[Austria-Hungary, 1914] In the East, the Balkans were a “powder keg” that could explode any time. Serbia was very proud and ambitious – a disturbing neighbor to the Habsburg empire Austria-Hungary.
After the great Balkan crisis, the Congress of Berlin 1878 had confirmed Serbia’s, Montenegro’s, Romania’s and Bulgaria’s independence from the Ottoman Empire. Austria-Hungary was allowed to occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina, which nominally remained under Ottoman suzerainty. However, it was independence on the Great Powers’ terms. So it was obvious back then already that it would not bring peace to the Balkans.
In July 1908, the Young Turks’ revolted in the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. This raised a lot of anger among the Bosnian Serbs as well as the neighboring countries, and even got the Balkans at the brink of a war. Eventually the crisis was settled, but the conflicts kept smoldering. Bosnian Serbs resented being under Austrian rule, and Serbian nationalists continued stirring unrest among them.
Serbia, a disturbing neighbor
Serbia was a young kingdom. Much aggrandized by the two Balkan Wars 1912/13, Serbia’s military success impressed Emperor Franz Joseph’s Slavic subjects. Serbian nationalists struggled for a “Greater Serbia” that would include all the Serbs on the Balkans, no matter in which state they were living at the moment. The multiethnic Habsburg monarchy felt threatened. “Greater Serbia” meant that Austria-Hungary would lose a great deal of its population and territories to Serbia. It might even be the beginning of the end of the Habsburg monarchy.
Radical nationalists in Serbia and in Austria-Hungary were ready to assassinate high-ranking representatives of the Habsburg monarchy. Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, head of Serbia’s military intelligence, alias “Apis”, was also head of the secret society “Union of Death”, better known as the “Black Hand”. It stirred unrest among the South Slavs of Austria-Hungary, to “liberate” them from Austria-Hungary and unite them in a kingdom of Greater Serbia.
Had the chief of the general staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf had his way, Austro-Hungarian troops would have long since set out on a preventive war to conquer Serbia and incorporate it to Austria-Hungary.
A third crown for a Slavic kingdom?
As one of the few in Austria-Hungary, the heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand hoped that he could reconcile his Slavic subjects. He planned to grant them greater autonomy to the Czechs in Bohemia and the South Slavs in Croatia and Bosnia. In other word, he would transform the Dual Monarchy Austria-Hungary into a Trial monarchy with a third crown for a Slavic kingdom.
However, Franz Ferdinand made many enemies among the German Austrians and the Hungarians, and he did not win all his Slavic subjects over for his plans. Many Serbs in Austria-Hungary did not want greater autonomy, but an independent state of all South Slavs. A Slavic kingdom within the Habsburg monarchy would mean that the Habsburg monarchy prevailed. And if Habsburg prevailed, there would be no “Greater Serbia”. So it was not in the interest of Serbian irredentists, and they hated Franz Ferdinand.
The heir to the throne is assassinated
In June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand participated in army maneuvers in the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Following the maneuvers, he planned to visit Sarajevo on June 28, accompanied by his wife Sophie Chotek. The Court in Vienna did not consider Sophie an eligible consort to the heir to the throne, although she was of high aristocratic birth. Emperor Franz Joseph had only consented to their marriage on the condition that their descendants would never ascend the throne, Sophie’s and her children’s family name was Hohenberg, not Habsburg. She could never even sit by his side on any public occasion. The only chance for them to represent Austria-Hungary together was when he was acting in a military capacity. In Sarajevo, they could ride in an open carriage side by side, and June 28 was their 14th anniversary.
June 28 was a very special day for the Serbians too. It was Vidovdan, the day they commemorated the tragic battle of Kosovo in 1389 against the Ottomans. There had been warnings that this visit would arouse considerable hostility, but they were disregarded.
On the morning of that day, many people had gathered on the street where the Archduke’s convoy would pass. Among them was a group of six assassins form the nationalist group Mlada Bosna, supplied by the “Black Hand”. One of them threw a grenade at the Archduke’s car, but missed him, it injured some people nearby. The convoy could carry on to the town hall. About an hour later Franz Ferdinand and Sophie returned for a visit at the Sarajevo Hospital. However, the convoy took a wrong turn and stopped right in front of another assassin, Gavrilo Princip, who had already given up his plans. He pulled his gun and shot Franz Ferdinand and Sophie to death.
Countess Sophie and Count Andras Csabany were shocked. The traces led to Serbia, to the “Black Hand”. Indeed, “Apis” had plotted the assassination. It had not been difficult: Already weeks before the newspapers printed the schedule and the route of the high-ranking guests, the safety precautions were inadequate. Nikola Pasic, the Serbian prime minister, had heard of the plot and warned the Austrian government of it, but his message was too vague.
“Now the war party will win out,” said the Count. As diplomats, they knew about the alliances in Europe. “But if Austria-Hungary attacks Serbia,” he went on gloomily, “Russia will fight on its side. We have an alliance with Germany, many of the military leaders in Germany want a war as long as they have an advantage over Russia.” Sophie turned pale. “Russia is allied with France,” she said, “then France would be against Germany, a two-fronted war … and if …” Sophie’s voice broke, but her husband knew what she was going to say.
For a two-fronted war, the plan was to defeat France quickly before Russia could mobilize her troops, and then sent all troops to the Eastern front. A quick advance onto Paris was crucial for Germany’s war plan to work, but mighty fortresses secured France’s eastern border. That left Belgium and Luxemburg. Sophie feared that German troops, her countrymen, would force their way through the neutral Belgium, her grandmother’s homeland, and after so many years in Brussels her country too. The thought broke her heart.