16. History’s Most Impactful Assassination
Serbia’s Black Hand was an irredentist group that used terrorism as a tool to free Serbs from Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman rule, and unify them into a Greater Serbia. Austria-Hungary was the Black Hand’s main target, and assassins trained and supplied by the group would murder the Austrian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in 1914.
The Black Hand trained guerrillas, saboteurs, propagandists, and assassins, and sent them into Austria-Hungary to destabilize it and stir up nationalist resentment among its Serbs. The group was primarily led by high ranking Serbian officials, including the crown prince. The Serbian government was well informed of the group’s terrorist activities, making Serbia its day’s greatest state sponsor of terrorism.
On June 28th, 1914, Black Hand assassins struck in Sarajevo. They started off inauspiciously, with a comedy of errors in which various assassins tried but failed to kill Franz Ferdinand. It included a would-be assassin who threw a bomb that didn’t kill its target, then attempted to kill himself by swallowing expired cyanide and drowning himself in a river that was only inches deep.
Then, fate intervened. After the remaining assassins gave up on the whole thing as a fiasco, the Archduke’s convertible took a wrong turn that brought it within a few feet of Gavrilo Princep, an assassin who had given up on the affair and gone to grab a bite. Princep stepped up to the open vehicle, and fired two shots that killed Franz Ferdinand and his wife.
Austria declared war on Serbia, which dragged in Russia, Serbia’s protector. That in turn dragged in Germany, Austria’s ally, which brought in France, Russia’s ally against Germany, which prompted Germany to invade France via Belgium. The German advance through Belgium brought in Britain, one of the signatories to treaty guaranteeing Belgian sovereignty.
Over 70 million men were mobilized and 10 million were killed in the ensuing war. Four empires vanished, and the global center of power shifted from the Old World to the New. A staid age of aristocracy and traditional forms of government came to an end, and a new fervent and fast paced era of democracies, radical ideologies, and totalitarianism, emerged in its place. The world was forever changed because of that assassination in Sarajevo.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading