Eyewitness 1914: World War I's spark called 'political crime'

While the murder of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo was front-page news in The Gazette Times on June 29, 1914, the story quickly faded away.

The archduke was nephew and heir of the Austrian Emperor Franz-Joseph. Francis Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, the Countess of Hohenburg, were shot and killed the day before while riding in an open car through the Bosnian capital. Their assassin was an ethnic Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip opposed to the Austrian takeover of his home region, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Earlier in the day another assassin had hurled a bomb at Francis Ferdinand and his wife. "The archduke saw the deadly missile hurtling through the air and warded it off with his arm," The Gazette Times story said. "It fell outside the car and exploded, slightly wounding two aide-de-camps in a second car and half a dozen spectators."

Francis Ferdinand and his wife were on their way to visit his injured aides when they were both fatally shot by the pistol-wielding Princip. He was immediately captured by police.

The death of his heir was the latest tragedy to hit the 83-year-old Emperor Franz-Joseph. His younger brother, who briefly ruled as Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, had been overthrown and shot by a firing squad in 1869. His only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, likely had killed himself and his mistress in 1889. His wife, Elisabeth of Austria, had been stabbed to death by an anarchist in 1898. "Were a writer of fiction to heap upon his hero such a succession of calamities ... he would speedily be accused of inexcusable departure from the canons of realism," a Gazette Times editorial said on June 30.

That same editorial described the double murders as a political crime by "an organization of conspirators in Servia, aflame with the delusion that the removal of the Austrian heir would be an act of patriotism." "Servia" was an alternative English spelling for the region more often known as Serbia.

Battles between Orthodox Christian Serbs and Muslim Croats broke out in the days after the assassinations. The worst rioting took place in Mostar, Herzegovina, where "fire was raging so as to menace the whole of the Servian portion of the city," the Gazette Times reported on July 1. "Dispatches from a dozen other towns and villages throughout Bosnia told of outbreaks between the Moslems, who favor Austrian domination, and Servians, who detest it."

The deadliest consequences of the political murders, however, mostly were hidden from view. Franz-Joseph's government sent a list of demands to Serbia on July 23. Seeing the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum as an attack on its sovereignty, Serbia appealed to its giant neighbor, Russia, for military protection. The Austrians, in turn, looked to Germany for assistance in case of war. Britain and France, allied with Russia, lined up against Germany and Austria-Hungary. As one European army after another mobilized, new ultimatums circulated among major capital cities.

By the end of July new banner headlines appeared on the front page of The Gazette Times. "EUROPE MAY FLAME WITH WAR AT NOON TODAY," the newspaper said on July 31. Germany's demand that Russia halt mobilization of its 2 million-strong army went unanswered, and Kaiser Wilhelm II's government declared war on Aug. 1. "England and France also ready," The Gazette Times said on Aug. 2. By Aug. 4 most major nations of Europe were at war.


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