On June 28, 1914, the archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife were on an official visit to the city of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a Serb-dominated province of Austria-Hungary. During the visit, Serbian militants, seeking independence for the territory, made two separate attempts on the archduke’s life. In the first attempt, they threw a bomb at his car shortly after he arrived in town, but the bomb bounced off the car and failed to kill or injure the intended victim.
Later that day, while the archduke was en route to a hospital to visit an officer wounded by the bomb, his driver turned down a side street where Gavrilo Princip, a nineteen-year-old militant Bosnian Serb who had been part of the assassination attempt that morning, happened to be standing. Seizing the opportunity, Princip stepped up to the car’s window and shot both the archduke and his wife at point-blank range.
The archduke’s assassination had an incendiary effect throughout Central Europe. Tensions between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, which had already been rising for several years over territorial disputes, escalated further. Despite limited evidence, Austria-Hungary blamed the Serbian government for the assassination. Furthermore, it blamed Serbia for seeding unrest among ethnic Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a province of Austria-Hungary that shared a border with Serbia.
Austro-Hungarian leaders decided that the solution to the Serbian problem was an all-out invasion of the country. However, there was a major obstacle to this plan: Russia, which had close ethnic, religious, and political ties to Serbia, was likely to come to its defense during an invasion. Though poorly armed and trained, Russia’s army was huge and capable of posing a formidable threat to Austria-Hungary.
Aware of the threat from Russia, Austria-Hungary held off on its attack plans and turned to its well-armed ally to the north, Germany. On July 5, 1914, Austria-Hungary sent an envoy to meet personally with the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, to convey Austria’s concerns about Russia. The kaiser felt that Russia was unlikely to respond militarily, as its forces were utterly unprepared for war. He also had a close personal relationship with Tsar Nicholas II (the two were cousins), so he hoped to smooth things over diplomatically. Nevertheless, the kaiser pledged that if Russian troops did in fact advance on Austria-Hungary, Germany would help fight off the attackers. This guarantee is often referred to as Germany’s “blank check.”
On July 23, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian government issued an ultimatum to Serbia containing ten demands. The ultimatum insisted that Austria-Hungary be allowed to participate in Serbia’s investigation of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and, in particular, to take direct part in the judicial process against the suspects. The demands also required Serbia to stamp out all forms of anti-Austrian activism and propaganda emanating from the country. The ultimatum, written by members of the Austrian Council of Ministers, was specifically intended to be humiliating and unacceptable to Serbia.