It happened today - June 28, 2015

Ferdinand's blood-stained uniformOn June 28, 1914, a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Given what followed, namely World War I, he should not have done so.

Apparently Franz Ferdinand himself was no great shakes. That this cold, choleric man loved his wife (also assassinated that day) is about the only positive quality I’ve ever seen attributed to him. But you don’t shoot a man for being obnoxious.

Princip and his associates were steamed that Austria-Hungary had completed its slow-motion seizure of Bosnia and Herzogovina from the crumbling Ottoman Empire back in 1908 (it took 30 years), believing Serbia should have had it instead. Which might be true to the limited extent that any regime in Eastern Europe in 1908 had any legitimate claim to anything. But again, you don’t shoot a man for that, even a rather unpleasant one.

The reason the conspirators wanted to assassinate the archduke, oddly, was that he was seen as a reformer. He apparently planned to create a tripartite Austro-Hungaro-Serbia that would reduce discontent among Serbs within the Hapsburg domains and make it less likely they would insist on the glorious path of joining Serbia in the Balkan snakepit.

The assassins may also have felt that in a showdown Russia would side with Serbia against Austria-Hungary. If so they were correct that far. But whatever else they may have envisioned, neither they nor anyone else could have foreseen the scale of carnage that would erupt, killing millions of men, destroying the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire that opposed it, the German Empire that backed Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire they had been busy carving up, and sowing the seeds of an even more brutal war a quarter-century later.

Had they foreseen it, one hopes, they would have decided to find something else do to than plot seedy assassinations on behalf of dubious causes. But then, they weren’t the sort of people to shy away from unpleasantness.

In that sense, Princip was unlucky that the consequence of his action was as enormously awful as it turned out to be. (He himself botched suicide twice right after firing the fatal shots, was caught, sentenced to 20 years in jail, and saw most of World War I unfold before dying of tuberculosis on April 28, 1918.) But his action was itself quite awful regardless. So if he had been a better man, he would not have done what he did including accidentally plunging the world into World War I.

As a footnote to this story Franz Ferdinand, a fanatical hunter, was evidently very nearly killed by an accidental shotgun discharge at Welbeck in England in 1913. The Duke of Portland, himself present and narrowly missed, later wrote, “I have often wondered whether the Great War might not have been averted, or at least postponed, had the archduke met his death there and not in Sarajevo the following year.”

His reference to its being delayed rather than prevented reminds us that Princip’s actions triggered rather than caused the conflict and it is highly probable that the geopolitical instability of Europe by 1914, or its excessive stability allowing tensions to build to catastrophic levels, might well have precipitated the catastrophe fairly shortly anyway. But again, the fact that we cannot foresee all the ends of our actions does not mean we cannot choose wisely between good and evil by sticking to certain basic principles.

It may not be wrong to assassinate a man thus triggering The Great War, in that we cannot reasonably anticipate triggering The Great War, any more than one might murder Adolf Hitler in 1920 to prevent World War II. But it is wrong to assassinate a man for being a reformer in a decadent regime. So Princip should not have done it regardless of its geopolitical consequences.