Who started WW One?

The Assassination

The Reason

The plot that led to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife was not a one-off. It did not come out of the blue. There were six attempts by discontented Austro-Hungarian Slav citizens to assassinate a senior Austro-Hungarian figure in the four years before the killings in Sarajevo. [More – Previous attempts]

There was discontent with Austro-Hungarian rule throughout the Slavic provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Slovenia, Croatia, Dalmatia and Bosnia Herzegovina – caused by the inferior political status of Slavs compared with the Austrians and Hungarians who held power. Bosnia also suffered from a land ownership system inherited from the Ottomans that held the large Serb peasant population in servitude to a small number of landowners. [More – Slav politics and issues]

Societies, some of them secret, sprung up, especially amongst students, which promoted Slav culture and interests, and produced plotters and would-be assassins. An important objective for the younger generation and the politically aware was the creation of a new independent state, “Yugoslavia”, of all southern Slavs including Serbia. It would bring together people of different beliefs, Catholic Croats, Orthodox Bosnians, Muslim Bosnians and Orthodox Serbs.

The plotters also believed the assassination of a high Austro-Hungarian personage such as a provincial governor would hasten the break-up of the Empire and the achievement of this objective. [More – Young Bosnia, Gaćinović]

Another powerful threat to the integrity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire came from Serbia its independent southern neighbour. Serbia had societies working for a Greater Serbia, which would incorporate Bosnia and other Austro-Hungarian territories with large Serb populations. One of these was the secret society “Unification or Death” also known as the “Black Hand” which had spies, cells and agents disseminating Serb propaganda in Bosnia and other parts of the Empire. [More – Annexation crisis, Narodna Odbrana, the Black Hand, the Balkan wars]

The Assassins

Three young men, all Bosnian Serbs who lived in Sarajevo, formed and led the plot to assassinate the Archduke; Gavrilo Princip, a nineteen year old student, Danilo Ilić, a twenty-four year old former teacher working at a local newspaper, and a long-time friend of Princip, and another nineteen year old Nedeljko Čabrinović, a typesetter, and also a friend of Princip. [More – Princip, Ilić and Čabrinović]

Princip became involved in anti-Austro-Hungarian demonstrations early in 1912 and was injured and arrested. It was at this time he first thought of assassinating an Austro-Hungarian dignitary. Like many of his contemporaries he hero-worshipped Bogdan Zerajić who in 1910 had tried to assassinate the Governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina but failed and then killed himself.

In the spring of 1913 a new Governor, General Potiorek, introduced a state of emergency to quell support for Serbia which was involved with other Balkan states in a war with the Ottoman Empire which still occupied parts of the Balkans. The state of emergency was used to suppress Serbian cultural and educational societies, trade unions and political organisations. Civil courts were suspended and military courts introduced. Newspapers from Serbia were seized at the border.

In response to these measures Ilić decided he would make an assassination attempt against Potiorek. He went to Switzerland for a short while to see at his invitation Vladimir Gaćinović a leading member of the Black Hand who was studying at Lusanne University and who had recruited Ilić to be the organiser of a Black Hand cell in Sarajevo. Gaćinović was well known for his essays and was the chief ideologist inspiring young Bosnians in their struggle against Austro-Hungarian rule.

The second Balkan war broke out and Ilić volunteered for the Serbian army. The war was over quickly and he returned to Sarajevo in the autumn where he was in continuous contact with Princip and they resolved that one of them would make an attempt to assassinate Potiorek. Although Ilić still favoured an assassination attempt he now also spoke about the need to first build a political party. [More – pre-Belgrade – The idea, 1913, the Toulouse meeting]

Princip went to Belgrade in Serbia to further his studies arriving there on the 13 March 1914. Towards the end of the month he met Čabrinović who had received a press cutting from friends in Sarajevo about Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s forthcoming visit to Bosnia. His friends knew he was interested in an assassination and at one time that he had had a revolver. Čabrinović showed the press cutting to Princip who himself had seen such a newspaper report soon after he arrived in Belgrade. At first Princip said nothing but later that day when they met again he invited Čabrinović to join him in assassinating the Archduke. Čabrinović accepted. Princip suggested his room-mate in Belgrade, Trifko Grabež, another nineteen year old Bosnian Serb, should join them.

To obtain weapons they made contact with Milan Ciganović who Princip knew from an earlier stay in Belgrade, and told him of their plan. Ciganović had been a guerrilla fighter in the Balkan wars and Princip had discovered he had kept bombs for himself when the wars ended. Ciganović was a member of the Black Hand and he discussed the plan with a fellow Black Hand member, Major Vojislav Tankosić, a Serbian army officer in charge of guerrilla training. [More – The guerrillas]

Ciganović had fought with Tankosić against the Bulgarians. Tankosić spoke to his boss, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, the leader of the Black Hand who approved and supported the plot. Dimitrijević was the Head of Serbian Military Intelligence, and commonly known as Apis (his bull-like physique recalled the ancient Egyptian god).

Through Ciganović, Tankosić supplied the cell with six bombs, four semi-automatic pistols, ammunition, money, and directions and credentials for a safe route used by the Black Hand to infiltrate arms and agents into Austria-Hungary. Ciganović and two other former guerrilla fighters trained them in the use of the weapons. [More – In Belgrade – The idea, obtaining the weapons, training]

Once he knew that they were able to obtain arms Princip wrote in allegorical form to Ilić in Sarajevo to tell him what was planned and to ask him to recruit a second cell of assassins in Sarajevo. The cell consisted of Vaso Čubrilović, Cvjetko Popović, two Serbian youths, seventeen and eighteen years old, and Mehmed Mehmedbašić, a Muslim carpenter, twenty seven years old, and another member of the Black Hand, who had been planning to assassinate the Governor of Bosnia, General Potiorek.

Princip, Čabrinović and Grabež set out from Belgrade on the 28 May with the weapons for all the assassins and arrived in Sarajevo on the 4 June and met up with Ilić who took over co-ordination of the plot.

The Journey

Their first stop was at Sabac which they reached by river steamer service (See Map). On showing him the credentials given them by Ciganović, a captain of the Border Guard told them the best place to cross the border with their load of weapons without being seen. This was over the River Drina close to Loznica.

They reached Loznica by train and went to see another border guard whose name had been given to them at Sabac. While in Loznica Čabrinović sent post cards to friends mentioning his delight at returning to Bosnia. This caused an argument with Princip who wanted to keep everything secret. He and Grabež took Čabrinović’s weapons, and asked him to make his own way to Tuzla, the main Bosnian town on their route, using Grabež’s identity card.

The next part of the journey was the toughest. With guides provided by their contact they crossed the Drina into Bosnia and made their way on foot about 30 km across fields and through forests to the village of Priboj. There another contact, a teacher, recruited a trusted farmer to take the two students and their weapons by cart to Tuzla. In a twist of fate the teacher was the older brother of Vaso Čubrilović, one of the assassins recruited by Ilić in Sarajevo.

Their contact in Tuzla provided a safe house and hid the weapons until they would be needed for the assassination. Čabrinović had already reached Tuzla and the three of them then set off by train for Sarajevo. Čabrinović again alarmed his colleagues by talking to a policeman on the train who knew his father. He learnt Sunday, the 28 June, was the date of the Archduke’s visit to Sarajevo.

Did the Serbian Government know about the plot?

A number of the Black Hand contacts and guides on the route to Sarajevo were also members of Narodna Odbrana (National Defence) another Serb society. Unlike the Black Hand, Narodna Odbrana had an official public presence and good relations with the Serbian government.

Through one of these contacts information reached Nicholas Pašić, the Serbian Prime Minister. Students with six hand grenades and four revolvers were being smuggled into Bosnia. Their purpose was not stated but it did not take much imagination to realise they might be targeting the Archduke. The report also mentioned that a Serb agent, Rade Malobabić, was involved in organising the transport of grenades and weapons into Bosnia.

According to Ljuba Jovanović, the Serbian Minister of Education, Pašić told the Serbian cabinet at the end of May or beginning of June “there were people who were preparing to go to Sarajevo to kill Franz Ferdinand” and the cabinet decided the border authorities should be ordered to stop them.

The Minister of the Interior issued orders against the illegal traffic of weapons across the border and Pašić ordered an investigation by the civil authorities at the border but this was obstructed by the Serbian border guards. The chief of the border guards was a member of the Black Hand central committee.

Pašić also ordered an investigation by the military authorities of Colonel Dimitrijević (Apis). In a written response Apis said nothing about the students. He said Malobabić was a Serb patriot and an excellent intelligence agent and he permitted him to arm his secret agents in Austrian territory so they could defend themselves. He also complained that Narodna Odbrana people were interfering with the work of his men. Pašić was not satisfied with this reply.

All this couldn’t have happened at a worse time. The Serbian military in disagreement over the government of territories recently seized in the Balkan wars had forced Pašić to resign and call a general election. As the head of a caretaker government in June 1914 facing elections in a few weeks Pašić was in a very weak position to take forceful action to stop the plot. In Serbia it was dangerous to show any sign of sympathy for Austria-Hungary or to oppose Serb nationalist organisations especially any strongly represented amongst the Serbian military.

Was a warning given to the Austro-Hungarian government?

Colonel Lešanin, the Serbian Military Attaché in Vienna in June 1914, told a journalist in 1915 “…. a telegram from Pašić reached the Serbian Legation at Vienna in the first fortnight of June asking Jovan Jovanović, the Serbian Minister in Vienna, to let the Austrian Government know that, owing to a leakage of information, the Serbian Government had grounds to suspect a plot was being hatched against the life of the Archduke on the occasion of his journey to Bosnia and the Austro-Hungarian Government would be well advised to postpone the Archduke’s visit.”

Lešanin also stated that Jovanović met Leon Bilinski, the Austro-Hungarian Finance Minister, on 21 June and “…stressed in general terms the risks the Archduke might run from the inflamed public opinion in Bosnia and Serbia. Some serious personal misadventure might befall him. His journey might give rise to incidents and demonstrations that Serbia would deprecate but that would have fatal repercussions on Austro-Serbian relations.”

After the meeting Jovanović told Lešanin “…. Bilinski showed no sign of attaching great importance to the total message and dismissed it limiting himself to remarking when saying goodbye and thanking him: ‘Let us hope nothing does happen.’”

Jovanović choose to see Bilinski rather than Berchtold, the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, because he was on bad terms with Berchtold.

Bilinski never spoke publically on the subject, but his press department confirmed a meeting had taken place and included a vague warning.

In Sarajevo

The recruitment of the second cell, the arrival of the three from Belgrade, and the approaching date of the Archduke’s visit did not stop Ilić from pursuing his political interests. He was making preparations for the creation of a political party. He also launched a weekly paper the first issue appearing on the 15 May.

He was having doubts about the wisdom of assassinating the Archduke and he argued with Princip that the present time was not favourable. It was best to first build up a political organisation. Princip did not give way and he later told the investigating judge that “…. I was not in agreement with the postponement of the assassination because a certain morbid yearning for it had been awakened in me.” Ilić also tried to persuade Grabež to put off the attempt but with no success.

Whatever his thoughts Ilić in his role as plot co-ordinator collected the weapons from the safe house in Tuzla where they had been left by Princip and Grabež and brought them to Sarajevo. He also made a separate journey to nearby Bosanski Brod and some sources have suggested he went there to meet a Black Hand contact from Belgrade where they were having second thoughts about the assassination possibly triggered by the arms smuggling investigations initiated by Pašić.

After handing out the weapons on the day before the Archduke’s visit Ilić visited the grave of Bogdan Zerajić’s, the assassin who failed in his attempt in 1910. He was followed shortly afterwards by Čabrinović and then Princip.

Sunday, 28 June 1914, the Assassination

On Sunday morning the 28 June Ilić placed the six assassins at intervals along the Appel Quay, a boulevard alongside the Miljacka River through the centre of Sarajevo, the route the Archduke’s motorcade of six cars would take that morning on their way to Sarajevo Town Hall. The Archduke and his wife were in the third car, a convertible with its top folded down.

The first assassin, Mehmedbašić, failed to act as the cars passed. The second, Čabrinović, threw his bomb but it hit the back of the Archduke’s car and was knocked under the following car blowing a hole in the road and injuring passengers and bystanders.

The Archduke stopped his car to check the passengers in the bombed car were cared for and then ordered continuation of the motorcade to the Town Hall.

Čabrinović took his cyanide which didn’t work and jumped into the river alongside the road. The river was low and he was pulled out by bystanders and police officers and arrested.

Amazingly, the speeches and ceremonies for the Town Hall visit went ahead more or less as planned. It was only after this that a change of plan in response to the assassination attempt was decided. The Archduke wanted to first visit the injured in hospital and the Duchess by her own wish instead of following her programme stayed with him.

This meant driving back along the Appel Quay. The driver of the lead car had not been told of the change of plan and took the turning off the Appel Quay into Franz Joseph Street the way to the Museum which the Archduke had been going to visit. The Archduke’s car followed round the corner but was immediately stopped by General Potiorek passenger with the Archduke who realised the mistake.

The next few minutes decided the fate of Europe.

One assassin had stayed on the scene. Princip had heard the detonation of Čabrinović’s bomb and rushed over in time to see Čabrinović being arrested and know that the attempt had failed. He decided to remain on the Archduke’s publicised route in the unlikely hope he might be able to make a second attempt.

The Archduke’s car stopped and started to reverse just a few feet from where Princip was standing. He didn’t have time to unpack his bomb but stepped forward, drew his pistol and shot the Archduke and the Duchess at close range.

He was seized and badly beaten by the crowd before being taken away by the police. The Archduke and Duchess were sped to Konak Palace, the Governor’s residence for medical treatment. Sophie was dead on arrival and the Archduke died shortly after. It was about 11.30 AM.

Princip later said he didn’t mean to shoot the Duchess. He meant to shoot General Potiorek.

Brief Fact and fiction [More]

What happened to the Assassins?

Nearly all the conspirators and assassins and most of those in Bosnia involved in getting them to Sarajevo were brought to account. Mehmedbašić was the only assassin to escape. He fled to neighbouring Montenegro.

At the trial in October 1914 in Sarajevo the authorities tried to show the assassins were young men led astray by pan-Serb propaganda emanating from Belgrade. They also tried to hide the fact that Croats and Muslims were involved in the plot and suggested the arms had been obtained from Narodna Odbrana in Belgrade. There was no mention of the Black Hand.

During the investigation and the trial Princip and the others made clear their objective was Yugoslav unity. “I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be free from Austria,” Princip told the court. He stated that Ilić was a Yugoslav nationalist like himself, dedicated to the unification of all South Slavs.

The idea for the assassination had been their own, that they had not been influenced by anyone in Belgrade, except that they had asked for weapons from former Bosnian Serb guerrillas in Belgrade, and had obtained their help in crossing the border into Bosnia.

Čabrinović who was the most talkative of the accused admitted that Ciganović, Djulaga Bukovac (a Muslim friend of Princip), Djuro Šarac (another friend of Princip and former guerrilla who helped with the weapons training) and Tankosić and a friend of Tankosić knew about the plot. When the judge asked Čabrinović who this friend was and he said he didn’t know, Princip interrupted and said it was a man called Kazimirović. Kazimirović was a schoolmaster at Belgrade where Princip had studied. Princip probably mentioned the name to stop the line of questioning leading to Apis.

When asked if he had anything to add in his own defence, Princip said: “As far as suggestions are concerned that somebody talked us into committing the assassination, that is not true. The idea for the assassination grew among us, and we realized it. We loved our people. In my own defence I have nothing to say.”

Though there was no proof the Court decided that Serbian military circles were implicated in the outrage. The verdict stated:

The Court regards it as proved by the evidence that both the Narodna Odbrana and military circles in the Kingdom of Serbia in charge of the espionage service, collaborated in the outrage. . . . There is no doubt that both the Narodna Odbrana and military circles on the active list in the Kingdom of Serbia knew of the aims of the outrage and were prodigal of all possible assistance and all possible protection to the perpetrators for whom they actually procured the means of carrying out the assassination.

Princip, Grabež and Čabrinović were each given 20 years jail. Čubrilović was given 16 years and Popović 13 years. Under Austro-Hungarian law capital punishment could not be applied to anyone under 20 years of age. Ilić was hanged.

Princip died in prison of tuberculosis in April 1918 aged 23.

The End of Apis

In late 1916 the outcome of the World War was in doubt with stalemate on the Western Front, Germany still occupying large parts of northern France, and revolution in Russia. All of Serbia had been overrun and the army had retreated to Salonika. Serbia was in a weak military position.

The Serb government decided to rectify what might have been an obstacle in reaching a peace agreement; the failure to identify and punish the Serb agents and military involved in the assassination of the Archduke. Pašić and Prince Alexander, the Serb Regent, also had reasons to eliminate Dimitrijević (Apis) who had been dismissed as Head of Serbian Military Intelligence. Consequently, Apis and other Black Hand leaders were falsely charged with plotting to assassinate the Prince Regent.

During the trial that started in April 1917 it is believed that Apis was told he would not suffer the worst consequences if he admitted to his role in the assassination of the Archduke and he made the following written statement:

As the Chief of the Intelligence Department of the General Staff, I engaged Rade Malobabić to organize the information service in Austria-Hungary. …. Feeling that Austria was planning a war with us, I thought that the disappearance of the Austrian Heir Apparent would weaken the power of the military clique he headed, and thus the danger of war would be removed or postponed for a while. I engaged Malobabić to organize the assassination on the occasion of the announced arrival of Franz Ferdinand to Sarajevo. …. Malobabić executed my order, organized and performed the assassination. His chief accomplices were in my service and received small payments from me.

Mehmedbašić was also involved in the trial and given 15 years jail. Tankosić had been killed in the war in late 1915.

Apis and Malobabić were found guilty of the trumped up charges and shot by firing squad.

Brief Who really instigated the plot? [More]

Alan Paton is the content editor of the website www.whostartedwwone.com The central feature of the website is a Timeline covering over 500 events, decisions, statements, meetings, and actions, involving 50 or so politicians, military leaders, and diplomats, in Austria-Hungary, Germany, Serbia, Russia, Britain, France and Belgium from the 29th June to the 4th August 1914, and the outbreak of World War One “the great seminal catastrophe of the 20th century”.


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Books available here.