The Spark that Caused Devastation – The Outbreak of World War I

Rebecca Fachner continues her series of articles on World War I by looking at how an assassination in an age of assassinations led to the outbreak of one of the most destructive wars of all time. You can read Rebecca’s first article in the series on Royal Family squabbles here.


Just a couple of days ago, June 28, marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, a city that was then a (reluctant) part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his assassin was Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian nationalist who was part of a terrorist syndicate called the Black Hand, who were determined to assassinate the Archduke. It is important to note that some members of the Black Hand were quite closely associated with members of the Serbian government, and it is possible that Serbia knew about and even funded the assassination attempt. At least that is what Austria-Hungary chose to believe in the aftermath of June 28. Ironically, the assassination attempt was almost a complete failure. Several members of the Black Hand were stationed along the Archduke’s tour route, and the first attempt on him was a bomb thrown toward his touring car. The bomb killed several soldiers and onlookers, but did not harm the Archduke or his wife. After recovering from their ordeal, the Archduke and his wife insisted on visiting the victims in the hospital, and as they headed to the hospital their car stalled. Princip happened to be in a café across the street, heard the commotion and seized his moment. 

The Spark that Caused Devastation – The Outbreak of World War I

Gavrilo Princip assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand. By Achille Beltrame and published in the Domenica del Corriere newspaper.


By all rights, neither Ferdinand nor Princip should have gone down in history. The assassination, while of course tragic and potentially politically destabilizing, should have remained an internal Austro-Hungarian matter, making the two men at best a minor footnote in European history. Moreover, it was an age of assassination. In the fifteen years prior to 1914, the kings of Italy, Greece and Spain had been assassinated in addition to the Grand Vizier (Prime Minister) of the Ottoman Empire as well as the Prime Minister of Japan, and the President of the United States. Who outside of their own countries can now identify any one of these men? With so many assassinations taking place in this period, why is it this one that is remembered?

The memory of Princip and Ferdinand looms large because of what followed from the assassination. This particular assassination has gone down in history as the short-term cause of the First World War, setting off a chain of events that led Europe into war. It really wasn’t a cause so much as an excuse; Europe was poised for war, many wanted war, even if they wouldn’t have admitted it, and there had been several incidents in the recent past that almost resulted in war. With Europe primed and ready, it was only a matter of time before something finally sparked a fight, and this was it.

Austria-Hungary was stunned and distraught by the assassination, not unreasonably, but the leadership dealt with their grief and indignation by looking for revenge. Austria-Hungary wanted to make the Serbians pay, and within a month issued a set of demands designed to bring Serbia to heel, and gave them forty-eight hours to comply or risk war. Serbia did not want war, but the Austro-Hungarian demands were simply too intrusive, as they were certainly designed to be, and Serbia rejected the most egregious of Austria-Hungary’s demands. Both Austria-Hungary and Serbia had sought assistance from their much larger allies/protectors, Germany and Russia, respectively, so both knew that if it came to war they would not be fighting alone. Russia, enjoying its role as Slavic protector, actually called for a partial mobilization first, but insisted that it was only a mobilization against Austria-Hungary. Germany begged Russia to halt its mobilization, and then declared war on Russia. Two days later, on August 3, Germany declared war on Russia’s ally, France.



Germany was then faced with a serious dilemma, albeit one completely of its own making, as there was no good way for them to invade France without going through Belgium. Germany asked Belgium for permission to march their army through Belgium into France, which seemed from a German perspective to be a reasonable request. Amazingly, the Belgians did not agree, and politely declined to allow a massive foreign army to run roughshod through their sovereign territory. Germany invaded anyway. This alerted the British, who had signed a treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality, and Britain declared war on August 4. While this was all going on there were frantic letters and telegrams being written between the major powers, visits being arranged, peace conferences proposed, all in an effort to stop or slow down the march to war.

Three days after Britain declared war, on August 7, the British Expeditionary Force arrived on the continent, and the Battle of the Frontiers began. The Battle of the Frontiers was a complex affair that took place in several stages and ultimately lasted until mid-September. In the East, by contrast, events moved at a significantly slower pace. The Russians were a formidable enemy, but a very slow moving and technologically backwards one, and it took several weeks for their mobilization to be complete. By August 17, the Russians had fully mobilized and began invading eastern Germany. On August 23, the Battle of Tannenberg began, lasting for a week and becoming the first in a long line of humiliating Russian defeats. 

By August 23, therefore, less than two months after the assassination of the Archduke, Europe was completely at war. Germany was dug in on two fronts, and massive battles were taking place on a continent that had been completely at peace less than 60 days prior. And over what? A dead heir to the throne of a middle tier power, some national pride, and several very itchy trigger fingers. There are so many points along this timeline in which events could have conceivably, even plausibly, gone a different way. Austria-Hungary could have reacted differently, Germany and Russia could have stayed out of each other’s way, Germany could have ignored France or forced them to be the aggressor, or Germany could have avoided Belgium and therefore the British.

The likelihood is that it wouldn’t have mattered if things had gone slightly or even very differently; war was virtually inevitable and if this series of events had not brought about a conflict, something else would have done. Nonetheless, one wonders whether Princip, spending the war in his prison cell, felt responsible for the carnage, or if he even realized his role in starting the greatest war Europe had ever seen.


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