A Century Ago In Sarajevo: A Plot, A Farce And A Fateful Shot On June 28, 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked World War I. NPR's Ari Shapiro takes a tour of the city and learns the improbable story behind that shot heard round the world.

A Century Ago In Sarajevo: A Plot, A Farce And A Fateful Shot

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep in Washington.


And I'm David Greene in Miami. Anniversaries do not get much bigger than the one this weekend. The Shot Heard Round the World was fired on June 28th, 1914 -100 years ago. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggered World War I and changed the course of the 20th century. But it begins with a story that sounds almost like farce. NPR's Ari Shapiro has this tale from Sarajevo of how the assassination unfolded.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: You don't have to hunt around for the spot where it all took place. A big purple banner announces it in white capital letters - the street corner that started the 20th century. Today people take photos, streetcars rumble by.

JAMES LYON: 100 years ago, this street would've looked almost identical with the exception that on the North side of the street there would've been trees.

SHAPIRO: This is Dr. James Lyon - an expert in Balkan history and our assassination tour guide. It's an unlikely story at every turn, beginning with the almost total lack of security. At the time, Sarajevo had a 200 man police force.

LYON: And approximately half or slightly less than half of the police force had turned out that day to provide security for the visit of the crown prince of the entire empire. And the army was not turned out at all.

SHAPIRO: Why not?

LYON: Well, the official reason was that the army had been out on maneuvers for the previous two days. Their uniforms were muddy and dirty, and they were not presentable.

SHAPIRO: Also, the folks in charge decided that it was a good idea to publish the motorcade route in advance. So the path was crowded with people, bunting flags and brightly carpets hung out the windows. And any would-be assassins knew exactly where to stand. There were seven of them along the parade route, carrying bombs and guns. Most chickened out altogether. Nedeljko Cabrinovic was one exception. He threw a bomb and missed, wounding an official in the motorcade behind Archduke Ferdinand.

LYON: Now today if you would have something like that happen, the vehicles would go racing as fast as they could away from the scene. However, Franz Ferdinand ordered the driver to stop. He got out and walked back to inspect the damage and the wounded people in that fourth vehicle.

SHAPIRO: Wait. Somebody had just attempted his life. A bomb had been thrown at his car and he gets out and checks on the guy that got hit?

LYON: This was European nobility at the turn-of-the-century.

SHAPIRO: Meanwhile Cabrinovic, who threw the bomb, swallows some poison and jumps into the river below.

LYON: At that time, it would probably have been about six inches deep. He jumped - you can see the drop is probably 15 feet. And he sprained his ankles and wasn't able to move.

SHAPIRO: The poison didn't work either. It just made him sick. The consequences of this day are hard to overstate. The events triggered a global war in which tens of millions of people died. But when you look at the assassination on its own, it seems almost farcical.

LYON: It would be a comic tragedy of errors and it would have made for a good Peter Sellars film.

SHAPIRO: So the Archduke arrives at City Hall, absolutely furious. The mayor delivers some totally inappropriate remarks that were written before the assassination attempt. The Archduke snaps, what kind of welcome is this. I'm being met by bombs. Then, Ferdinand wipes the blood off his prepared speech and addresses the crowd. And then, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne gets back into his motorcade with his wife, Sophie. They've decided to visit the hospital to see the people who were wounded in the bomb attack. Except, as James Lyon explains...

LYON: No one told the driver.

SHAPIRO: So at that fateful intersection, the car was supposed to go straight but it turned right. A general in the motorcade shouted, you're going the wrong way and the driver stopped the car right in front of assassin number seven.

LYON: Gavrilo Princip, who had missed his chance the first time, was standing on the sidewalk literally four feet away from the car.

SHAPIRO: At the only place on the route where the car stopped.

LYON: That is correct. And he stepped forward, fired two shots. One hit Sophie. The other hit Franz Ferdinand.

SHAPIRO: Both shots were fatal. As they lay dying in the car, Ferdinand pleaded with his wife - stay alive, Sophie, for the sake of the children. The term assassins calls to mind "007" or "Mission Impossible" - dashing Hollywood archetypes. In the photos at the museum on this corner, the would-be killers hardly look dashing. They're dirty, sickly, skinny.

LYON: Two of the seven people lying in wait were students. The other five were either professional revolutionaries or people who were unemployed or people who were agitating for national causes.

SHAPIRO: They all seemed to have had slightly different motivations - Serbian nationalists, anti-monarchists and so on. But James Lyon says they never intended to start a global war.

LYON: By the time the trial started, the first World War had already broken out. And each and every one of them said at the trial and then later said during their imprisonment, that had they known that such a horrendous war would ensue, they never would have taken part in the activities of June 28th.

SHAPIRO: Some of the conspirators were executed, others died in prison. All but one are now buried just outside of Sarajevo's old city, next to a highway overpass. When I visited earlier this week, the gravesite had one dead rose. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Sarajevo.

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