28 Jun 2014

Was this the moment that changed the 20th century?

If the events of 11 September 2001 are shaping the direction of this century, many believe it was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand 100 years ago today that changed the last.

“The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” The British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey speaking in 1914, days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, sensed the significance of the moment. Within six weeks Europe was at war.

But tensions had been mounting in Europe long before the Archduke of Austria’s fateful arrival in the Bosnian capital on 28 June 1914. Underneath a veneer of unity was endemic paranoia. Britain, France, Russian and Germany had been quietly building their military capabilities, suspicious of intentions.

Political alliances dating back as far as 1839 had been struck between countries, while a growing sense of nationalism was sweeping across the continents.

The spark

It was a potential powderkeg waiting to spark. And ignite it did, on 28 June 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated as he travelled through the streets of Sarajevo with his wife. It would set into a motion a chain of events whose effect on the intervening years would change the course of history.

Almost immediately, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Within 37 days Britain had declared war on Germany and Europe was plunged into a worldwide conflict in which more than 16 million died iver four years.

The war pitted the central European powers, on the one side, against the triple entente on the other. The central powers comprised Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies, including Turkey. The Triple Entente included Britain the British Empire, France and Russia. The US joined the war on the side of the entente in 1917.

By 1918, by the time the bloodshed had finally ebbed, Serbian ambitions of independence would be thwarted by the unstable new state of Yugoslavia.

What followed

The peace treaty of Versailles, signed a year later, left Germany with territorial losses and heavy reparations that would sink the country into economic depression. The resentment that this fuelled inside Germany sowed the seeds for the rise of the Third Reich and a certain Adolf Hitler. In just 20 years another devastating global war would follow.

So what for Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb who pressed the trigger a century ago today? He will almost certainly be remembered as the lonely assassin whose single action claimed the most lives.