Countdown to war: July 1914

Article Highlights

  • Almost no one in Europe or elsewhere expected the assassination to become the opening shot of a Great War.

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  • Responsibility for the war lies with everyone and no one all at once.

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  • Had the Archduke lived, he would presumably have taken the throne after Franz Josef’s death in 1916.

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Saturday marked one hundred years since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. In hindsight, the assassination clearly marks the beginning of the process that resulted in the Great War (renamed World War I thanks to its sequel in 1939).

Yet the Canadian newspaper pictured below reported, “Archduke’s Death Removes Danger of European Conflict”. After a good laugh at the expense of those poor fools who lacked the benefit of hindsight, it’s worth considering some important lessons from the article.

First and foremost, almost no one in Europe or elsewhere expected the assassination to become the opening shot of a Great War. That opinion didn’t just make sense at the time. It makes sense today to those who study the war’s origins.

Often, the story of the war’s outbreak is recounted as a series of tragic accidents which led to a war that nobody wanted. Responsibility for the war lies with everyone and no one all at once. Newspaper articles reflecting on the assassination tend to take this approach. They describe it as  ’the spark’ that ‘lit’ or ‘set off’ the ‘kindling’ or ‘powder keg’ of Europe.  The implication of such stories is that the Europeans of 1914 were blissfully ignorant of their precarious situation.

Vienna And Berlin Were Clearly Responsible For The War

Although once sympathetic to this interpretation of the war as an accident, historians have increasingly rejected it in favor of a surprisingly simple conclusion:  Austria-Hungary, with firm German support, provoked a war it expected to enhance its own power and internal stability. The British, among others, made attempts to defuse the crisis, but the Austro-Hungarians and Germans made sure such efforts would fail. Thus, the assassination was not the cause of war, but simply a pretext.

Since almost no one expected such reckless behavior from politicians and generals in Berlin and Vienna, there was no good reason to believe that the Archduke’s assassination would mark the beginning of a great conflagration. The story of that recklessness remains fascinating, however. During July, I intend to provide occasional updates on what happened on the same day in July 1914.

The Archduke Was A Voice Of Moderation

The sub-headline from the image above  is harder to defend than the top header. In fact, the Archduke was not a “militarist” who “favored Germany’s aggressive policy.” The consensus of historians is that he was actually one of the most important voices of restraint in Vienna. His elimination removed one of the foremost impediments to reckless behavior.

Franz Ferdinand’s motivations were not especially noble. He had a poor relationship with his uncle, Emperor Franz Josef, who deeply resented Franz Ferdinand’s marriage to Sophie, who was a member of the nobility but had no royal blood. In 1914, the emperor was 84 years old. The Archduke did not want any foreign conflicts to get in the way of a smooth succession. Had the Archduke lived, he would presumably have taken the throne after Franz Josef’s death in 1916.

The Archduke’s Romantic Last Words

Historians mostly describe the Archduke as a somewhat prickly and arrogant man whose vices included anti-Semitism. His great redeeming trait was the intense love he had for his wife. The price of marrying her was not just a bad relationship with the Emperor, but a formal pledge that none of Sophie’s male children would be eligible to rule in the event of Franz Ferdinand’s death. This pledge, known as a morganatic oath, was the concession the Emperor extracted in exchange for allowing the marriage to proceed.

After being shot, the Archduke whispered to his wife, “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die, stay alive for our children!” Yet she died, leaving behind three orphans.

The Archduke Sells 3.6 Million Albums

If you Google “Franz Ferdinand”, the first item that comes up is the website of a rock band from Scotland named, of course, Franz Ferdinand. Their first studio album, also named, Franz Ferdinand, sold 3.6 million copies. And, yes, their name is a tribute to the late Archduke, inspired by his love for his wife.

Many of the album’s sales were driven by the band’s infectious single, Take Me Out, whose title is a reference to the assassination.  The song “All For You, Sophia” addresses the Archduke’s marriage more directly. Perhaps not compensation for being murdered, at least this musical legacy is a fitting memorial to a tragic love.

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About the Author


  • David Adesnik is a visiting fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on isolationism, national security strategy, and democracy promotion. He is part of AEI’s American Internationalism Project.

    Before joining AEI, Adesnik was a research analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses. He has served as deputy director of Joint Data Support at the US Department of Defense, where he focused on the modeling and simulation of irregular warfare and counterinsurgency. Earlier, he spent several months in Baghdad as an operations research and systems analyst for the Coalition Provisional Authority’s counter–improvised explosive device (IED) unit, Task Force Troy during Operation Iraqi Freedom.  In 2008, he was part of John McCain’s presidential campaign national security staff. From 2002 to 2009, Adesnik was the coeditor of OxBlog, a blog started with a fellow Oxford University classmate.

    A Rhodes scholar, Adesnik has a doctorate and master’s degree in international relations from Oxford University, where he wrote about the democracy promotion efforts of the Reagan administration. He received a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University.

    Follow David Adesnik on Twitter @Adesnik.

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