The Causes of World War One: Part 5 – Assassination

A painting depicting the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie

The Causes of World War One: Part 5 – Assassination

Gavrilo Princip
Gavrilo Princip

Alliances, nationalism, militarism and conflict would congregate in one event: The assassination of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand by 19-year-old Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip.

In 1914, nearly half of Austria-Hungary’s population was neither Austrian or Hungarian.

Assassination in Sarajevo

The final photo of the Duke and Sophie before their deaths
The final photo of the Duke and Sophie before their deaths

On June 28, 1914, Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were visiting Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina, an Austrian-Hungarian province. The visit coincided with the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, an event which took place in 1389 and was responsible for Serbia losing its independence to the Ottomans.

Government authorities had been targeted in the province for weeks. Ferdinand received death threats, but ignored them. Cancelling would have been a sign of weakness, the Austrian-Hungarian government thought.


Not long after arriving in Sarajevo, the royal couple drove to city hall in a motorcade. En route, a would-be assassin threw a bomb at the car. It bounced off and injured several bystanders.  The assassin was part of a group of Serbian nationals; he tried to escape, but was arrested. His co-conspirators dispersed in the crowd.

One of the injured was a policeman. Ferdinand decided to visit him in the hospital, but his driver got lost. While trying to turn around, the royal couple’s car was in front of a deli. Princip exited the deli and, seizing the opportunity to finish what his fellow anarchist had started, drew his pistol.

Princip fired three times. Ferdinand was shot in the neck and Sophie in the abdomen. Both died quickly.

The duke’s last words were reported to be, “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die! Stay alive for our children!”

Princip tried to commit suicide, but was stopped by bystanders and arrested.


Some in Austria-Hungary had long yearned for war with Serbia, and this event gave them the excuse. The government sought the opinion of its ally, Germany.

Under Germany’s encouragement, an ultimatum was sent to Serbia on July 23. It demanded involvement in the investigation of the assassination and the suppression of anti-Austria-Hungary groups, among other things. The Serbian government was given 48 hours to respond.

Serbia accepted some of the demands, but not all. This wasn’t enough for Austria-Hungary.

The Dominoes Fall

British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey is attributed as saying, “The lights are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

The lights went out July 28. The alliances the European powers had established sealed their doom and like one domino hitting the next, war was declared.

  • July 28: Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia.
  • August 1: Germany declares war on Russia.
  • August 3: Germany declares war on France, invades Belgium.
  • August 4: Britain declares war on Germany.
  • August 5: Montenegro declares war on Austria-Hungary.
  • August 6: Serbia declares war on Germany, Austria-Hungary on Russia.
  • August 9: Montenegro declares war on Germany.
  • August 11: France declares war on Austria-Hungary.
  • August 22: Austria-Hungary declares war on Belgium.
  • August 23: Japan declares war on Germany, becoming the second non-European nation to do so after Liberia on August 4.
  • August 25: Japan declares war on Austria-Hungary.

The war that followed would envelop most of the nations on the globe and would be the greatest one the world had ever seen up until that point.


Updated: 23 October 2020
Melina Druga
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Melina Druga is a multi-genre author with a lifelong love of history, books and the English language. She pens historical fiction, chick lit and nonfiction.

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