On the morning of June 28, 1914, while traveling in a motorcade through Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. The Archduke had ignored warnings of a possible assassination plot and decided to tour the capital on the anniversary of the 1389 battle of Kosovo. This battle was a humiliating collective memory for all Serbs, in which Serbia was defeated by the Turks, ending Serbia's independence as a nation.
The Archduke was chosen as a target because Serbians feared that after his ascension to the throne, he would continue and even heighten the persecution of Serbs living within the Austro-Hungarian empire. Serbia had gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. At that time, Serbia laid claim to several regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina which were inhabited primarily by Serbs. However, the Congress of Berlin granted permission to Austria-Hungary to occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina, including the disputed Serbian areas. In 1908, Austria-Hungary officially annexed all of occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina, adding additional fuel to the fires of Serbian nationalism.
The Serbian terrorist organization, the Black Hand, had trained a small group of teenage operatives to infiltrate Bosnia and carry out the assassination of the Archduke. It is unclear how officially active the Serbian government was in the plot. However, it was uncovered years later that the leader of the Black Hand, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, was also the head of Serbian military intelligence.
As Francis Ferdinand and his party proceeded through Sarajevo, the first of the Black Hand operatives tossed a bomb at the Archduke's automobile. The chauffeur saw the explosive and accelerated to avoid the impact. Sophie ducked, and Francis Ferdinand deflected the bomb with his arm, causing it to bounce off the back of the car and explode behind them, demolishing the next car and seriously injuring several aides. To avoid capture and interrogation, the unsuccessful assassin, nineteen-year-old Nedjelko Cabrinovic, swallowed a cyanide pill and jumped into the river. However, he was hauled out of the river and detained.
As the Archduke's entourage resumed its tour of Sarajevo, the Archduke's chauffeur took a wrong turn and drove within ten feet of another Black Hand agent, Gavrilo Princip. Princip stepped up to the car and fired two pistol shots. One bullet hit Sophie, killing her instantly. The other hit Francis Ferdinand, who died within minutes. Like Carbinovic, Princip attempted suicide, but was captured before succeeding.
Austrian reaction to the assassination was swift, as the Sarajevo crisis was seen as the Empire's last chance to assert its supremacy in the Balkans. Austrian foreign minister Count Leopold von Berchtold was determined to make use of the assassinations to crush once and for all the Serbian nationalist movement. Berchtold sent an envoy to Berlin, who was assured by Emperor William II on July 5th that Germany would fully support any action which the Dual Monarchy might take against Serbia. On July 6th, German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg issued the blank check of unconditional German support.
On July 23, 1914, Austria-Hungary presented Serbia with a lengthy list of demands, with a 48 hour period in which to comply. These demands included abolishing all Pan-Serb propaganda, expelling from office any persons thought to have nationalist sympathies, taking legal action against certain officials designated by Austria-Hungary, and allowing agents of the Dual Monarchy to control all investigations and proceedings concerning the Sarajevo murders. Minutes before the July 25th deadline, Serbia issued a conciliatory reply to Berchtold's demands, stating that Serbia wished the dispute to be submitted to the International Tribunal at the Hague. This conciliation was rejected. On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. World War I had begun.
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