Ron Genini: Assassination a century ago spurred wars

FresnoJune 27, 2014 

At noon on Sunday, June 28, 1914, several shots rang out upon a motorcade in Sarajevo, in the restive Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia. The shooter: a young Serb. The targets: Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the imperial throne, and his wife. They died almost immediately.

This killing by a Serbian terrorist group would bring to a head several years of rising tensions in the Balkans, in one month causing the outbreak of the First World War and eventually involving the United States.

It was 2 a.m. on a Fresno Sunday. Following an already fading tradition, it would mostly be a day of rest. The farms' silence was not yet broken by cocks' crowing or the city's sleep by streetcars' rumble. Fresno was blissfully unaware of a double murder 10 time zones away.

25,000 people lived here, making Fresno the largest city in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley south of Stockton. The city was built up only about as far north as McKinley Avenue and west to Marks. Fresno County's population numbered 75,760 inhabitants, California's but 2.3 million.

Chester Rowell's Morning Republican was Fresno's principal news source. Holy Trinity Armenian Church was the newest building on our skyline. There were ads for the latest fashions at Gottschalks, among others, and news about great leaps forward in post-high school educational opportunities in our area thanks to Charles McLane. Fresno was to have a presence at the upcoming Panama-Pacific International Exposition, where Sun-Maid (represented by young Lorraine Collette Petersen, with her red bonnet and dark ringlet curls), would have an exhibit.

Over breakfast, and before heading to church, Republican readers would learn that an irrigation dam had broken; then they might have scanned a full page ad for the Maxwell Auto dealership and another page advertising a movie serial's opening set for Monday. A gubernatorial election was coming up in November, where overwhelming favorite incumbent Progressive Hiram Johnson would face Republican, Democrat, Socialist and Prohibition candidates.

If Fresnans talked about "the war" that Sunday, they no doubt meant the one in Mexico where Victoriano Huerta's Federalists were on the run from various factions (including those of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata) that had supported the assassinated revolutionary President Francisco Madero.

The Fresno Republican's headline the next morning succinctly announced "Austrian Crown Prince and Wife Assassinated." The following month, on July 29, a full-page headline would scream "AUSTRIA DECLARES WAR, ALL GREAT POWERS MAY FOLLOW." And so they did.

The war in Europe, within four years to engulf 90% of the earth's landmass, was still on the horizon, but once ignited it spread rapidly, quickly pitting Serbia, Russia, France, Belgium, Britain, Japan and Italy against Austria, Germany and Turkey, plus their colonies. Eight million would be killed in battle.

Nothing was gained. World War II would be the costliest result, an effect of the harsh conditions laid on Germany at the war's end. The seeds of today's border conflicts in the Middle East today were planted then.

What did Fresnans think of the war? The average Fresnan, unless from one of the belligerents, apparently didn't care. Most were just glad they were 6,000 miles away.

The U.S. went to war on April 6, 1917, mainly hot with indignation at Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare. Congress voted for war 455-62, with our two Senators voting "yes" and our representative, Denver Church, voting "no."

Fresno served proportionately in the war. Some 150,000 Californians served, with 70 killed from Fresno and neighboring counties. A Clovis man received the Congressional Medal of Honor, six received the Distinguished Service Cross, six France's Croix de Guerre and one each Italy and Belgium's highest awards. One soldier from Kingsburg was awarded the DSC as well as the French and Italian medals.

Fresno and the rest of the world would be radically changed by the Great War in ways that affect all of us to this day.


Ron Genini of Fresno is a retired high school history teacher and the author of books on 19th century California Gov. Romualdo Pacheco and "Little Rascals" star Tommy Bond.

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