On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated during a visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia.
The day was already a significant one. For the archduke, it marked his wedding anniversary and a rare time that the emperor would allow him to be seen in public with his commoner wife, Sophie. But for many Bosnian Serbs, the archduke’s visit to their country – which had been formally annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908 – was a far less happy occasion.
Opposition to the Austro-Hungarian annexation had given rise to the formation of Young Bosnia, a predominantly student revolutionary movement made up mostly of Bosnian Serbs, but also Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats. It was a cohort within this group who plotted the assassination of the archduke.
As Franz and his wife drove through Sarajevo in an open-top car, the plotters were waiting for him. The first two would-be assassins failed to act, but the third, a man named Nedeljko Čabrinović, threw a bomb at the car. The bomb missed its target, however, bouncing off the hood of the archduke’s car and exploding behind it, injuring 20 bystanders.
Afterwards, Čabrinović attempted suicide, first taking a cyanide tablet that proved a dud and then throwing himself into a river only to find it was just four inches deep. He was then caught by an angry mob and almost beaten to death before being taken into custody.
The second assassination attempt
The outraged archduke proceeded to a town hall meeting before setting off to visit the hospitalised victims of Čabrinović’s attack. En route to the hospital, his driver took a wrong turn into Franz Josef Street where another of the plotters, Gavrilo Princip, happened to be sitting in a café.
Princip, a 19-year-old Croat previously rejected from joining Serbian guerrilla bands in the First Balkan War due to his small stature, was determined to prove himself. As the archduke’s car backed out of the street, he seized his chance and opened fire.
Sophie, who was shot first, was struck in the abdomen, while Franz was hit in the neck. As his crying wife lay dying, the archduke cried out to her, “Don’t die darling, live for our children” – but shortly after they were both dead.
Too young to face the death penalty, Princip was tried for the murders and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He died in 1918 from a combination of malnutrition and tuberculosis.
Meanwhile, although the 19-year-old and his fellow conspirators attempted to deflect blame for the killings away from Serbia, the assassination of the archduke was viewed as a provocation by the Austro-Hungarians. Exactly one month later, the empire declared war on Serbia.