EU Economy
Centenary of gunshots that ended 43 years of fragile European peace
By Michael Hennigan, Finfacts founder and editor
Jun 27, 2014 - 7:15 AM

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Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with his wife Sophie, leaving Sarajevo's City Hall, just minutes before their assassinations, June 28, 1914 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Saturday is the centenary of two gunshots that ended 43 years of a fragile European peace, triggering two cataclysmic wars on the Continent.

June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, it was St. Vitus Day - - an important day for Bosnian Serbs, as it was a commemoration of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 where the Serbs were defeated by Turkey.

Bosnia-Herzegovina had been annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1908 following its seizure in the 1870's from the fading Ottoman Empire.

Bosnian Serbs as in the 1990s wished to unite with Serbia and on St Vitus Day seven conspirators were prepared to assassinate the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne, on his way to the City Hall with his wife Sophie.

A grenade hit the Archduke's car which was second in a  motorcade and following his visit to the City Hall, the Archduke decided to visit a hospital to check on the victims of the grenade attack.

The lead car took a wrong turn and the Archduke's car braked. Nineteen-year old Gavrilo Princip stepped forward and fired two shots which killed the royal couple.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia and within weeks with the tangle of alliances that had developed from the unification of Germany in 1871, the five great powers in Europe: United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were at war.

By 1918 14m lives - - 5m civilians and 9m military - -  had been sacrificed and another 7m troops were permanently disabled.

"The great powers of our time," Otto von Bismarck, the German chancellor, told a Russian diplomat in 1879, "are like travellers unknown to each other, whom chance has brought together in a carriage. They watch each other and when one of them puts his hand into his pocket, his neighbour gets ready his own revolver, in order to be able to fire the first shot."

James J. Sheehan, a Stanford University historian, said in his book Where have all the soldiers gone?, that between the Peace of Westphalia 1648 when the structures of the nation state in Europe were recognised, "and 1789, the European powers had fought forty-eight wars, some of them, like the Seven Years' War in the mid-eighteenth century, lasting several years and stretching around the world. Between 1815 and 1914, there were only five wars in Europe involving two great powers; all of them were limited in time and space, and only one of them involved more than two major states.

From the end of the Franco- Prussian War in 1871 until the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, the European states were at peace with one another. This was the longest period without war in European history until it was surpassed toward the end of the twentieth century."

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