On this one-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I, we have a chance to look back with a historian’s eye at the assassination in Sarajevo, at the people involved, and the broader meaning of the incident for the world today.
In a nutshell, on June 28, 1914, six young men stood in positions on street corners and sidewalks in Sarajevo with the intent to kill the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg Empire. The six young men belonged to a group called Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia), which hoped to free Bosnia-Hercegovina from Austro-Hungarian rule and unite it with Serbia in a nation of South Slavs. Five of the men were ethnic Serbs. One, Muhamed Mehmedbasic, was a Bosnian Muslim.
On that sunny day, as the Archduke’s motorcade rolled down the streets, it passed the first assassin, Mehmedbasic, who lost his nerve and did not throw his bomb. The second assassin also failed to act, but the third one, a young man named Nedeljko Cabrinovic, tossed his bomb at the passing car. His bomb, however, bounced off the archduke’s vehicle and exploded under a following car in the motorcade, destroying that vehicle and wounding more than a dozen people. Hearing the explosion, the last three assassins were surprised to see the archduke’s car speed past them, and they failed to act. Franz Ferdinand, angry that someone had just tried to kill him, gave the mayor of Sarajevo a piece of his mind as they met at the City Hall, the final destination. Trying to calm her husband, the archduke’s wife, Duchess Sophie, suggested that they abandon their plans for the day and visit the wounded bomb victims in the hospital instead. Franz Ferdinand agreed, and they got back into their car and headed back onto the road. It was then, as they were on their way to the hospital that their driver turned onto a side street and the sixth assassin, a nineteen-year-old kid named Gavrilo (i.e., Gabriel) Princip, still waiting on the corner, saw his chance, stepped forward and fired two shots which resulted in the death of the archduke and his wife.
The immediate consequences of the assassination were anti-Serbian riots and pogroms. Incited by the Austrian Governor and Croatian nationalists, for several days mobs attacked Serbs, their homes, their businesses, and their churches. Reports submitted by the Austrian Governor Oskar Potiorek two days later said that all Serbian shops in Sarajevo had been destroyed. Many prominent Serbs were expelled or imprisoned, and 460 were executed. Sarajevo, for the first time in its history, was divided by ethnicity.
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