How to Start a War


Rarely has one driver making a wrong turn affected history more than in Sarajevo in 1914. It all really started in about 1859 as Germany struggled to become a nation. The result of that unification was that the traditional balance of power in Europe was disrupted. By 1870 and the Franco-Prussian War, there was no balance and no one doing any balancing. Rather, the balance was replaced by interweaving alliances, often based on treaties that contained several secret clauses.

By 1914, racial and political tensions were high all over Europe. This was particularly true in the Austro-Hungarian empire. This Hapsburg empire had a number of problems. Most of the trouble was because it was made up of several nations and even more ethnic groups. Many of those racial groups distrusted or hated one another even more than they did any of Austria’s external enemies. The Austrians lorded over the rest, the Germanic Austrians even more so, while the Serbs hated the Slavs, the Slavic groups all resented everyone else, and less numerous minorities were all exploited and persecuted. Adding to the problems of Austria was Emperor Franz Joseph. He had been on the throne for fifty years and was totally out of touch with both his subjects and the times. Complicating this volatile mix was the fact that dozens of different ethnic groups inside Austria were being supported by nations such as Russia and Germany. So the situation in the Austrian empire was unstable at best and getting worse.

Instability bred chaos and extremism. In parts of the empire, such as Serbia, dozens of radical groups existed, all capable of violent terrorism. Some wanted national freedom, some were ready to kill in the name of democracy; anarchists bombed everyone else in the hope of eliminating all governments. Many groups simply hated and feared all of the other ethnic minorities and religions who were their neighbors. Christians and Muslims continued centuries of antipathy. Almost every group strove to make sure their minority took control of their local area once the inevitable happened and the Hapsburg empire collapsed.

It was in the middle of this volatile and unstable situation that it was decided that the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, should visit Sarajevo. Now this may sound like a mistake, then again it may not have been. Sarajevo was probably one of the most dangerous centers of radicalism in the empire. The archduke was a moderate and publicly stated that as emperor he would allow the Slavic states to form their own internal governments. This was anathema to the internal police forces of the empire, who spent most of their time putting down plots by those same Slavs. Or perhaps Ferdinand simply wanted to reassure those friendly to his empire, in one of its most hostile provinces, that he cared. So the son of the emperor made a state visit to Serbia. This is the same Serbia that has spent the last few decades dealing with civil war and ethnic cleansing. It might also be added that in the opinion of most governments, the emperor’s son was not the sharpest point on the crown, at best.

In any case, Ferdinand was advised not to go to Serbia, but insisted. So at the end of June 1914, the heir to the Hapsburg throne went to Sarajevo. Knowing that this was going to be a problem, the empire’s secret police went on overtime in all of Serbia and arrested many suspected terrorists. But there were so many that they were unable to get the majority of them. They left virtually untouched one group: the Slavic nationalist fanatics known as the Black Hand.

The route that the caravan of open cars carrying the Austrian archduke would take from the train station to city hall was known. In fact, it was announced so that people would be able to line up and cheer, or at least see their future emperor. Young Black Hand terrorists were spaced along that route. Each terrorist was armed with whatever they could obtain, from grenades to pistols and even a few bombs.

At the beginning of the marked route the first few waiting Black Hand had no chance to attack as the cars sped past before they were ready. Then one, a typesetter named Cabrinovic, threw a grenade. It bounced off the car carrying the archduke. When the grenade did explode, the blast injured those riding in the auto behind Ferdinand’s. Some were hurt seriously enough to be hospitalized. After this incident, the auto caravan sped up again and rushed to the city hall. There the archduke reaffirmed his faith in Serbia’s markedly dubious friendship with the empire and his appreciation of those who served his father’s empire there.

The Austrian military commander for Serbia, General Potiorek, urged the heir to get out of the city as quickly as possible. Instead Ferdinand insisted that he first go visit those who had been injured by the grenade meant for him. A two-car caravan was formed, with the mayor of Sarajevo’s vehicle leading the way to the hospital. And here is the mistake. The first car took a wrong turn. It went the wrong way at a fork in the road. As a result of their wrong turn, the open-topped auto carrying the archduke and his wife slowed to a near stop. It may have even pulled partway into an alley to turn around and get back onto the correct route.

By sheer coincidence one of the would-be assassins, Gavrilo Princip, who had failed to get a shot earlier, happened to be standing where they stopped. He had been standing in the wrong place. Princip still had his loaded pistol. When he found himself standing just a few feet from the royal couple, he quickly fired two shots. One hit Ferdinand near his heart and the other struck Duchess Sophia in the stomach. While the terrorist was quickly subdued, the damage was done. Both royals died soon after.

Within days, the Austrian army was invading Serbia. This meant that Russia, committed to support their fellow Slavic nation, declared war on Austria. So Austria turned to Germany with the expectation that Russia would back off rather than face the two of them. Russia did not back off, but instead invoked its treaty with France, who also declared war on Germany. So Germany, who already had armies on the French border ready to act, attacked into northern France. They attacked across neutral Belgium in an attempt to outflank the French army. Britain had a mutual defense treaty with Belgium and so declared war on Germany when that small nation was overrun. World War I had begun.

The mayor’s driver took a wrong turn, and as a result, two weeks later, all of Europe was at war. World War I might have been inevitable anyway. But given more time and different circumstances, it may have started months or even years later. Without the fuse being lit in Sarajevo, there might have been a chance for peace. But because of that wrong turn, World War I broke out, and over the next five years, millions died.

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