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The War to end All Wars ...didn't

By Charles Apple The Spokesman-Review

One hundred and five years ago Friday, a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, setting into motion a dizzying series of international events that led to the start of what would become World War I.

One hundred years ago Friday, world leaders signed a treaty in Versailles, France, aimed at bringing peace to all of Europe forever, at the expense of Germany.

That plan didn’t work out so well.

The Start:

June 28, 1914

The Assassination of the Archduke

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, leave a meeting on the day they were killed.
Associated Press

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand — heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne — was assassinated with his wife, Sophie, on June 28, 1914. They survived a bomb attack on their motorcade in the streets of Sarajevo but then fell victim to a gunman.

The royal couple was killed by a group of seven highly-trained members of a secret Serbian nationalist group called the Black Hand. Austria claimed the Serbian government had supported Black Hand and, therefore, was responsible for the murders. It demanded Serbia bring the killers to justice.

Miffed at the tone and some of the demands of the ultimatum, Serbia refused and prepared for the inevitable military retaliation.

Tensions flared over the next month throughout the region, with its long history of alliances and animosities.

Soon, the pieces quickly fell into place...

  • July 28 Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia. Russia immediately begins mobilizing for war.
  • Aug. 1 Germany declares war on Russia...
  • Aug. 3 ...and Russia’s ally, France.
  • Aug. 4 England honors a 75-year-old treaty with Belgium by declaring war on Germany. England’s entry into the war, in theory, pulls in its colonies and dominions: Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa.
  • Aug. 19 U.S. President Woodrow Wilson declares the U.S. to be neutral.
  • Aug. 23 Japan honors a treaty with England and declares war on Germany.
  • Aug. 25 Austria-Hungary retaliates by declaring war on Japan.

Eventually, 40 countries were dragged into the conflict — including the United States in 1917.

The actual Sarajevo gunman, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, was found guilty of the murder that October. Too young to receive the death penalty, he was sentence to 20 years in prison. Weakened by malnutrition, he died in 1918 from tuberculosis, while the war he triggered raged on.

The assasssin, Gavrilo Princip
The assassin, Gavrilo Princip

The End:

June 28, 1919

The Treaty of Versailles

President Woodrow Wilson and other world leaders at the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.
Imperial War Museums

Hostilities ceased on Nov. 11, 1918 — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — but it took months for the allies to hammer out a plan for lasting peace in Europe.

At the heart of the peace negotiations were the “big three”:

  • France, stinging from wounds inflicted by Germany, wanted that country humbled.
  • England wanted revenge against Germany but its leader, David Lloyd George, was wary of the threat of communism that had recently taken root in Russia.
  • U.S. President Wilson urged cooperation and disarmament on all sides via his “Fourteen Points” and a proposal for a League of Nations.

The treaty was signed on June 28, 1919 — five years to the day after the assassination of the Archduke. Germany was forced to give up large amounts of territory and natural resources and much of its military might. It was also compelled to admit blame for the war and to pay France and Belgium up to $31.4 billion for war damages.

Germans were outraged. They felt unfairly blamed for the war and that their country couldn’t possibly make those kind of payments.

A mass demonstration in front of the German Reichstag against terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

Sure enough, that turned out to be the case. Germany paid what it could but — with the country still in economic shambles — fell further and further behind throughout the 1920s.

The anger Germans felt and the urgency they felt to recover from the war and the terms of the treaty led to the rise of the National Socialist Party in the 1920s and the eventual appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor.

The Impact of the Great War

Sources:,, Encyclopedia Brittanica, PBS’ “The Great War,” The History Channel, CNN,, “World War I” by H.P. Willmott