How a “damned silly thing” in the Balkans sparked WWI

– Atif Jalal Ahmad

While the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is infamous, the reasons behind the assassination get less attention than they perhaps deserve.

“If there is ever another war in Europe,” Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck reputedly said, “it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.”

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand travelled to Sarajevo, Bosnia, a routine part of his duty as inspector general of Austria-Hungary’s armed forces. His trip visit coincided with Vidovdan (St. Vitus Day) and the anniversary of the First Battle of Kosovo in 1389, an important part of Serb ethnic and Serbian national identity. Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie crossed Sarajevo with scarce security. At one point a would-be assassin hurled a bomb at their car. It missed the archduke, though injured an officer and several bystanders.

Later that day as Franz Ferdinand made his way to visit the injured officer, his entourage took a wrong turn at the junction of Appel Quay and Franzjosefstrasse, where 19-year-old nationalist Gavrilo Princip happened to be loitering. Seeing his opportunity, Princip fired a pistol into the car, shooting Franz Ferdinand and Sophie at point-blank range. Princip was apprehended before he could shoot himself. By the time Ferdinand and Sophie passed away, the seeds of the First World War had already begun to blossom.

A month later, on July 23, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum which specified that the Serbian government accept an Austro-Hungarian investigation into the murder, suppress all anti-Austrian propaganda, and to take steps to eliminate terrorist organizations such as the Black Hand, which was believed to have aided Gavrilo Princip and his cohorts. Serbia refused to allow an Austrian inquiry, and on July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

While the episode itself is famous, the reasons behind the assassination get less attention than they perhaps deserve. The backdrop to the Archduke’s killing, and the beginnings of World War I, are grounded in Serbian history, and in a particular document, the Načertanije.

The Načertanije was written by Ilija Garašanin, Prime Minister of Serbia from 1861 to 1867. Unpublished until 1906, it was Serbia’s first attempt at a formal constitution. The Načertanije argued the Serbian “Piedmont-type” policy was permanently “hegemonistic” in regards to the South Slavic regions. Serbia, Garašanin claimed, had an imperative to expand, ultimately creating a South Slav confederation built around Serbia, but in a narrower sense. Serbia shouldn't be limited to current boundaries, he declared, and should instead strive to encompass all the Serbian peoples that surround her.

In the Načertanije, Garašanin’s first objective was Serbia’s hegemony in the Balkans:

The Serbian state, which has already taken off favorably, but which needs to expand and become stronger, has its strong base and foundation in the Serbian kingdom of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and in the rich and glorious Serbian history. … now that Turkish strength has been in a manner of speaking, broken down and destroyed, that same spirit ought to reawaken and assert its rights anew.

The mention of “Turkish strength” harkens back to June 28, 1389, when the Ottomans triumphed in the Battle of Kosovo. The battle came to embody the martyrdom of the Serbian nation in defense of their honor and Christendom. Serbia was eventually subjugated to Turkish rule, and during that period, yearned to restore the glory of the free Serbian kingdom of the Middle Ages.

In the Načertanije, Garašanin outlines the importance of Bosnia to Serbian expansion. Adapting the idea of his adviser František Zach, Garašanin notably insisted that Bosnia have no ruling dynasty or independent state; Bosnia should instead exist as an enclave within a greater Serbia. Garašanin believed staunchly in the idea of sojuz, a Serbian dynasty much like the 13th and 14th-century Serbian kingdom. He was not the only person who believed that Bosnia ought to be closely associated with Serbia: the famous Serbian philologist and linguist Vuk Karadžić, for instance, considered all Bosnians and Herzegovinians to be ethnic Serbs, because they spoke Štokavia. Karadžić’s recognized three groups of Bosnians and Herzegovinians, taking religion into consideration: Serbs of “Greek-creed” (Eastern Orthodox), “Roman-creed” (Roman Catholic) and “Turkish-creed” (Muslim). But these groups were merely subsets of a greater Serbian nation. Garašanin, taking Karadžić’s cue, even advocated for young Bosnians to attend Serbian schools, so as to influence Bosnian politics, finance, law, and public education.

The Načertanije also contains misgivings about Austria. “Austria means to use her power to endanger the small and weak Serbia,” wrote Garašanin, his eyes fixed on Bosnia.

Serbia’s plans for regional domination began in 1875, when it decided to foster a series of revolts in Bosnia, taking advantage of Bosnian’s widespread discontent with feudalism. The Serbian public applauded the interventions, but Belgrade was soundly defeated by superior Turkish defenses. To end the hostilities, the Congress of Berlin convened with representatives from Russia, Great Britain, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Germany along with the Balkan states (Greece, Serbia, Romania and Montenegro) and the Ottoman Empire. Serbia was accorded full independence, but it snatched away from Serbs the coveted territorial prize of Bosnia; Bulgaria, Montenegro, Sandžak, northern Albania Kosovo-Metohija, Croatia, Slavonia, Srem, Bačka, Banat and Dalmatia, ended up divided between the Great Powers. Austria-Hungary’s share included Bosnia, incensing the Serbs. Garašanin lost his seat in the Serbian government shortly thereafter. Serbia’s dreams of Balkan hegemony seemed over.

Garašanin may have failed, but his ideas lived on. On May 9, 1911 a secret military society led by Serbian army officers known as the Black Hand was formed. The Black Hand aimed to unite all territories with a South Slavic majority not ruled by Serbia or Montenegro. The group's actions should not be seen as a surprise, given the long-existing tensions between Austria and Serbia, and especially the failure of Serbia’s ambitions at the Congress of Berlin.

We will never know how different the map of modern Europe would look, had Garašanin succeeded in his plan. But given the crucial role of Serbia in the tense days of 1914, the difference would most likely be astounding.

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Atif Jalal Ahmad is a senior at Rutgers University. He grew up in Dhaka, Bangladesh and is currently working on a thesis on the origins of corruption in South Asia, specifically Bangladesh.