On this, the 102nd anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, I thought I would offer a quick synopsis of the political climate and so forth that led to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife the Duchess Sophia, and the ensuing declaration of war. I also wanted to add a few details as to the aftermath, when the guns finally fell silent over four years later.
Following a series of deaths in his family, including his son Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889 in a double murder/suicide, and the execution of his brother Maximillian in Mexico after his failed attempts at establishing a monarchy with Napoleon III, the accession to the throne of Austria-Hungary fell to Archduke Franz-Josef’s youngest brother Karl Ludwig. More posts on these events at a later date.
Karl Ludwig died suddenly of typhoid fever in 1896, leaving the now elderly Franz Josef to name Karl’s son Franz Ferdinand as the heir apparent to the thrones of both Austria and Hungary. Franz Josef had been made dual monarch of both nations following the compromise of 1867. A separate compromise was signed between Hungary and Bosnia-Slavonia.
In 1878, Austria-Hungary formerly annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, with agreement officially following by both the Germans and the Russians in 1881. However, the Russians went back on the deal following the accession to the throne of Tsar Nicholas II. In 1903 a coup in Serbia led to a new anti-Austrian government in Belgrade. Following a revolt in the Ottoman Empire in 1908, it became apparent that the Turkish might seek to regain Bosnia-Herzegovina, and a deal therefore was struck between Austria-Hungary and the Russians whereby they would support the continued annexation in return for support from Austria for Russian access through the Dardanelles Straits into the Mediterranean. Austria-Hungary agreed and announced the deal, causing a mass internal furore. Russia was forced to drop the Dardenelles bid and await a conference to question the Bosnia annexation. The conference did not happen, and Russia and Serbia were forced to accept the annexation.
In 1914, on June 28th, members of Serbian supported Bosnian gang, Young Bosnia, who were linked to the pro-Slavic secret group The Unification of Death, also known as the Black Hand Gang were armed and tasked with isolating the Austro-Hungarian Heir Franz Ferdinand, who was on a Public relations trip to Bosnia to strengthen relations between the two, and to assassinate him. On their way to visit with the Governor one of the gang members, Nedeljko Cabrinovic, had attempted to bomb the archduke’s car, with a grenade, but his aim was shocking and he missed. The grenade had instead hit the following car, exploding and injuring the occupants. When the Archduke and his wife Sophie reached the Governors house, Franz Ferdinand greeted him by shouting angrily “So this is how you welcome your guests – with bombs!”
After recovering from their shock for a short while, the Royal couple insisted on delaying the rest of their official itinary and instead visiting the injured at the local hospital. Nobody informed the driver who continued with the regimen he had been given. Upon realising the change, he was forced to try and turn the car around in the street, forcing the following vehicles to reverse. Several of them subsequently stalled, leaving the Royal couple stuck across the road until they could move. They were sitting ducks. Across the street Bosnian-Serb national, Gavrilo Princip, another member of Young Bosnia was sitting at a pavement café when he saw the confusion amongst the traffic. Realising who was sitting in the middle of the jam, he took his chance strolled up to the car and shot first Sophie, in the stomach and then Franz Ferdinand in the neck. Count Harrach was standing on the running board of the car and received a blood splatter to the face from the shot through the Archduke’s neck. Sophie, not realising what was happening, her own wounds apparently not registering straight away nor those of her husband, saw the Count take his handkerchief and wipe his face. She questioned him and then slumped into her husband’s lap.
The archduke, assuring the count in an ever weakening voice that he was OK, leaned over his wife and begged her to stay alive for the sake of their children. It was too late. They both succumbed to their wounds en route to medical help. Aged 50 and 46, respectively, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie left three children orphaned aged 13, 12 and 10. Their deaths leaving no legitimate direct heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was the catalyst which led to the issue of unanswerable demands of Serbia, and in turn caused the outbreak of the Great War just a few weeks later.
Following over four bloody, bitter years fighting in the mud of Flanders, and the dry heat of Gallipoli, a war that stagnated just a few months in, but didn’t end by Christmas as everybody said, turned into a stalemate of trenches and death that only ended with the signing of the armistice of November 1918. Neither side surrendered officially. But peace was agreed and a treaty was proposed to confirm the terms.
Originally the council hammering out the terms of the treaty on behalf of the Allied Powers, were one from each of the five major powers in the Alliance. Japan dropped out of the running, leaving Britain, with David Lloyd George as representative, America with Woodrow Wilson, France with Georges Clemenceau and Italy’s Vittorio Emanuele Orlando who attended only the meetings to which Italian terms were discussed. France’s intent was to make Germany as weak as possible. Britain wanted to monitor Germany but looked to the bigger picture of how reparations would affect their own economy and so wanted to keep reparations to a minimum. Wilson issued a statement of 14 points which covered trade and other issues and were incorporated into the treaty.
The German government under Philipp Scheidemann could not agree on the terms of the agreement. Scheidemann resigned rather than sign it. A new government was formed and Head Gustav Bauer agreed to sign if three clauses, articles 227, 230 and the soon to be famous 231 were removed. The Allied ‘Big Three’ sent word back that they would invade if the treaty was not signed. Bauer reluctantly agreed to send delegates to sign the treaty. On June 28th, 1919 the terms of that peace were signed in a railway carriage at the Palace of Versailles. Article 231 was the admission of war guilt. Despite other treaties being signed with the other powers, Germany alone was to accept the blame for the war, and make reparations to France particularly to the sum of £6.6 Billion in 1919 terms, or £284 billion in 2015 terms. Her trade would be limited, and overseen by the Allied Powers, she was to disarm and cede territories taken in previous conflict. Her Navy was to be handed over and her standing army was to be fixed at 100,000 troops. She was also to abide by a demilitarized zone along the Rhine in an effort to protect its French border.
The Treaty was in reality unworkable. Several attempts were made within the League of Nations, and various plans notably the Locarno treaties, the Dawes plan and the Young plan, over the following years to attempt to reach a renegotiated middle ground when the terms were not met. America failed to ratify the Versailles treaty, when several of the senators refused to vote yes. As Germany made modest attempts over the next five to ten years to adhere to the Treaty of Versailles, a young Austrian-German watched with increasing anger as his country bowed humiliated to the world. Germany slid into financial ruin, trade and industry shut down and mass unemployment ensued. As Germany’s inflation rose to an all-time high and its morale hit an all-time low, Adolf Hitler began to plan……….