The city of Sarajevo is commemorating the events of this date in a number of ways and it seems only appropriate on this June 28th to look at the trigger that led to the First World War.  There are so many who see this war as inevitable but it is never good history to see things as such.  There are a number of ways at looking at the outbreak of war: look at general causes – the “isms” that your history teachers drill into your; consider different ideological versions of history, with an emphasis on Marxist interpretations; and lastly, to examine the nationalistic perspective: to what extent did a particular country bear responsibility.

On a May 2013 exam students were asked to discuss the contribution of Balkan nationalism to the outbreak of war in 1914.  The anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie gives us the opportunity to consider this issue specifically.  After all, Gavrilo Princip. the assassin, was a member of the Black Hand, a nationalist group seeking political autonomy for Serbs living in the Habsburg Empire.  Little did they know that this action would lead not just to an end of that domination, but to an end to the empire itself.  This was the fateful moment in European history where all factors came together, provoking a war that ended imperial domination of eastern and southern Europe.  With this action, the major European dynasties would lose their power.  Those that remained were the ceremonial monarchs who exercised very little power.

In our examination of the causes of the war, a commoner such as Princip is seen as the trigger and we rarely go beyond his accidental assassination.  However, reviewing this 19 year-old’s motivations is a good exercise in the role of nationalism and identity.  Princip was a Bosnian, but he was a Serbian nationalist.  Religion was not of paramount importance; nationality was – why?  Why did the Black Hand target the Archduke?  What was the role of political violence in the early 20th century?  All of these questions help us understand the underlying causes of nationalism and get at a key cause of the war that is often under-explored as we focus on militarism, diplomacy and the alliance system.