Leiden Safety and Security Blog

History’s most consequential terrorist attack

Traditional thought learns that the assassination of Austria-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife – a century ago, on 28 June 1914 – set in motion a chain of events that led to the Great War (1914-1918). Did it? What was the actual effect of the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip killing the archducal couple during their visit to Sarajevo?

Historians still discuss whether some countries could have stayed out of the war or that the war was avoidable in the first place. Within these discussions there is no mentioning of terrorism as an argument for actually joining the war however. If the assassination would not have taken place, the reasoning goes, any other crisis remaining unsettled by diplomacy would have led to all-out war due to the military preparation plans of the European powers.

The assassins did not accomplish their goal of Bosnia leaving the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and joining Serbia. Nor did it after the war when the Empire fell apart. Bosnia joined the federal republic of Yugoslavia, only to gain independence following the Yugoslav Civil War during the 1990s. This only illustrates terrorism is an ineffective instrument of coercion. Nevertheless, it does prove a powerful symbol for (Bosnian-) Serbian nationalism as illustrated by the current Serbian government’s plans to erect a statue to commemorate Princip and his affiliates. The fact that the assassination takes place on Vidov Dan, the day Serbian nationalists commemorate the battle of Kosovo Polje (1389), 525 years earlier, adds even more value to it.

So, strictly speaking, yes, the assassination was the first in a chain of events that ended up in the Great War. In that way one could argue it was history’s most consequential terrorist attack. It was not the single necessary event however. Any trigger-event that would have caused a crisis could have started the military maneuvering and thus result in a major armed conflict. Princip’s attack should be seen in this perspective. It remains a powerful symbol for Serbian nationalism however, as the plans for a statue clearly show.

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