Habsburgs rather than 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.

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 that this was due to the sort of very relaxed and laissez-faire attitude of officialdom in general. In fact, what was happening behind the scenes was diplomacy, which was expanding 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 very 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 strategic delay, was sent to Serbia on July 23, 1914. The ultimatum, which was going to expire in 48 hours and to which the Serbs had to respond yes or no, was actually designed to be unacceptable. It had demands for Austrian investigations within Serbia, which in essence would have abrogated the sovereignty of Serbia, and many European diplomats were shocked at the content of this ultimatum even though they had earlier 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

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 military, 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.

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On July 26, the British foreign secretary, Edward Grey, did something that was very characteristic of an earlier period, 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, you call a congress or a conference. He 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 one of these very detailed mobilization plans. It had been worked out indeed by 1905, and it aimed to meet the threat of war on two fronts. It aimed to meet this challenge by attacking first with lightning speed against France in the west through neutral Belgium. This was obviously a violation of international law, but it was felt to be 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 very ultimatum now clarified the British role emphatically.

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 invasion of the British Isles. This could not be tolerated.

Image of Schlieffen Plan
Schlieffen Plan

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Lamps Out across Europe

British memories of Napoleon played an important role in the deliberations, and when you look at the statements of British policymakers in this period, they are often talking about a Napoleonic situation or even saying things like “these Germans are worse than Napoleon.” Clearly, the challenge of Napoleon and his bid for hegemony was present to mind. 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.

Keep reading:
An Historians Eye on Eastern Europe: Past and Present
Ukraine and Russia: A Violent Identity Crisis
The Ottoman Empire at Total War, 1914-1916

From the Lecture Series: War, Peace, and Power: Diplomatic History of Europe, 1500–2000
Taught by Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D.

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