On 28 June 1914 Gavrilo Princip shot and killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. A little over a month later Europe was ablaze. There was a direct connection between the assassination and the ensuing conflict, but it was a hazy one. No one actually went to war in August 1914 for love or hatred of Franz Ferdinand; rather the assassination enabled the leaders of two countries that desired to alter the balance of power in Europe in their favour to implement schemes for achieving this.
For Austria-Hungary, the assassination of the Habsburg archduke by a young and fanatical Serbian nationalist inevitably made the rulers in Vienna suspect that the authorities in Belgrade were somehow behind this act of terrorism. While they had no proof of this, the absence of evidence was beside the point as far as Austria’s leaders were concerned.
The key issue for them was that the assassination was a golden opportunity to settle scores with Serbia. Ever since the May Coup of 1903, which had seen the murder of pro-Austrian King Alexander Obrenović and the installation of the pro-Russian Peter Karađorđević, relations between the Habsburg monarchy and Serbia had been fraught. Austria believed (rightly) that the Serb government had designs on its territory and was fermenting discontent among its south Slav subjects; the new Serbian government believed (rightly) that excessive Austrian influence would place limits on its independence.
The conflict was an intractable one and, from the Austrian point of view, highly problematic. Despite their best efforts Serbia kept growing in size and power. However, with the assassination, a golden opportunity existed to resolve the issue permanently. The government now had a legitimate grievance against Belgrade, one that might persuade other powers to stand aside and let the Habsburgs deal militarily with their unruly neighbour.
If Austria-Hungary’s leaders saw the situation as the chance to settle a long-standing local quarrel, the government in Berlin believed that it offered a solution to a more continental problem. The German government and, indeed, much of the population had aspirations to propel Germany to the status of a world power. In many ways, Germany was already there: a dynamic industrial powerhouse, the Reich was a leading playing in all the most modern technologies, with a powerful position in global markets. As time advanced, Germany’s wealth and prosperity grew.
But the quest for global political influence was not enjoying the same success. Germany’s dynamism in the diplomatic sphere was poorly directed and badly mismanaged. Bellicose statements by Kaiser Wilhelm II along with inconsistent and ill-considered diplomatic moves by his ministers frightened other powers and led them to seek to contain German expansion. This was interpreted in Germany as “encirclement”. A way of breaking the ring was sought and the assassination seemed to offer a means of achieving this. If Austria, Germany’s only reliable ally, was able to use the situation to restore its domination over Serbia, then the relative power and prestige of Austria and Germany would be significantly enhanced.
Of course, there was always a danger that other European powers would be reluctant to see Serbia diminished in this way and might act to oppose it, even to the extent of using force. The result then might be war. Peculiar though this looks in hindsight, this was not viewed in Berlin as a major obstacle to decisive Austrian action. The country with the greatest interest in preserving Serbian independence was Russia. But Russia, having been defeated by Japan in the war of 1904-5 and then thrown into revolution, was a power that was rebuilding its strength. It had just inaugurated a major military reconstruction programme that would not be ready for several years.
Would they really fight in 1914? If not, Austria and Germany would win by default. Even if Russia did decide to act, it could be argued – as the German military did – that it was better to confront Russia now rather than in a few years’ time when its army would be more powerful. Additionally, even if Russia did decide on war, its ally France might not be enthusiastic. And if France talked Russia out of war, the value of the Franco-Russian alliance would be thrown into doubt. This, too, would enhance German power. However, if Serbia, Russia and France remained steadfast, that would be a problem. Some decision-makers in Berlin felt this could be risked; other, mainly in the army and navy, felt that war now, even against all these powers, was better than war later. The dynamic, therefore, was to support Austria and push for decisive action.
Thus, in different ways and for different reasons, leaders in Vienna and Berlin saw the assassination as an event that could be exploited for power political ends. Ten million people died proving them wrong.