Episode 9:

A Day in June

         Today marks the first episode of our second great arc: The July Crisis, a term used by historians to describe the month of July 1914 as diplomats from all the great powers scrambled to find a peaceful solution to their differences. They will ultimately fail at this attempt. But the drama of the July Crisis is one of the most fascinating periods of the First World War; indeed, it was the July Crisis that initially drew me into becoming obsessed with the First World War in the last few years. As I mentioned way back in our introductory episode, for the last year and a half or so I have been writing a play about the July Crisis with my writing partner Jasper. Now that play is not quite finished yet, though I will let you all know when it is and where you can hopefully watch it be performed. But I promise you, it is a story rich with drama that is just dying to be told, and I can’t tell you how excited I am today to finally begin telling you all about it.

         So, in the spirit of the stage play I have been writing, let us set the scene: it is April of 1914, and we are in a small café in Belgrade, the capital of the Kingdom of Serbia. It is nighttime, and the café is only very dimly lit by a single gas lamp, flickering on a table in the center of the café. Seated at the table are a group of young men, most of them in their teens and early twenties. These young men are burning with anger over the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, indeed most of these young men are natives of that land, and are filled with a desire free their brothers and sisters from foreign subjugation. Into the café steps another young man, carrying a small package, which is opened and placed upon the table, whereupon the conspirators lean in to take a look at what is contained inside. They find only a single newspaper clipping, announcing that the Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, is going to visit Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and go on a grand parade through the city on June 28, 1914. The conspirators are outraged; that day, June 28, just so happens to be St. Vitus’ day, anniversary of the Serbian defeat at the Battle of Kosovo in the 14th century, and one of the most emotionally resonant holidays for patriotic South Slavs throughout the Balkans. And this foreign prince is going to come to the capital of Bosnia on that day to spit in the faces of these extremely patriotic, extremely nationalistic young men. They are beyond outraged, and decide right then and there to plot to assassinate the impertinent prince, whose parade route has been published in the newspaper clipping. The conspirators stay up all night planning how they will teach the Austrians a lesson, by killing their crown prince.

         Now this story comes to us by way of Borijove Jevtic, hopefully I’m pronouncing that name close to correctly, who was a leader of a shadowy group called Narodna Odbrana, roughly translated from Serbo-Croat as “the National Defense” or “the People’s Defense.” This group had been formed in Serbia back in 1908 after the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and was designed to be a kind of private spy network dedicated to breaking Bosnia-Herzegovina away from the Austrians so it could be annexed by Serbia. This will not be the only shadowy pseudo-private spy network we come across in this episode, as the plot to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand was carried out by a number of these kinds of groups, organized haphazardly with various aims, mostly focused on “freeing” the South Slavic peoples from the Austrians, and hopefully to be annexed into Serbia. Specifically, I want to focus on two more of these groups that will be integral to this story. First is a group called Črna Ruka, or “The Black Hand,” which was organized by members of the Serbian Army and Intelligence Service and was primarily led by a Serbian Army officer named Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, who was known by the intimidating nickname Apis, an ancient Egyptian god in the shape of a bull. In the early years of the 20th century, The Black Hand sent its agents into the bars and cafes of Serbia looking for disaffected young men who could be turned into tools of the organization, specifically to carry out sabotage and assassination, and who would be removed enough from the Serbian Intelligence Service to give them plausible deniability. This measure, as we shall see in the next few episodes, was pretty uniformly unsuccessful.

Nevertheless, Black Hand agents were able to recruit several terrorist cells into their organization, one of which was dubbed Mlada Bosna or Young Bosnia, made up of, unsurprisingly, young men from Bosnia most of whom were of Serbian ethnicity. Historian Thomas Otte, whose book on the July Crisis will form the backbone of these next few episodes and is a must read for anyone interested in the topic, described the members of this group as, “a mixture of ‘primitive rebels’ and coffee-house terrorists, inspired by romantic nationalist poetry, fantasies of violence, and half-digested dollops of Kropotkinean anarchism.” The membership of this group fluctuated a bit on the edges, but at its heart was a man, really, a boy, who would come to unwittingly set alight the European powder keg, and etch his name into the history books for all time. That young man was named Gavrilo Princip.

         Gavrilo Princip was born on July 25, 1894, in a small village in the Grahovo Valley in Southern Bosnia to ethnically Serbian parents. Though born into considerable poverty, his family somehow managed to scrape together enough money to send him to school in Sarajevo when he was 13. He was eventually kicked out of school however, probably due to his subversive political beliefs, and tried to join an irregular military force fighting for the Serbian Army during the first Balkan war of 1912 (which we will discuss a bit more in a minute), but was rejected by the local commander for being “too small and too weak.”

         This seems to have ignited a long simmering resentment in the young Princip, at that point only about 17 years old. As he said to the police when he was arrested following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, “wherever I went, people took me for a weakling, and I pretended that I was a weak person, even though I was not.” He was now filled with a burning desire to do something. Something bold, something grand, something great, something that would be remembered for all time. What that something was remained unclear to Princip until April of 1914, when he and his cadre, the aforementioned Young Bosnia, conspired to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand. So, who the hell is this guy Archduke Franz Ferdinand? I’m sure most of you have heard his name before, but I’d be willing to bet many of you aren’t too clear on who exactly he was.

         Archduke Franz Ferdinand was born in Graz in the Austrian Empire on December 18, 1863. His mother was the Princess Maria Annunciata of Naples, and his father was Archduke Charles Louis, Emperor Franz Josef’s younger brother. This made Franz Ferdinand, upon his birth, third in line for the throne, behind first the son of Franz Josef, Crown Prince Rudolf, and second behind his own father. But in 1889 the Crown Prince Rudolf, Emperor Franz Josef’s only son, committed suicide in the wake of a scandalous love affair with a commoner woman, who either committed suicide herself or was murdered by a distraught Crown Prince before taking his own life. This meant that when Archduke Charles Louis died in 1896, 35-year-old Archduke Franz Ferdinand became the heir apparent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

         Franz Ferdinand was never well-liked by Franz Josef, nor his personal advisors, nor especially by the Hungarians, as Ferdinand clashed repeatedly and sometimes publicly with the emperor and the Hungarians over various policy decisions. There were numerous issues at stake, but for our purposes the most important one was that Ferdinand believed that the Slavic peoples of the Empire, who after all made up nearly half the total population, ought to be elevated to the same level of autonomy and dignity as the Hungarians had been in 1867, in effect turning the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy into a kind of triple monarchy. In essence, this would have turned the empire into little more than a diplomatic and economic union of multiple independent states, rather than a single unified country. The Emperor Franz Josef not surprisingly had no interest in this, as he had already given up a great deal of his power with the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867 and didn’t want to give up any more, patriotic Austrians (especially Austrian Army officers) were somewhere between privately skeptical to openly hostile to this plan that would destroy Austria’s position as a great power, while the Hungarian political class did not want any part of a settlement that would compromise their so recently won political power and influence within the larger empire.

         The court intrigue surrounding the Archduke got quite a bit more heated when, in July of 1900, Franz Ferdinand married his longtime lover Countess Sophie Chotek. This was a true scandal for the Austrian court. Hard as it is to believe today, Franz Josef and the rest of the court were utterly opposed to the match not because of any fault with Sophie herself, nor any doubts that the two loved each other (which by all accounts they truly did), but because Sophie was a mere Countess, of far too low a rank to marry the Archduke and heir to the throne. By modern standards, this sounds utterly ludicrous. But this was the twilight of the era in Europe where noble rank actually meant a lot to those in power, and so upset was Franz Josef by this match that he only consented for the two to be wed if Ferdinand promised that any children of this union would not be in line for the throne themselves. Beyond that, whenever Ferdinand and Sophie were present for an official court gathering such as a banquet or a ball, the Emperor would make sure that the seating arrangements were such that the two were never allowed to sit at the same table together. This pettiness obviously did not endear Ferdinand to his uncle, and by 1914 the two were barely on speaking terms. Yet despite all this, Franz Ferdinand was still the official heir to the throne, and with Franz Josef by this time 84-years-old and clearly nearing the end of his life, soon enough Franz Ferdinand would ascend to the throne in his own right.

         Now before we get to the fateful day of June 28, 1914, I want to briefly discuss the political and military situation in the Balkans at that time, as it is important to understand why things were just so unstable in the region when the Archduke and Archduchess were assassinated. Briefly, before 1914 the Balkan peninsula was shared very haphazardly by three groups: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the declining Ottoman Empire, and a constellation of relatively newly independent states. Specifically, those states were Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia (soon to be joined by a new state called Albania). In 1912 four of those states, Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia, formed an alliance and jointly declared war on the Ottoman Empire to snatch up what little territory they had left on the European continent. This was just after Italy had conquered the territory of Libya from the Ottomans the year before, and the resulting “First Balkan War” was an unmitigated disaster for the Ottoman Empire. They were forced to cede all of their European territory (save the tiny bit of territory surrounding western Constantinople) to the so-called Balkan League, who proceeded to divvy up their spoils amongst themselves. However, and I’ll spare you the details of all of this, Bulgaria was dissatisfied with the territory they got in the resulting negotiations, and claimed that the territory of Macedonia had been promised to them before the war, but Serbia was now claiming that territory as her own. So, in 1913 Bulgarian forces launched a surprise attack on Serbian forces in Macedonia, beginning what we call the “Second Balkan War.” This war saw first, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece team up to beat back the impertinent Bulgarians, and soon enough saw Romania declare war on Bulgaria to take some territory from them in the north, and even saw the Ottomans join the anti-Bulgarian alliance to reclaim the city of Edirne (sometimes referred to in English as Adrianople).

         This is all important to keep in mind for three basic reasons. First, it meant that, despite reclaiming Edirne and maintaining their hold on Constantinople, the Ottomans were now for all intents and purposes expelled from Europe permanently. The great Muslim Empire that had once laid siege to Vienna itself and stood poised to conquer half of Europe was now confined entirely to Anatolian peninsula and the Middle East. Second, it meant that Austria-Hungary began to grow more and more nervous about the expansive aims of the Balkan states, and in particular Serbia. The main reason the states of the Balkan League cited for going to war with the Ottomans back in 1912 was to free their Slavic brethren from foreign oppression. Would the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and her newly acquired province of Bosnia-Herzegovina, be next on their hit list? And third, it caused Russia to reorient her diplomatic position regarding the Balkans. Russia had for a long time seen itself as the great protector(/hegemon) of the Balkans, containing as it did mostly Slavic peoples and now mostly Slavic nation-states. For years, their primary ally in the region had been Bulgaria. But after the treachery Bulgaria had shown in 1913 by attacking Serbia and the thrashing they received in the Second Balkan War, Russia essentially abandoned Bulgaria to her fate. Russia refused to aid Bulgaria during the Second Balkan War (despite pleas from Bulgaria to do so), and instead shifted her focus to Serbia, who now became Russia’s chief ally in the region. This helps explain a lot about who ends up ultimately siding with whom once the First World War breaks out.

         So in June of 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the newly restyled Archduchess Sophie decided to go on a little holiday in/survey of the newly acquired territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Their agenda called for them to observe military maneuvers and drills of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the region, capping off their tour with a parade through the regional capital of Sarajevo. This last visit, as I mentioned previously, was scheduled for June 28, 1914, aka St. Vitus’ Day. What the two were thinking when they decided to visit this Slavic city on one of the most important Serbian holidays of the year has been debated ever since by historians. Some propose that this was meant to show that the Archducal couple recognized the importance of the holiday and wanted to show solidarity with the Bosnians and Serbs who lived in the region, while others believe that this was just supposed to be a simple vacation to celebrate their wedding anniversary, which coincided with the weekend after St. Vitus’ Day. Whatever the reason, Gavrilo Princip and his comrades in Young Bosnia took it as a slap in the face. They had actually originally planned to target the Austro-Hungarian governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a one Oskar Potiorek. But when they learned that the heir to the throne and his wife planned to visit the city on St. Vitus’ Day, they steeled themselves for a strike not at the periphery of the Austro-Hungarian ruling elite, but right for its heart. On that sacred day, they would join the ranks of the great Slavic heroes throughout history. On that day, they would kill Franz Ferdinand.

         The route published ahead of time called for the Archducal couple to arrive at the main Sarajevo train station at around 9:30 am, where they would be formally welcomed by governor Potiorek. The couple and their retinue would then get into six Graf und Stift black sports cars, with Ferdinand and Sophie in the third car of the procession. The motorcade would then drive east down the Appel Quay, sort of a Sarajevo Main Street on the north side of the Miljačka River which divides the city roughly in half. This would be the main part of the parade, where it was expected that thousands would be lined up on each side of the street to greet the couple as they drove down the Appel Quay. They would then arrive at City Hall, be greeted by the mayor of the city, and then return to the motorcade where they would drive back west down Appel Quay, turn right onto Franz Josef Street, on their way to the final destination of the trip, a museum where the couple would spend the afternoon.

         Now one thing that every historian writing about this subject notes is just how lax the security for all of this was. Despite the fact that Sarajevo housed a pretty sizeable army garrison, this garrison was ordered to stay in their barracks, and security for the couple would be left entirely to a couple of bodyguards and the city’s local police force, composed of a whopping 120 men. This is all the more shocking when you consider that the Emperor, Franz Josef, had visited the city back in 1910 and during that visit the streets were lined with thousands of soldiers to ensure the Emperor’s safety. But Potiorek, governor of the province and put in charge of security for this visit, apparently did not think that it would be appropriate for the army garrison to greet the Archduke and his wife because, after all, the garrison had only been issued with their standard field uniforms rather than more formal dress uniforms. It simply would not do for such a magnificent spectacle to be spoiled by soldiers dressed in such a utilitarian fashion. Now I am not 100% sure that this was the actual reason Potiorek ordered the garrison to stay in their barracks, though some historians do really point to this as the reason. All I can say is that, if this really was why Potiorek did not have the garrison in the city, just, good job Potiorek. Well done. I’m sure nothing bad will happen.

         The seven members of Young Bosnia, Princip among them, who had met in Sarajevo for the assassination spread themselves along the Appel Quay. They were each armed with a hand-held bomb and a pistol (acquired by the Black Hand from the Serbian Army arsenal fyi), and the plan was for them to spread out among the crowd, ensuring that at least one of them would have a clear shot at the Archduke. At about 10am, the motorcade started down the parade route, and at first nothing seemed amiss. The cars passed by the first few assassins without incident; one of them was blocked by the crowd, while another later said simply “I lost courage,” and did not make an attempt. Finally, when the procession approached the Lateiner Bridge about halfway down the street one of the conspirators, the eighteen-year-old Nedejko Čabrinović, smacked his bomb’s priming percussion cap against a lamp post and hurled it at the Archduke’s car. However, the fuse did not detonate until after the Archduke’s car had passed over the bomb. The bomb finally did detonate when the next car passed over it, completely wrecking the car and badly wounding everyone inside along with about twenty people in the crowd.

         Princip later testified that when he heard the bomb explode, he attempted to push his way through the crowd to finish the Archduke off, but by the time he was able to get to the front of the crowd, the motorcade had already sped off. Čabrinović, after he hurled his bomb, then shoved a cyanide capsule into his mouth, bit down upon it, and leapt off the Lateiner bridge into the Miljačka River below. However his cyanide capsule had apparently lost its potency, and the river below was only about six inches deep. So when the police went down into the river bank and pulled the surging crowd off of Čabrinović, they found him lying in a pool of his own vomit, crying out in pain as he had broken his legs, and he was taken into custody. Not exactly the glorious exit he had been planning. Princip thought about shooting and killing Čabrinović to prevent him from being interrogated when he saw him being taken away by the police. But apparently he did not have a clear shot and instead worked his way back through the crowd, winding up on the sidewalk at the intersection between Appel Quay and Franz Josef street, where he planted himself.

         Now here is where we get to the famous myth of Gavrilo Princip’s sandwich. In later retellings of this story, it was reported that Princip had lost all hope of killing the Archduke when he saw the motorcade speed away and Čabrinović being taken into custody. He then decided that, in order to cheer himself up, he would go buy a sandwich at a local café, and this was how he wound up by pure coincidence in front of the Archduke’s car when it came back down the parade route. This is, unfortunately for those of us who like a good story, pure fiction. Though I’m sure Princip had little hope for the success of his mission at this point, he did not simply give up and go buy a sandwich as a consolation prize. Rather, he planted himself on the intersection of Appel Quay and Franz Josef street because he knew the motorcade was scheduled to make a turn there after going to City Hall. Basically, this was a last-ditch attempt to maybe, just maybe, get another shot at his target. Nevertheless, I doubt Princip thought it likely that he would get another shot; “why on earth,” he must have wondered, “would the motorcade go down the exact same route they had published ahead of time when there has just obviously been an assassination attempt?” Why indeed.

         The motorcade, meanwhile, had sped off when the bomb had exploded and rushed to the City Hall where they could regroup and ensure the safety of the Archduke and Archduchess. When they arrived there at around 10:30 am the mayor of the city, Fehim Čurčić, began to read from a pre-written speech officially welcoming the couple to Sarajevo, but he was quickly cut off by Franz Ferdinand who exclaimed, “Herr Bürgermeister, we come here to pay a visit and bombs are thrown at us. Altogether this is an amazing indignity.” The entourage then had to decide what to do next. Apparently someone proposed that they simply continue with the agenda of the visit, but this was quickly dismissed as being ludicrously unsafe given the assassination attempt of just a few minutes before. Potiorek suggested that they take some backroads through the city, avoiding the Appel Quay which was clearly unsafe, back to the train station to get the couple away from Sarajevo as quickly and safely as possible. But Ferdinand and Sophie, in a genuinely chivalrous display, decided that they should go to the hospital to visit the wounded being treated there. It was thus decided that they would go to the hospital, but avoid the pre-published route to avoid any more potential assassins.

         So at around 11:00 am, the entourage got back into their cars and headed back west down the Appel Quay, with the intention of taking a different route from the one published ahead of time. However, the driver of the Archduke’s car, which was now at the front of the procession, who was not a local to Sarajevo but was rather the Archduke’s personal chauffeur, was unfamiliar with the city, and had possibly not been told that they were to avoid the originally planned route. So, rather than taking a different side street to the hospital, the driver turned right onto Franz Josef street as had been originally called for. When Potiorek, also a passenger in the car, cried out that he had taken a wrong turn, the driver panicked, slammed the car into reverse, and stalled out the engine. As the driver attempted to restart the car, no one in the car noticed a bewildered Gavrilo Princip standing just feet away from them on the curb. Though no doubt shocked, Princip did not hesitate. He pulled his Browning pistol from his pocket and fired two shots at the car before police tackled him and wrestled him to the ground.

         The most famous account of what happened next comes from Count Franz von Harrach, a nobleman who was in the car when the shots were fired.

“As the car quickly reversed, a thin stream of blood spurted from His Highness's mouth onto my right check.  As I was pulling out my handkerchief to wipe the blood away from his mouth, the Duchess cried out to him, ‘For God's sake! What has happened to you?’ At that she slid off the seat and lay on the floor of the car, with her face between his knees. I had no idea that she too was hit and thought she had simply fainted with fright.  Then I heard His Imperial Highness say, ‘Sophie, Sophie, don't die. Stay alive for the children!’ At that, I seized the Archduke by the collar of his uniform, to stop his head dropping forward and asked him if he was in great pain. He answered me quite distinctly, ‘It is nothing!’ His face began to twist somewhat but he went on repeating, six or seven times, ever more faintly as he gradually lost consciousness, ‘It's nothing!’ Then came a brief pause followed by a convulsive rattle in his throat, caused by a loss of blood. This ceased on arrival at the governor's residence. The two unconscious bodies were carried into the building where their death was soon established.”

         And with that, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary was dead along with his wife. Though no one yet knew it, a fuse had been lit to the European powder keg which had been mostly dormant for a century, and in just a month’s time all of the Great Powers of Europe will be engaged in armed conflict with one another, and the First World War will begin.

Before we go this week, I’d like to give a quick shoutout to Matthew of House Grey, who this week became the first patron of and donor to the Seminal Catastrophe Podcast. So, thank you Matthew, for helping to make this show possible. Next week, we will see what happens when the rest of Europe learns of this shocking murder in Sarajevo.


  • Macmillan, Margaret. The War that Ended Peace. New York: Random House, 2013.

  • Neiberg, Michael. Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2011.

  • Otte, Thomas G. The July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

  • Roider, Karl. The Encylcopedia of World War 1: A Political, Social, and Military History. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2005.

  • Jevtic, Borijove. The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. https://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/The_Assassination_of_Archduke_Franz_Ferdinand

  • Harrach, Count Franz von. Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s Assassination, 28 June, 1914. https://www.firstworldwar.com/source/harrachmemoir.htm