Home > World events > A ridiculous assassination (which changed the world)

A ridiculous assassination (which changed the world)

Gavrilo PrincipOn June 28, 1914, exactly one century ago, Gavrilo Princip, a young Serb nationalist, shot and killed the Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Archduchess Sophie. You may remember—or, if not, have been reminded by the media these days—that the event is generally accepted as the trigger of the Great War (1914-1918). After decades of diplomatic clashes between the main powers and mounting tension in the Balkans, Europe was ripe for a conflict and the assassination gave it the needed push.

Exactly a month after that assassination, all diplomatic efforts toward an entente having come to naught and Serbia refusing to give in to Austria’s demands for greater interference in Serbian affairs, Austria declared war on Serbia, causing a domino effect that eventually involved all of Europe, the Ottoman Empire, Japan, Australia, and some Latin American countries, with the United States entering the fray in 1917. All in all, the conflict saw the end of both the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires and made tens of millions of military and civilian victims worldwide. It has been called acalamitous conflict that, more than any other series of events, has shaped the world ever since; without it we can doubt that communism would have taken hold in Russia, fascism in Italy, and Nazism in Germany, or that global empires would have disintegrated so rapidly and so chaotically.”

Not a shabby achievement for Gavrilo Princip, celebrated day before yesterday in East Sarajevo as his statue was unveiled while West Sarajevo more somberly commemorated the Archduke’s assassination and the terrible events it set in motion. (If anything, the conflicting ceremonies illustrate that the past hundred years have not taught us how to move beyond ethnic divides. But then, we should know by now that nothing teaches us anything.)

The assassination shook the world and its consequences are still with us but the chain of events was more Marx Brothers than Greek tragedy, its main actor an unlikely hero. Princip, barely 19 years old, a frail young man already racked with skeletal tuberculosis, was a devoted admirer of Walt Whitman and, by some accounts, the president of the Walt Whitman Society in Sarajevo (the absence of Twitter and Tumblr presumably allowed loftier interests). About Princip’s love of Whitman, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz writes, “The young revolutionaries in Belgrade read [Whitman] politically as a singer of democracy, of the crowd en masse, the enemy of monarchs… and that is how an American poet was responsible for the outbreak of World War I.”

Princip was a member or follower of the Black Hand, a secret military society, and of Young Bosnia, inspired by the many wooly anarchist/romantic/Nietzschian currents of the time. He was part of a handful of young literary aficionados, also nationalists, who resented the tall shadow of their Austro-Hungarian neighbor who taxed them heavily and didn’t allow them enough autonomy. Assassinating a prominent figure was a long-time dream of these young people. When they learned that Franz Ferdinand would visit Sarajevo for the opening of a hospital, Princip and five fellow conspirators recruited by Black Hand members knew they had found the perfect target. They traveled from Belgrade and, on June 28, stood at various points of the official route, armed with hand grenades, four Browning pistols and cyanide powder with which to kill themselves after the act so they wouldn’t be captured.

Transfixed by the fear of getting caught, the first would-be assassin watched the procession of six cars go by, unable to move. Another one threw a hand grenade at the Archduke’s open-topped car but the driver saw it coming and accelerated. The grenade ricocheted against the car, fell back on the street and exploded under the next car, wounding occupants and onlookers. The grenade thrower swallowed the cyanide (the poison, probably an inferior quality, didn’t kill him and only made him sick) then, running to the nearby river, jumped in to drown himself but the water was not more than four inches deep. Police hard on his heels pulled him out and arrested him on the spot.

A while later, after the commotion had died out, the Archduke decided to go to the hospital to visit the victims of the explosion. Princip who was still around, indecisive, had just had coffee and bitten into a sandwich when he saw two cars drive by and recognized the Archduke. As luck would have it, the drivers had taken a wrong route and while being turned around, the Archduke’s car stalled. Seeing his opportunity, Princip ran and shot the Archduke and his wife. The couple would die within the hour.

The assassin then swallowed the cyanide, which didn’t kill him but made him sick as it had his co-conspirator, and turned the gun to his own temple but was stopped before he could pull the trigger. Arrested and tried—but too young to be condemned to death— he spent almost four years in the Therensienstadt jail (yes, the same Therensienstadt that during WW II became a ghetto and concentration camp), his body covered with sores and his rotting bones causing him such pain that his right arm had to be amputated, before illness got the better of him.

The echo of those two shots continues to reverberate down our history.

  1. Melinda Barnhardt
    July 1, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    What a fascinating piece of history writing, particularly in its highlighting of the literary connection that contributed to a web of coincidentally-related factors producing this cataclysmic event. Much to ponder here, in light of today’s events. Thank you!


    • July 1, 2014 at 8:51 pm

      Thanks for the good words. There is indeed much to think about, especially about the fact that we never ever learn!


  2. Ed Levy
    July 1, 2014 at 8:04 pm

    Visited Sarajevo in 2012 and saw the corner where the Archduke was shot. It’s as quiet as any suburban street with a small museum in one of the corner buildings. The next day, had a young Muslim cab driver show us the sights of the more recent Serb siege of Sarajevo. We asked him if he was still angry, and he told us that Bosnians couldn’t afford to be angry since they all have to learn to live together. Boy, does the world need more people like him.


    • July 1, 2014 at 8:51 pm

      What a fascinating story, Ed! Thanks for sharing.


  3. September 10, 2014 at 2:52 am

    First class and well written piece . There were no two World wars only a twenty year pause in between the senseless insanity . Blame it on the British , the French , Belgians and above all the utter tragedy spawned by the League of nations whose Proclamations led to the following Insanity to come !


    • Ed Levy
      September 10, 2014 at 8:32 pm

      While the Brits et al bear blame for the Versailles treaty, it is inconceivable to ignore the roles played by Hitler and Stalin, the two worst mass murderers of the 20th century. Also the blame due the post-WW1 Republican run Congress in the US, which isolated us and kept us from playing a constructive international role.


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