The assassination of the Archduke of Austria, Francis Ferdinand

The assassination of Francis Ferdinand is considered the primary cause of the domino effect of events leading to the start of World War I.  Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist and member of the guerilla group The Black Hand, assassinated the Archduke of Austria and his wife Sophie during a formal visit to Sarajevo on June 28th 1914.  The reporting by the New York Times and The Times revealed immediate and specific knowledge of the assassination and the events leading up to it, yet there were no reporters present in Sarajevo, indicating the reporting was based on information presented from the Austrian news agencies. One key event however, was misreported by these agencies – that Ferdinand was repeatedly warned not to enter Bosnia to witness military maneuvers that day.

Ferdinand was the “the Dark Horse of Statecraft[1]” thrust into international notoriety after a series of unfortunate family tragedies resulted in him becoming heir to the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian empire.   The Countess Chotek, mother of Sophie Chotek von Choktova, descended from an old Bohemian family line, which thereby prevented her daughter’s courtship with the Archduke.  Her role as assistant to the Archduchess Friedrich included the responsibility of arranging “accidental” meetings with Ferdinand and each of her six daughters. Thus, the Countess had a unique opportunity to introduce Ferdinand to Sophie.  Eventually, the Archduchess approached the Emperor Josef imploring him to press Ferdinand into making a decision on one of the six, and he “was dumbfounded when the latter said calmly that he was not in love with any of the Archduchesses, but with their companion[2]” The Countess Chotek was quickly discharged and Ferdinand sent away on a world tour visiting various countries in Asia and North America, with the emperor’s hope that he would forget about Sophie.

Upon his return, Ferdinand revealed he did not forget and was then granted permission for a morganatic marriage to Sophie and “was compelled to take a solemn oath that he would never attempt to place his wife or children on the throne, and in addition that he would never take steps to persuade the pope to annul his vow.”[3]  Sophie Chotek and Francis Ferdinand were finally married on July 1st 1900, after nine years of courtship, but neither the emperor Francis Joseph nor the Archduchess were in attendance. Later, Sophie would be granted the title “The Duchess of Hohenberg”.

Sophie’s marriage to Ferdinand inspired confidence for Bohemians who hoped when Ferdinand came to the throne that, “they would be put on the same footing as the Germans and Magyars, for he lived much of the time in his Bohemian estates, treated his tenants as personal retainers, and was regarded by them as bound to them by ties of race.[4]” Perhaps Sophie felt a sense of duty to her countrymen when on that fateful afternoon, she “attempted to shield her husband by throwing her own body in the way of the assassin’s bullet.[5]”, but it is most likely she was deeply in love with Ferdinand and shocked at the sight of his injury.

The Black Hand, a semi-secret society formed in 1908 after Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, consisted of Serbian nationalists intent upon liberating Serbs from under the control of Austria-Hungary.  The organization was a splinter cell of another group called the Norodna Odbrana formed on September 1st 1901.  These were the conditions of the surprise attack that hot summer afternoon in Sarajevo – long standing rebellious groups spurred on by the recent annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the heavy handed Austro-Hungarian empire.

Prior to the assassination, a warning was made to the Austrian Minister of Finance, Dr Leon von Bilinski, by an unpopular and well known Black Hand sympathizer Serbian Minister Jovan Jovanovic. Jovanovic stated that perhaps a visit to Sarajevo was not a good idea due to unrest amongst the Bosnian people.  This  warning never reached the Archduke, and some of the blame lies upon Jovanovic for not trying harder to prevent what he knew would be a bad situation for Ferdinand.  However, Jovanovic may have been purposefully making a weak and dutiful attempt upon instructions from Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pasic. The prime minister had a difficult task on his hands.  He was aware of The Black Hand’s plans and knew that if they were implicated,  Serbia would be dragged into the plot.  He could not betray his countrymen and report the matter to Vienna, though, and so made a half-hearted attempt to warn Ferdinand rather than risk betrayal. (Remak, pg 71-78)

When Ferdinand’s car arrived outside Sarajevo, enthusiastic crowds flying Serbian flags greeted him and “the authorities had some difficulty in removing them before the Archduke made his state entry into the city… after the conclusion of the maneuvers[6]

The Archduke’s car entered the city and headed towards City Hall.  Accompanying them in the car was General Oskar Potiorek, Governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in charge of security and also responsible for the day’s earlier troop maneuvers.  Several members of The Black Hand were also present in the large crowd, waiting for an opportunity at greatness. The motorcade first passed by Mehemed Mehmedbasic, a Muslim who would evade capture, and later clain that he was unable to inconspicuously throw his grenade because he did not have the correct vantage point and was under close watch of the authorities.

Next closest was Nedjelko Cabrinovic, a printer from Belgrade and student of anarchy. He sprang into action, lighting the fuse on his grenade, but it crashed into a nearby lamp post and made such a noise that Count Harrach, who was riding in the front passenger seat of Ferdinand’s car, believed they had just blown a tire. “Bravo” he said, ”now we’ll have to stop.” But the driver saw the flying object and instead accelerated forward in an effort to dodge it.

Due to the grenade’s ten-second delay fuse, Ferdinand was able to deflect it away from him into the street. It then detonated causing damage to the car behind them.  A dozen or so spectators were injured, and although very little damage was done to Ferdinand’s car, the car behind them with Lieutenant Colonel Erik von Merizzi, General  Potiorek’s adjutant who had advised against canceling the Sarajevo visit the night before, was damaged and he was profusely bleeding from the back of his head.

Having been spotted, Cabrinovic immediately put a cyanide pill in his mouth, ran towards the river and jumped in. He had swallowed the pill, but it was expired and rather than killing him, he became very ill. The river was too shallow and he was easily arrested by a policeman along with a few civilians and was taken to the police station for questioning.

The motorcade continued onward to City Hall passing the other assassins who did nothing, presumably because they thought Cabrinovic had been successful or, perhaps, they had lost their will.

Once inside city hall, Franz Ferdinand quickly drafted a telegram to the Emperor, fearing exaggerated news stories of Cabrinovic’s attempt might appear in the press. He then confronted and shouted at the Mayor, “Mr. Mayor, one comes here for a visit and is received by bombs! It is outrageous!”  At the time, the mayor was unaware of the bombing thinking the explosion was celebratory cannon fire.

There were discussions held as to whether or not to change the tour schedule. The Archduke did not want to cancel his visit to the museum and lunch at the Governor’s residence, but also wished to visit the injured Lt. Merizzi in the hospital. When members of Ferdinand’s retinue questioned the alteration, General Potiorek hastily dismissed them.  They would proceed as planned with an additional stop by the hospital to visit the wounded. This would prove to be a fatal mistake.

The motorcade set out along the Appel Quay.  However, neither the mayor’s driver nor Ferdinand’s driver had been informed of the altered schedule,  as this would have been the responsibility of the injured Lt. Merizzi.

The young members of The Black Hand did not have a backup plan should the grenade attack fail. They also had no reason to believe that Ferdinand would follow his original schedule and route, but the remaining assassins took up various positions along Appel Quay anyways.  Enter onto the scene, 19 year old Gavrilo Princip.  He had been present at Cabrinovic’s attempt but was unable to get a second chance due to the crowd. Princip crossed the Appel Quay and strolled down Franz Joseph Street, stepping into Moritz Schiller’s restaurant for something to eat.

The mayor’s car, followed by Ferdinand’s car, turned off Appel Quay and onto Franz Joseph Street, en route to the museum, when suddenly General Potoirek leaned forward, “What is this? This is the wrong way! We’re supposed to take the Appel Quay!” The driver put on the brakes and began to back up. Ferdinand’s car was then serendipitously placed directly in front of Schiller’s store — five feet away from the stunned and eating Gavrillo Princip.

Princip stepped forward, drew his gun, and at a distance of not more than five feet, fired twice. Count Harrach, standing on the left running board away from the curb, offered no obstacle, and one bullet pierced Franz Ferdinand’s neck,

while the other shot hit Sophie’s abdomen.

Princip then turned the gun on himself, but was immobilized by the frightened and spiteful crowd and the police had to grab Princip away from them to arrest him. Princip had swallowed his cyanide, but it too had expired as Cabrinovic’s did, and instead of expiring himself, he too became violently ill.

Having been shot in the neck, blood trickled from Ferdinand’s mouth as the car sped across the Lateiner Bridge towards the Governor’s mansion. Sophie, seeing her wounded husband and not realizing she had been shot herself, exclaimed before sinking into her seat: “For Heaven’s sake! What happened to you?” Potoirek and Harrach thought she had fainted and were trying to help her up.  Somehow, Ferdinand knew better.  Sophie had been shot in the abdomen and was bleeding internally.

“Sopherl! Sopherl! ” he pleaded. “Sterbe nicht! Bleibe am Leben für unsere Kinder! ” (Sophie dear! Sophie dear! Don’t die! Stay alive for our children!)

The motorcade rushed to the Governor’s residence, but Sophie likely died before they arrived and Franz Ferdinand died shortly afterward. The first “domino” leading to the start of World War I had fallen.

Reactions to the assassination by The New York Times and The Times were formed on the basis of evidence presented via telegraph from Vienna.  There were no reporters on the scene that day in Sarajevo, so the international community was largely informed of the series of events and their supposed conspiratorial and anarchist nature via this potentially biased source. However, to say that there was misreporting on behalf of the Austrian news agencies cannot be proven without examining the assassination trial documents and comparing them to the news articles produced that day and on the following days.

Examining the court transcripts and comparing them to the articles published on June 29th 1914 reveals no inherent bias or mistruths produced by the reporters responsible for creating these telegraphs. The New York Times reported almost immediately that is was “an anarchist plot[7]” and The Times retelling of the life of Francis and Sophie showed a sense of loss and great empathy towards Austria.

Yet, it also appears that the New York Times wished to show either a more complete picture of the event or a small endorsement of the assassination in publishing an article written by a Serbian sympathizer[8].

A very interesting question is why the Austrian news agencies were so quick to report the unheeded warnings provided to the Archduke prior to his departure. It is now known that the Archduke did not, in fact, know of any such warnings[9],  yet the New York Times on June 29th mentions in several places he did. Was the reporting based on a firsthand account or was it informed of the ignored warnings by the Austrian government in an effort to offset any conspiratorial conditions? It remains unknown as to how the press was alerted to the supposed disregard by Ferdinand of such warnings, as there are no records in the archives of the Austrian Foreign Ministry to indicate they sent warning to Ferdinand or his guard[10].

The overall lack of security for the visit, the decision to continue on without enhanced security after the first attack had failed[11], Ferdinand’s disregard for Hapsburg family bloodlines, and the failure of Minister Bilinski to pass along the warning received from Jovanovich suggests a glimmer of conspiracy by either the Austrian government or the Emperor to remove Ferdinand from power. Franz Ferdinand, it seems, was the victim of both the unrest amongst an oppressed people and his own trusted government.

Secondary sources are precise and direct in their re-telling of the events, and in his book, Sarajevo: The story of a political murder, Joachim Remak used court transcripts and eye witness testimony.  The main difference between the primary sources, those being the New York Times and The Times, and other secondary sources, is whether or not The Black Hand was a group formed with anarchist philosophies or if it was only intent on liberating the oppressed Serbian people. Although both mention an anarchist background, the newspapers use it as a reason for the attack more broadly.

In regard to the question of reconstructing the past and giving it meaningful shape, historians of today must always be aware of why they are choosing to research a particular event or topic. Becoming aware of why a topic is interesting introduces the self to understanding where bias may enter in to the results of research. If a historian only recounts events from primary sources, it is possible to only recount those primary sources that agree with the thesis, but if secondary sources are also used, bias can become more apparent as the secondary source may be trying to build the same case.  It can be difficult to determine if a secondary source is biased or hyperbolic, however.  If the historian wishes to be both creative and legitimate, they should always consider if a secondary source was driven to research the topic with the same intentions. The decision to explore an event or topic by historians should always be approached with the same motives as a detective investigating a crime, or an engineer diffusing a bomb – each step is as critical as the next in determining the truth without personal and cultural bias.  To not do so, violates the prime directive of the public’s inherent trust in today’s scholars and their endeavors.





Horne, Charles F, and Walter Forward Austin. The great events of the great war, a comprehensive and readable source record of the world’s great war; emphasizing the more important events, and presenting these as complete narratives in the actual words of the chief officials and most eminent leaders. Vol. I. New York: The National Alumni, 1920.


Remak, Joachim. Sarajevo: the story of a political murder. 1959.




[1] “Ferdinand Called Enigma of Europe” New York Times June 29th 1914 pg.3; Issue 20,610; col 5

[2] “Ferdinand Called Enigma of Europe” New York Times June 29th 1914 pg.3; Issue 20,610; col 5

[3] “Ferdinand Called Enigma of Europe” New York Times June 29th 1914 pg.3; Issue 20,610; col 5

[4] “Ferdinand Called Enigma of Europe” New York Times June 29th 1914 pg.3; Issue 20,610; col 5

[5] “Austrian Heir and his wife murdered” The Times, Monday, Jun 29, 1914; pg. 8; Issue 40562; col A

[6] “Heir to Austria’s Throne is slain with his wife by a Bosnian youth to avenge seizure of his country” New York Times June 29th 1914; pg.1; Issue 20,610; col 6

[7] “Calls it an anarchist plot” New York Times June 29th 1914 pg.3; Issue 20,610, col 2

[8] “Austria to blame says Prof. Pupin” New York Times June 29th 1914 pg.3; Issue 20,610; col 3

[9] “Sarajevo: The Story of a Political Murder” Joachim Remak, 1959, pg.77

[10] ibid

[11] “The Sarajevo Crime” The Times Friday, Jul 10, 1914; pg. 7; Issue 40572; col C

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