What You Need To Know About the Start of WWI

The arrest of the Bosnian student, Princip, pictured here, followed the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.
The arrest of the Bosnian student, Princip, pictured here, followed the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. –AP

June 28 is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo.

Though this event in 1914 is often seen as the catalyst that ultimately started the first World War, there’s a little more to it than that.

Causes of WWI: Nationalism, Militarism and Imperialism:

Franco-Prussian War (1870-71): Basically, the purpose of this war was to unite Germany and all of its territories under control of Prussia. The French feared a German-Spanish alliance would form and decided to get involved. Germany won, Napoleon III was captured, Paris rebelled and German troops occupied France. A rivalry between Germany (a Central Power during WWI) and France (an Allied Power during WWI) is born.


Germany and Russia don’t renew friendship treaty (1894): Subsequently, their relationship goes down the drain and a rivalry between Germany (Central Power) and Russia (Allied Power) is born.

Russo-Japanese War (1904-05): Russian and Japan had been arguing over Manchuria (Where is that, you ask? A big part of Northeast Asia, mostly in China.) Many battles ensued during this war’s two years, but to make a long story short, LOTS of people were killed and both countries ended up asking President Roosevelt (Teddy) for help. The Treaty of Portsmouth gave Japan control of Korea and Southern Manchuria. Russia got off without having to pay Japan’s war costs, but felt defeated, leading to civil unrest throughout the country (and perhaps a need to prove themselves?).

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, are assassinated by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip (June 28, 1914 aka ‘the catalyst’): Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef was kind of fed up with Ferdinand, his heir and nephew, because his wife Sophie Chotek was from a different social class (“obscure Czech nobles’’ that never reigned in Europe, according to The History Channel). Josef didn’t want any of the couple’s children to ever take the throne.

But even though Josef wasn’t too keen on Ferdinand, he was still the heir to the throne AND the inspector general of the army. And that’s why Ferdinand was in Sarajevo on that fateful day: To watch military exercises in Austria-Hungary’s newly-annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina.


Why did Princip do it?

Remember how Austria-Hungary had just annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina? Well, Serbia had long coveted that territory, as well; especially because the province was populated with roughly 40 percent Serbs.

Gavrilo Princip was Serbian.

Ferdinand saw how nationalism among the nation’s many ethnic groups was causing unwanted tension, and he had ideas for reform (like breaking the empire into little states) that were very unpopular among many groups. Serbia worried that with these reforms, slavs might become content and would not “agitate for separation to join with Serbia.’’

Princip also belonged to the Young Bosnians, “a secret revolutionary society of peasant students,’’ according to the History Channel. Princip (and a few of his buddies) wanted to assassinate Ferdinand (and his pesky ideas), along with a little help from The Black Hand, a bigger, badder terrorist group with ties to the Serbian army.

One of Princip’s buds, Nedeljko Cabrinovic, actually tried to kill Ferdinand first, but failed miserably.

After a troop inspection, Ferdinand and Sophie were on their way to an event at City Hall when Cabrinovic hurled a bomb at them, but missed. (It bounced off the roof and slid under another car. Fail.)

Even though the incident injured about five people (and most people would get the heck out of Sarajevo), Ferdinand apparently wanted to continue on to his trip’s next scheduled event. (What?!?)

So Ferdinand and Sophie went to the planned event at City Hall.

NPR reports that Ferdinand said:

“What kind of welcome is this? I’m being met by bombs!’’ Then he wiped the blood off his prepared speech and addressed the crowd.

After they left, they drove in a motorcade (with hardly any army personnel) to visit some of those wounded from the bomb attack at a nearby hospital.


Then fate stepped in. (And maybe just a little stupidity on behalf of the people in charge of the Archduke’s visit, who thought it would be a good idea to publish the motorcade route in advance, NPR reports.)

Apparently, no one told the driver that Ferdinand wanted to make a pit-stop at the hospital, so the driver made a wrong turn … onto a side street where Princip was standing.

After Cabrinovic’s botched assassination, Princip thought the terrorists had failed. Seizing the moment, Princip shot Ferdinand twice, piercing him in the neck and hitting Sophie’s abdomen, according to The History Channel.

They died within minutes.

According to NPR, Ferdinand’s last words were: “Stay alive, Sophie, for the sake of the children.’’ (The couple had three kids: Sophie, Maximillian, and Ernst).

Why did the assassination matter?

Austria-Hungary was obviously furious and wanted to punish Serbia, which had been giving them a lot of headaches lately anyway. According to The Telegraph, due to investigations, it wasn’t until July 23 (almost a month after the assassination), that Emperor Franz Joseph I gave Serbia an ultimatum. He basically said they had to denounce any separatist activities, ban any organizations hostile to Austria-Hungary, and cooperate with a judicial inquiry into the incident.

Serbia was fine with most of the requirements, but they had their own ultimatum for Austria Hungary: The Austro-Serbian judicial inquiry had to be subject to Serbian law.

Predictably, Austria-Hungary said “nope,’’ and war was declared on Serbia on July 28. (Honestly, Austria-Hungary just wanted to neuter the ambitious Serbia once and for all).

Because Franz Joseph knew he had the full support of fellow monarch Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, he wasn’t too worried about the war with Serbia. After all, Germany was one of the most powerful European states.

This had a domino effect (largely due to alliances): Russia, an ally to Serbia, mobilized forces, so Germany declared war on Russia on Aug 1.

On Aug. 3, Germany declared war on France, and a day later, Germany also declared war on Belgium (a neutral country). This bold move prompted Britain to get involved and declare war on Germany.

Eventually, both sides were defined as the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire) versus the Allied Forces (France, Russia, Great Britain, US, Italy, Japan.)

When did the US get involved?

According to The Library of Congress, in 1915, a German submarine sank the British passenger liner, The Lusitania. The ship had 128 Americans on board, which heightened tensions in the US.

By the end of 1915, the war had vastly expanded and “Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire were battling the Allied Powers of Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro and Japan,’’ according to The Library of Congress.

The US entered the war on April 6, 1917.

About nine million soldiers would be killed by the time the war ended in 1918.

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