Did you know that the Treaty of Versailles was signed on the anniversary of the very incident that sparked World War One, the gruesome assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo? 100 years ago today, on 28th June 1914, the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne was shot, along with his wife Sophie, by Serbian Nationalist Gavrilo Princip. Exactly 5 years later, in 1919, the signing of the treaty between the Allied powers and Germany ended one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history. In the interim, over 16 million people lost their lives and around 20 million more were wounded. Would Princip have thought twice about unleashing the fatal shot, if he had known what chaos would ensue?
The first in a chain of events that would lead to war actually occurred many years before the assassination, in 1878. The short-lived Russio-Turkish war culminated in the signing of the Treaty of Berlin, which decreed that Bosnia and Herzegovina would remain nominally under the rule of the Ottoman Empire; however, it wasn’t until three decades later that things really kicked off. In 1908 Austria-Hungary formally annexed the occupied zone, much to the dismay of the Bosnian Serbs. As heir presumptive, the Archduke was of course held responsible for the takeover, and widely reviled- so much so that, in the summer of 1914, seven young Bosnian Serbs formed a plot to kill him.
On the morning of Sunday, 28th June, the royal couple arrived in Serbia to make a general inspection. The group of assassins, organised by the Black Hand, a secret military society, lay in wait along the Archduke’s planned route. The first conspirator threw a bomb at his car, but missed and was arrested. Franz Ferdinand, unnerved by the attack, decided to abandon the tour and return home by a different way to the one advertised for the visit; however, he forgot to inform the car’s driver of the change of plans. Consequently, the luckless chauffeur turned onto Franz Josef Street, one of the roads on the original parade route, where he stopped in confusion when told of his error- right in front of one of the would-be assassins, despondently making his way home. Gavrilo Princip didn’t hesitate, and immediately dispatched both royals.
World History recently published an article that discussed a book by historian Richard Ned Lebow, professor of international political theory at King's College London, called "Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!: A World Without World War I." According to the article, this book theorises that, without World War I, World War II would never have happened, and in the resulting peace Germany would have instead invested its considerable resources into becoming a world leader in culture; the US would never have entered the war, so would even now be a distant power rather than a close ally of the United Kingdom. The site adds: ‘The United States would have remained more isolated, less intertwined with the rest of the world, and also less tolerant of the rights of women, blacks, Jews and other minority groups. There wouldn’t have been a President Barack Obama, nor a President John F. Kennedy. At the same time, there wouldn't have been nuclear weapons, computers and possibly even the Internet. Why? Military spending drove all of these technological advancements.’
There’s no real way of knowing how the world would, or would not, have been different if Gavrilo Princip had been less of a crack shot. However, there can be no doubt that almost every family tree in the United Kingdom would have been forever altered, since few houses in the UK escaped some kind of loss. If you’d like to know more about your ancestor who died in the war, of if you’re simply interested in researching your family tree to find out whether it contains any heroes, visit www.forces-war-records.co.uk now. We have over 6 million war records in our archives, including many exclusive collections such as the list of Etonians who served from 1914-1918 and the London County Council War Service records for the same period. You never know what you might find!