The Black Hand: The Assassination of the Archduke & The Start of the Great War

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, paid a state visit to the Bosnian city of Sarajevo. Although the Balkans were nominally under imperial control, the trip was fraught with peril. The city was honeycombed with operatives of the Serbian secret society called Unification or Death, commonly known as The Black Hand, which sought independence from the Habsburg monarchy. Indeed, in 1903, operatives of that society had assassinated the pro-Austrian king of Serbia, Alexander I, replacing him with the more nationalist Peter I. But it was not enough to install a sympathetic king. The Habsburgs would have to be convinced to abandon their ambitions in the Balkans. When the Archduke came to Sarajevo, the Black Hand saw its opportunity to strike.

The assassination attempt failed, when one of the conspirators threw a grenade into the wrong automobile in the motorcade. This tipped off the Archduke and his guard, who were on high alert. But in an incredible sequence of events, one of the conspirators, Gavrilo Princip, stumbled out of a bar to find Franz Fredinand and his wife directly in front of him—their car had gone down the wrong street and was in the slow process of turning around. Princip drew his gun, a Belgian-made Fabrique Nationale model 1910 semi-automatic pistol—and fired two shots from a distance of about five feet, killing both the Archduke and his wife.

As a result of the assassination, the Habsburg monarchy was indeed overthrown, just as Princip wanted—but not before the major European powers would fight the worst and most deadly war the world had ever seen. The Archduke was hardly a sympathetic figure—to his people, or even to his uncle, the Emperor Franz Josef. But Austro-Hungary used the assassination as a pretext to an issue an ultimatum to Serbia. When this was rejected by the Serbians, as was expected, Austro-Hungary declared war.

But the nations of 1914 Europe did not exist in a vacuum. A dizzying array of international treaties bound the countries together; these so-called “entangled alliances” would accelerate the spread of war. Russia, which had pledged to come to Serbia’s defense, mobilized its forces to do just that. Germany, which had allied itself with Austro-Hungary, then declared war on Russia, and that led France and Great Britain to enter the fray in the service of a tsarist government that would itself be overthrown three years later. For over three years, the Central Powers of Germany along with the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires fought the Allied forces of Great Britain, France, and Russia to a bloody standstill. In 1917, the tsarist government of Russian fell to the Bolsheviks, and Russia abruptly quit the war. The entry of the United States into the conflict that same year finally turned the tide, providing the Allies the needed jolt to defeat Germany.

The war left Great Britain, once the war’s great banker, in deep financial difficulty; France, embittered and vengeful; Russia, in the hand of the Bolshevik revolutionaries; and Germany deep in debt, which subsequently they attempted to solve by printing money and causing terrible hyperinflation. By the end of the war, the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires had all collapsed, and some 37 million human beings became casualties. When the smoke cleared, the appetite for war in Europe had been sated for the foreseeable future—or so it seemed. No one could have foretold that an even more catastrophic war was right around the corner.

 

This box contains a silver denar coin issued by the Kingdom of Serbia that circulated during the Great War. The portrait is of Peter I, the king installed by the Black Hand after the assassination of Alexander I in 1903.

Serbia | denar | KM-25

  • 000 g, 0.8350 Silver 0.1342 oz. ASW, 22.5 mm
  • Obv: Head right
  • Rev: Crown above value and date within wreath