In June 1914, the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, traveled to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in his role as Inspector General of the Armed Forces. But both he and his beloved wife, Sophie, would never return home.
During their visit, the couple were shot dead by Slavic nationalist Gavrilo Princip and the world was thrown into shock. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Austria-Hungary lost yet another heir
Franz Ferdinand was only the nephew of Emperor Franz Joseph, and had not been his first choice as heir. But after Franz Joseph’s only son, Rudolf, committed suicide in 1889 and his brother – Franz Ferdinand’s father – died from typhoid fever in 1896, Franz Ferdinand was next in line.
When Franz Ferdinand himself was then killed in 1914, his own children were not liable to inherit. Sophie had been of nobility but not of dynastic rank, and so Franz had had to agree to a morganatic marriage in order to receive permission from the emperor to marry her.
This meant that the couple’s children forfeited their rights to inherit the empire.
The empire was already suffering from internal political conflict and the loss of three heirs apparent in only 25 years quickened its demise.
Ethnic conflicts in the empire were further fuelled
Stretching across modern-day Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Slovakia and parts of Poland and northern Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was made up of many territories which were in turn home to many different ethnic groups.
In 1908, the dual-monarchy empire had annexed Bosnia, giving rise to Slavic nationalist movements that wanted Austria-Hungary out. Franz Ferdinand, however, intended on creating a triple-monarchy, with a third state comprised of Slavic lands that would be seen as equal to Austria and Hungary.
This goal was viewed as a threat by the Slavic nationalists who wanted to secede from the empire and either join with independent Serbia or form part of a new independent state.
The day of Franz’s assassination was also Serbia’s National Day, which only served to heighten tensions between the visiting future leader of the empire and Bosnian Serbs.
Ultimately, it was members of a predominantly Bosnian Serb student revolutionary group called Young Bosnia who plotted and carried out the killing of Franz and Sophie. But another group was implicated in the assassinations too: Unification or Death, or, as it is more popularly known, the “Black Hand”.
This group, which was formed by Serbian army officers, was responsible for radicalising the Young Bosnian assassins in the cafes of Belgrade and providing them with the weapons to kill the archduke.
It served as the catalyst for World War One
Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia for the assassination of Franz, with the month that followed his killing becoming known as the July Crisis. On 23 July, the empire offered Serbia an ultimatum that contained six articles, one of which would have allowed Austrian police into Serbia.
That article was refused by Serbia, leading Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia on 28 July, exactly a month after Franz’s assassination.
Two days later, Russia began to mobilise troops against Austria-Hungary to defend Serbia. In response, Austria-Hungary’s ally Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August. Germany then went on to attack Luxembourg on 2 August and declare war on France on 3 August.
A day later, Germany declared war on Belgium and Britain responded by declaring war on Germany.
The beginning of World War One, which caused 37 million casualties and scarred the world forever, didn’t only begin because of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. But his death was certainly the catalyst that sparked the conflict.