Franz Joseph I, the emperor of Austria-Hungary, didn’t much care for his nephew, the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was next in line for the crown after Franz Joseph’s only son had committed suicide. The emperor disliked Franz Ferdinand for several reasons but primarily because he had taken a non-royal wife. The emperor would have preferred that Franz Ferdinand’s younger cousin, Charles I, be the heir apparent, but rules were rules and the Hapsburgs were dedicated to their rules.
While attending a ball in Prague in 1894, Franz Ferdinand met Countess Sophie Chotek. Sophie was a countess but that wasn’t good enough to marry into the Imperial House of Habsburg. Despite his objection, the emperor allowed the marriage and Franz Ferdinand married his love. That meant, however, that marriage would be morganatic and that the children born of the marriage would not have succession rights to the throne. Sophie could never be empress. For the rest of her days, Sophie was snubbed and ignored by the House of Hapsburg.
On June 28, 1914, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were in Sarajevo to inspect royal troops. Members of the Bosnian Serb Black Hand Society, including, Gavrilo Princip, were also there. They planned to kill the archduke and, somehow, free Bosnia from Austrian rule.
They were, however, inept as assassins. When Ferdinand’s open top car passed the first assassin, he threw an improvised grenade at the archduke’s car. He missed his aim, the grenade bounced off of the car and rolled into the crowd gathered and detonated. Several people were wounded. The archduke’s driver sped away denying the other assassins their shot at a clean kill.
After Ferdinand and Sophie arrived at their destination, the archduke decided he would visit the hospital where those wounded by the errant grenade were being treated. They returned to the car and their driver started out for the hospital.
On the way, the diver turned down a road that was blocked. He put the car in reverse and began slowly backing down the street to find and alternate route. Inside a nearby coffee shop, a stunned Gavrilo Princip – who had given up any hope of an assassination that day – looked up and saw what fate had brought before him. Princip snatched his pistol from his pocket, ran into the street, jumped on the running board of the car and shot Ferdinand and Sophie at point-blank range. Their wounds were fatal.
The word was quickly sent back to Vienna and the wheels of history began grinding. The July Crisis began. In Vienna, the Council of Joint Ministers debated Austria-Hungary’s course of action. Truth be told, the emperor was relieved. With the irritating Franz Ferdinand out of the way, his favorite nephew was the new heir apparent. The emperor directed his staff to deal with the assassination, sent a stand-in to attend the funeral in his place, and returned to his holiday in the Alps that was already underway.
When he returned to Vienna, the emperor learned that his ministers had prepared a harsh set of ten demands for Serbia. The emperor felt that they were overly aggressive, but agreed to the terms and the demands were sent to Belgrade. Serbia accepted all but one of the terms and, as stated would happen, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.
Now the chain reaction began: In response to Vienna’s declaration of war on Serbia, Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary. Germany came to the defense of her ally in Vienna by declaring war on Russia. Bound by treaty of mutual defense with Russia, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. Italy, seeing an opportunity to claim borderlands in the Alps, declared war on Austria-Hungary. In August of 1914, the bloodbath began.
During the course of the war, the United States and Japan were also dragged in. At the end of the fighting in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had ceased to exist, its emperor in exile. The Russian Empire had ceased to exist, its royal family executed. The German Empire had ceased to exist, the Kaiser in exile. Italy, Germany and Japan were soon to become fascist states. The Great War, the war to end all wars, had set the table for the next and even more terrible serving: World War II.
World War II ended the lives of 100 million and cast all of eastern Europe into a dictatorial darkness that didn’t end until 1989 and 1990. The events associated with a wrong turn, a car in reverse, an assassin in the right place at the right time and the death of an archduke that nobody really cared about started in motion a chain of events that killed untold millions and changed history forever.
Remember this comedy of errors and misjudgment as you contemplate Russians, Turks, Syrians, NATO, ISIS and the United States operating in the Levant. It is easy to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. It is very, very difficult, however, collar them once they are running free.