Photo via Wikimedia
Europe in the early 20th century was a gigantic pile of dynamite primed to explode. It was like when your little sibling doesn’t get what they want at the store and you see the rage boiling in their eyes; you know an explosion is coming; the question is only if it will happen in the dairy isle or the checkout lane. Europe was a confusing mess of monarchies (countries led by a king or queen) and inter-marriage that makes little to no sense in our era of republican government. Most of the crowned rulers of Europe were in some way or another related to each other, through inter-marriage (gross) and family ties, the crowned heads of Europe were mostly a gigantic family tree with a few branches but it mostly ran straight up towards to Queen of the largest empire on earth, Queen Victoria of Britain.
Queen Victoria ruled for somewhere around 972 years, all kidding aside she was in the job a long time. During her reign she presided over the colonization (a fancy way of saying stealing land from people who already lived there) of most of the known world. The British tentacles stretched from the tiny island nation south into Africa, west to Canada, and east to Australia and New Zealand with many other holdings spattered across the world map. Queen Victoria was quite intelligent, she was always looking for ways to expand her influence and power, and she struck out on a grand idea, force her kids to marry people from other royal families, that meant, in her mind, that there would be a British influence in all the courts of royal Europe. And it is hard to dispute her brilliance in that regard. After she was finished she did have descendants in many of the thrones in Europe. Not to bore you with a complete family tree. It is important you understand just how far her influence went. Her first kid, also named Victoria, was married off to a Prussian Emperor and their son, William, became the Keiser (German word for Caesar, yea they were full of themselves) in the early 20th century. William would eventually lead Germany into a little conflict known as World War I, more on that later. Victoria’s daughter Alice was sent off to Russia to marry a guy in the Russian court and their eventual son would become Tsar Nicholas II, just the ruler over the largest country in Europe. No big deal. Throw in a few lesser marriages to Dutch royalty and you come to the most obvious descendent, good old George. Victoria’s son, the future Edward VII, married a Danish Princess and had a ton of kids, but the first boy is the only kid that mattered to these people.
Victoria died in 1901 after her reign of like two thousand years, Edward took over for ten years, but he spent most of his life just waiting on his mom to die so he didn’t get to rule long. After Edward kicked the bucket in 1910, it went to his boy, the aforementioned George who was coronated George V. So, as you can see, the head of three massive monarchies were all the grandkids of this one woman because of her obsessive urge to force her kids to marry people they didn’t even really like, all that mattered was their royal blood and that sweet, sweet cash.
All of this inter-marrying led to quite a few birth defects, because incest tends to cause such things, and many of Victoria’s descendents would develop neurological disorders (mental disorders), physical maladies, and genetic disorders. It is a certain genetic disorder, hemophilia, that would quite literally lead to the most important revolution of the 20th century. Victoria did all of this match-making to ensure that the crowned heads of Europe would get along and could work their problems out in a family way. Unfortunately for Victoria, she didn’t take into account human greed and the lust for power, so for the first decade or so of the 20th century the relations running the largest and most powerful countries in Europe were on a slow collision course with doom.
It was another empire, the Astro-Hungarian Empire, that was the site of the explosion of that giant barrel of dynamite I mentioned before. The Austro-Hungarian Empire doesn’t exist anymore (spoiler alert), but it was an important empire that comprised Austria, Hungary and many of the countries known as the Baltics in southern Europe. The problem inside the empire was the fact that most of the Baltic States hated being under the control of a foreign power (who knew people like something called freedom?) and there was pure hatred for the leadership in those areas. In 1908, a small county named Bosnia and Herzegovina was annexed (friendly way of saying forced) into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and with no chance to fight for their freedom, the Bosnians were forced to live under foreign rule. Obviously, this ticked off pretty much every Bosnian living so the Emperor, Franz Joseph and his second in command, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, were not too well liked in that area of the world.
This mistrust and hatred for the Emperial overlords led to many people looking for a way to fight back and attempt to gain Bosnian independence. The Bosnian Nationalists (people who wanted to break away) were cool with the idea of joining another country, Serbia, but they wanted no part of living under Joe and Franz’s rule. Little groups of agitators sprang up, people who would meet in secret and talk about plans of overthrowing the Austrians. One of these groups became known as Young Bosnia, and as the name suggests, it was filled with young men and women, some still in their teens, who wanted to take down the leadership of the empire.
Franz Joseph was old, like really old, so everyone knew that he would die soon, and the Archduke would take over any time now. The Archduke wasn’t a bad guy, all things considered, and he had even lobbied for the Bosnians to be treated better in the government. In 1914, the Archduke, in his infinite stupidity, thought it would be a great idea to take a trip to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, to oversee a military parade, and an overall excuse to wear his fancy uniform and parade in front of the conquered Bosnians.
The Archduke and his wife Sophie arrived in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, to public fanfare. In the days preceding their arrival, the newspapers in the city had detailed to exact plans and route that the Archduke and his wife were to take through the city. A group of young assassins including 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip placed themselves along the parade route. It is unclear how many members of Young Bosnia were in the crowd that day, some sources say over a dozen people were armed and ready to attack the Archduke. They made the first attempt with a hand grenade when a would-be assassin launched the explosive towards the Archduke’s car. The Archduke was able to fend off the grenade, and it exploded a car behind him, injuring over twenty people in the explosion. Police quickly arrested the attacker, and it seemed that the chance for assassination was over. The Archduke’s car sped off towards city hall and the parade was immediately cancelled.
The assassins were bummed out, their big chance to take down the Archduke had sped off into the afternoon sun, and they were left on the side of the road trying to pick up the pieces. Gavrilo Princip decided to walk to a nearby cafe and gather his thoughts, as he was sipping on a drink and having lunch, the wheels of history were turning. The Archduke went to city hall to yell at everybody about the terrible security and the fact that his car was nearly blown to pieces. After chewing out the Mayor, the Archduke and his wife decided to go and visit the injured citizens at a local hospital. The Archduke’s driver had no idea where he was going in Sarajevo and began driving around the city looking for the correct road. The Archduke’s car turned down the road where Princip was sitting and having his lunch and the car stalls with the engine shutting down. This is crazy guys; all of these events had to fit in perfectly for the Archduke to be sitting on the same street corner as a Young Bosnia assassin. Princip was shocked, this was his chance! Standing on the corner, the Archduke and his wife were just below him on streetlevel, Princip pulled a revolver out of his coat pocket, aimed, and fired. Princip’s first shot hit Sophie in the chest, with the second shot striking the Archduke in his throat. Sophie immediately fell to the floor of the car, while security tried to stop the Archduke’s throat from gushing blood. The Archduke could only think of his wife, begging the love of his life to “Not die, stay alive for the children”, but the damage had been done. The Archduke and his wife Sophie died shortly after being shot.
The police surrounded and arrested Princip and quickly threw him in a jail cell. He made no excuses; he killed the two royals and was proud of it. Immediately word spread throughout Europe of the assassination and people speculated about who did it and why. When it was discovered the Princip was a Bosnian, it sent Europe into a tailspin. The Austro-Hungarians believed that the assassins were given weapons and money by the Serbian government. While they have never proven this it is quite likely the killer was given aid by Serbia. Austria Hungary immediately demanded that Serbia pay for the crime, and issued a threat to the country. Serbia had no intention of giving in to the Austro-Hungarians and immediately sent telegrams to their biggest ally in Europe, Russia.
At the same time that Serbia was asking Russia for help, the Austro-Hungarians asked their European BFFs Germany to back them up. Once Russia and Germany backed their allies, the doomsday clock began. Eventually, Germany would tell Austria-Hungary to invade Serbia while the Germans invaded Belgium to get into France. This set off a chain-reaction of Britain and Russia coming to the aid of the Serbians and the French. The leaders of these countries, all first cousins, abandoned their family ties and the attempts at diplomacy, they went to war for the supremacy of Europe. After the dust settled in November 1918, 20 million people were dead, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was destroyed, they forced Germany to pay millions of dollars to the other countries they fought, and the world plunged into three decades of darkness. All of this because of the actions of one 19-year-old kid, and the deaths for two members of royalty.