100 Years Later: The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand

To commemorate the centennial of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination – the event that started World War I – here is an excerpt from my book The Archipelago. During my visit to Sarajevo, I stumbled into the Latin Bridge, where Ferdinand met his maker. An author I admire recently praised my description as the most eloquent re-imagining she had ever read, which was a tremendous honor, considering her mother grew up in the Balkans and she spent several years there. More importantly, the “shot heard round the world” also beckoned the modern era of “total war,” where any target is fair play.

And this is one of the strangest moments in European history: Gavrilo Princip, a confederate in the assassination, was having lunch at the Schiller Café. He somehow caught wind that the Archduke had survived the bomb blast. Several men were involved in the plot, but one way or another, they had all hesitated or failed to kill Ferdinand. So Princip left the café, went to Franz Joseph Street, and drew his pistol. Princip pushed through the crowd of spectators, moved to the slow-moving motorcade, and fired. One bullet hit Ferdinand’s jugular, and another hit Sophie in the chest.

That’s one story, anyway. Other witnesses claim that Sophie rose from her seat to protect her husband. In a third version, both were shot in the chest. Some say that Ferdinand implored his wife, “Sophie! Sophie! Don’t die! Live for our children!” When asked about his wound, Ferdinand ignored the blood spurting from his neck and said, over and over, “It is nothing.”

Whatever happened, Princip shot them both in cold blood, at close-range, and both died from their wounds.

Ferdinand may have deserved his demise – the Austro-Hungarians were cruel, xenophobic conquerors – but I find it strangely romantic that Ferdinand and Sophie died together, slumped in their motorcade, she dressed in an elegant gown and feathered hat, he in a buttoned officer’s uniform. I think every couple dreams of this – a quick death, together, simultaneously.

What followed was less romantic. The reaction was swift and ruthless. Austrians rioted in the streets of Sarajevo, trashing storefronts, beating Serbs, and setting fires. Glass was shattered and buildings burned to the ground. Men and women were crushed beneath horse-hoofs. In Sarajevo’s long history of peaceful co-existence, Austria’s revenge against the rebels was particularly brutish.

But this event, as traumatic as it was, drowned in the bloody ocean of World War I. After eight million soldiers died and 15 million were wounded, who bothered to remember an afternoon of rampant hate-crimes? After most of Europe was pulverized, reducing entire regions to a pulp of mud and trenches, who cared about the war’s origins – a simple shooting by a radical at the edge of the Latin Bridge?

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