The thing that chills is the emptiness in the eyes of the 19-year-old killer.
His photograph is at the beginning of a new presentation at the National World War I Museum that goes behind those eyes to a summer Sunday morning a century ago when everything began to fall apart. The teenaged terrorist shot to death the next-in-line to the throne of imperial Austria-Hungary. That cauterized an era when such people wore plumed helmets. It also sparked a catastrophic war.
The exhibit “On the Brink” in Memory Hall at the Liberty Memorial opens the centennial of World War I by looking at how the assassination was perceived at the time. It does this primarily with front pages of newspapers, from Belgrade to Kansas City.
“The initial reaction was shock,” said museum archivist Jonathan Casey. “Outrage is the word used in the British paper — that this could happen.”
They did not know what was ahead. The murders of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by Gavrilo Princip let loose a cascade of events that soon engulfed all the great powers of Europe and eventually the United States. But the beginning was foggy.
The American ambassador to Vienna cabled a message to Washington: “War certain and probably localized Balkans,” War, yes. Localized, no.
The compact exhibit at the Liberty Memorial, which runs through Sept. 14, condenses the complicated geopolitics of the early 20th century. It also notes the serendipity of events on June 28, 1914.
Princip was one of a group of pro-Serbian nationalists along the route of Franz Ferdinand’s motorcade to the Town Hall in Sarajevo. One of them lobbed a bomb that failed to kill. A security official decided to alter the return route, but the drivers made a wrong turn. The open car carrying the couple paused for two, maybe three seconds directly in front of Princip, who fired two shots from a pistol.
From eight feet, he couldn’t miss.
Millions more would die.
New look at World War I
• “On the Brink” is free with admission to the National World War I Museum.
• Free lecture on Austria-Hungary 2 p.m. April 13.
• “Over by Christmas” exhibit examining the opening months of the war opens May 2.