A hundred years ago, a harried chauffeur, berated by his boss in the front seat next to him, jammed on the brakes and started fumbling with the clutch and the gear shift of the big open bulky touring car.
Behind him in the passengers’ seats sat a large, mustachioed middle-aged man suffering from asthma in the heat and humidity that June day in a dusty Balkan town. Next to him was his good-tempered sweet-faced now plump wife. Both of them were rather over-dressed by today’s standards. The man was in full ceremonial uniform complete with green-plumed bicorn hat and his lady, in the full dress and picture hat so popular in those days. They didn’t “do” casual in his line of work.
He probably quietly fumed at the mix-up. The route of his primitive motorcade had been changed at the last minute for security reasons, and as so common in the army, “somebody didn’t get the word.” The low-ranking chauffeur hadn’t been told and made the turn off the main street as had been planned. The officer next to him, determined to fulfill his newest orders, had had the car brought to stop, so it could be backed up.
At a table, at a café, on that very corner sat a despondent 19 year old political activist, and, as he would have called himself, a patriot and a “freedom fighter”. That big man in the back seat had been his target earlier that day, but he had lost his nerve. Ashamed to return over the border to face his masters, he sat there sad and with a drink before him. He looked up, and there was the car and the man directly before him. He must have thought this was a Heaven (?) sent second chance. He withdrew the pistol he had in his pocket, stood up, approached the car, aimed, and fired three shots into the back seat. In an action that would presage countless repetitions in the century just begun, he didn’t care if he struck the woman as well as the man. His bullets hit home, the man and the woman, partners in a love-match that defied all the traditions of his proud family, collapsed into each others’ arms. He was heard to mutter Sopherl, don’t die, live for the children.
The youth, a Serb named Gavrilo Princip, was seized and beaten by a crowd, and then taken off to jail, where he would die two years later.
The man in the back of the car was His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Highness, the Archduke and Throne-Heir Franz Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen-d’Este and his wife was Her Serene Highness Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg.
They died that day in Sarajevo, Bosnia.
By four years later, anywhere from fourteen to sixteen million had died and an entire European order was gone.
Lenin and his Bolsheviks began the “construction of the socialist order” in Russia, and millions more would pay the price.
A former subject of the Archduke’s family, who had served in the German Army in World War 1, would be brooding in his Bavarian garret and cell and would plot revenge.
Millions of average men, women, and children would be uprooted from ancestral homelands. Half of France and almost all of Belgium devastated.
American farm boys and city-tenement boys would be sent “over there”.
And all because a wrong turn was made that day, 100 years ago, and three shots were fired.
June 28, 1914- June 28, 2014.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine!