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The road not taken


On Sunday 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, arrived with his wife in Sarajevo for an official visit. At the time, Sarajevo was in the imperial province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. As the royal party travelled in an open motor vehicle along the official route, it was fired upon by a 19-year-old student, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian nationalist. Princip only managed to fire two shots before he was arrested, but these two shots managed to kill the Archduke and Archduchess. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand is generally taken as the starting point for the descent into what became known as the Great War or World War I.

At first, the assassination—no matter how shocking—was seen by the outside world as an event isolated from its deep concerns. The consequences of the assassination were expected to be contained within Eastern Europe. The response from King George V of Great Britain was perhaps typical: he wrote in his diary ‘It will be a terrible shock to the Emperor and is most regrettable and sad. We dined alone. Marked my new stamp catalogue. Bed at 11.30’. But the planet by 1914 was a world of alliances between empires and nations and the networks of colonies of European countries meant events in Europe had worldwide ramifications. Equally significant, the means existed not only to bind but amplify all these factors: such as the steamship for trade and travel and the ocean telegraph cables for immediate communication.

As we know, the waves generated by the events at Sarajevo that Sunday did not just spread and dissipate within Eastern Europe. The waves from Sarajevo spread, were refracted by other events, and effectively dislodged or caused events which generated new waves. These new waves were far more damaging in their consequences for the world.

By the time the Great War was over, the waves had claimed around nine million military casualties and perhaps an equal number of civilian casualties through displacement, starvation and disease; the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires were no more; and the Russian Empire was in the process of transforming into the Soviet Union. The refracted waves included the British Empire reaching its zenith in its geographic area; the German  collapse creating the stage for the journey into World War II; and other events such as the first step in the creation of the State of Israel. For Australia, the war at a minimum meant 60,000 military dead and incalculable misery and sadness for those at home.

Princip’s cause was for the reunification of Bosnia with the independent Serbia—not to start a world war. He was left behind by the waves and effectively had no further role in events. Under the benign (for the time) law of Austria-Hungary, a murderer under the age of 20 could not be executed. Princip was sentenced to the maximum 20 years in prison and died of tuberculosis—unrepentant—in April 1918.

The journey from Sarajevo to declarations of war by the various alliances took less than six weeks. The diplomatic and military steps involved along the road are too complex to recount in any useful way. But it is agreed by all the crucial point was the Austrian determination to punish the Serbs not only for their part in the assassination but also for other political reasons. The decision by Austria-Hungary not to show restraint dragged all the other countries into the conflict through the various alliances between the European powers.

Many writers have suggested that a war in Europe was inevitable—if not in 1914—with the ongoing political and military rivalries between the empires of Europe. Perhaps a more significant reason for the failure to prevent the war was the lack of a major European war in the previous 40 years as a model: no one appreciated the ability of modern economies and industry to transform both the technology and intensity of war. The working model for the generals was the brief, relatively bloodless, and decisive Franco-Prussian War, 45 years earlier.


'We simplify the situations we face often to the point where any thinking of the possible consequences is brushed away in favour of the immediate.'


The decision making processes of individuals are rarely based on a logical (or moral) assessment of the issues involved, large or small. For instance, the prospect of war can generate excitement as much as dread, especially if there has not been one in recent memory. Many can have a vested interest in war: war to the military is the raison d’être and presents opportunities for new and quick promotions. This is to say nothing of the opportunities for business or of patriotism of the ordinary citizen.

More often than not, we work from the decision which best suits us back to the justification for the decision (if one is indeed required). And it can be said confidently that the decision that best suits us will more often be based on short-term gratification than long-term gains.

If our individual decision making processes are accepted as poor or short sighted, then where can we get objective guidance? Religion can provide guidance on moral or ethical issues in particular but cannot easily deal with complex temporal questions such as trade policy or the setting of educational standards. As an alternative, perhaps we could consider history? On the face of it, history is no good—at least as a teacher. Perhaps the reason for this failure is that we can’t learn from history because it does not set out to teach us. History only provides examples (exemplars) of actions and consequences. We—individually and collectively—have to do the hard work of learning. However, history teaches half a lesson: deep inside us we do know that to do wrong to others means they will likely act in a similar fashion in return. But even with consideration, often we still go ahead and do wrong to others by direct means, by conveniently looking the other way at the right time, or through general indifference.

We also make decisions as individuals which collectively become larger decisions such as occurs with political elections. The result of a general election leads to a party being put into power and it then makes decisions. It generates waves and refractions by its decisions. Unfortunately, often we want to pass not only the duty of decision making to others but also every shred of responsibility for any outcomes. We try to build a barrier between us and responsibility: it was not my fault; don’t blame me; they did it. In group terms, the responsibility for decisions in 1914 of emperors, generals, and diplomats can be argued as not being theirs personally: they were prisoners of the situation in which they found themselves, or, they could not visualise the actual outcomes. Or that many decision-makers were only following orders (a precursor to the Nuremburg defence following the next World War).

As citizens in a democratic society, we still retain moral responsibility for decisions made even though we may abdicate the day-to-day decision making to the politicians. Good decision making in the collective sense is hard. It is difficult to cut through the bombardment of  rhetoric, the opinions of the media, and the constant appeals to what can be seen as self-interest, patriotism, or whatever. But when we participate in a collective process such as an election we could at least reach a provisional decision as for whom to vote. Then ask ourselves of it: ‘will this decision cause harm to others and how, and if so, why am I making it?’ To love our neighbours as ourselves is an easy plea, but such a decision actively implemented is the hardest one of all, far greater than to ask someone to sacrifice their life as in war. As people, we favour the simple over the complex. All in all, we simplify the situations we face often to the point where any thinking of the possible consequences is brushed away in favour of the immediate.

Written histories too, simplify complex matters.

The brief histories of the Great War will mention ‘Sarajevo’, ‘Gavrilo Princip’, and ‘Archduke Franz Ferdinand’. Generally, the histories do not mention that there were six assassins in Sarajevo that Sunday for we only remember ‘the winner’. The assassins were spread along the route to be taken by the Royal party. Three of the six were chosen because they had tuberculosis—a disease at that time which was invariably fatal. Each person had a cyanide capsule to prevent capture and interrogation, a ‘suicide squad’ in modern terms.

The first assassin’s courage failed him and he made no move. The second assassin threw a bomb which exploded, injuring members of the official party and others, but left the Archduke unscathed. The motorcade then left the scheduled route for security reasons and the Archduke went about his official duties for the visit. Later in the day, the Archduke on hearing there were casualties from the bomb attack in hospital, insisted on visiting them despite all protests to the contrary. Personal courage, common concern and what was termed noblesse oblige overcame any doubts that he may have had. The Archduchess insisted on accompanying the Archduke. Eventually, in a compromise decision, it was determined that a hospital visit would occur, but the motorcade would not go along the original route even though it led directly to the hospital.

As hours had passed since the assassination attempt, the assassins along the royal route gave up waiting, concluding that there had been a change of plans for the Archduke. Princip, when he came to the same conclusion, instead of departing for home like the rest, he reportedly went into a shop and bought a sandwich. Unfortunately, the official in charge forgot to tell the driver of the Archduke’s vehicle of the new route. When the official realised they were going down the wrong road, he remembered and at last mentioned the decision to the driver. The driver stopped the car at that point and started reversing, so as to take the right road. It was at this point that Princip, who had now come out of the shop, saw what was happening. He decided to take advantage of this stroke of fortune. Princip produced his pistol, stepped forward, and fired the two shots. Two shots was all it took. And we live with the waves and refractions of Princip’s decision, albeit attenuated, to this day.  




This article originally appeared in Eureka Street in 2004. Stephen Yorke lives and works in Melbourne.

Main image: 28th June 1914: Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863 - 1914) of Austria, and his wife Sophie, approach their car during a visit to Sarajevo. Moments later they were assassinated. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Stephen Yorke, Franz Ferdinand, WW1, Great War, Chance, Effects, Decisions, Responsibility



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Existing comments

It's a bit rich to hold Princip responsible for all the consequences of the decisions of major powers to go to war in 1914. There were many opportunities for those with a lot more skin in the game than Princip to call a halt to the developing crisis but there were too many powerful figures who, while they might not have wanted to be seen to start a war, were quite happy to join in for what they might gain from victory. Power begets accountability, and those with the most power should be held the most accountable.

Ginger Meggs | 04 May 2024  

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