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From the Newsday archives: Anatomy of the Archduke's Assassination

An undated picture acquired from the historical archives

An undated picture acquired from the historical archives of Sarajevo shows Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir of the Austro-Hungarian empire who was killed a century ago. Credit: Getty Images

Editor's note: On June 27, 1964, Newsday published this article that went "Behind the Headlines," examining the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand 50 years after it occurred.

We republish it today, another half-century later — and 100 years after World War I began.


On a sultry Sunday morning half a century ago, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, set out in a lumbering motorcade through the main street of a provincial capital — a main street which became a short-cut to the First World War.

The date was June 28, 1914, the city was Sarajevo, and the route the Archduke took led to his assassination and plunged the world into a holocaust in which 8,000,000 to 10,000,000 men were to lose their lives.

Political murder was nothing new to the turbulent Austrian province of Bosnia where the Slav minorities were struggling against the domination of Vienna. Five Austrian officials had been assassinated during the preceding four years. And members of a Serbian terrorist society known by the flamboyant name of “The Black Hand,” decided that the Archduke — whom they considered the sworn enemy of the Pan Slav movement — was to be its next victim. They recruited a ring of seven Slav nationalists to do the job.

The Serbian government, one of Austria’s rivals in the Balkans, got wind of the scheme. Responsible Serb leaders feared the consequences of such a murder and to prevent it, they hinted at the plot to the Austrians. Austria didn’t take the hint. One Serbian diplomat who had tried to warn the Austrians of the plot was told by an Imperial official: “We are in possession of information that Bosnia is completely quiet.”

Franz Ferdinand’s instincts were more accurate than the Austrian intelligence. Before leaving for Sarajevo to supervise military maneuvers as Inspector General of the Austrian Army, the Archduke had a foreboding of disaster. As he was preparing to leave Vienna, the electricity failed in his railroad car and candles had to be lit. The Archduke joked that the place looked like a tomb and then confided to an aide, “another premonitory sign.”

Franz Ferdinand was the embodiment of an archduke. He cut an imposing figure with his beribboned military uniforms and waxed mustache. But along with his bearing went an explosive character and tenacious will which made him unpopular at court.

He had made an enemy of the pro-German party in Vienna because he feared war with Russia and wanted to remain on good terms with Serbia. The Archduke’s marriage to Sophie Chotek, who had once been a lady-in-waiting at court, antagonized Austrian royalty.

It was with Sophie at his side in an open car that Franz Ferdinand entered Sarajevo on St. Vitus Day, a Serbian patriotic holiday, when national feeling among the empire’s Slave [sic] minorities was at its highest. The state visit was part of a show of strength which Austria was making in her rebellious Slav provinces.

The four-car entourage rolled along the flag-decked Appel Quay towards the Town Hall where the Archduke was to be received. The quay was bordered on one side by houses and on the other by a river which was all but dry in the summertime. As the royal couple rolled pass the cheering, gaily dressed holiday crowds, they were unaware that in front of them stretched an avenue of assassins.

As the procession reached a bridge, the first terrorist struck. A bomb hurtled towards the Archduke's automobile, landed on the fold-back hood of the car, and rolled off lo explode under the back wheels of the vehicle behind, wounding an official. The youth who had hurled the bomb tried to flee by leaping into the shallow river, but was seized by police and dragged off.

The Austrians were unnerved but they weren’t the only ones. The other assassins were so jarred by the explosion that they either lost their nerve, or fled assuming that the bomb had done its job. With two exceptions, the assassins were all under 20 — and they were amateurs.

Although shaken, the officials decided to continue with the motorcade. At the Town Hall, the Mayor, not knowing what else to do, mechanically began his speech without alluding to the incident. The Archduke lost his patience. "Mr. Mayor, I came here on a visit and I get bombs thrown at me. It is outrageous. Now you may speak," he said. The chagrined mayor continued as if by rote, "Our hearts are full of happiness."

After the ceremonies it was decided to cancel the program and leave town by a different route. But what actually happened was that most of the return journey was made over the exact route which had been advertised in the newspapers. As the motorcade neared the Latin Bridge driving at full speed, the leader of the assassins — 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, a frail, dark, sharp-featured student who had been brooding over his lost chance earlier — was waiting for it.

Princip was worried that he would never be able to hit his mark with the motorcade traveling at full speed, when a blunder occurred which gave him his opportunity. The lead chauffeur — who had not been told of the modified route — turned into a narrow side street designated on the old itinerary. The Archduke’s car followed suit. "Not that way you fool,” an official shouted. The driver swerved to a halt and was backing up slowly when Princip fired two shots from about four to five paces away. The first pierced Franz Ferdinand's jugular vein.

A thin stream of blood flowed from the Archduke's mouth. "For God's sake, what's happened to you?" Sophie cried. Then she sank down on her husband's lap. The second bullet had entered her abdomen. The Archduke, still conscious implored her, "Sophie! Sophie! Don't die! Live for my children!" But she was nearly dead already. An aide asked the Archduke if he was in pain. Franz Ferdinand repeated several times, "it is nothing," and died.

Princip — buffeted by a lynch mob — was about to turn the murder weapon on himself when police seized him and wrested the bleeding youth away from the crowd. All the conspirators were arrested except one who escaped to Serbia. Because of their youth, they were not executed but given long jail sentences. Only one, who was over 21 years old, was hanged.

Despite reports that Franz Ferdinand’s death came as a relief in the highest official circles in Vienna, and the fact that the Austrian government had made no attempt to prevent the assassination, Austria nonetheless set about to exploit the murder. The Austrians implicated Serbia in the plot and threw an ultimatum at the Serbs which 33 days later opened the abyss of World War I.

It once flattered Franz Ferdinand's military ambitions when a gypsy foretold that he "would one day let loose a world war.” The Archduke never learned how accurate her tragic prediction was.


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