Did one gunshot start World War One? - History Bombs
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Did one gunshot start World War One? The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

On 27th June 1914, a bullet from the gun of 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo set off a chain of events that would alter the course of history. 

Gavrilo Princip had killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand; what followed was a series of manoeuvres that triggered the start of World War One. How did one gunshot have so much political influence over the world?

Find out more about the slide to war and World War One with our World War One series!

Who was Gavrilo Princip?

Princip in 1915 (Wikimedia Commons)

Gavrilo Princip was a Bosnian Serb nationalist born on July 25, 1894, in Obljaj, Bosnia and Herzegovina, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Growing up in poverty and influenced by the rising tide of South Slavic nationalism, Princip joined the Young Bosnia movement, which sought to liberate South Slavs from Austro-Hungarian rule and create a unified, independent state. His involvement with the Black Hand, a secret Serbian society advocating for a Greater Serbia, led him to participate in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary on June 28, 1914.

The Black Hand, formally known as “Unification or Death,” was a secret Serbian nationalist organisation founded in 1911 with the aim of creating a Greater Serbia by uniting all Serb-populated territories. 

How one wrong turn cost the Archduke his life

Assassination of the Archduke and his wife, 1914 (Wikimedia Commons)

Franz Ferdinand’s visit to Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, provided the Black Hand Gang with an opportunity to strike. The date was significant as it coincided with St Vitus’s Day. St. Vitus’ Day commemorates the anniversary of the Serbian defeat to Ottoman forces in Kosovo in 1389, and this was the first time the occasion was celebrated since Serbia regained Kosovo during the Second Balkan War.

For Serbian nationalists, the archduke’s visit to Sarajevo on such an important day was seen as a grave insult, and they were determined to retaliate.

On the day of the assassination, several conspirators were positioned along the route of the Archduke’s motorcade. A failed bombing attempt earlier in the day meant that the Archduke’s motorcade route was changed, but the Czech driver had not picked up on this, as it wasn’t translated to him.

A shout from Potiorek, a general travelling in the same car, told the driver he had taken a wrong turn, so he slowed to a stop – directly in front of young Gavrilo Princip, who had stationed himself along the original route. Princip seized the moment, firing two shots at the Archduke and his wife, Sophie, killing them both.

How did this lead to war?

The reaction of the Austro-Hungarian government was swift and severe. Viewing the assassination as an existential threat, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia, which, despite Serbia’s attempts to comply, was deemed unsatisfactory. With the backing of Germany, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914.

Our video lesson ‘Whose Fault Was It?’ explores the international relations and factors that contributed to the declaration of war

This declaration triggered a domino effect. Russia, bound by its commitment to Slavic nations, mobilised in support of Serbia. Germany, allied with Austria-Hungary, declared war on Russia. France, allied with Russia, found itself at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary. When Germany invaded Belgium to outflank France, Britain entered the war in defence of Belgian neutrality. Within weeks, Europe was engulfed in a full-scale war.

Conclusion

The Archduke’s assassination was a catalyst for the already simmering tensions between major European powers. The complex web of alliances and mutual defence agreements turned a regional conflict into a global war. Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia, Russia’s mobilisation in support of Serbia, Germany’s backing of Austria-Hungary, and the involvement of France and Britain all demonstrate how interconnected and fragile international relations were on the eve of the war.

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