Franz Ferdinand Caused the War How?

Franz Ferdinand (the band) came on the radio and I explained to my son that Franz Ferdinand (the Archduke) was assasinated in Sarejvo thereby precipitating WWI. Unfortunately I couldn’t answer why. Why did a Royal assasination in the Balkans cause the world to go to war?

Here is a piece on the causes of World War I. It basically amounts to “they were ready to go to war anyway,” and the assassination was just the excuse for a bunch of land-hungry longtime enemies to start butching the tar out of each other.

“Butchering,” that is, though they were pretty damn butch, too.

Right. The specific phrase from that link: “treaty alliance system”.

Basically, in addition to everyone in Europe spoiling for a fight, everyone had mutual-aid treaties with everyone else that required their allies to join in if one party was attacked. So two countries get into a little war, and all of a sudden everyone in Europe finds that they’re automatically required to go to war with the other half of Europe. Bummer.

As I recall, Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” has a nice summary of the causes of WWI. But yes, it boiled down to, “they were all spoiling for a fight” and “they had a lot of mutual alliance treaties”, so once the first punch was thrown, the dugouts cleared and all the players started swinging.

Gavrilo Prinzip was quite the moron. Franz Ferdinand was actually sympathetic to the plight of the Slavs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and I recall learning once upon a time that he supported the creation of an autonomous slavic region in the Empire. But then Prinzip killed him, not only ensuring that there would be no Slavland, but also leading to the destruction of Serbia.


Austria-Hungary was long a polyglot nation- Austrians and Hungarians, but also Croats and Serbs and Czechs and Slovaks and all sorts of other groups that would prefer to be part of their own nation ruled by their own people. Austria, in order to discourage this kind of nationalism, attempted to put itself in the role of “leader of the Slavs”, so that the Slavic people would see being ruled by A-H as natural rather than aberrant.

Unfortunately, A-H’s push for this took it into direct political conflict with Russia and Serbia. Russia, being a largely Slavic nation, had long pushed for being considered the ruler of all the Slavs, though it had edged away from that role directly- Russia’s pushing for Slavic hegemony and Slavic rebellion in the Balkans had led to the Crimean War against the Ottomans, during which Britain and France joined in on the Ottoman side and Russia came away from the war much chastened. So Russia was willing to push for Slavic determination by proxy- namely, by backing Serbia in Serbia’s attempt to become “Yugoslavia”- country of the Slavs. So Serbia and Austria-Hungary were generally at loggerheads, and Russia signed defensive treaties with Serbia to protect it and to discourage rash action by AH.

Now, add in this: Germany had recently been unified, and one of the steps it took in unifying itself was going to war with France. (Prussia, the state attempting to unify all of the various minor German states, did this to prove that it could adequately defend the minor states and not leave them open to French attack.) As part of the treaty which settled that war, the French territories of Alsace and Lorraine were passed over to Germany. A ‘revanchist’ movement arose in France which declared that the ultimate aim of French foreign policy should be forcing those territories to be returned to France; as a result, France signed a defensive treaty with Russia in order to have armies on both sides of Germany when eventual war broke out.

Finally, once Germany was formed, it began actively expanding its navy to compete with Britain and involving itself in the colonization rush in Africa and the Far East- either of which would give Britain heartburn. Relations continued to sour due to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s foot-in-mouth disease and willingness to make outrageous statements about Germany’s strength and/or destiny vis-a-vis Britain’s. So Britain, normally aloof about entering into strong alliances with the other major powers, decided to join in treaty with France against the possibility of war with Germany.
So. Tensions between Serbia and Austria-Hungary reach the boiling point. Archduke Franz Ferdinan, heir to the A-H throne, travels to Serbia to smooth things over but gets shot by a Serbian nationalist. A-H demands outrageous reparations from Serbia as a result, and Serbia refuses to comply. A-H then declares war on Serbia. Serbia invokes its defensive treaty with Russia, and Russia declares war on Austria-Hungray. A-H invokes its defensive treaty with Germany, and Germany declares war on Russia. Russia invokes its defensive treaty with France, and France declares war on Germany. France invokes its treaty with Britain, and Britain hems and haws for a bit then joins in the war against Germany.

That’s leaving a lot of detail out, but it’s a pretty basic summary.

What was really dumb about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, aside from the fact that he was, as far as his family was concerned, a minor and ignorable character (even though he was heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne), was that he was actually an advocate for greater autonomy and limited self-rule for the annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina province. In assassinating him, the Young Bosnians (personified in triggerman Gavrilo Princip, though he was actually one of a party of four in a botched assassination attempt that reads more like a discarded Marx Brothers’ script) killed the best advocate for greater autonomy (though it is doubtful that the Austro-Hungarian government would have permitted them to secede and merge with Serbia in any case).

Not one family member attended the funeral of Ferdinand and his wife. Nonetheless, the respective governments warred upon each other, and their allies, bound by a domino line of treadies and reciprical protection agreements joined in, leading to “The War to End All Wars”[sic], and resulting in the greatest mass of human butchery since the Genghis Khan swept through the Causcasus.

You would think we’d have learned from that, but no.


Basically, Austria-Hungary wanted to go to war with Serbia anyway. Serbia had been a thorn in the Habsburg side for over a decade at that point, pursuing expansionist policies in the Balkans. They were also a state on the rise, having just beaten the snot out of the Turks a little while earlier. Austria had been watching the growing Serb threat for a while and had been itching to get into a fight with them and nip things in the bud. Also keep in mind that Austria was a mess at this point with a military that was great at parading, but not so great at fighting and were in danger of replacing the Ottomans as the new “sick man of Europe” once the Ottomans were flushed from the continent. So, they also badly needed a military victory for matters of prestige, and a relatively weak state like Serbia was just the ticket.

What had kept them from attacking, of course, was the alliance system. Austria had no desire whatsoever to also have to fight Russia. If they just up and invaded Serbia, then Germany probably wouldn’t have been too pleased, either. Everyone in Europe at this point wanted to fight, but nobody particularly wanted to be the one to start it. There was a greater chance of your allies backing if you started it than if you were the one attacked first.

The assasination gave the Austrians the excuse they needed and the German guarantee gave them the assurance they needed.

Is there any significant monument around Franz Ferdinand’s gravesite? Any large display or exhibit, or anything written on his tombstone to indicate that his death precipitated the first World War?

Here is the Web site for the castle in which he’s buried, but it’s hard to tell what’s written on the tomb, if anything. There is a plaque at the site of the assassination.

[nitpick]The archduke was shot in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, then a part of the Austria-Hungarian empire.[/nitpick]

I heard that it started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich 'cause he was hungry.

Now I get it. It didn’t really cause the war any more than firing a starter pistol causes a race. Thanks all.

Well, things might have cooled off eventually had Ferdinand not been shot. One can never say what might have been.

Or, conversely, if Austria hadn’t taken it’s sweet-ass time and just up and attacked Serbia within a few weeks in a quick little war, the other powers probably would have let it slide. Russia was sympathetic at first, but became less so as Austria became more and more unreasonable.

That part isn’t entirely true. I mean, Britain did enter into a treaty with France (the Entente Cordiale), in part because of growing German expansionism, but it wasn’t a military alliance and didn’t commit Britain to action.

What did commit Britain to action was the 1839 Treaty of London, (which you can see in parthere) which gave Belgium independence from the Netherlands, and included a provision in which Britain would guarantee Belgum’s independence.

Unfortunately, the German Schleifen Plan for attacking France required them to move through Belgium, so when the war began, Germany invaded Belgium. It was in response to this that the UK entered the war.

Isn’t the “Treaty of London” the “damned scrap of paper” that Kaiser Wilhelm allegedly referred to when the Germans moved through Belgium?

What a good summary.

Actually, Serbia offered to comply, but A-H was hell-bent to have their war, no matter what, so they ignored the offer.

(aside: sounds familiar, eh what?)

One other aspect is that no one expected WW1 to be as brutal as it turned out. A lot of people expected a war of a few months. Had they guessed how horrible it would become, maybe they would have tried harder to avoid war.

Study of the U.S. Civil War or the Russo–Japanese War might have disabused them of this notion, but they seemed to have felt that these were mere peripheral conflicts.