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.
At a bridge where the first two attackers were suppose to strike, nothing happened. When the third assassin threw his bomb at the archduke, seated in a second of six vehicles motorcade, it bounces of his car and exploded under a fourth car, wounding Count Boos-Waldeck,
Princip, a gaunt Bosnian Serb, Slav nationalist, was standing at the next bridge. He heard the bomb blast and assumed that the attack had succeeded. He was caught unprepared when the procession sped past him him to the town hall, with the archduke alive and well.
Princip wandered off to Moritz Schiller’s Delicatessen, located on the corner where Appel Quuay meets the Latin Bridge.
At the town hall, the archduke complained angrily. "Mr. Mayor, I came here on a visit, and I get bombs thrown at me," he declared. "It is outrageous."
But the police assured him that they had everything under control.
“While they were in the city hall following the bomb attack, Lt. Gen. Oskar Potiorek… who was also responsible for the archduke’s security, said that he considered another attack unlikely. Dr. Gerde, the commissioner of police, agreed with him,” said Lyon.
A request for two companies of soldiers to line the streets and evacuate the parade route was rejected because of the dirty uniforms, Lyon said.
The only added security precaution was to change the return route of the imperial procession. But the bungling police forgot to tell the chauffeur of the lead car about the change, so he made a wrong turn at the bridge into a narrow Franz Joseph alley, then had to stop and back out.
“It was a case of dumb luck,” said Lyon.
That maneuver forced the archduke's car to a halt, right where Princip happened to be standing.
"I got hold of my handgun and aimed it at the car without really looking," Princip later testified. "I even looked away when I fired.”
One shot hit the archduke in the jugular vein in the neck, the other struck the archduchess in the abdomen. "For God's sake, what has happened to you?" the archduchess cried out to her stricken husband. He screamed, although gravely wounded, “Sophie, Sophie! Don’t die. Live for my children!"
Princip swallowed his cyanide pill, but it made him vomit, he was not harmed and an angry mob took his pistol from him.
Princip was convicted of murder, but could not execute him because he was a minor. Sentenced to 20 years, he died of tuberculosis in prison in 1918.
"Each and every one of them said at the trial, and later said during their imprisonment, that had they known that such a horrendous war would ensue, they would never have taken part in the activities of June 28," Lyon said.