Chance, Fate, Luck: How the History of the World Turned on the Randomness of a Sunny Morning, 100 Years Ago


I want to take you back to just before 10 o’clock in the morning, exactly 100 years ago: the 28th of June, 1914. What happened in the next hour affected every one of us alive today. A series of quite random incidents, chance moments, that unfolded that morning has meant that if any part of that hour had gone differently, some of us might be living in a different country, some of us might not have been born, some of us might be part of a very different family. Our world might look very different.

An American lieutenant general pauses at the Sarajevo street corner where Gavrilo Princip assasinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand 100 years ago, an event widely believed to have precipitated World War I, and one that happened due largely to coincidence. Credit: Creative Commons/jim.greenhill

Because although it was an ordinary morning, the 28th June, 1914, it was also an extra-ordinary morning – and its anniversary gives us the opportunity to think about chance, randomness, fate, contingency, luck – the awesome and awful reality of how our lives are bound up with forces much larger than our own individual will. The events of that hour, that morning, show us – transparently – that nothing in life is predictable, or even inevitable: we are all bound up in something larger and out of our control. We might not like this idea, but it just happens to be the case.
As 10 o’clock drew near, a royal couple arrived by train in a distant European town, Sarajevo. A town that has seen, during the 20th century, more than its share of drama, and bloodshed. Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie – the William and Kate of their days, for those familiar with the British pre-occupation with royalty – had come to Sarajevo to open a hospital. That’s what the royalty do, then and now. At the station, which was just outside the town, they got into a car and were driven into the city center. Those were innocent times, as they still were in Dallas fifty years later, and the golden couple were driven in an open-top car: the top was rolled back in the sunshine so that the crowds could get a good view of its special occupants. So, first random factor: the weather. If it had rained that day, history would have gone in a different direction.

Amongst the crowds of excited spectators there were six dissident figures, five Serbs and one Bosnian Muslim. They were spread out along the route. Outside of Sarajevo’s Austro-Hungarian Bank, the Bosnian lost his nerve, the bomb he’d been aiming to throw remained in his bag, and the royal car passed him by as the crowds cheered. Second random factor: an emotion we all recognize, fear, and how it took over at a key moment. There’s often a gap between aggressive fantasies and murderous thoughts, and the reality of enacting them, however enraged we may feel by injustice or oppression. But sometimes the harm an individual imagines doing to another person flows into what is then enacted. What makes one person act out their aggression, but causes someone else to refrain? (In this week’s Torah portion, why did Moses strike out at the rock, twice, and not speak to it as he’d been told to do? Numbers 20: 11). There’s a randomness, a mystery, to how the human heart and mind works – whatever the psychologists might tell us.
It’s now 10:15 a.m. The procession of cars is passing the Sarajevo police station, and one of the Serbs, nineteen years old, and with the fearlessness of youth, hurls his grenade at the Archduke’s car. But the driver sees it coming and accelerates: the grenade hits the fourth car in the procession, wounding its occupants, with shrapnel injuring several bystanders – but the Archduke’s car has sped away unscathed. European history is proceeding at its own determined pace. Third random factor that morning: missing the target. It can happen to anyone, from John Hinckley Jr. to soccer stars in the World Cup.
After this attack on the Archduke’s convoy, less than half an hour passes and Franz Ferdinand, a good soul, changes his itinerary and decides to go to the hospital to visit the victims of the failed assassination attempt. Fourth random factor: generosity of spirit, compassion, and concern for others. History turns on this decision by the good-hearted Archduke. As Oscar Wilde once said: No good deed goes unpunished.
General Oskar Potiorek, who is in charge of the whole visit, then decides that if his Royal Highness wants to visit the hospital then he should be driven straight there, on a route that avoids the crowds in the city centre. It’s 10:45 a.m. But the general, in all the confusion, forgets to tell the driver about the proposed route so the driver takes a right turn into Franz Joseph Strasse back towards the city center. Fifth random factor: human initiative, thinking we know what’s best in a particular situation. It can be terrifying to realize how little we know of the consequences of our actions, how little we can control the future. You turn right rather than left and your world can be turned upside down. Or someone else’s.
Meanwhile, one of the original plotters has slunk away and is sitting in a café – the Maxim Schiller cafe (it’s also a delicatessen) – he’s brooding on his fate and the missed opportunities. He finishes his coffee, and his cigarette, then, hearing some cheering, he steps outside to see what’s going on. Sixth random factor: Gavrilo Princip’s addiction to coffee and tobacco. He needed a fix – and had found somewhere to indulge. And it meant – in what we nonchalantly call ‘fate’, or ‘just a stroke of luck’ – that he happens to be in the right place at the right time. Or the wrong place at the wrong time – if you are the Archduke.
Because at that moment Princip sees Franz Ferdinand’s car as it approaches, having taken the wrong turn. Naturally, we’d never think of it as ‘the wrong turn’ if what happened next hadn’t happened. At that moment, outside Schiller’s café, the driver suddenly puts his foot on the brake and starts to reverse the car. Why? He doesn’t know it’s the wrong way – he’s taking the best route he knows and nobody has told him different. Seventh random factor: the mystery of why we do one thing and not another when there’s no apparent reason.

Credit: Creative Commons

As he reverses the car – it’s a Gräf & Stift open sports car; the Double Phaeton model for those of you who are aficionados of early 20th century Austrian luxury cars, and no I hadn’t heard of the company either, though it existed up until 2001 when it was taken over by the German MAN company, a historical irony I don’t need to amplify upon – as the driver reverses the car, its engine stalls and the gears lock. Just there, outside the cafe, where Princip just happens to be. Eighth random factor: the apparent meaninglessness of why things happen when they do. Your car breaks down on the wrong day, at the wrong time, and it usually doesn’t matter that much – though you may react as if your whole well-being, your very life, depends on it. It really doesn’t. Except when it does.
Princip, a Bosnian student caught up in the nationalist cause as youngsters have been from David the Israelite shepherd to British Muslim students fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria, seizes the moment, steps forward, draws his pistol, and from around five feet fires, twice, into the car. Ninth random factor: Princip is no marksman, on another day he would have missed, but on this day his bullets find their target. Franz Ferdinand is hit in the neck, and Sophie – who instinctively covers Franz’s body with her own after the first shot, à la Jackie Kennedy – is shot in the abdomen. They both die within minutes – it’s not yet 11 o’clock.
Tenth random factor: in one hour, exactly 100 years ago, the 20th century is deflected into a pathway of crisis and revolution, death and destruction, war after war, slaughter and desecration, holocaust and horror, barbarism and folly. We live in the wake of the long aftermath of that hour in Sarajevo with its series of inscrutable events unfolding randomly moment by moment, any one of which, if it had been missing from that chain of events, could have led history off into another direction.

Credit: Creative Commons

But no, the driver took the wrong route, the car stalled outside just that cafe, and Princip managed to shoot the Archduke fatally through the neck. And the rest of the story is in the history books, on our TV screens, and engraved in our psyches and the deep background to our everyday lives.
The so-called ‘Great War’ saw 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded, that was ‘the war to end all wars’, they said; then just twenty years later six more bloody years of killing, still in living memory: 60 million souls perished in that War. And the Jewish world assaulted, brutalized, traumatized, and transformed – a story we know so well.
Mark Twain’s comment, “Life is just one damn thing after another,” comes to mind. Well, you can’t argue with that. But how things unfold, one after the other, is a source of endless speculation, endless questions, enduring mystery. Is there a pattern, is there a larger meaning? Rabbinic Judaism tries to convince us there is some higher purpose; but the Torah intuits that maybe there isn’t, it intuits that meaning is what we attribute to events – but that doesn’t mean that events do happen for some hidden reason.
This week we read from the Torah about the children of Israel reaching Kadesh: it’s the 40th year of that seemingly endless trek around the wilderness (Numbers 20:1). But we are also told they stayed at Kadesh straight after they left Egypt (cf. Deuteronomy 1:46). And here they are, forty years later, back again in the same place. It’s Groundhog Day. No wonder they complain, bitterly, to their leaders.
Nothing new about that: the complaints started when they were barely out of Egypt. In the face of the rigors of the wilderness journey, filled with uncertainty, filled with a hope endlessly deferred, parched from lack of water, lack of sustenance, lack of meaning in their daily life, they turn against Moses and Aaron. And in one moment, a moment of what? Is it frustration with this always-complaining people? Is it frustration with God’s endless demands? Is it a moment of forgetting what he’s been told to do, he’s 120 years old after all and allowed a moment of forgetting, surely? Is it Moses’ tiredness about the whole endless project? Or, his confusion, because last time forty years before he had been told precisely to strike the rock (Exodus 17:6)? Is it his grief at the death of his sister Miriam, unmourned in the text, but maybe leaving Moses with pent-up feelings which now get acted out?
We will never know, we can’t know, the text withholds meaning from us, but what we see is that in one moment Moses’s life turns. He hits the rock, twice, rather than speak to it as he’d been instructed to. It’s a puzzle. It’s a mystery. Why did he do it? But once it’s done, like the driver who takes the wrong road, who reverses his car outside that one cafe where Princip happened to have retreated (if you read these events in a novel, you’d say: well, too much coincidence, life isn’t like that; but life is just like that), like the driver whose car stalls in just that spot, and history turns on the moment, so with Moses, once it is done, and the rock is struck, his fate turns on that moment. And the Promised Land becomes something for others, but not for him.
Fateful hours, fate-filled moments – maybe they are happening all the time. Maybe the decisions we make at each moment, or fail to make, nudge history imperceptibly into new directions. What an awesome fate it is for a people to realize, even to glimpse at, just how true this might be, just how much may hang on each choice, at each moment – 100 years ago or today.

4 thoughts on “Chance, Fate, Luck: How the History of the World Turned on the Randomness of a Sunny Morning, 100 Years Ago

  1. I am living in Vienna, having recently moved here from the US. And there is at least some rumor here that might put Ferdinand and Sophie more like Charles and Diana, in that Sophie, while of royal blood, did not quite meet the royal family’s standards. And so the assassination was carried out at the behest of the family. . . I don’t know if it is true, but as politics go it could be, and this puts a slightly different spin on this moment in time. . .
    But your piece is well written and quite interesting, and your point still stands, sort of chaos theory, how one small factor can induce large change.

  2. agreeing with your general theory……….another way of seeing how deeply and complexly interconnected all life on earth is, ultimately……………….and how, despite humans’ successes in controlling many parts of this whole, we never do have ultimate, large-scale or long-term control of life !!!
    what’s saddest to me about this is that so many people still naively believe that if we ‘find’ or ‘choose’ the ‘best’ human (or group of humans) to control the world (or the country), everything will work out well, there will be peace and utopia !!

  3. The problem is, for governments it is easier to go to war than to prevent it.
    Pricip was a criminal, but so was the Kaiser and the Zar, et cetera who wanted to go to war.
    This ha happened many times in history. For example the AMDs in Iraq.

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