The Centenary of First World War – The Spark That Ignited the Fuse

Artist’s impression of the assassination

28 June 2014
will mark the centenary of the so-called ‘Sarajevo
incident’, the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie.

This infamous event, euphemistically
referred to as the ‘spark that lit the fuse’, had far reaching consequences,
igniting the First World War.

Growing up in the 70s and 80s in Bosnia, which was then part
of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, this group of young men who
called themselves ‘Young Bosnia’ (Mlada Bosna), and particularly Gavrilo
Princip, the man whose shot killed the Archduke, were hailed as heroes who
courageously sacrificed themselves for liberation from the oppressive regime and
the betterment of the Bosnian people.

The ill-famed corner

I remember as a university student in Sarajevo in the late
1980s, standing on the footprints embedded into the concrete sidewalk marking
the exact spot where Princip stood on that day. Next to it was the plaque
commemorating the Yugoslav’s people ‘centuries-long aspiration for freedom’.
Across from this corner was the Princip’s Bridge and Sarajevo
city streets bore names of the men from ‘Young Bosnia’.

But when the Serbian artillery began pounding Sarajevo
and Bosnia in
spring of 1992, the assassination was seen as a potent symbol of Serb nationalism
and the footprints and the plaque were destroyed. Subsequently, the name of the
bridge reverted to its original name – the Latin
Bridge- and the street names were
also changed. 

Gavrilo Princip’s foot steps

Indeed, over the last hundred years this event has been
reinterpreted, manipulated and (mis)appropriated in a number of different
social, cultural and political contexts. Depending on what side of political
divide you stand, this was either a criminal and terrorist act or a heroic deed
by a group of young intellectuals who wanted freedom from an oppressive regime.

I’m certainly not interested in the ideological
interpretations of this event, but as Sarajevo
and the rest of Europe prepare to commemorate the
centenary of this event, I was keen to look back at what led to this moment and
the outbreak of the First World War. How was it possible for this particular event
to have such catastrophic consequences?

Europe – a rumbling volcano

‘On 28 June 2014,
Europe was enjoying a prosperous peace. 37 day later the
nations were at war. In that time only a handful of people knew what was
This is how BBC series 37 days begins. But was it truly so?

With the amount of historical information available to us today, it
is easy to conclude that in 1914 this ‘prosperous peace’ was like a thin mist over a
mountain peak, hiding sputtering cinders of a volcano nearing eruption. 


Towards the end of the 19th century, the then superpowers – Austro-Hungary,
Britain, France
and Russia –
had to contend with two new powerful nations – Germany
and Italy,
which both became unified by 1871. The Ottoman Empire,
‘the sick man of Europe’, although weakened was still
hovering in the background. The new nations, particularly Germany,
very soon became serious threat to their spheres of influence, not only in Europe
but also in the colonies.

The influence over the Balkans was one of the most
contentious issues of the early 20th century. Following the success
of Pan-Germanism and Pan-Italianism, Pan-Slavism became an idea of all Slavic
peoples unifying under the patronage of Russia.
Germany and
Austro-Hungary, in particular, showed strong opposition to this idea and to a
more powerful Russia.

It all culminated in 1878, when in the wake of the war
between Russia
and the Ottoman Empire, the Great Powers met in Berlin
where Germany, Britain
and Austro-Hungary, under a guise of stabilizing the Balkans, effectively redraw
the borders of Europe to their benefit. Britain
gained Cyprus; Austro-Hungary
became Bosnia’s
‘foster parents’ and Germany,
although not gaining any territories was happy just to be the judge and the

The Russians felt slighted and humiliated for the
repudiation of their victory and territorial gains, and Serbia,
finally free from the Ottoman rule, wasn’t happy that their plans of
marching into Bosnia
had been spoiled. Greece
was unhappy too for not getting their hands on Macedonia
and Bulgaria
and the Ottomans were grateful to Germany
for continuing to keep them on life support.

In the following decades, the animosity between the camps continued
to build up and nearly escalating into a full-blown conflict between Serbia
and Austro-Hungary in 1908 when the Austro-Hungarians unilaterally annexed Bosnia.
The Emperor did write a cordial letter to the German Kaiser and the Ottomans, advising
them of his decision. The Kaiser praised his friend’s ‘peaceful intentions’ and
called this act a ‘blessing’ for the province. We don’t know how the Ottomans
responded, but they were rather preoccupied with thwarting the uprising of the
Young Turks and Bulgaria’s
declaration of independence.

This was a breach of the 1878 Berlin Treaty; for Germans and
Austrians simply a technicality, but once again Serbia
and Russia were
outraged and on 7 October, the Serbia
started preparing for an outright conflict. This was prevented only after Britain
and Germany
intervened with the Russians. However, on 8 October, under the auspices of the
Serbian government, a group called Narodna Odbrana (National Defence)
was formed and it started recruiting and training saboteurs. Allegedly, the
group soon became primarily focused on cultural and sporting events, its dirty deeds
done by a handful of ‘patriotic’ members who grouped together to form an infamous
terrorist group the Black Hand (Crna Ruka).

Bosnian crisis of 1908

Let’s not forget the others. In 1908 Britain
and Germany
bickered over Germany’s
naval expansion, Kaiser Wilhelm even calling the British ‘mad, mad, mad as March
hares’. In August of 1911, the British convened a secret meeting of the Imperial
Defense Committee asking for preparation of war plans against German invasion
of Belgium and France,
following the skirmish between France
and Germany
around Morocco.  The Kaiser held his own secret war cabinet meeting
in December 1912. In 1913 The French spies got their hands on a German report
showing military activities near their borders, that same year the Kaiser
informed the Belgian king that the war with France was inevitable. Russians and
Austro-Hungarians disputed over Poland
and then the Balkans exploded in 1912 and 1913 in First and Second Balkan wars.

The maps of Europe got rearranged
again with the Ottomans losing Macedonia
(which was then carved and split between Serbia,
Bulgaria and Greece).
At the end of the Second Balkan War Serbia
was the most militarily powerful state south of the Danube.
The young nation’s imperialist appetite was supported and encouraged by its big
sister Russia.
This alliance continued to be a threat to Germanic interests in the region, and
despite being allies, even Britain
and France were uneasy with Russia’s
increasing influence and her eye on their colonies in Asia.

None of the Great Powers (not even Russia)
saw Serbia in a
favourable light. In 37 Days, Britain’s
Prime Minister’s wife Margot Asquith (portrayed by a wonderful Sinead Cusack) is
asking Lord Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, to explain if the country is
spelled Serbia
or Servia. ‘B for Barbarians or V for Villains’, she mocks. 

This sums up the prevailing views of the Balkans as
backward, uncouth and barbaric. The superpowers would exploit these sentiments
to turn the Sarajevo assassination
into casus belli, an inciting event, a convenient means to divert blame
for the war from their own leaders.

Black Hand of a King Slayer

Even before the trials of the assassins started, the
Austro-Hungarians declared it a Serbian conspiracy coordinated by Narodna
and Black Hand.

Black Hand’s bizarre seal

Research into Black Hand reads like something from Ian
Fleming’s or Robert Ludlum’s novels – a radical secret group of army officers
involved in espionage, blackmail, violence and political assassinations.

Black Hand or as it was officially known as
‘Ujedinjenje ili Smrt’ (Unity or Death) was formed in 1903 and their first act
was the assassination of their own King Aleksandar Obrenovic. The mastermind was a young
officer, Dragutin Dimitrijevic (codename Apis), often described among his
acquaintances as being ‘fanatic to the core’. The Serbian parliament rewarded Apis
for the grisly deed and named him ‘the saviour of the fatherland’. In 1911, the
group formalized its existence and purpose with a constitution signed by 10
members of the ‘executive’. Apis was a signatory number 6.

The group’s constitution did not explicitly show their intent
for Serbia’s internal
politics, but their actions made it clear that it was some sort of covert military
control. For Serbia,
1911 was the most difficult year since the 1903 coup d’etat.  It was a reign of terror, dominated by
bickering political parties, economic decline, espionage, blackmail and
assassinations culminating in 233 political murders that year.

The governing Radical Party and its Prime Minister Nikola
Pasic frequently criticized the Black Hand for being ‘reactionary’, ‘a
greatest threat to Serbia’s parliamentary system’ and for promoting the
chauvinistic idea of a ‘Greater Serbia’ for desiring to make Croatia,
Montenegro, Bosnia, Macedonia and Dalmatia part of Serbian territory. This was clearly pot calling the kettle black, given Serbia’s
open imperialistic appetite for Bosnia
and Macedonia.

Black Hand participated in inciting rebellions that
lead to the Balkan Wars and assassination plots of high officials and rulers,
including an attempt at the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef in 1911 and
murder of King George I of Greece
in 1913.

Some sources conjectured that the Karadjordjevic Kings (both
Peter I and later his son Aleksandar II) and the Prime Minister Pasic knew and
at times encouraged the activities of the Black Hand. They were certainly aware
of the imminent attempt at the Archuke but made a rather feeble attempt to warn
the Austro-Hungarians by sending a cryptic message to their ambassador in Vienna.
The question remains as to why this warning was send in such a manner. One view
is that the Serbian officials were so afraid of Black Hand that any revelation meant
exposing themselves and becoming a target. The alternative view is that this
was a perfunctory ‘warning’ and that the Archduke’s elimination was ultimately
in Serbia’s
best interest.

Archduke – a sitting duck

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was often described as obstinate, haughty and
hot headed. Indeed, he often butted heads with his elderly uncle Emperor Franz Josef,
both around personal and the matters of state.

But he was also an astute observer.
He had realized that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was decaying and that the survival
of the Hapsburg monarchy depended on widespread reforms. Serbia’s
foreign policy and subversive actions in Bosnia
and Croatia clearly
infuriated him, but he thought any conflict a sheer lunacy that would simply
provoke Russia
to enter the conflict which would be disastrous for the Empire.

In a letter written to Austria’s
Foreign Minister in February 1913, the Archduke said that “irredentism in
our country … will cease immediately if our Slavs are given a
comfortable, fair and good life”. His ideas of reforms – centralization of
power away from the dual rule split between Austria and Hungary and a form of
trialism or even federalism modeled on his admiration for the USA –
were well
known and irritated not only his uncle, but a lot of others in the government and
nobility (Hungarians in particular would have been displeased with the
prospects of losing influence and power). Outside of the Empire, this would
have again spoiled Serbia’s
plans for Bosnia.

Archduke, an indiscriminate hunter, becomes a prey.

Whatever the motives of the Serbian government, the plans for assassination
had already been put into motion. However, the views that the Young Bosnia was
an extension of Black Hand are too simplistic and assumptive and ignore the social
and economic conditions in Bosnia
at the time and the rising tide of anti-Austrian sentiment among its population.

Reign of Assassins

It is unclear how widespread Young Bosnia was, but it is
clear that they were far from tuberculosis ridden fanatics and juvenile
delinquents, bent only on murder and anarchy. The group was likely modelled on
similar revolutionary groups forming across the region and Europe, where young
university students and workers gathered to debate national liberation, philosophy
and ideas of Nietzsche, Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Kropotkin, Bakunin and Dimitrije
Tucovic, the founder of Serbian Social Democratic Party who supported the idea
of a Balkan Federation.

Among its members were famous literary personalities,
university students, teachers, lawyers, workers and one future Nobel Laureate
(Ivo Andric).  Most of them were educated
in Belgrade, Zagreb,
Vienna and Krakow.

In close contact with Young Bosnia was a group known as Preporod
(Rebirth) in Ljubljana, Slovenia
which was founded in 1911-1912. These two groups were in tune with the
anti-Austrian sentiment and the ideas of Yugoslav liberation and unification
and worked to create a united Yugoslav revolutionary youth movement.
For these groups, political debate and compromise was not enough. Their
members often enticed unrest and protests, and political murder was seen simply
as a means to an end.

Before the Archduke’s murder, attempts were made at eliminating various high
In 1910, Bogdan Zerajic, a member of Young Bosnia, attempted to
assassinate the Governor of Bosnia, General Varesanin. The assassination failed
and Zerajic used his last remaining bullet on himself. He would become the group’s
hero and a role model.

1853 assassination attempt at young Franz Jozef

In February 1912, Gavrilo Princip participated and was injured in student demonstrations
organized by Prinicp’s friend, a Croat, Luka Jukic. In June of the same year,
Jukic was arrested for a fail assassination attempt at Governor Cuvaj in Zagreb,

In August 1913, and again in May 1914, there were two attempts at killing Croatia’s
Royal Commissioner, Baron Skerleez, at Zagreb.

In March 1914, in Ljubljana, Preporod
provoked a 6-day student strike and after the Sarajevo
event many members were arrested and tried for treason.

Before knowing about the Archduke’s visit to Sarajevo,
the Young Bosnia’s
members had been preparing to assassinate Oskar Potiorek, Governer of Bosnia.  

Austro-Hungarian official position about these events was that they originated
in Serbia and were
orchestrated by Narodna Odbrana/Black Hand and that the perpetrators were
simply pawns of ‘immature minds …excited by political questions’, ‘poisoned
from their school days by the doctrines of the Narodna Odbrana’ . Clearly,
labeling organisaitons such as Young Bosnia and Preporod as weak
and insignificant was a way to cover a groundswell of anti-Austrian
sentiment not only in Bosnia,
but also in Croatia
and Slovenia.

Heroes and Villains
Indeed, in the last 100 years numerous books and papers have been written
about the Sarajevo incident, either
romanticizing or demonizing the conspirators.  For some, these were naïve, romantic figures
in long coats, with books in hands, wondering around the graves of fallen
comrades, racked with tuberculosis, with very little to live for. Incredulously,
one author even explored suppression of erotic urges as a driving force, calling
it ‘interplay between Thanatos and Eros’. For others, they were crazed, cold-hearted, suicidal fanatics fuelled by
nationalistic and chauvinistic ideals.

The trial – Gavrilo Princip, first row, in the middle

The truth is unfortunately more mundane. These men were a product of their
time – frustrated citizens resorting to extreme solutions. They witnessed poverty,
depravity and disenfranchisement of ordinary people and the foreign government’s
feeble attempts to change this. As mentioned previously, they were educated and
the ideas of revolutionary nationalism were becoming increasingly influential,
particularly among the younger members.

When the author W.A. Downing interviewed Cvjetko Popovic, one of the
surviving conspirators, in early 1980s about how one went about recruiting
accomplices for an assassination, he answered “ that was easy: simply ask. One
student approaches another and says, “Do you know the Archduke is coming
and the ominous reply is “Mi ga moramo docekati!” (“We must lie
in wait for him!”)

 ‘[…]there is no way of telling you
what it is like to live under foreigners. You have to have experienced it
yourself. We hated them with a burning hatred. Our ideal was
Yes, I agreed instantly, and under the same circumstances I would do it

Regardless of their personal motives and ideological views (e.g. Princip was
pro-Yugoslavia), they had a common belief that the Austro-Hungarian occupation
had to end and that, in Princip’s words ‘doing away with the evil’ rather than
diplomacy was the only way to achieve that. They also understood that to kill
Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, required careful
planning and resources, and they knew that the people who would readily help
were from the Black Hand.

Despit Apis’s later written confession in 1916 that he and the Black
were behind the assassination, there is enough evidence to disprove
the idea of Young Bosnia as a simple extension of the Black Hand.
That view is too simplistic and denies the existence of a strong revolutionary
zeal among the youth in Bosnia
and their aspirations for freedom from a foreign rule.  

Wrong turn – we all fall down 
On the day of the Archduke’s visit, the 22 members of Young Bosnia were
among the crowd lining the streets, waving and cheering the Archduke and his wife. The first attempt, a bomb, thrown by Nedeljko Cabrinovic, bounced off the Archduke’s car and wounded soldiers and civilians. The motorcade sped away to the Town Hall, preventing the remaining conspirators from taking action.

After a short visit to the Town Hall, the furious Archduke made a fateful decision to change his itinerary and pay a visit the people who were wounded in
the earlier attach. Franz Ferdinand’s driver, unfamiliar with Sarajevo, had
taken a wrong turn and attempted to reverse, right in front of Gavrilo Princip,
who had moments ago been thinking about ridding himself of his weapons and going
into hiding.

A few minutes before the wrong turn

All it took was a wrong turn and two gun shots (Princip didn’t even know who
was in the car with the Archduke and if he’d hit the target) for Europe, a seething mass of
tension, animosity and alliances, to erupt. And the rest is, as the cliche says, history.

The Great Powers were ‘suitably outraged’ about the murder,
but very soon the bickering and ultimatums between Serbia
and Austro-Hungary became a non-issue, as clearly demonstrated in the so-called
‘Willy-Nicky’ Letters. This correspondence between the German Kaiser Wilhelm II
and the Russian Tzar Nikolai II, disguised as appeals to each other’s better
nature, reveals blatant one-upmanship and arrogance of the two rulers who were
clearly not interested in preventing anything.

Gavrilo Princip captured by police

Alliances became excuses. Everyone was in cahoots with
someone. Russians had to protect their protégé, Serbia.
Germany in
return backed up their old ally the Hapsburgs. France
promised to back up Russia
and Britain had
signed up to protect the neutral Belgium
and support France.
The Ottomans had to go with their protector, Germany.
Italy tried
unsuccessfully to remain neutral and was soon dragged into the conflict. As the
colonies were at stake, they too became involved and the new nations of Australia
and New Zealand
stepped in to help the mother Britain.
When German U-boats started sinking American merchant ships, the US
joined the war in 1917. The outcome – 20 million wounded and over 16 millon

 It was a British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who best described
the cause of the First World War.


 All this madness, all this rage, all this flaming death
of our civilization and our hopes, has been brought about because a set of
official gentlemen, living luxurious lives, mostly stupid, and all without
imagination or heart, have chosen that it should occur rather than that any one
of them should suffer some infinitesimal rebuff to his country`s pride.

Kissing cousins – Willy & Nicky


The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 – Christopher Clark  
Peculiar Liaisons: In War, Espionage, and Terrorism in the Twentieth Century – John S.
The Road to Sarajevo – Vladimir Dedijer 
One Morning in Sarajevo: 28 June 1914 – David James Smith 
Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 – Frederic Morton
The Story of a Political Murder: Sarajevo – Joachim Remak
BBC World War I 
World War I document archive 
First World – A Multimedia History of World War One
The anarchist tradition on Yugoslav soil


1 Comment

  1. June 27, 2014 / 4:28 pm

    You write: "When German U-boats started sinking American merchant ships, the US joined the war in 1917." The US entered the war only after the Zimmerman Incident. Many people were outraged that President Wilson didn't declare war on Germany after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, but he was staunchly against getting involved in a European War.

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