*July 28, 1914:
Europe has been at peace, by and large, for close to a century. Since the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the Great Powers have been in a stately dance, by and large avoiding war. Certainly, there have been some wars and rumours of wars, such as the brief Seven Weeks War between the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia in 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, but compared to Europe’s long and bloody history, the 19th Century has been a time of peace. The religious wars of the 17th century, the numerous conflicts of the 18th century, and the twenty-some years of the Napoleonic Wars, all belong to the past. Indeed, many believe that war itself is a thing of the past.
The only obvious trouble spot is the Balkans. The spirit of nationalism is alive in the Balkans, which contain a bewildering number of different ethnic groups: Bosnians, Herzegovinians, Montenegrins, Serbs, Croats, Slovaks, Macedonians, Greeks and Albanians. They have different languages, different cultures, different religions: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Islam. The different ethnic groups in the Balkans are proxies for two of the Great Powers: Austria (ruled by the ethnic German Catholic Hapsburg dynasty), and Russia (ruled by the Slavic Orthodox Romanov dynasty). There is complicated jockeying for position: by the smaller nations in the Balkans, such as Greece, Romania Serbia and Bulgaria; by the major powers; and by the competing ethnic groups, seeking to establish their own nations. Those tensions in turn affect the Great Powers, as their own national interests and alliances come into play.
Nationalism is a threat to the declining Ottoman Empire’s control of its European possessions, and also to the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself. Like the Ottomans, the Austro-Hungarian Empire contains many different ethnic groups, divided by language, by religion, and mutual tension. Austro-Hungary is not a nation-state, but a monarchical one, a collection of different territories and countries acquired by the Hapsburgs over the centuries by traditional monarchical means: conquest, inheritance, and strategic marriages. The monarchy itself is one of the few unifying forces in the Austrian Empire.
Politics can be dangerous in the Balkans. In 1903, the moderate King and Queen of Serbia were brutally assassinated one night in their own palace, by officers of their own army, because they were too moderate towards Austro-Hungary. In their place, the officers installed a new King, allowing them to push a much more nationalistic foreign policy, with Russia in the background, always interested in the “little Slavic brothers” of the Balkans. Small nationalistic groups also form, with murky and unclear connections to the Serbian military. One of them is known as “The Black Hand.”
At peace on the surface, Europe is actually in an uneasy, unstable balance. The complexities and dangers of the situation are so notorious that the great German Chancellor, von Bismarck, is reputed to have said that the next major war would be set off “by some damn foolish thing in the Balkans.”
Archduke Franz Ferdinand is the heir presumptive to his uncle, the elderly Austro-Hungarian Emperor-King, Franz Joseph. Franz Ferdinand became heir presumptive when his cousin, Crown Prince Rudolf, committed suicide in a hunting lodge in 1889, in despair over the Emperor’s command that he abandon his mistress. Unable to go on without her, Rudolf killed his mistress before committing suicide. (Her views on the issue are not known.)
Franz Ferdinand’s own love life is somewhat unusual. He has been married for fifteen years to Countess Sophie Chotek. Her family is not noble enough to meet the standards of the Emperor, who only consented to the marriage on the condition that it be morganatic: she would not share her husband’s status, she could not appear in public with him at imperial functions, and their children would not be in the line of imperial succession. The only exception to this rule is when Franz Ferdinand is carrying out military duties. She can accompany him in those situations.
The Emperor has instructed Franz Ferdinand to pay a visit to Sarajevo, to show the imperial presence and to inspect Austrian army units there. Since he will be going in his military capacity, he is able to take Countess Sophie and they can appear together in public. At Sarajevo, they are to travel through the streets in an open car.
The Black Hand is active in Sarajevo. As the Archduke’s motorcade progresses in the streets of Sarajevo, one member of the Black Hand, Nedeljko Čabrinović, throws a grenade at the motorcade. He misses the Archduke’s car, but the grenade explodes and injures people in the following car. After a short rest at the Governor’s residence, the Archduke insists on being taken to the hospital to visit the casualties.
As the motorcade moves through the streets of Sarajevo, there is confusion about the route to take. The cars stop. The Archduke’s car is in front of a small café where a member of the Black Hand, Gavrilo Princip, is sitting. He walks to the car, pulls out a pistol, and fires several shots into the car.
Franz Ferdinand and Sophie are both dead. The July Crisis is upon Europe.*
Note: Please see the parallel thread, The Great War Thread: How to Participate, to see how I envisage this thread developing.