Midwest Voices

Stephen M. Johnson: One spark can ignite global war

Mike Kimberling (left) and Perry Kiler of J.E. Dunn Construction installed engraved granite bricks at the Walk of Honor near the entrance of the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial.
Mike Kimberling (left) and Perry Kiler of J.E. Dunn Construction installed engraved granite bricks at the Walk of Honor near the entrance of the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial. The Kansas City Star

A century ago, on a warm Sunday morning in Sarajevo, Bosnia, a young assassin played unwitting midwife to the birth of modern times and the 20th century.

The honor, the patriotism, the sacrifice, the bloody and surreal explosion of modern times upon the canvas of a new century, the great contest of empires and nations vying foot by foot for the once idyllic, now trench scarred European countryside — all this was wrought by the shots that changed the world. Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his beloved wife, Sophie, visited Sarajevo on their wedding anniversary, deeply in love.

Franz was heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, but his family snubbed Sophie as his social inferior. In the town of Sarajevo, tensions were high and rumors swirled of shadowy assassins. The motorcade route was foolishly published, and some teenagers with the radical Serbian nationalist Black Hand group, which hated the royal family, lined the street to spring a deadly ambush.

Several lost the nerve and didn’t take their shots. Another lobbed his bomb at the wrong car, leaving Franz and Sophie uninjured but annoyed.

Franz spoke at city hall and sarcastically thanked people for their warm (if explosive) welcome. Franz and Sophie got back into their convertible to head for the military hospital to see injured troops and a passenger from the bombed automobile.

But destiny intervened, and their car took a wrong turn by a corner deli. At the deli, Gavrilo Princip sat consoling himself with a sandwich after the failed assassination attempt. In a fateful encounter of historic proportions, Gavrilo saw Franz and Sophie just a few feet from him, and answered history’s call as an assassin, dropping his sandwich and raising his pistol to fire two shots — one at Sophie, the other at Franz.

Both shots hit their marks with devastating impact, as Sophie and Franz slumped and died in each other’s arms. Sophie died first, as a gasping, fading Franz pleaded with her to live for the children. But alas, history’s tragic bell had tolled and they died on the way to the hospital, leaving their four children orphaned, and the world on the brink of catastrophe. Princip’s two murderous shots echo down the halls of history. The calm summer before the storm was shattered. Fateful alliances, diplomatic blunders, and strategic errors combined in a perfect storm to plunge nations into the abyss, and set the stage for an epic, global bloodbath, a total war to end all wars.

Today, Kansas City’s own National World War I Museum and Memorial and its poppy field stand solemnly, movingly evoking the 9 million men who gave their lives for freedom. A Star editorial on Army Major William J. Bland, who died in combat at St Mihiel, France (1918), a Rhodes scholar and scion of a prominent Kansas City family, who would have become an attorney, said: “Major Bland would have meant much to Kansas City.... It will be strange, indeed, if we who are so greatly in his debt do not try partially to repay that obligation by adequately subscribing to the Liberty War Memorial.”

Two weeks later, the Liberty Memorial was fully funded. The men who fought the Great War have all passed on to their eternal rest. Yet their courage, honor, love, patriotism and sacrifice — the magnificent tapestry of their stories — lives on at the Liberty Memorial, a tribute to their memory and noble sacrifice for freedom, and a place to learn about our shared heritage.

So we remember their legacy and honor their sacrifice, lest the ages forget.

Steve is a Kansas City lawyer and member of the National World War I Museum. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in history from Kansas State University and earned his law degree at the University of Kansas. Reach him at steve@johnsonlawkc.com. Twitter: @fountainpenlaw.