On June 28th 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in the centre of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. It was the event which triggered World War I.
The Archduke, who was the heir to the Austria- Hungarian throne was on a state visit to the city. But what was he doing there in the first place? Martina Relihan traced the background to the story.
Background to the Assassination
by Martina Relihan
The Austro-Hungarian Empire in Bosnia
The Austro-Hungarian or Habsburg Empire was a great Catholic north European power and after the Treaty of Berlin in 1878 it occupied the two provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina bringing to an end the Ottoman Empire’s four- hundred year long involvement there.
Bosnia-Herzegovina with its complex mix of Muslims, Serbs and Croats was then, as it is now, a tricky part of the world. So why take it on?
Austria Hungary’s interest in the occupation was purely strategic. As the Ottoman Empire crumbled, it left a power vacuum and it feared that into this power vacuum would step a Yugoslavia- A union of south Slavs -of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and that it would have to contend with this on its doorstep.
So the Austrians thought they could foil this by controlling Bosnia-Herzegovina - by moulding it to their own image and likeness as it were – so stopping Bosnian Serbs from looking to Serbia and Belgrade and Bosnian Croats from looking to Croatia and Zagreb.
But its attempt to do this ended in disaster thirty-six years later with the assassination of the heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand –triggering World War I and then four years after that- the obliteration of the Habsburg empire.
The great Hapsburg empire was brought to its knees by the assassin Gavrilo Princip who was a diminutive , impoverished Serb schoolboy.
Gavrilo Princip was born into a little peasant hovel in Grahovo in Eastern Herzegovina in 1894. The only light in the building was through a hole in the roof which let out the smoke.
In 1907 when he was thirteen, he was delivered by his father into the hands of his older brother in Sarajevo to begin his secondary schooling.
In Sarajevo, Princip did the rounds of the government-sponsored schools. He was a bookish little fellow and read everything -Caesar, Dumas and Sherlock Holmes and also socialist and anarchist pamphlets.
Student radicalism was developing apace in Sarajevo and the authority of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was being increasingly questioned by cheeky schoolboys. In 1910 – there was a sort of an eerie dress rehearsal of the 1914 assassination. On the day of the opening of the Bosnian parliament just one block away from where the Franz Ferdinand assassination happened four years later a young man called Bogdan Zerajic fired five shots at the Governor Varesenin missed with all five and then shot himself with the sixth bullet.
The event had a huge influence on the Serb schoolboys of the city. Zerajic developed a posthumous cult following amongst them. Schoolboys doffed their caps as they passed the Emperor’s Bridge where the attempted assassination had occurred. His grave became a shrine. Princp visited it and put flowers on it and on another occasion a handful of Serbian soil.
Zerajic’s last words reputedly were – ‘I leave my revenge to Serbdom.’ And also made statements such as – “He who wants to live has to die. He who is ready to die will live for ever.’
Zerajic’s deed was viewed as an attempt to avenge the defeat of Serbia by the Ottoman army on June 28 1389 at Kosovo. The defeat precipitated the collapse of Serbia’s medieval empire and ushered in five hundred years of Ottoman domination. The episode has formed a major part of south Slav epic poetry and folklore ever since.
Build-Up to the Assassination - the Balkan Wars
These developments made a huge impression on Gavrilo Princip who decided to embark on trip to Belgrade in the spring of 1912. This was just the scenario the authorities were trying to avoid – an impressionable Serb schoolboy in the middle of a hotbed of Serb nationalism. He actually walked the two hundred miles from Sarajevo. When he arrived he kissed the ground of Serbia. There he socialized with other young Bosnian Serbs and became immersed in Serb nationalism. He was in the middle of a very febrile political atmosphere.
Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria were in the middle of driving Turkish forces out of Kosovo and Macedonia. Serbia doubled its territory and set its sights on acquiring part of the Albanian coastline. Many young Serbs from all over the Balkans – including Bosnian Serbs jointed the Serb army. It was viewed by many Serbs as avenging the events in Kosovo in 1389. Princip was all set to join but when he presented himself to the Serb General Tankosic he dismissed him with a wave of his hand as being too small and skinny.
In Bosnia matters were very tense. A state of emergency was declared. Civil courts were suspended and schools closed and Serbian newspapers banned.
The Visit of Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand’s visit was planned for 28 June 1914 on Vidovdan Day- the day on which the Kosovo battle of 1398 is celebrated. The authorities maintained it was an inadvertent choice of date but it is difficult to imagine that its provocative implications for local Serbs were not envisaged. During the visit the Austrian army was to repel imaginary battalions of Serb troops.
The local population was in the main well disposed to Franz Ferdinand’s visit. The situation was somewhat analogous to the reception which George V got in Dublin three years earlier. But Franz Ferdinand was a tempting target for belligerent Bosnian Serb schoolboys and so Princip, together with two other Bosnian Serb friends Cabrinovic and Grabez planned the assassination from Belgrade.
The assassins were supplied with weapons by the Black Hand – Crna Ruka – a Serb underground organization –four browning revolvers, six bombs and cyanide capsules which they were instructed to take if they succeeded in doing the deed.
Princip left Belgrade with his co-conspirators on 28th May, 1914. They had been trained in the use of their weapons. The bombs were strapped around their waists and the revolvers were in their pockets. They took a very circuitous route involving a boat trip and a lot of walking through fields and getting wet so the journey took a week. They practiced their shooting skills en route.
The Assassination and Trial
On the fateful day – June 28 1914-Princip and five other conspirators – ( all but one of them were under 20 years of age) placed themselves at various stages along the route of Franz Ferdinand’s procession of limousines. One of them Cabrinovic threw a bomb which bounced off the back of the Archduke’s car and wounded people in the car behind. At this stage the authorities decided to change the Archduke’s route avoiding the narrow streets of the old city which they then regarded as too risky. Nobody told the Archduke’s driver who followed the original plan and turned into Franz Josef Street. When he was alerted to the change he reversed back right to the corner of the street where Princip was standing. Princip fired two shots killing both Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. The cynanide capsules didn’t work and Princip and his co-conspirators were dragged into custody.
Princip was on the face of it an unlikely assassin. The investigating judge said of him at his trial that ‘It was difficult to imagine so frail-looking an individual could have committed so serious a deed. Even his clear blue eyes, burning and piercing had nothing cruel or criminal in their expression.’ He was sentenced to twenty years hard labour in Terezin in Northern Bohemia.
Gavrilo Princip died in the military hospital in Terezin on 28th April, 1918. His remains were exhumed after the war and buried in Sarajevo in a common grave together with his co-conspirators.
The Legacy of Princip
The Sarajevo assassins have been described as ‘the most disorganized and inexperienced squadron of assassins ever assembled’. The miracle is that they succeeded. Yet it would be difficult to choose a political assassination in recent history with such huge implications.
Princip certainly did not go quietly into the night. On his cell wall was scrawled the words - “Our ghosts will walk through Vienna, And roam through the palace frightening the lords.’ This isn’t as hubristic as it sounds. His ghost still roams certainly in the Balkans ,whatever about Vienna.
The legacy of Princip has proved remarkably enduring. All sorts of figures from Osama Bin Laden to Padraig Pearse have been compared to him. His ideas were half-baked and politically untested. Probably for that very reason they are malleable and have been moulded to fit Sarajevo’s eventful and frequently tragic twentieth century. Nowhere is this more striking than at the site of the assassination itself which has endured a lot of vicissitude.
A Yugoslav polity was established after World War 1 under the King of Serbia. A plaque commemorating Princip’s deed was duly erected. The German army occupied Sarajevo in April 1941. One of its first deeds was to remove the plaque and send it to Adolf Hitler as a birthday present.
Just three years later the victorious Partisans under Tito entered the city to mass public jubilation. Almost immediately a new plaque was unveiled at the site. Princip’s Pan-Slavic ideas were liberally adapted to suit the communist regime. A museum was opened dedicated to the deed and grandly entitled – ‘Muzej Gavrila Principa I Mlade Bosne.’ – The Mueum of Gavrilo Princip and Young Bosnia and the bridge across the road from it was renamed Most Gavrila Principa. A piece of sculpture representing the footsteps of Princip was installed on the spot where he fired the fatal shot.
The 1990s war tore apart the multi-confessional fabric of Sarajevo. Princip was redefined as a Serb nationalist in this context. Accordingly Sarajevo no longer walked in the footsteps of Princip either literally or metaphorically. The sculptor was removed by a Bosniak paramilitary group.
Sarajevo in the post-Dayton Agreement context presents a rather truncated version of Princip’s legacy. The bridge has reverted to its earlier title – The Latin Bridge. The museum is simply Muzej Sarajevo 1878-1918. Both the title and contents are bland and deal mainly with the period of Austro-Hungarian occupation in Bosnia. The part that pertains to Princip is contained in one glass-case – his gun and the clothes he wore on the fateful day.
A copy of the footprints sculpture is placed inside the museum. The museum does however display a comprehensive range of photographs of the assassination, trial, and its aftermath on its outside windows. This has become the focal point of attraction for tourists.
The pistol used to assassinate the Archduke Franz Ferdinand
The ‘Causes’ of World War 1
Where to place the Sarajevo assassination in relation to World War I?
It was undoubtedly the major contingent factor in the lead-up to the war. Historians vary in the weighting which they ascribe to it some taking the view that it merely lit the fuse of an inexorable build-up of other factors. Others don’t subscribe to the- ‘It would have happened anyway’- school of thought.