What we now call World War I also saw the fall of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was successor to the ridiculously inaptly named Holy Roman Empire, and the Russian Empire. Germany was held responsible for what was then known as the Great War, and although the brutality of the German sweep through Belgium and northeastern France at the beginning of the war was unconscionably horrific, the diplomatic gamesmanship and at times flat out dishonesty of Russian, French, and English political leaders had been every bit as responsible for the war's having expanded from regional conflict to continental conflagration. But to the victors go the spoils and the writing of the histories, and Germany was humiliated and economically destroyed, opening the door to the rise of extremism, and ultimately the Nazis.
It all started with the assassination of the accidental heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was not but a symbolic excuse, for without the assassination, the war might never have happened. Franz Ferdinand had become next in line to the throne when his first cousin, the Crown Prince Rudolf, had committed suicide. His marriage to a commoner had shocked and angered the royal court, and his gruff personality had not endeared him to the Austrian people. But while there had been an overt effort to convince the aging Emperor Franz Joseph I to be more militarily aggressive toward Serbia and the Empire's large Slavic subpopulation, Franz Ferdinand had consistently opposed such action, and had, in fact, supported increasing the autonomy and rights of the Slavs. It was one of the awful ironies of history that the Serb assassins chose for their target the one man who likely would have defused the simmering political tensions, had he only lived the two and a half more years until his uncle died, at age eighty-six.
World War I almost certainly wouldn't have happened had Franz Ferdinand lived to become emperor. The astonishing diplomatic ineptitude and cynical political machinations that followed the assassination wouldn't have become possible. The cruel European global imperialism and churning industrial arms race would have continued, but alliances would have continued their decades-long alignments and realignments, and rising peace and labor movements would have continued to undermine and remake old political orders.
There had been plenty of opportunities for the European powers to start wars on each other, but for four decades none had been taken. After Sedan, France and Germany didn't seem to have the belly for another fight. England had become isolationist, and had enough problems at home. Russia had been defeated by tiny Japan and also had its own problems. The Hungarian half of the dual empire no more wanted war with the Slavs than did the heir. The newly imperial United States was focused on its southern neighbors and across the ocean to its west. The Sarajevo assassination could not have happened at a worse moment, and its victims could not have been worse targets. Likely it alone could have led to war, and the century of horror that followed.
The assassins were poised on the riverbank roads, but their first attempt was off target. Members of the royal retinue were injured, but the royal couple almost shrugged it off, continuing with their official schedule, on what was supposed to be their last day in the Balkans. Having seemingly failed, the assassins themselves at that point had little hope. But the royal couple decided to go to the hospital to see the injured. The route led back along the river, where the assassins were no longer prepared. The driver hadn't been told of the change of plans, and when it was discovered that the motorcade was headed in the wrong direction, it turned down a side street, to back up and turn around. In a nearby cafe sat one of the assassins, Gavrilo Princip. To his great surprise, by yet another awful accident of history, his target suddenly was right before him, the car all but stopped. He calmly walked outside, and from point blank range took aim. A single event rarely so changed the course of history itself.