Hank Rishel
4 min readNov 17, 2018


Author’s note: At the beginning of 2017, a friend of mine who had seen a film on World War I, asked me to explain the role that Gavrilo Pincip played in the war. I wrote something up and sent it to him. It has occurred me that, on the hundredth anniversary of the end of that war, some might find my discussion about the beginning of that war useful so I am including it below:

In 1914, Austria-Hungary was the second largest country in the world after Russia in terms of territory. It was made up of two separate kingdoms. Austria (largely German speaking), with its capital in Vienna, and Hungary with its capitol in Pest (Buda and Pest are twin cities across the Danube, like Minneapolis and St. Paul. The two kingdoms had been tied together since 1867. They had separate governments but had agreed to share their foreign services and their military. Although there were certainly problems between the two, Austria-Hungary was developing industrially very rapidly. There were also a number of Muslim majority areas left over from the declining Ottoman Empire, headquartered in Constantinople, that were a constant source of trouble.

Austria was ruled by octogenarian Emperor Franz Joseph, whose son and heir had, along with his lover, committed suicide at Mayerling (a hunting lodge). With the son’s death, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand became the official heir. Franz Ferdinand was 50 years old, and disliked by virtually everybody except his wife, Sophie, who was treated rather badly in the Viennese Court because she was not of royal blood (Their marriage was morganatic.). She was not allowed to officially appear with him in public but she could if he was doing something military. So, he was to review troops in Bosnia

A particular thorn in the side of Vienna and, more particularly, Hungary, was the aggressive Slav population in Serbia (then usually called Servia). Serbia (capitol, Belgrade), wanted to expand by taking over Slav territories, including Bosnia (Bosnia and neighboring Herzegovina had been summarily annexed by Austria.). The government in Serbia is pretty confusing at this distance but one of several factions vying for control there was an organization we know as the Black Hand which had close ties to the Serbian military. The Black Hand covertly supplied weapons and guidance to a number of organizations in Bosnia and elsewhere. One those organizations included Gavrilo (Gabrial) Princip; a small sickly Bosnian (After he shot the Archduke, Princip was sentenced to prison where after four or five years, he succumbed to TB.)

The Archduke and his wife made a state visit to Bosnia knowing that it was dangerous. Earlier in the same day, June 28th, there was a first assassination attempt on the Archduke and his wife; a bomb was hurled which missed its intended target. The Archduke opted to keep going. Their car was misdirected, and ended up trapped on a bridge. The nineteen year old Gavrilo Princip, who happened to be in the right spot, with a pistol supplied by the Black Hand, shot and killed both the Archduke and his wife. In retrospect, the Archduke certainly had his problems (He viewed the Muslims in the Empire as virtually sub-human.), but he did have one thing right. He was adamant about avoiding war with Russia, and had he lived that might have been helpful.

The Archduke’s death was really an excuse for the governments in Vienna and in Pest to do something about Serbia. Having checked with Berlin and been told that Kaiser Wilhelm’s government in Germany would back them up, the Austrian government sent an ultimatum to Belgrade that would have in fact ended Serbia as an independent power. It was intended to be rejected. The government in Vienna could only do that because they knew that they had a blank check from the Kaiser, who was a kind of militaristic version of Donald Trump combined with Steve Bannon.

The ultimatum rejected, the Austro-Hungarian army attacked. The whole chain of events was being monitored by Tzar Nicholas II’s government up in far away St. Petersburg. The Russians had a treaty with Belgrade which pledged that in case of an attack on Serbs, the Russian government would come to aid of their fellow Slavs. The Tzar summoned his generals (His Uncle was Chief of Staff), and was told that if the army was to be mobilized it would all have to be mobilized. Their organization was not sophisticated enough to just call up part of it. And, the number of troops anywhere near the action down in Serbia was too small. Trainloads of troops would have to be brought from all over Russia. There were not enough roads or train tracks. It would take at least a month, maybe more to get them there. We are talking about a mostly illiterate army of poorly trained peasants led by officers in the nobility and landed gentry who had never had any real contact with the people they would be leading. There were also no field hospitals. The wounded would be on their own.

The Germans upon hearing that the Russians were mobilizing believed that they had to mobilize in self defense (The Germans thought of the Russians as “Asiatic hordes”). They had an unearned fearsome reputation because they had only been seen on parade. The German war planning was if anything, too intricate. They did have the so-called Schlieffen Plan which demanded that if Russia threatened, they must first take out France by going through Belgium and around the defensive Maginot Line. Otherwise, the French, with their longtime defense alliance with Russia would be behind them and the Germans would be confronted with a “two front war”.

So, the Austro-Hungarians invaded Serbia. The Russians attacked the Austro Hungarians to defend the Serbs. The Germans attacked the French and then the Russians and the War was on. About seventeen million died. And, before the War ended, Gavrilo Princip, “the man who started the War” died too.

H.J. Rishel 11/15/2018



Hank Rishel

Retired political science professor of 40+ years. Educated at Olivet, UofM, MSU, Northwestern, & Harvard. Hoping to make politics a fun & exciting topic for all