Despite the opposition of his uncle, Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef, deeply-in-love Franz Ferdinand decided to marry Sophie Chotek in 1900. Sophie, though not exactly a commoner, did not come from a reigning or formerly reigning dynasty of Europe, but instead came from a family of obscure Czech nobles. Consequently, Sophie and Franz Ferdinand’s children were declared ineligible for the throne. Sophie also became the victim of several petty slights. For example, she entered each room at imperial banquets last, without an escort and was placed at a dinner table far away from her husband.
Despite his marriage, Franz Ferdinand remained inspector general of the army and Franz Josef’s heir. In that capacity, he consented to attend a sequence of June 1914 military exercises in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Austria-Hungary had just captured these provinces a few years prior against the wishes of neighboring Serbia, which also coveted them. Franz Ferdinand believed the Serbs to be “thieves,” “pigs,” “scoundrels” and “murderers.” Yet he had opposed the seizing of these provinces for fear that it would make an already unstable political situation even worse. Previously controlled by the Ottoman Empire, the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina was about 20% Croat, 30% Muslim and 40% Serb, with various other ethnicities accounting for the remainder.
Upon finding out of Ferdinand’s upcoming visit, the Young Bosnians, a revolutionary secret society of peasant students, starting plotting to assassinate him. Nedeljko Cabrinovic, Trifko Grabez and Gavrilo Princip traveled to Belgrade, where they received cyanide suicide capsules, four semi-automatic pistols and six handheld bombs from members of the so-called Black Hand, a terrorist group with close connections to the Serbian army. The three men then traveled back to Bosnia-Herzegovina after practicing with their pistols in Belgrade Park, receiving assistance from Black Hand associates to smuggle their weapons across the border. It remains unclear to this day whether the Serbian government took part in the scheme.
On June 23, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie left their estate for Bosnia-Herzegovina. Having received several warnings to cancel the trip, Franz Ferdinand was aware that danger could be waiting for them. When the axles on his car overheated, he purportedly said that their journey started with an extremely promising omen.
After a banquet with political and religious leaders, only one day of events was left before Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were to return home. On the morning of June 28, Ferdinand and Sophie boarded a train a train to Sarajevo. Sophie was, for once, allowed to walk alongside Franz Ferdinand during a brief troop inspection, after which the two entered an open-topped car for a motorcade to city hall. The car in front of them was meant to carry six specially trained officers but had only one, and three local policemen.
When the motorcade drove by, its direction having been published in advance, Cabrinovic asked in which car Franz Ferdinand was in. He then threw his bomb at the car, only for it to bounce off the folded-up roof and roll beneath the wrong car. The resulting explosion wounded several bystanders and two army officers but Sophie and Franz Ferdinand were basically unharmed. Cabrinovic then made a half-hearted effort to kill himself in an almost-dry riverbed before being apprehended. The other Young Bosnians apparently lost the nerve to attempt an assassination.
Instead of immediately fleeing Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand chose to proceed to the planned event at city hall. Upon concluding that, he insisted on visiting the injured officers in hospital. In order to discourage any other bomb throwers, the first three cars of the motorcade mistakenly turned into a side street in which Princip happened to be standing. Princip whipped out his pistol as the cars tried to reverse out, and fired two shots at Franz Ferdinand from point-blank range, hitting him in the neck and puncturing Sophie’s abdomen. Within minutes, the couple had passed away. Princip later confessed to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand but insisted that he did not intend to kill Sophie. Three weeks too young to receive the death penalty, Princip received a 20-year sentence, but died of tuberculosis in jail in April 1918 at the age of 23.
With tensions already high among the powers of Europe, the assassination spurred a swift descent into World War I. First, Austria-Hungary obtained the support of Germany for punitive action against Serbia. It then sent Serbia an ultimatum, phrased in a way that made acceptance unlikely. Serbia suggested arbitration to resolve the dispute, but instead, Austria-Hungary declared war on July 28, 1914, precisely one month after the death of Franz Ferdinand. Great Britain, Montenegro, Belgium, France, Russia and Germany had all been drawn into the conflict by the end of the week, and other countries such as the United States would enter later. Overall, over 9 million soldiers and almost as many civilians would die in the war that lasted until 1918.