Cold Open - Assassination
It’s June 28th, 1914, in the center of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, a province in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
On a beautiful summer morning, cheering crowds line a wide boulevard. In the midst of the throng, nineteen-year-old Gavrilo Princip strains to see over the heads of those in front.
In the distance, Gavrilo spies a motorcade of six cars approaching. He knows that one of them contains the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
As the vehicles approach, Gavrilo presses his hand to his jacket pocket and feels the dull weight of a pistol.
Gavrilo is a member of a terrorist group known as the Black Hand; he and several members of the group are here in Sarajevo planning to kill the Archduke; a scheme that’s about to be set in motion.
But suddenly, from further up the street… Gavrilo hears the crack of explosives. A cloud of dust and smoke rises above the motorcade as the crowd flees to safety.
But Gavrilo fights his way forward, toward the smoke. He arrives just in time to see one of his cohorts - a fellow assassin - being wrestled to the ground. Gavrilo is disappointed his associate has been caught, but he’s also thrilled their plan worked and his cohorts’ sacrifice will not be in vain.
But then, Gavrilo hears the roar of an engine…
He looks up to see one of the cars in the motorcade drive away from the scene. And as the open-topped vehicle disappears quickly down the boulevard, Gavrilo catches a glimpse of the Archduke, sitting upright in the back; very much alive.
Gavrilo is dejected, but not deterred. He is determined to finish the job. He knows the motorcade’s route. And he knows the perfect place to lay in wait.
A few hours later, Gavrilo stands under the shady awning of a local delicatessen. As he waits for the motorcade, he checks his pistol one last time. He feels the cool metal on his warm, clammy hands.
And finally… he hears the roar of engines in the distance…
He looks down the street to see the motorcade approaching; the Archduke sits in the third car from the front. As the vehicle draws near, Gavrilo steps out into the blinding sun, takes aim… and fires.
Gavrilo Princip and other members of his terrorist group are Serb nationalists. They believe Bosnia should not be part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. They want it to be part of an independent Serbia.
Backed by the Serbian government, members of the Black Hand hope the assassination of the Archduke will help break the grip of the Austro-Hungarian rule in the province. But they have no idea what their actions will unleash.
The assassination triggers a catastrophic chain reaction as each great European power tries and fails to predict how the others will respond. The result will be a war more devastating than any seen before; a conflict that will last more than four years and claim the lives of millions; one that might never have occurred were it not for the actions of Gavrilo Princip who assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28th, 1914.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is June 28th, 1914: The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Act One: Pieces of Paper
It’s late morning on July 5th, 1914, a week after the Archduke was killed in Sarajevo.
In a cavernous train station in Berlin, the capital of Germany, a steam engine shudders to a halt with a hiss and a clank. At once, the train doors fling open, and passengers flood out onto the platform.
Among that disembarking is an unremarkable-looking man with hooded eyes and a dark mustache. He grips a briefcase at his side as he strides down the walkway. Count Alexander von Hoyos is 36 years old. He’s the Chief Adviser to the Foreign Minister of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And he’s come to Berlin on a special mission: to secure German backing for an Austrian attack on Serbia.
After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austrian investigators quickly pointed the finger at the Serbians, who had been a thorn in the side of the Austrian Empire for years; and, to many Austrians, the Archduke's assassination was just the latest and greatest Serbian outrage. But to some in the Austrian government, it looked like an opportunity. Alexander von Hoyos has long pushed for a military solution to the Empire’s problems with Serbia. And now, he believes they have the perfect excuse to go to war.
But first, the Austro-Hungarian Empire needs the support of its mighty neighbor, Germany. Serbia has powerful friends, not the least of which is Russia. If the Austrians are to go to war with Serbia, they want the Germans on their side to stave off the Russians from getting involved.
After leaving the train station, von Hoyos heads to the German Foreign Ministry. There, he presents two documents to a high-ranking German official. The first is a political justification for the war on Serbia, blaming them for stoking rebellion in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The second letter is more personal. It’s written by the Austrian Emperor himself. And in emotional language, he blames the assassination of his heir and nephew, Franz Ferdinand, on a “well-organized conspiracy” conceived in Serbia. The letter states that there’s only one way to secure the fate of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: to neutralize the Serbian threat.
After reading the documents, the German official isn’t worried about Russia. He doesn’t think they will risk war to protect Serbia, especially given the outrage across Europe at the assassination of the Archduke. But either way, he assures von Hoyos that Germany will support the Austro-Hungarians.
The following day, von Hoyos returns to Vienna; his mission a success.
And certain of their ally’s support, on July 23rd, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire issues Serbia a list of demands.
The Serbs must disband anti-Austrian political groups and fire certain officials from the government and military. And they must allow Austrian police into the country to hunt down those involved in the assassination. The Serbs are given 48 hours to comply or face the threat of war.
It’s the evening of July 29th, 1914, six days after the Austrians delivered their ultimatum.
In St. Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire, Sergei Dobrorolsky sweats in his uniform as he hurries up a staircase. It’s a warm day and the General has been dashing across the city with an important edict from the ruler of Russia, Tsar Nicholas II.
The Tsar has drafted an order to mobilize the Russian Army. But before it can be issued, the edict must first be signed by the Ministers for War, the Navy, and the Interior. The General has already secured two signatures. And now, he’s come to the Interior Ministry for the last one.
Since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, officials in the Russian government and military have been on high alert. Many believe the Austro-Hungarians are being pushed into a war by their allies, the Germans. They fear the Germans' true target is not Serbia, but rather Russia.
Both Germany and Russia want control over the Balkans, a region in Southeastern Europe where Serbia is located. But Serbia is a Russian client state. If that country falls, then Russian prospects in the region will be damaged and Germany will gain the upper hand.
Ultimate power in Russia rests with Tsar Nicholas II. But Nicholas is an indecisive leader who presides over a divided government. Some factions have been pushing for war, others have been advocating peace, and Nicholas seems to find it difficult to stick to any given course. But after the Austrian ultimatum, Nicholas sided with one of his more aggressive advisers. He approved the mobilization of the Russian Army and dispatched General Dobrorolsky to collect the necessary signatures to confirm the order.
Soon, the General is shown into the office of the Russian Interior Minister, a highly religious man. His dark, lamplit office looks more like a church than a workplace. The walls are littered with framed pictures of saints.
The Minister adjusts his glasses and reads the Tsar’s edict. Then he says: “One does not escape one’s destiny”, and crosses himself before signing the order.
With all three signatures secured, the General hurries away. He has one last call to make: St. Petersburg’s Central Telegraph Office. There, staff are waiting, ready to copy out the order and transmit it across the Russian Empire.
But just as the transmission is about to be made, there’s a phone call. The chronically indecisive Tsar Nicholas has changed his mind. He now worries that a full mobilization is too provocative. Perhaps, he suggests, they can just mobilize a few army units at first.
In St. Petersburg, the Tsar’s advisers are perplexed. Immediately, they scramble to get Nicholas to stick to the original decision. They tell him that mobilization is an all-or-nothing affair. A partial mobilization is impossible. And after a tense meeting at the Tsar’s palace, Nicholas finally caves. Shortly after 6 PM on July 30th, the telegrams are sent far and wide.
These communiques will escalate the already growing tensions in the region. They will spark an immediate response from Germany, which will move quickly to mobilize its own troops. And within a matter of days, Europe will be at war.
Act Two: Lights Out
It’s August 3rd, 1914, five weeks after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
A train rumbles through the German countryside. On board, a soldier stares out at the trees and fields whipping past. The carriage is packed with young men in uniform like him. And there’s an air of nervous excitement.
Germany has declared war on Russia. And these soldiers are on their way to fight. But they’re not headed East to Russia, they’re headed in the opposite direction.
Since the late 1890s, Germany’s leaders have had ambitions for the country to become the most powerful in the world. But in recent years, Germany’s felt surrounded. With France and Britain to the West and Russia to the East, the Germans had powerful enemies on all sides. And those foes were tied together by treaties; war with one would almost certainly lead to war with all three.
And now, that war is here. The Germans don’t want to fight on multiple fronts at once. Their plan is to quickly attack and occupy France on the western front, and then turn their attention East to deal with Russia. But France has substantial defenses on its border with Germany. So, the Germans plan to invade the country indirectly, by going north, through the neutral state of Belgium. And that’s where the soldiers on this train are headed.
As they barrel through the countryside, the men on board begin to sing a patriotic song. The young soldier by the window joins in, lustily bellowing, and pounding his boots on the wooden floor of the carriage.
And all over Europe, similar scenes unfold as nations race to mobilize their armies and prepare to pursue the glories of battle.
Later that evening, in London, the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, stands by a window in his grand wood-paneled office. His moment of deep contemplation is interrupted by a knock at the door. When he opens it, he sees a journalist standing on the other side.
As a rule, the Foreign Secretary doesn’t talk to journalists. But he makes an exception for this man. John Spender is an old friend. And Grey admires Spender’s intelligence and insight; two qualities he desperately needs given the gravity of the current situation.
War with Germany seems inevitable. Just a few days ago, it was unclear what Britain would do. In the first weeks after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the British government was distracted by domestic troubles and didn’t realize how dangerous the situation was. But the harsh terms of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum woke Britain up.
As Foreign Secretary, Grey urged restraint among the European powers and led the efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis. But those hopes have crumbled. Germany and Russia have declared war on one another, and so have Germany and France.
Now, the imminent invasion of Belgium threatens to pull Britain into the fighting too. Britain has a treaty with Belgium. And in the event of a German attack, the British will be obliged to come to Belgium’s defense.
Grey spent much of the afternoon in the House of Commons, where he gave an hour-long speech to Members of Parliament on the latest events in Europe. Now, he’s exhausted. He leans crookedly on the sill of his office window, looking out as he discusses the situation with his old friend, journalist John Spender.
Even if the Germans don’t invade Belgium, Grey sees no logic in keeping Britain out of the fight. If Germany and its allies win this war, Britain will have few powerful friends left on the world stage. But if France and Russia prevail, they’ll hardly be pleased with Britain for doing nothing in their hour of need. Grey is certain: Britain will have to fight.
The Foreign Secretary looks out across St. James’ Park, which backs onto the Foreign Office. He notices it’s dusk, and that the first of the gas street lights outside are being lit. Then Grey makes an observation to his friend, one that will be quoted often in the years to come. Grey says, “the lamps are going out all over Europe - we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
Tomorrow, Grey will face the Prime Minister and the rest of the Cabinet and persuade them that the time has come to join the fight. At midnight on August 4th, 1914, Britain will declare war on Germany. With all the Major European Powers committed to the fight, World War One is underway.
Act Three: The War to End All Wars
It’s a misty morning on November 11th, 1918, the last day of World War One.
On the outskirts of the Belgian town of Mons, Private George Ellison rides his horse through an overgrown woodland. He’s among a small group of British soldiers out on patrol.
Mist hangs damply among the trees and the muddy ground clings to the legs of their horses. They spotted some German soldiers headed this way and followed but they lost sight of them in the fog.
Earlier this morning, the German government signed an armistice agreement to end the war. In a little over an hour, the guns on the Western Front will fall silent.
But until then, it’s business as usual for George Ellison and the rest of the soldiers. The Generals want them to push the Germans back as far as they can before the fighting ends and the political horsetrading begins.
As he rides through the woods, George scans the trees ahead. The 40-year-old is an experienced soldier – he’s been with the British Army since the beginning of the conflict. And George thinks it’s fitting that this is the place where his war will end. It was at this very town in Belgium that he first saw action back in 1914. Then, the Germans were advancing. Now, they’re being forced back. George is looking forward to getting home to his wife and his young son who’ll turn 5 next week.
But just then, a shot splinters the silence. Someone shouts “sniper!” - but it’s too late. As the patrol scatters for cover, George tumbles, lifeless, from his horse, and slumps into the mud.
George Ellison is the last British soldier killed in World War One. But almost three thousand more soldiers from other countries will die in those few hours between the armistice being signed and the official end of the war. They are the final victims of a conflict that claimed the lives of up to 22 million soldiers and civilians; a war of mechanized slaughter where each side tore the other apart using the latest technology - machine guns and tanks, aircraft, and poison gas. This horrific war, which did so much damage, was set in motion when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on this day, June 28th, 1914.
Next onHistory Daily: June 29th, 1613. During a performance of William Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII,the famous Globe Theater burns to the ground.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.