Shot Heard 'Round the World: An Eyewitness Account

Young Rick Steves and his mother stand with their Austrian friends outside the wine bar where an impromptu history lesson helped spark Rick's lifetime passion for travel.
By Rick Steves

As a 14-year-old traveling in Vienna with my parents, I remember our host, Dr. Radler, taking us into the countryside. In the back seat of his Mercedes, my mom and I hung from the leather grips to keep from slamming back and forth. We sped to a Danube village in time to see the entire population — kids in lederhosen, sturdy moms and dads, and respected grandparents — tumbling out of the onion-domed church, across the square, and into the wine garden.

Many Americans would snicker at the notion of Europeans following a sip of wine at Mass with a glass of wine in a bar. But since that experience, I see no contradiction. Three generations enjoying a Sunday afternoon together with the fruits of their grape-picking labor is "family values" European-style.

Dr. Radler, with us, the gawky American family in tow, sat down at the table marked "Stammtisch" — reserved for the most respected regular customers. Everyone in the village seemed to know Radler. Spreading gooey hunks of lard on coarse village bread, Radler proceeded to show us a gritty slice of his culture.

When I ordered two sausages and got four, he laughed at my surprise and explained, "Here in Austria, sausages come in pairs — like the lederhosen."

Under its exotic steeple and fortified towers, the town seemed marinated in history. To bring that history to life, Radler pulled up an extra chair, poured a glass of wine, and invited the oldest man in the village to sit next to me. Radler announced, "This man saw with his own eyes the start of the Great War...the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in 1914."

I thought it was Radler theatrics until the old man spoke. With two grey horsetails for a moustache and a droopy ivory pipe carved fine enough for a Hapsburg, he spoke in streaks, allowing Radler to translate.

"I saw the assassin Princip the Serb step out of a bar. Stopped at the corner was the Archduke Ferdinand in the back of his open car. Princip pulled out his gun, took two steps forward, and shot him in the head...dead."

Radler, delighted in my fascination with this eyewitness account of one of the most important moments of the 20th century, asked the old man to back up a bit.

The man explained that Princip and his Serbian nationalist partners — upset with Hapsburg control — went to Sarajevo to kill Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne. They dropped a bomb on his parade from a bridge. But miscalculating the speed of the entourage, the bomb landed on the car behind Ferdinand. The assassins scattered.

Pausing as if to rewind the videotape of his life, the old man stared at his lard-covered bread. After twisting a pinch of salt over it with nicotine-stained fingers, he continued, "Princip went into a bar to hide...and have a schnapps. Later, as he left the bar, he stood before his target."

Incredibly, the Archduke — returning from the hospital where he visited the man wounded by the earlier bombing — was stopped on the street in front of the demoralized assassin.

"Princip rubbed his eyes. How could this be true?" the old man said, as if we were the first to hear this part. My Mom and Dad and I, and even Radler, were leaning forward expectantly.

Huddled together over our table, the translating continued. "The assassin pulled out his pistol. He shot both the Archduke and his wife. And soon after this, the Great War began."

As Radler translated, the old man's eyes twinkled as if he understood that a seed was being planted in this wide-eyed American kid...a seed that would grow to be a lifelong love of European history.

It was people like Dr. Radler who first took me through the back door and showed me the best of travel.