ASKED TO PREDICT when the next great European conflagration would break out, the great Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck famously declared that he could not tell, but did know that “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans” would be the spark that set Europe ablaze. He was right. On 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, assassinated the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie, in Sarajevo. Like many other Serbian irredentists, Princip resented Austria’s control of the province of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had a large Serbian population.
Still, a confrontation between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia in the aftermath of the assassination could have remained a circumscribed affair, just a third Balkan war in a region where two previous conflicts had already occurred in 1912 and 1913. The assassination of the Archduke, not a particularly popular figure in Austria or in Europe at large, did not initially grab headlines in the continent’s capitals.
Yet, just a little over a month later, the altercation sucked in Europe’s great powers. Germany staunchly stood by Austria, its sole dependable ally in Europe. Russia, which had become a protector of the Slavs in the Balkans, came to Serbia’s aid. The Triple Entente alliance of 1907 linked France and Britain to Russia. And so, as Austria took on Serbia, soon Germany and Russia, and their respective allies, also squared off.