Saturday, June 28, 2014

Gavrilo Princip: The assassin who sparked World War I

I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the union of all Yugoslavs, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be freed from Austria.

I am not a criminal because I destroyed that which was evil.  I think I am good.

- Gavrilo Princip at his trial, October 1914

Today, June 28, 2014,  is a very significant date in world history.  For it was on this day, one hundred years ago, that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, presumptive heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his pregnant wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hehenberg, were assassinated in the city of Sarajevo.  The couple were the parents of three children ( a daughter and two sons) and would have celebrated their 14th wedding anniversary on July 1st, 1914.

The man who assassinated Fraz Ferdonand was Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb. Princip was born on July 25 (July 13 old style), 1894  in a tiny hamlet named Obljaj (located in present day Bosnia-Herzegovina).  His parents were poor peasant farmers, and he was the fourth of nine children, six of whom died in infancy.  Gavrilo's father, Petar, worked as a postman in the village, and the family adhered to the Orthodox Serbian Christian faith.  A sickly child, Gavrilo was named after the Angel Gabriel by a local Serbian Orthodox priest.

Gavrilo Princip's parents, Marija and Petar

At 13 years of age, Gavrilo Princip moved to Sarajevo where his older brother, Jovan, had planned to enroll him in an Austro-Hungarian military school.  Jovan changed his mind and sent the teenager to a merchant school instead.  After three years of study, young Gavrilo transferred to a local gymnasium (a type of secondary school in parts of Europe with a heavy focus on academic learning).  It was there that he became a fervent Serbian nationalist and an admirer of Serbian revolutionary Bogdan Žerajić (In 1910, Žerajić attempted to assassinate Marijan Varešanin, Govenor of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  He shot the governor five times and missed.  With a sixth shot, he killed himself).

By 1911, Princip had joined a secret society called Young Bosnia ("Mlada Bosna" in Serbian), an organization that advocated the separation of Bosnia from Austria-Hungry and its unification with the Kingdom of Serbia.  Since local authorities forbade students from belonging to groups or clubs, members of Young Bosnia were forced to meet clandestinely.

Princip was expelled from school in 1912 for participating in a protest against Austro-Hungarian authorities. After his expulsion, the 17-year-old zealot left Sarajevo and journeyed 280 kilometres (170 miles) by foot to Belgrade.  In May of 1912, he arrived in the Serbian capital.  While in Belgrade, he became a member of the underground Black Hand Society, a nationalist movement supporting the union of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serrbia.  Formed in 1901 by members of the Serbian Army in the Kingdom of Serbian, it was a secret military society whose primary goal was to unify the South Slav peoples into their own federal nation. Princip and his fellow insurgents believed that the first step toward ending Habsburg rule in the Balkans should be the assassination of a member of the imperial family or a high government official.

When Gavrilo Princip and his associate, a 19-year-old student named Nedjelko Čabrinović, and other conspirators learned that Franz Ferdinand, would be paying an official visit to Sarajevo on June of 1914, they decided to seize their opportunity.  When the date turned out to be June 28th (June 15th old style Julian calendar), he stars seemed aligned in favour of their cause (June 15th/28th is the feast day of St. Vitus or Vidovdan, a day in which Serbs commemorate their national exploits such as the 1389 Battle of Kosovo Polje in which medieval Serbia was defeated by the Turks).

Archduke Franz Ferdinand must have been well aware of the significance of St. Vitus Day).  He must also have realized that his visit was fraught with danger.  After all, his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, had been the target of a failed assassination attempt by the Black Hand in 1911.  Nevertheless, the archduke and his wife accepted the invitation from General Oskar Potiorek, military governor of Bosnia. to visit Sarajevo and inspect the Austro-Hungarian troops there.  Despite Serbian nationalist sentiment, especially on St. Vitus Day, the royal couple's itinerary was made public.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie arrived in Sarajevo by train at about 10 p.m. on that fateful Sunday morning. They were then scheduled to proceed by motorcade into the city.  Shockingly, security for the archduke and his entourage was quite lax.  The mayor of Sarajevo and the Commissioner of police occupied the lead automobile. Franz Ferdinand and his wife sat in the second car along with Oskar Potiorek and Lieutenant Colonel Count Franz von Harrach, their bodyguard.  Meanwhile, seven conspirators lined the procession route, ready to pounce like predators.

At about 10:15, the motorcade passed the first conspirator, Mehmed Mehmedbasic, who was positioned near the Austro-Hungarian Bank.   Mehmedbasic, however, lost his nerve.  He later claimed that a policeman was standing nearby and that he did not have the opportunity to take actiion.  A little later, as the procession passed the central police station, Nedjelko Čabrinović tossed a grenade at the Archducke's open car. The bomb rolled off the back of the vehicle and wounded the occupants in the following car.  Some bystanders were also hit by shrapnel. Although Čabrinović consumed a cyanide pill and jumped into the River Miljacka, he did not die. The cyanide pill was expired the river was shallow.  The would-be assassin was hauled out of the water and arrested by authorities.

After stopping at the city hall, Franz Ferdinand chose to continue with the afternoon's activities - lunch at the government's residence and a tour of the the museum.  He and his wife also decided to visit the wounded victims of Čabrinović's failed assassination attempt.  In order to keep away from the centre of the city, General Potiorek determined that the car should be driven along the Appel Quay to the local hospital. Potiorek, however, failed to inform the driver of the decision.  En route to the hospital, the driver turned on to Franz Josef Street.

Gavrilo Princip was standing right there, near Moritz Schiller's café, where had had stopped for a sandwich. The driver quickly attempted to reverse the car but the vehicle stalled.  Princip fired his pistol twice at the car.  One shot apparently hit Sophie in the abdomen, and the other pierced Franz Ferdinand's throat.  They were both dead within the hour  At his trial, Princip claimed that Sophie was never his intended target.  He stated that he had aimed not at the duchess but at General Oskar Potiorek.

Below is an illustration of the assassination of Archduke Framz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie. The drawing, by Achille Beltrame, appeared on the first page of the edition of the Domenica del Corriere, an Italian newspaper.

Immediately after shooting the Archduke and his wife, Gavrilo Princip attempted to commit suicide.  He swallowed cyanid but vomited the post-dated poison instead.  He then tried to shoot himself, but his pistol was pulled from his grasp before he could fire another bullet.

On July 1, 1914, Gavrilo Princip appeared before an examining judge.  With his head bandaged (apparently dud to tuberculosis), Princip dramatically confessed to the assassinations and freely admitted to being an anarchist. Here is how a newspaper report at the time described him:

The assassin is a small dark man, with sunken eyes, and it is evident that he is suffering from tuberculosis.  His head is bandaged.  The expression of his face is quiet, but his eyes gleam.  

In a statement to the judge, Princip adamantly declared, "I am guilty.  I came here with the object of perpetrating the attempt.  I was not under foreign influence.  When I attended the fourth class of the Sarajevo Gymnasium, I had already read Anarcharistical books and Anarchism was my passion . . . I am convinced that there is nothing better in the world than to be an assassin.  I made up my mind to kill one of the heads of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.  I have succeeded at last . . . I do not repent my deed.  I am content that I have carried out my original intention."

Beginning on October 12, 1914, Gavril Princip and the other conspirators went on trial in a Sarajevo military prison. It was not a jury trial  The verdict was rendered by a panel of three judges.  The defendants, including, Nedjelko Čabrinović, were tried for high treason and being accomplices to high treason.  When asked how he thought to realize his aspiration of a united Yugoslavia, Princip replied, "By means of terror." He then defined terror as "a means in general to destroy from above, to do away with those who obstruct and do evil, those who stand in the way of the idea of unification."

Gavrilo Princip was convicted and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, the maximum penalty allowed under Austro-Hungarian law for someone under the age of 20 when the crime was committed.  He was spared the death sentence because he was only 27 days short of his 20th birthday on the day of the assassination.

Ravaged by tuberculosis and malnutrition, Princip was a skeletal figure when he died on April 28, 1918 at Terezin, a former garrison town located in North Bohemia (present day Czech Republic).  He was only 23 years old at the time of his death and weighed about 40 kilograms (88 pounds).  His right arm had to be amputated due to the tuberculosis that eroded his bones.

Prison photo of Gavrilo Princip

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand set off a chain of events that led to World War I. Austria-Hungary blamed the Serbian government for the attack and, assured of German military support, declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. Within a week, Russia, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Serbia banded together against Austria-Hungary and its ally, Germany.  The delicate peace between the great powers of Europe completely fell apart, resulting in a bloody conflict that was described as "the war to end all war."  By the time it ended in 1918, Europe was devastated and millions of lives were lost.


* Mehmed Mehmedbasic was a Muslim, although he had strong anti-Serbian sentiments.  Thee only one of the seven assassins to escape, he fled to Montenegro and was captured by authorities there.   He was incarcerated but broke free before being extradited to Austria.  After World War I, Mehmedbasic returned to Sarajevo where he was killed by the Ustaše (the Croation Revolutionary Movement) on May 29, 1943.

* Nedjelko Čabrinović, like Gavrilo Princip, died in a Terezin prison of tuberculosis.  He passed away on in January of 1916 at the age of 20.

Nedjelko Čabrinović

* On June 27, 2014, one day before the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, a bronze statue of Gavrilo Princip was unveiled in the city of Sarajevo, where some regard him as a national hero.  According to a report from Sarajevo by correspondent Andrew MacDowall of the British newspaper The Guardian, the anniversary was to be marked by "concerts, conferences and exhibitions." MacDowall writes that it it is Sarajevo's most important international moment since the 1992-1995 siege of the city by Serb forces.  He states that a century after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Sarajevo remains polarized by the events of June 28, 1914.  Gavrilo Princip is esteemed by many Bosnian Serbs but condemned as a villain and a murderer by Muslims and Croats.  Although the anniversary ceremonies are being attended by dignitaries from around the world, they are being boycotted by both the president and prime minister of Serbia.

- Joanne

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