Although the Sarajevo assassination itself has been well documented, even now, 100 years later, there is still much controversy about the events themselves, the participants, and the implications.
So let’s start with the least controversial part: why a major war could be set off, in the prediction of the great German statesman Otto von Bismarck, by “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” Then, as now, a crisis in the Middle East provided a challenge. In the second decade of the 20th century, statesmen were debating “the Eastern Question”: the future of the areas that still remained part of the Ottoman Empire. After 600 years as a world power, the once great Ottoman Empire was struggling to adjust to changing times. Many people were calling it “the sick man of Europe” and questioning whether the sick man’s death would lead to a major war among the European powers. [Whether or not the “sick man” was truly moribund is debatable, especially as the Empire would go on to fight effectively on many different fronts, but that is not something people could have foreseen in 1914.] In fact, people had been worrying about the Eastern Question for the past century and a half. Why was the issue an especially dangerous problem in 1914?
The answers for this are complicated, but three factors in particular are relevant to this discussion. Each of them involves the Great Powers of Europe: Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. (Remember that the U.S. was not yet considered a “great power.”)
First, these powerful European countries were engaged in a race for foreign colonies – in order to expand their economic and political influence. The declining Ottoman Empire contained many areas that they all wanted to control: the Turkish Straits, for example, because of their strategic significance, the Arab lands because of their resources and location along the Mediterranean, and the Balkan Peninsula because of its location in Europe.
Second, two of the powers – Austria-Hungary and Russia – were multi-national empires in a time in which modern nationalism was making their political structure and organization seem very outdated. The Austrian Empire was particularly threatened by Serbian nationalism in the Balkans because Austria-Hungary contained millions of people who spoke some dialect of the Serbo-Croatian language, and some of them were talking of breaking away and uniting them with Serbia. This possibility worried the Austrian leadership, who then wanted to take over formerly Ottoman territories in Europe, like Bosnia. (This was not because the Austrians really wanted more Serbian-speaking people in their empire, but because they didn’t want Serbia to have those lands and become more powerful.) Russia, of course, priding itself on being the protector of Orthodox Christians, backed up Serbia and its interests. The result: any problem in the Balkans would easily lead to a bigger war between Russia and Austria.
This brings us to the third factor: the newly consolidated alliance system, pitting Austria, Germany, and Italy, on one side, against Great Britain, France, and Russia, on the other. This meant that if Austria were to go to war with Russia, Germany and Italy would back Austria, while Great Britain and France would rush to the defense of their ally, Russia. In other words, everyone knew in 1914 that a small spark could ignite a really big war.
The general consensus in 1914 was that war was coming and that it would probably begin in the Balkans. Actually, there had been almost continuous conflict in the Balkans for just over a century. Yet far from lessening, the conflicts just seemed to be intensifying in the early years of the 20th century. In 1908 Austria had formally annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, a previously Ottoman province that it had occupied since the 1870s. This act had enraged nationalists throughout the Balkans and intensified the hatred between Austria and Serbia. Then, there were the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, which involved several of the small Balkan countries and the Ottoman Empire. (Later, some people would dub World War I the “Third Balkan War.”) By 1913, the Ottoman Empire had been mostly driven out of the Balkans, leaving Austria-Hungary as the sole remaining foreign power in the area.
By 1914 Bosnia was a center of unrest, especially among the small educated part of the population, most of whom were young people in their teens and twenties. With no army or government of their own, these youthful revolutionaries knew that change could only come about through an intervention of powerful countries like Russia or Britain. In their view, the only way to get this intervention would be in the event of a crisis. Many of them believed that the quickest way to provoke a crisis was through political assassination – assassinating an Austrian political leader would lead to Austrian intervention in Bosnia, which would lead to Russian intercession in Bosnia’s behalf. It seemed to make perfect sense, especially when news got out that the heir to the Austrian throne would parade through the streets of Sarajevo on a day that would particularly offend the Serbs: the anniversary of the day on which they had lost their independence to Ottoman conquerors. (You can imagine that much of the population of Bosnia would be outraged to see a parade by another conqueror on that day of mourning!)
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was not the work of one – or even two – students: it was a conspiracy that directly involved dozens of people and indirectly involved many, many more. Six young people (five of whom were high school students between the ages of 16 and 19) went to the parade carrying weapons and intending to kill the royal visitor; others assisted or at least knew about the plot; a number of officials from Serbia (one of whom was a member of the government of Serbia – though he was acting without the authorization of his government) supplied the weapons and other assistance.
No one was surprised that the assassination took place and that it led to a war! However, it was a great shock to the students involved in the plot – and to most other people at the time – that the war turned out to be so long and so incredibly bloody. The killing of the archduke and his wife would set off a chain of events: Austria attacked Serbia; Russia backed Serbia; the alliance system came into play pulling Britain and France in on Russia’s side and Germany in on Austria’s. Not to be outdone, the Ottoman Empire joined in too – on the side of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria). The Great War had begun.