On the 28th June 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Archudke Franz Ferdinand was shot dead by Gavrilo Princip. This is undisputed, but a historical lie has developed over the past few years that I want to put right.  The First World War was not caused by Gavrilo Princip eating a sandwich.

One of the most popular video clips relating to World War One comes from a 2003 documentary by Lion Television, an independent TV production company.  The documentary in question is called The Days That Shook the World, and in one episode they focus on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

As part of the reconstruction of events that day, the narrator drops a bombshell.  He says, “Gavrilo Princip has just eaten a sandwich, and is now standing outside Schiller’s delicatessen on Franz Joseph Street… suddenly the Archduke’s car happens to turn into Franz Joseph Street. Completely by chance, fate has brought the assassin and his target within 10 feet of each other.”

As a history teacher, I’ve shown the documentary more times than I can remember to my classes over the years.  It’s a brilliantly produced piece of TV, which really brings the events to life for my students.  But they always remember one thing – the sandwich that changed history.  The thing is, it’s a lie.  The sandwich didn’t exist.  The ham and cheese of fate is nothing more than an urban myth.

It seems I’m not alone in being frustrated that the First World War apparently came about as a result of a snack.  In recent years a load of independent and academic websites have begun to challenge this interpretation.  Some of the most thorough research has been done by Mike Dash at the Smithsonian.  You can read his article at http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/history/2011/09/gavrilo-princips-sandwich/  He seems to have gone on a personal quest to unearth the truth behind the sandwich and – like any good historian – has provided a comprehensive trail of references and citations for us to cross-reference.

Significantly, his research shows that there is virtually no mention of a sandwich before 2003, the year that the Days That Shook The World documentary was first broadcast.  The only reference he can find is in a historical fiction novel from 2001 called Twelve Fingers, written by a Brazilian TV host and based loosely around the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  Type the keywords “gavrilo princip sandwich” into Google Books and you get a list of hundreds of books that include the sandwich as fact.  But all of them were published after 2003.  The thing is, despite an enormous amount of searching – and I mean I really have turned the libraries upside down – there is absolutely nothing in the mountains of reputable histories of the First World War from 2001 or before that include even the hint of a sandwich.

To anyone who is familiar with the Balkan region, the idea of a Bosnian-Serb stopping off for a sandwich in 1914 is pretty far fetched.  Even now what we would call a sandwich isn’t a hugely popular snack in the area, and it would have been virtually unique in 1914.  So for the world’s most famous assassin to have stopped off at a local delicatessen to get a bit of filling between two slices of bread is highly unlikely.

The reality is that History is filled with inaccuracies and degrees of truth.  Was Gavrilo Princip outside Schiller’s delicatessen when he fired the fatal shot?  Yes, yes he was.  It’s reported in the transcript of his trial, and various eye-witnesses corroborated it.  But had he just finished eating a bread-based snack?  The wealth of historical evidence says no.  There isn’t even the hint of sandwich-based coincidence in any of the eye-witness testimonies, or the painstaking historical research done in the century since then.

So why did a TV documentary in 2003 decide to include it?  Perhaps one of their researchers was just being a bit sloppy and picked up on the idea from the Twelve Fingers novel.  Or maybe they wanted to give Princip a reason for being outside delicatessen in their telling of the story.  Either way, it’s quite a fun little detail to include in the documentary.  It’s a TV show, after all, and it needs to be entertaining.  The problem is that every history class I’ve ever shown the documentary to – and, believe me, there’s been a lot – seems to pick out this detail as a central part of the story.  Even the documentary makers don’t place that much emphasis on it.

But the sandwich story has now developed a life of its own.  Every time a class of students watches this documentary, no matter where they are in the world, they will do the same as my students and believe it – because they’ve been shown it by a teacher.  As history teachers we have a responsibility not only to our students but also to the past to put this right.  We need to shout loudly that the documentary – on this detail – is wrong.  But am I going to cut that short clip out of the film next time I show it?  No way.  However, I am going to use it as a teaching opportunity to show how one wrong detail in one apparently reliable source can change the entire world’s knowledge of the past.

The causes of the First World War are complex enough without us becoming distracted by a rogue sandwich.

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