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A Wrong Turn, a Holy Cause and Two Bullets: The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

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“The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.” Barbara Tuchman

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was eager to leave Sarajevo. He had opposed the empire’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina when it occurred in 1908 as a “needless provocation of the South Slavs” and their Russian supporters, he knew that the action was “a diplomatic time bomb that could go off at any time.” He had come to Bosnia to help win over the loyalty of the resentful populace and in a sense to consecrate Austrian rule over Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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Franz Ferdinand 

The visit included military maneuvers in the western part of the province away from Serbia to be less provocative, as well as motorcades and official visits to political officials and cultural venues. The Archduke brought with him his beloved wife, Sophie. His marriage to her was looked upon with scorn by hie father Emperor Franz Josef I and the royal family. Sophie, though a child of obscure Czech nobility she and her family were too impoverished for the Hapsburgs, likewise the relationship was scandalous because Sophie had been the lady in waiting to the Hapsburg archduchess who Franz was supposed to marry. He was forced to sign an “Oath of Renunciation” in which he declared that their children would be excluded from imperial succession.

Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo

 

Last Meeting with Sarajevo Mayor and Religious leaders 

The final day of the royal visit to the region was Sunday June 28th. The date coincided with the signature of the oath of renunciation as well as a Serbian holy day, the anniversary of the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389. In that battle the Turks had destroyed independent Serbia. However, that it was and still considered a symbol of national pride and resistance for Serbians, as a Serbia knight had killed Ottoman Sultan Murad I during the battle. Likewise, June 28th 1914 was the celebration of St Vitus day, or Vidovdan, the day set aside by Serbian government and religious authorities as consecrated to all those who sacrificed their lives for the faith and the fatherland. For Serbian radials and nationalists the establishment of a Greater Serbia and the liberation of Bosnia from Austria was a holy cause, that they were willing to give their lives to achieve.

The visit and itinerary had been planned and published for months, and some Serbs began planning to assassinate the Archduke. Members of the militant-terrorist group the Black Hand and its Bosnian offshoot Narodna Odbrana assisted by Serbian military officers developed plans assisted three conspirators, Gavrilo Princip, Nedjelko Chabrinovitch and Trifko Grabezh with travel, weapons and training to accomplish their mission. Once across the border and in Bosnia they linked up with other conspirators where they planned the assassination attempt.

By the final night Franz was ready to leave, and was heard to say “thank God this Bosnian trip is over.” He would have left with the Austrian Chief of the General Staff Conrad von Hotzendorf, but stayed because he was “warned that breaking off the Sunday program would damage Austria’s prestige in Bosnia.”

The next morning was uneventful until the Archduke’s motorcade was attacked by a local conspirator who threw a bomb which deflected off the Archduke and his car and blew up under the next car in the motorcade at 10 a.m. The Archduke stopped to check on the wounded and proceeded to city hall mayor and Christian, Moslem and Jewish religious leaders. It was an awkward meeting considering the attempt on his life and following it, he and his party left first to visit the military hospital where the wounded had been taken and then to a final luncheon, a last minute change to the itinerary, skipping a museum visit. However, the word of the route change did not reach the first two vehicles made a wrong turn, and in the confusion as the motorcade attempted to reverse course the Archduke’s vehicle stopped for a few seconds, not more than 8 feet from Princip just after 11 a.m. The Bosnia was surprised by the sudden opportunity and quickly fired two shots from his Browning FN Model 1910 pistol, one which struck Franz in the neck and the other which struck Sophie in the abdomen and by 11:30 both were dead.

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Gavrilo Princip after his arrest

In the days and weeks that followed the nations of Europe, each for their own reasons negotiated, threatened and finally mobilized for war, a war that would destroy the political order of Europe that had existed since the end of the Napoleonic wars, kill nearly 17 million people and wound 20 million more. The peace that followed was fraught with peril and followed by a second even more destructive world war in which and estimated 50 to 80 million people were killed, and millions more wounded.

The consequences of those wars, and the Cold War that followed are with us even today. Among the empires that died in the First World War was the Ottoman Empire, whose remains were divided between the English and French in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. That agreement’s arbitrary and indiscriminate redrawing of national boundaries is a large part of the reason for the current unrest in the Middle East, especially the civil war in Syria and the Sunni-Shia war in Iraq.

A wrong turn and two bullets, followed by the and the rest is a century of war, desolation and carnage. Otto von Bismarck had said that “If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.” The results of the war caused by “some silly thing in the Balkans” are still felt, including the psychological and spiritual effects on peoples and nations. Barbara Tuchman wrote of the period after the First World War: “An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world. When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity in 1914-18, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust.”

It is sobering to think and reflect on how a wrong turn, a holy cause and two bullets can bring about so much death, destruction and instability.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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