Today’s story is about a death with tragic consequences, but one that was so unlikely it’s amazing that it somehow happened.
The death of Franz Ferdinand
There are moments that make the difference. Someone could have gone left, but they went right. A small part in a car that should have lasted for thousands more hours suddenly fails. Someone is caught in traffic, misses a flight, and the flight crashes. There are moments that shape lives, communities, nations, and even the entire world. And sometimes it seems as if all those random events conspire together. This is the story of one of those moments.
I’m James Dykstra, and this is History.icu.
Franz Ferdinand Carl Ludwig Joseph Maria of Austria was born on the 18th of December in 1863. The son of an archduke, he was also the nephew of the Austro-Hungarian emperor, and with deaths in the extended royal family, he became the crown prince or next-in-line to the throne in 1896.
Franz Ferdinand was a unique individual, and took the highly unusual step of courting a lady-in-waiting to be his wife. Though Sophie Chotek was his social inferior in every way, it appears he was truly in love with her and they married in 1900.
This adorable though unusual couple went off to visit the Bosian city of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, in order to inspect the troops and watch the summer military maneuvers. Sarajevo was the most important city in the region that had been annexed by the Empire only a few short years earlier, in 1908. The couple was eagerly welcomed at an inspection of the Austrian troops by the port where the archduke’s ship docked.
Though many in the region were happy to be part of Austro-Hungary, there were at least a few who were not. These individuals banded together in a shadowy organization called the Black Hand that specialized in terrorist attacks against their imperialist overlords. The organization was supplied with weapons by Serbian military intelligence.
Franz Ferdinand and his wife were expected at an elaborate reception at City Hall, so their convoy headed off. Unknown to them, the Black Hand had several assassins lining their route to the reception. The first was ill equipped for his job as a killer, and simply lost his nerve. The second assassin, Nedeljko Cabrinovic, was a bit better, and lobbed his bomb at the archduke’s car.
The car was a convertible with the ragtop folded down. Because the driver saw the danger and accelerated, the bomb bounced off the collapsed room, fell into the road, and exploded under the next car in the convoy.
Those hurt were quickly hustled to the hospital, and Franz Ferdinand and Sophie went off to their reception at City Hall. When welcomed there, Franz Ferdinand lost his cool and retorted, “I come here as your guest, and you people greet me with bombs!”
Unfortunately for Sophie and her husband, Sophie was a genuinely sweet woman and she persuaded her husband that they should go visit the injured people in the hospital. The driver who had saved them before started on his way but he had been given poor directions. He took a wrong turn but quickly realized his mistake and came to a halt.
Now this was a pivotal moment. When we’ve gone places, we’ve all made mistakes, and we’ve all taken wrong turns. But in this case, sitting in the cafe on the corner where they stopped was Gavrilo Princip, another member of the Black Hand who had gone out that day to kill the archduke. He saw his opportunity to succeed where his partner had failed.
That the archduke was presented as a sitting duck to the one man who wanted to kill him was astounding. Even more remarkable, was that the assassination happened at all. Princip squeezed through the crowd to about 6 feet away from the archduke’s car. It is said the crowd was so thick that he was unable to activate the bomb he carried with him. He was able to pull out his pistol, but once again the crowd around him was so great that he was unable to aim properly. He later described the moment saying “where I aimed I do not know.”
Yet somehow, despite the crush of the crowd, poor aim, and only firing two shots, Princip mortally wounded both Sophie and Franz Ferdinand. Hit in the neck and likely aware he was dying, the archduke cried to his wife, “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die, stay alive for our children.”
Beyond medical help, the two died within the hour. Due to the involvement of the Serbian intelligence agency, Austro-Hungary was soon at war with Serbia to punish them for the archduke’s death. Because of Serbia’s historic ties with Russia, Austria and Russia were soon at war. Because of their alliance with Austro-Hungary, Germany went to war with Russia. And because of the French alliance with Russia, they were dragged into the growing mess. As was Belgium. And Britain. And the British Empire. And the United States. And much of the rest of the world.
Though much lay behind it, because one man made a wrong turn the world was plunged into the largest war the world had yet seen. You really have to wonder whether all the death and destruction of the First World War would have happened if only the driver had been given better directions.