A history of the First World War.

A history of the First World War: No.2 Vienna, the scourge of Belgrade/The rise of the assassin/ The aftermath and the anti-Serb riots

Was it coincidental that the young group of Serbian nationalist chose to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the 28th June 1914 ? For that date was steeped in history and reverence for the Serbian people. The Battle of Kosovo of 1389, on June 28th (June 15th, old style calendar) was fought between the armies of the Serbian prince Lazar and Ottoman forces of Sultan Murad I. The battle was fiercely fought with massive numbers of casualties on both side, but ultimately in defeat for the Serbs. The consequences saw the utter collapse of Serbia and the complete encirclement of what remained of the Byzantine Empire. The Battle itself, in the years that followed became a symbol of Serbian patriotism and a desire for self-determination. Some five hundred years later, Princip and his terrorist band would use this day of reverence , to honour Saint Prince Lazar and the Serbian martyrs who gave their lives to defend their country and faith. (The irony is that none of the conspirators were practicing Orthodox Christians. In fact, Princip was a self declared atheist.) In my opinion, it is no coincident that Gavrilo Princip was commemorating the day at least, as a new beginning for the long-suffering Serbian people. One of victory, rather than of defeat.


Painting of the Battle of Kosovo (1870) by Adam Stefanovic. Serbian Prince Lazar is mortally wounded on top of his horse on the far left.

Vienna, the scourge of Belgrade?

Serbia’s rebirth and rise as a new nation gathered impetus dating back to the early 19th century when it was still under the yoke of Ottoman oppression. In a series of uprising it gained autonomy from the Ottoman Empire and full international recognition by 1878. Some will argue that its rise was a direct threat to the security of the region. Austria-Hungary was one of the first to sense this threat by conveniently moving into neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878. By 1908, the Austro-Hungarian Empire decided it was best to officially annex B&H with claims that Serbia’s spy networks and conspirators were destabilizing the Balkans. Serbia, of course, was outraged by the Great Power’s interference in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Within Bosnia and Herzegovina lay a large Serbian population and with the annexation of the region by Austria, it had truly dented Serbian dreams of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s inclusion into a greater Serbia (something that resembled their medieval kingdom). It had first tried to reunify Bosnia in 1876, but was prohibited from reuniting by the ruling of the Congress of Berlin in 1878.


An illustration from the French magazine Le Petit Journal on the Bosnian Crisis: In it the Balkans is being torn from the helpless Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II. What is interesting is that Bosnia and Herzegovina is being annexed personally by Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph.

Serbia later embarked on an expansionist policy with its eastern neighbours Greece and Bulgaria against the sickly Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War of 1912. Further territorial gains in Second Balkan War of 1913 left Serbia as the most powerful Balkan nation south of the Danube. As always the Great powers would have their say in the aftermath of any new boundaries that were drawn up. Although Serbia got to keep most of its territorial gains, it had to give up its outlet to the Adriatic. Largely thwarted by Austria-Hungary (and Italy), it only re-enforced Serbia’s resentment of its northern neighbour. Belgrade’s relationship with Vienna from here on end would remain precarious. Belgrade would have to tone down its aggressive behaviour at the insistence of its ally Russia, but that did not stop fanatical groups continuing a secret war.


Serbian soldiers during the Second Balkans War.

The rise of the assassin.

At the turn of the 20th century, the age of political assassination had intensified. This was a disturbing trend that concerned many leaders worldwide. It was one thing to plot an assassination, whether you had the nerve to carry it out, was usually the difference between failure and success. Between 1900-1913, some forty assassinations were committed worldwide to heads of state, politicians and diplomats. Almost three-quarters of these assassinations were carried out in Europe alone. The rise of nationalism and terrorism often went hand in hand, especially in the case of the young group led by Princip. Known as Young Bosnia, they shared a loose association with The Black Hand, who had the resources and ‘the ability to meddle in high politics.’ The Black Hand was a treasonable organization based in Belgrade that ‘took over the dirty work of terrorizing and assassinating Serbia’s enemies’. The Black Hand helped train Princip’s group, provided them with weapons and bombs and successfully smuggled them back into Bosnia.

Archduke Ferdinand official visit to Sarajevo was the golden opportunity that Princip had been planning for since his days as a student in Sarajevo. The controversial Archduke was a hated man amongst dreamy patriots. Princip believed that killing the Archduke and anyone that stood in their way “would serve the larger goal of undermining Austria-Hungary as a force in the Balkans.” Princip’s rise was furthermore, fueled by nationalistic sentiment for a united Slav state (Yugoslavia). So as fate would have it, the controversial Archduke Ferdinand, on the 28th June would be gunned down on the streets of Sarajevo. Whether or not, the archduke’s visit in the end was seen as ill-timed or a provocative gesture to the Serbs of Bosnia, it will no doubt continue to be debated. Though what is clear is that given the political nature of the Archduke’s visit and his harsh stance against Slav nationalism, all the warning signs that something just might go wrong was sufficient enough. The Austrian ministry also apparently received lukewarm warnings about the possibility of pending danger. Whether or not this warning filtered down through to him is unclear. Some suggest that the Archduke chose to ignore the dangers of visiting Sarajevo. If this is the case, in the end the Archduke’s stubbornness was his undoing and a little bit of luck on the part of his assassins.


Hero or villian ? Graffiti depicting Princip in modern downtown Belgrade. Sections of Serbia’s community still believe Princip is a hero. Across in Bosnia in the suburb of Istocno, Sarajevo, for example, he is also still hailed by many as a national hero, who fought against Austrian oppression.

The aftermath and the anti-Serb riots.

In the aftermath, as the Archduke and his wife lay slumped in the back of the royal vehicle, the crowd immediately surrounded Princip. Bystanders began beating Princip, He was disarmed and eventually arrested and dragged away. Sarajevo was suddenly the centre of the world’s attention. An outpouring of grief amongst Sarajevo’s population was unprecedented. Muslims and Croats began singing traditional songs and carried mourning pictures of the Emperor. By nightfall Sarajevo had descended into an orgy of violence and hate against Serbs. Serbian property, churches and schools were destroyed. They were also numerous attacks on Serbs themselves, resulting in two deaths on the first day of anti-Serb riots. Across Austro-Hungarian Empire, many other anti-Serb demonstrations took place, in particular in Zagreb, Croatia. Old wounds were opened up between Croatian Catholics and Orthodox Serbs. The police and local authorities in Sarajevo and across the Empire did very little to prevent anti- Serb violence. In a nutshell, the violence was characterized as a pogrom.

Yet across the Danube, Serbia swung between openly rejoicing at the news of the Archduke’s death and conciliation. Serbian newspapers hailed Princip as a national hero and ‘a young martyr’. People in the street were heard shouting that it was ‘revenge’ for the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Everyone from London to Istanbul held their collective breath at what would happen next. Or did they ?



A crowd gathers around destroyed Serbian property in the streets of Sarajevo 1914. In the 2nd image, Serbian shops have been robbed and ransacked.

Notes and Further Reading:

Misha Glenny, The Balkans: Nationalism,War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999, Penquin Books, 2000.

Paul Ham, 1914: The year the world ended, Doubleday, 2014.

Michael Howard, The First World War, Oxford University Press, 2002.

John Keegan, The First World War, Hutchinson, 1998.

Greg King and Sue Woolmans, The Assassination of the Archduke, Macmillan, 2013.

Norman Stone, World War One: A short history, Allen Lane, 2007.

Photo Credit  All images are presumably in the public domain except the header image of Archduke Ferdinand and Le petit Journal illustration which are used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license. The graffiti image of Princip is also used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license. 

2 comments on “A history of the First World War: No.2 Vienna, the scourge of Belgrade/The rise of the assassin/ The aftermath and the anti-Serb riots

  1. Pingback: A history of the First World War in one hundred blogs ! No.3 Was war inevitable ? The blame game and some thoughts on the July crisis of 1914. | If It Happened Yesterday, It's History

  2. Pingback: A history of the First World War in one hundred blogs ! No.4 Austria bombs Belgrade and all hell breaks loose ! | If It Happened Yesterday, It's History

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