As we near the centenary of the Great War, the spotlight turns on the fateful shots at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, which turned the world upside down
Since the Iliad, gods and mortals in Western myth and history have gone to their deaths for love; but none more bizarrely in modern times than Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, the Archduchess Sophie.
There was nothing attractive about Franz Ferdinand: xenophobic, reactionary, overbearing, he was allegedly hostile to the aspirations of the oppressed nationalities in the lands ruled by the Habsburg dynasty. But he had one idiosyncratic quality: he loved his wife dearly. Franz Ferdinand married Sophie Chotek in a gloomy ceremony on June 28, 1900. Many among the Habsburg nobility, especially the aging Emperor Francis Joseph (Ferdinand’s uncle), were strongly opposed to the wedding as Sophie came from a family of inferior social origins.
This implied that he could only take her beside him in any military capacity. So, exactly 14 years later, much against the advice of the army, the Archduke went to inspect forces in Bosnia where trouble was brewing wholesale – and, as it turned out, to his death. The youth who fired the fatal shots was a 19-year-old student and ardent Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, memorably described by historian A.J.P. Taylor as a “Chekhovian character who could unfortunately shoot.”
Born in Krajina, an impoverished province even by Bosnian standards, the sickly, underweight Gavrilo showed promise as a student and was infected by revolutionary ideas in the byzantine world of Balkan intrigue. A secret Serbian military society calling itself The Black Hand supplied Princip and his associates with bombs and guns. The assassination itself had a farcical air about it. As is excitingly described in in Sidney B. Fay’s 1928 two-part classic, The Origins of the World War, Chabrinovitch, another conspirator, had hurled a bomb at the Archduke’s car at around 10.30 a.m. and missed.
According to some accounts, Franz Ferdinand, with extraordinary coolness, picked up the missile and threw it on the side of the road, grievously wounding an officer. The phlegmatic Archduke then wanted to visit the injured at the hospital. His security, however, insisted that the entourage take a different route by driving straight through a street known as the Appel Quay. The chauffeur initially took a wrong turn, then pressed his brakes in order to back up and proceed towards the Quay.
History made a fatal pause at this moment. Princip, who happened to be wandering around the spot at the time, seized his chance and shot Franz Ferdinand and his wife point-blank. That this violent end to Franz Ferdinand's morganatic wedding should result in the slaughter of 16 million soldiers and civilians between 1914-18, raise the banner of fascism throughout Europe and plunge the world into mankind's greatest cataclysm barely two decades later, seems fantastic in retrospect. Indirectly, perhaps, Lenin and Trotski would not have made their Marxist revolution in Russia had Franz Ferdinand lived.
In his classic Road to Sarajevo (1967), Serbian writer and communist politician, Vladimir Dedijer states that over 3,000 book and pamphlets on the events at Sarajevo had been written till 1939 (the outbreak of the Second World War). Since then, the number books on the events leading up to and the Great War itself, have grown exponentially to an estimated 25,000. A veritable flood of first-hand accounts from the front, ‘revisionist’ theses and comprehensive histories are inundating the market in this centenary year of the ‘War to end all Wars’.
The war, its causes and its implications have been the source of fierce academic saber-rattling among historians. Some have solely indicted German militarism, like Fritz Fischer's controversial Germany's Aims in the First World War. Some recent histories indict all parties, like David Stevenson highly analytical Cataclysm (2004). Sir Hew Strachan is yet to finish his massive trilogy on the Great War, an assignment designed to supplant C.R.M.F. Cruttwell still formidable 1930 classic A History of the Great War. But as a newer crop of historians rehash old theories to inform callower generations thereby keeping the book trade alive, very few have managed to cut through the undergrowth of controversy surrounding the origins of the conflict.
The one name that immediately springs to mind is that of A.J.P. Taylor. His witty and trenchant The First World War: an Illustrated History (1966) and the acidulous The Habsburg Monarchy (1948), still remain the best works on that period. In contrast to an enormous corpus of literature, full-length films on the Sarajevo incident are relatively few. Only one actually focuses on the assassination. The Day that shook the World is a pedestrian, though well-intentioned 1975 effort by Croatian director Veljko Bulajic. Despite brilliant actors like Christopher Plummer (playing Franz Ferdinand) and Maximilian Schell, the film remains a tepid adventure, barely touching upon the simmering cauldron of multi-ethnic hostility boiling in the Habsburg lands.
The best insight into the hypocrisy and decaying splendour of the Habsburgs is provided by Istvan Szabo’s 1985 film, Colonel Redl. The film, about a homosexual army officer features the magnetic Klaus Maria Brandauer as a patriot-turned-spy. Also notable is the classy, meticulously researched 1974 BBC Television drama, Fall of Eagles which deals with pivotal moments in European history from 1848 to 1918.
Documentaries fare much better when dealing with the outbreak of the Great War. Barbara Tuchman’s opus The Guns of August had a decent documentary translation in 1964. But the BBC’s Great War series telecast in 1964-65 remains unrivalled.
After the fateful shots of June 28, old Franz Joseph was relieved on hearing of his nephew's death and Austria shot off an ultimatum to Serbia (on July 23) that could not be fulfilled. They were given a “blank cheque” by Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, which hoped to localise the conflict. But Russia, hostile to Austria, decided to stand by its Slav brethren in Serbia. Its pre-mobilization measures including clearing off the frontier railway stations along the German and Austrian borders – a move that alarmed both the Germans and the Austrians. Thus, they too, mobilized and Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August.
Franz Ferdinand and Gavrilo Princip had taken the first steps in this catatonic nightmare as the rest of Europe followed suit and sleepwalked the world into war.