Image credit: Commons.
On 28 June 1914, a Sunday, the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was a nineteen year old member of Young Bosnia, and part of a gang organised and equipped by the Black Hand, a Serbian nationalist organisation.
While he was a prominent political figure, the death of Franz Ferdinand did not render international conflict inevitable. Many of the great powers held the view that a war was not in their interests, and there was a series of abortive attempts to resolve the conflict diplomatically.
There was little evidence that the Serbian government had been complicit in the deaths of the archduke and Sophie, despite claims of the Austrian government to the contrary.
The relationship between Russia and Germany was growing increasingly tense in the build-up to war. Germany feared Russia’s extensive manpower, which could ultimately guarantee them victory in any protracted conflict.
Russia’s railway system had previously been deemed too flimsy to transport the vast bulk of its troops, rendering the Russian war machine an impotent threat. But in recent years, the Russian railways had modernised and Russia emerged as Europe’s third largest economy.
Germany was flourishing and exerted a strong cultural influence over the rest of the continent. It wished to sustain this prominence. The German Kaiser remained unconvinced that war was a good idea, a view shared by the majority of the German people. There was a small pro-war faction in the German leadership, but they remained a minority.
The tensions between Austria-Hungary and Serbia threatened to unsettle this fine balance.
Germany was allied with Austria, while Serbia was the only power in the region allied with Russia. Any conflict in the Balkans therefore had the potential to lead to a significant and hostile response from two of Europe’s largest powers.
Among the Austrian populace, there was widespread support for action against Serbia. Many among the Austrian High Command held strong anti-slavic views. They used the assassination as a catalyst for their own political ambitions. The likes of Conrad von Hötzendorf sought to exploit the event to further a pro-war agenda.
Just under a month after the assassination, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Serbia, Baron Giesl von Gieslingen, delivered an ultimatum. The ultimatum purposely included demands that would be challenging for Serbia to accept, and yet they agreed to all but one of them. They objected only to an Austro-Hungarian investigation into the assassination, a process that Serbia had already begun. To accept this demand would undermine the Serbian judicial system.
Other nations considered the ultimatum harsh and unfair. Winston Churchill, then Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, declared it “the most insolent document of its kind ever devised.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov went further, suggesting that it was impossible for any state to accept the demands without “committing suicide.” Sazonov went on to suggest that Germany, who had offered support to Austria-Hungary was using the crisis as a pretext for a preventive war to defend its interests in the region.
Defying Austro-German expectations, the Russians began a process of part-mobilisation.
Having refused to accept Serbia’s modest amendments to the terms of the ultimatum, Austria Hungary declared war on the country on 28 July. Two deaths in a street in Sarajevo had been transformed into a pretext for war, a war that would engulf much of the continent.