Many people know there have been two World Wars. But not as many know the boy called Gavrilo Princip. At the age of only 19 years old in June 1914, he cemented his name in history as the most infamous teenaged firebrand – by firing the gunshot that led to the First World War!
So how did one gunshot and one murder lead to a World War which was fought for several years and which claimed millions of lives? One could write a whole book to answer this question in detail. And indeed books have been written. But here is a summary of what happened.
First, to understand things better, we need to remember that Europe looked different from how it looks today. The world was still in an imperial age where powerful countries were taking over the not-so-powerful ones. Africa was under colonialism then, but even in Europe, things were not so smooth. Many of the countries in Central Europe today, did not exist as they are. Some of them were subsumed in an empire called Austria-Hungary (also called the Austro-Hungarian Empire or Habsburg Empire).
Some of the Slavs, Europe’s biggest ethnic group, found themselves under the control of this empire. The people of present countries like Poland, Czech, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and others, were under the control of Austria-Hungary. Serbia however, was independent of Austria-Hungary.
Gavrilo Princip who hailed from Bosnia, was a nationalist who dreamed of the day when these territories would become united and independent from Austria-Hungary. This secret fire burned in his heart, and in time it was not so secret anymore. At age 17, he joined an underground youth group which wanted to break Bosnia away from the control of Austria-Hungary, to join the Kingdom of Serbia. In his youth, Gavrilo also idolized a man who had once tried to assassinate the Austro-Hungarian governor in charge of Bosnia.
So just like how some youth are drawn into terrorism in modern times, this boy’s hatred for the occupying Austro-Hungarian Empire made him the perfect candidate for a secret plot to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand – the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire – during Ferdinand’s visit to Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo (pronounced Sa-ra-ye-vo).
On 28th June 1914 in Sarajevo, Gavrilo and his friends lined up on a street that the Archduke would use, in order to assassinate him. They only succeeded in injuring some members of his convoy with a small explosive as the convoy passed them. Their assassination plot was looking like a failure.
But somehow, Gavrilo got impossibly lucky later on. Franz Ferdinand was going to visit those injured in hospital when his driver took the wrong route because he didn’t know plans had changed. Without knowing it, the driver brought their car to a small street where a young boy was minding his own business. It was Gavrilo! And here, security was not as tight as the street where they had originally planned to do the killing!
He took out his pistol. One shot each at Franz Ferdinand and his wife in their open-top car, and that was the end.
Gavrilo and his friend who used the bomb on the Ferdinand’s convoy could not commit suicide as they had planned to, and were arrested. During their interrogation, it was realized that the boys had conspired with military officers in Serbia, who gave them their weapons and money, and helped smuggled them into Sarajevo. Their underground youth group of nationalists, had a connection with another secret brotherhood of army officers in Serbia who also yearned for the independence and unification of the Slavs and their territories.
The shocking revelation made Austria-Hungary issue a tough ultimatum to Serbia, with condition of war if they failed to comply. The response from Serbia was not satisfactory for Austria-Hungary so a month after the assassination, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. The conflict gathered new entrants and escalated to a World War.
Sometimes, all it takes to start a World War is a war between just two countries – two countries and pre-existing alliances. For instance, country G has an alliance with countries E, F and H. Country X is also in an alliance with country Y and country Z. Immediately G declares war on X due to a misunderstanding between only the two of them, there is the risk that each will be supported by their allies: E, F, and H will support G against X, Y and Z.
In this case, Austria-Hungary already had an old alliance with Italy and the German empire. On the other side, Serbia had an alliance with its very close neighbour Montenegro, and Russia. Russia was also in an alliance with Britain and France (known as the Triple Entente).
Eventually, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) fought together on one side against Serbia, Russia, France, Britain and others. It all started with one bullet from a 19-year-old boy.