Arguably, the first shots of World War I were from the teenage assassin who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife, Sophie, as they rode in an open car on a Sunday morning in Sarajevo.
The assassination, on June 28, 1914, was a tragic comedy of errors. Yet the murders started a sequence of events that plunged much of the world into chaos. One month later, on July 28, the cascade of war declarations began.
A group of pro-Serbian activists — full of hatred for Austria for annexing Bosnia — had gathered in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo for the visit by Ferdinand, who was heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire. They had pistols and bombs and spaced themselves along the motorcade’s riverside route.
The archduke pushed ahead with his visit to the restless region even though he was warned of danger and even though it coincided with the anniversary of a long-ago Serbian defeat that always stirred emotions.
The first three of seven would-be assassins the motorcade passed did not act. The fourth one hurled a bomb, but it bounced off the archduke’s Gräf & Stift touring car and detonated, full of nails, underneath the car behind. Several spectators and members of the entourage were wounded.
The bomber immediately jumped into the river, which in summer was only a few inches deep, and was soon captured.
The imperial motorcade actually stopped in the confusion — making Ferdinand a sitting duck — before proceeding to the town hall, where the mayor began his prepared remarks.
“Herr burgomaster,” Ferdinand interrupted, according to a first-day press report, “we have come here to pay you a visit and bombs have been thrown at us. This is altogether an amazing indignity.”
After the event, the archduke decided to go to the hospital to visit the people injured in the morning’s attack. The drivers, however, made a wrong turn. Ferdinand’s chauffeur was ordered to stop and to turn around.
That put the archduke’s car again at a standstill, but this time directly in front of 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, one of the terrorists who now found himself just a few feet away from his target.
He fired his Browning semiautomatic pistol twice, hitting Ferdinand in the jugular and Sophie in the abdomen. Princip later claimed he couldn’t see where he was aiming because of the crowd. He had even turned his head as he shot.
“That’s an astonishing sequence of events,” said Nathan Wood, a professor of history at the University of Kansas. “It was a poorly planned assassination, but it was also a poorly planned security detail.”
A legend has grown that Princip stopped for a sandwich in a delicatessen, putting him at the right place and time and adding to the absurdity. A 2011 report at Smithsonian.com questions that version.
After the murder, Austria-Hungary, backed by Germany, declared war on Serbia. The Ottoman Empire (Turkey) joined them, forming the Central Powers.
Russia had Serbia’s back. Russia also had a defense pact with France. Britain had a less formal defense arrangement with France, but it had a commitment to protect Belgium, through which German troops would soon pour toward France.
Before anyone could stop it, most of Europe and much of the world was at war.