June 1914

The shots in Sarajevo and the Balkan question

By Alessandro Chebat

"On 28 June 1914, Sarajevo took center stage in history. The Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne. This broke the persistent, underlying tensions around the Balkan Powder Keg , triggering the outbreak of an unprecedented conflict."

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand marked the peak in escalation of stress in the Balkans, an area that had been a factor of destabilisation and international tensions for about a century. The instability began with the crisis of the Ottoman Empire, already under way in the second half of the nineteenth century. After a disastrous war with Russia, Istanbul was forced to sign the harsh Treaty of Berlin (1878), which included the de facto independence of Serbia, Romania, and Montenegro, and establishment of the principality of Bulgaria. In addition, Bosnia was placed under the administration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, the order established in Berlin was not destined to last.

In a region such as the Balkans, a mosaic of ethnic groups and religious faiths, the expansionism of the new states, along with the competition among the European powers to split up the Ottoman Empire, threatened the balance achieved. Between 1881 and 1908, Romania, Serbia, and Bulgaria proclaimed their independence. The picture was further complicated by the affirmation of Pan-Slavism, an ideology founded on the myth of the “Slavic reunification” and the “third Rome,” used by the Tsarist Empire to justify its expansionist designs on the Balkans. Serbia, on the other hand, managed to establish itself as a guide to Balkan irredentism, thanks also to the Pan-Slavic congresses in Prague in 1908 and Sofia in 1910.  These events affirmed the need to strengthen the position of the Slavs against the Germans and Hungarians. The emergence of the nationalist association, Black Hand, composed of Serbian officials, advocates of the myth of 'Greater Serbia', was in line with these events and the "mood" of the time. This organisation, accused of enacting a pro-German policy with little sensitivity to the Bosnian issue, first appeared with the 1903 assassination of Alexander I of Serbia.

In Vienna, the affirmation of Slav nationalism entailed not only considerable internal political problems, but also foreign problems. The Empire was dominated mainly by the Austrian and Hungarian ruling class, which excluded the Slav subjects from both representative and administrative bodies. Thus, Pan-Slavism became immensely widespread and triggered those centrifugal forces, undermining the stability of the Empire and the compactness of the army. The situation was exacerbated in 1908, when Vienna incorporated Bosnia (with a Serb majority) within its borders. In Prague, the Bohemian subjects of the Empire, fascinated by Pan-Slavism, protested in support of Serbian claims to the region. Franz Joseph was forced to impose martial law.

On the international scene, Hapsburg activism allowed Russia to proclaim itself protector of Slavic irredentism and strengthened Serbia’s anti-Austrianism. In 1912, Tsarist diplomacy gave life to an alliance between Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro, whose joint forces attacked and defeated the Ottoman Empire, definitively ousting the Sublime Porte from the Balkans. Dissatisfied with the territorial arrangements, Bulgaria resumed hostilities. However, it was quickly defeated by a new coalition consisting of the former allies supported by the Ottoman Empire. The subsequent 1913 treaty of Bucharest represented more of a truce than stable peace. The treaty deprived Serbia of an outlet to the sea with the formation of the principality of Albania. Nor did it solve the dispute between Bulgaria and Greece over Thessaloniki. Simultaneously, relations between the Kingdom of Serbia and Austria-Hungary worsened, a serious fact that would mark future military alliances.

The opportunity to reignite what was then called the "Balkan Powder Keg" came with the visit of Franz Ferdinand to Sarajevo. The heir to the Habsburg throne was a man open to reform and against the nationalist unrest threatening the Empire. Franz Ferdinand represented a serious obstacle in the eyes of the Serb nationalists, due not only to his interest in the Austrian-Hungarian navy (resulting in a strong Imperial presence on the Adriatic), but also to the project to reorganise the dual monarchy as a triumvirate (Austrian, Hungarian, and Slavic). The visit to Sarajevo aimed to strengthen ties with Bosnia as well as Habsburg rule in the Balkans. At 11 in the morning, while the procession passed along the Appelkai, Gavrilo Princip, a young Austro-Hungarian subject, an ethnic Serb, fired several pistol shots that killed Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The investigation revealed the assailant was a member of the organisation Young Bosnia, an ultra-nationalist group closely linked to the intelligence service of the Serbian army and many senior officers affiliated with the Black Hand.

The events in Sarajevo triggered the July crisis, leading, a little more than a month later, to the outbreak of World War I. The attack itself, although serious, was only a pretext, tragically casting doubt on the already precarious political and diplomatic balance of the Balkans. Before the Austro-Hungarian policy in the region, German pressure aimed at hindering Russian penetration among the Southern Slavs. Serb nationalism, in turn, was fomented by pan-Slavism supported by the Tsarist Empire and by French economic interests. Due to the system of alliances, what initially appeared a regional conflict, limited to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia, expanded into a clash among all the world powers.