One hundred years ago today, a teenaged Serbian nationalist (or terrorist, depending on which side you’re on) named Gavrilo Princip fired two shots at Archduke Franz Ferdinand at point blank range, killing both the Archduke and his wife, Sophie, after their motorcade took a wrong turn and setting in motion the events that eventually led to World War I – and, arguably at least, to both world wars and to hostilities that continue to this day.
At the time, in 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a multinational, multilingual empire whose main ruling parties consisted of German-speaking Austrians and the Magyars of Hungary. The empire had recently annexed Serbia – much to the displeasure of many of the ethnically-mixed Serbians. Franz Ferdinand, by all accounts, would rather the empire he was to inherit had not annexed Serbia. Nevertheless, he toured the province as part of his duties as inspector-general of the Austro-Hungarian army. This made him a symbolic target for Serbian nationalists, including the terrorist group The Black Hand – the organization that sponsored Gavrilo Princip.
A number of factors led to Serbia’s desire to break away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For some, it was about nationalism and linguistic/cultural differences. For others – including a large minority of Muslims – the desire to split from the the empire Franz Ferdinand would inherit was based on religious differences. In addition to conflicts with Muslims, much of the seed of Antisemitism – and of modern Zionism, which many consider to have started as the natural and logical response of the Jewish people to growing Antisemitism – began in Austria. Regardless, many historians – including the one who wrote this report in the New York Times – believe that Archduke Franz Ferdinand would have been only too happy to have granted Serbian independence had he lived to assume the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – quite possibly diffusing the situation.
Instead, shots were fired. Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife died. The Austro-Hungarian Empire reacted by not only making heavy demands on Serbia, but also bringing Germany in to support them in the conflict, triggering Serbian alliances with Russia and France and ultimately plunging all of Europe (and eventually the United States) into a war like none that had been seen before – often called ‘The Great War’ or ‘The War to End All Wars’ at the time.
The war was eventually settles with the Treaty of Versailles, but many feel that the years between the world wars were more of a pause than an actual peace. The nationalism and odd system of alliances that often didn’t represent the actual interests of the nations involved only grew in the interim years, simmering until Hitler rose to power and plunged the world into the yet greater World War II, followed by the Cold War. Many fear that recent events could plunge us into another Cold War(or already have) and possibly even World War III.
Let’s hope cooler heads prevail. It could be this Cold War era song is even more pertinent today than when it was originally recorded in the 1980s:
[Video via YouTube]
Have we learned anything since the day that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot? One would like to hope that the founding of the United Nations suggests that we’ve learned to at least try diplomacy to settle our differences. Unfortunately, there are many in the world who have not caught onto that message, as recent violence in the Ukraine and escalating tensions in Syria and Iraq as ISIS appears poised to topple Baghdad and establish a Caliphate, along with simmering hostilities between China and other Southeast Asian nations seem to demonstrate.
All sane people hope that we can avoid a worldwide conflict. The proliferation of nuclear and other devastating modern weapons leaves no doubt that such a conflict today would have a deadly potential no one could have imagined in Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s time, despite the fact that World War I gave us our first taste of widespread automatic weapons use, aerial combat, tanks and chemical warfare.
According to a report on aol.com, Bosnian Serbs have erected a statue of Gavrilo Princip to mark the 100th anniversary of the assassination. Events like that beg the question, “Have we learned anything in the 100 years since a Serbian nationalist/terrorist fired the shots that took Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s life and started World War I and the century of war that followed?” Let’s hope, at the very least, that most of the nations in power have.