The shot that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand 100 years ago today - which started a bloodletting that didn’t stop until 10 million people died and four empires were ruined in World War I - had all the elements of an exaggerated “Game of Thrones” script.
There was an heir to an empire, a royal couple in love, the wife resented by the ruling family, a clandestine group known as the “Black Hand,” careless security officials, a warning not passed along, nationalistic teenagers ready to die, a wrong turn, cyanide pills and a lucky shot.
The archduke was assassinated along with his beloved wife Sophie by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Princip, 19, was such an amateur assassin that he testified that he looked away when he fired.
Ferdinand was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and because of a tangle of alliances, Princip’s shots quickly escalated into the The Great War.
Archduke Ferdinand enjoyed traveling to the outposts of the empire, where protocol rules were much more relaxed than in Vienna, where his wife, a Bohemian countess, was deemed unsuitable for the dynasty, according to Habsburg rule. Sophie was aristocratic but not royal, so her marriage came with restrictions—their children had no right to aspire the throne and she could not appear at Ferdinand’s side at most major events.
The archduke visited Sarajevo despite warnings of anti-Austro-Hungarian sentiment among the Serbian population of the city.
"The weekend that the archduke and Sophie visited Sarajevo the movie theaters were showing two films that foreshadowed the horrible events that would follow. The Apollo was showing ‘A Shot at Midnight,’ and the Imperial ‘A World Without Men,” said Dr. James Lyon, Ph.D., author of the upcoming book “Serbia and the Balkan Front, 1914: The Outbreak of the Great War."
On the final day of their state visit, security for the royal couple had thinned, leaving them vulnerable. Sarajevo had a police force of about 200 policemen.
"Approximately 120 of the police force had turned out that day to provide security for the visit of the crown prince of the entire empire," said Lyon. Army units were unavailable because their uniforms were muddy - and not presentable for the royal visit - from field maneuvers the had performed the previous day.
The route of their procession to the civic reception in the town hall was published in local newspapers. Their Gräf & Stift open touring car made Ferdinand an easy mark.
In addition, there were seven assassins to be stationed along the route, each equipped with a pistol, a bomb and a cyanide pill to swallow if captured.
Three main plotters were recruited by a secret “Black Hand” in the cafes in Belgrade. "Black Hand" was dedicated to overthrowing the Austro-Hungarian rule. To them, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was a worthy target. Hot-tempered and arrogant, he was an unpopular prince.
Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pasic learned about the plot and tried to warn Vienna through Dr Leon Von Bilinski, Austria’s finance minister. Von Bilinski was told that if Franz Ferdinand would go to Sarajevo, “Some young Serb might put a live rather than a blank cartridge in his gun and fire it.”
Bilinski rather missed the point: “Let us hope nothing does happen,” he replied cheerfully.