Gavrilo Princip: The Consumptive Assassin

On 28 July 1914, a sickly student fired shot and killed the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife. Just over a month later Europe would be plunged into a war that would cost 16 million lives and leave much of the Continent devastated.

How could one man be the cause of such carnage?

Certainly he could not have explained how and neither would he be blamed for it.

The man who sparked the events that would lead to catastrophe was Gavrilo Princip, a deathly pale and emaciated student who would become devoted to the cause of Slav nationalism.

Born in 1894, he was the son of a postman, a sickly, weak child who rarely fit enough to play with other children remained a shy loner who dreamed of doing great things.

After attending school in Sarajevo where he did poorly he moved to Belgrade where he fared even worse, failing his college entrance exams. He remained unperturbed however, and doubting he had long to live remained in a hurry to make his mark.

When in October 1912, a territorial dispute between Serbia, her allies, and the Ottoman Empire descended into war he immediately volunteered to serve in the Serbian Army, but despite special pleading on his part, stating repeatedly that he wished to give his life in the service of his country he was turned down for being too young, a consumptive, and physically incapable of wartime service.

But there were other ways of serving the cause of Slav nationalism, and he needed little persuading to join the ‘Black Hand.’

Formed in May 1911, by Officers within the Serbian Army the ‘Black Hand’ was a Secret Society dedicated to uniting all South Slavs into a Greater Serbia.

Led by Dragutin Dimitrejevic, also known as Apis, who had played a prominent role in the palace coup which had resulted in the murder of King Alexander and Queen Draga a decade earlier, the ‘Black Hand’ were determined to resist the spread of Austro-Hungarian influence in the Balkans by any means necessary, including assassination and even war.

The province of Bosnia-Herzegovina had been under effective Austro-Hungarian control since the Congress of Berlin in 1878, but Russian opposition had delayed its formal annexation until 1908.

Many in Serbia believed Bosnia-Herzegovina should be part of the greater Slav nation but the Government was unable to oppose the annexation, and certainly not without Russian support which was not forthcoming – the ‘Black Hand’ thought otherwise.

When the news filtered through that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was due to visit the Bosnian capital Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 as part of army manouevres, there was great excitement within the ranks of the ‘Black Hand.’

Here was an opportunity to strike a blow for Slav independence and freedom that might not again materialise for many years. The Archduke’s visit, perhaps in a deliberate act of provocation also coincided with the anniversary of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo when a Serbian Army had been catastrophically defeated by the forces of the Ottoman Empire. A date commemorated in Serbia with great solemnity as a courageous act of Slav defiance.

Plans were laid to assassinate the Archduke and Gavrilo Princip, who in the preceding months had proved his fanaticism for the cause of Serb nationalism, was one of the three men selected by Dimitrejevic to travel to Sarajevo and perform the deed. The others, less well known to history, were Nedjelko Cabrinovic and Trifko Grabez.

The Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pasic, upon being made aware of the mission and fearing the consequences for his country should it succeed ordered their arrest but Dimitrejevic, in his role with Serbian Military Intelligence, did not pass the order on and now fearing that his own complicity would be discovered issued the three conspirators with phials of cyanide to be taken if captured.

The assassination squad had now become a suicide squad.

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The Archduke Franz Ferdinand had become heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary in 1889, when his cousin, the Emperor’s son Crown Prince Rudolf had killed himself at the Mayerling Hunting Lodge in a suicide pact with his mistress, Mary Vetsera.

In contrast to the popular but unstable Rudolf, Franz Ferdinand was a distant and ill-tempered man, brutal in his behaviour and coarse in his language who was not liked either by those who served him or the people at large.

Sober and hardworking he took his responsibilities seriously and did not suffer fools gladly being quick to criticise in public and remove those he thought incapable – a trait that made him few friends within Government circles or those at the Imperial Court.

He was also a devoted family man who was deeply in love with his wife, Sophie.

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It had not been until 1899, that the Emperor Franz Joseph had at last relented and agreed to allow his son to marry his long-time lover Sophie Chotek, Countess of Hohenberg, a Lady-in-Waiting to the Empress Elisabeth.

It was expected for an heir to the throne of the Hapsburg Empire to marry a member of one of the other ruling dynasties of Europe, and it was widely held that Franz Ferdinand had brought shame upon the Imperial Family by marrying beneath himself and had only been permitted to do so on the proviso that certain conditions were met: Sophie could not ride in the Royal Carriage, be seen in the Royal Box, or attend official ceremonies in the presence of her husband, but more significantly it would be a morganatic marriage and any children that might result from their union would not be in line to the throne.

It was a bitter pill for Franz Ferdinand to swallow and it left him an embittered man.

The visit of Franz Ferdinand to Bosnia-Herzegovina was intended to show the nations of Europe, and in particular Serbia, who controlled. For the Archduke it was an opportunity to cement his relationship with the army and get away from the stifling atmosphere of the Imperial Court in Vienna, and in particular the fractious relationship he had with his uncle.

He was also delighted to be away from Vienna and the endless cycle of Court functions and that Sophie would be able to accompany him – they could at last be seen together as husband and wife, and she as an Empress in the making.

The Imperial couple arrived at Sarajevo Railway Station early on the morning of 28 June, 1914. Both were happy and smiling, Sophie was pregnant again and they were enjoying the opportunity to be seen together in public.

franz ferdinand & wife sh xx

They were greeted upon their arrival by the regional military commander Oskar Piotorek, who had invited the Royal couple to visit in the hope that it would lend legitimacy not only to the occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina but his own authority.

Franz Ferdinand, deeply conservative in his politics and absolutist by nature, agreed. It was a chance for him to increase his influence over the army and assert his position on the political stage.

The crowds lined the streets of Sarajevo to greet their illustrious visitor and among them were Princip and his comrades, who had since been joined by four others, who were placed strategically along the route of the Archduke’s procession.

The journey was a long and torturous one as the crowds thronged around the Archduke’s car with the many police present only seeming to add to the chaos and with crowd control proving difficult the first opportunity to assassinate the Archduke fell to Mohamed Mehmedbasic, a Bosnian Muslim, but as the Archduke’s car brushed past him he was too frightened to throw his grenade. A loss of nerve he later denied.

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As the cavalcade neared its destination, Sarajevo City Hall, it slowed nearly to a halt. This presented Nedjelko Cabrinovic with his chance, and unlike before he did throw his grenade but had forgotten it had a ten second fuse and as it bounced off the bodywork of the Archduke’s car it rolled beneath the one following and detonated causing serious injury to its occupants.

The Archduke’s car sped off and Cabrinovic fled the scene with the police in hot pursuit; fearing capture he bit into his cyanide pill but it failed to work. In an attempt to drown himself he jumped from a bridge into the Miljacka River only to discover it was a mere four inches deep. Barely wet he was dragged out, forlorn, somewhat embarrassed, and placed under arrest.

In the meantime, Archduke Ferdinand appeared unperturbed by what had occurred remarking:

“That fellow is clearly insane let us proceed with our programme.”

But he was nonetheless furious at the reception he’d received and now gave full vent to his notorious temper and during an address given in his honour thundered:

“What is the good of your speeches? I come to Sarajevo on a visit, and I get bombs thrown at me. It is outrageous!”

franz ferdinand & wife car xx

Following the dinner he insisted on visiting those in hospital who had been injured in the earlier attack. General Piotorek, who would be travelling in the same car agreed but suggested they take an alternative route that avoided the city centre. He neglected to tell the driver however, and unaware of the new arrangements he set off as before. Realising this Piotorek began remonstrating with him.

Arriving into the logjam that was the ironically named Franz Joseph Street the driver now decided to turn the car around and take the other route. As he did so it stalled.

Gavrilo Princip, believing that the assassination attempt had failed was eating a sandwich in a cafe nearby when glancing out of the window he could see the Archduke’s car. It was static and stuck in a traffic jam just a few yards away from where he was sitting. He could not believe his luck.

Leaving the cafe he walked unimpeded to within five feet of the Archduke’s car where he took out his Browning automatic pistol and fired seven times. His earlier practice had not improved his aim any, but a bullet did hit the Archduke in the neck while another penetrated his wife’s abdomen, even though he had been aiming at Piotorek.

The Archduchess Sophie was heard to scream “Heavens! What’s happening! What’s happened to you?” She then slumped to her knees. The Archduke then shouted “Sopherl! Sopherl! Don’t die, remain alive for the children.”

A bodyguard travelling on the frame of the car asked “What’s wrong?” The Archduke replied “it’s nothing, it’s nothing,” a phrase he kept repeating until he too slumped forward.

The Archduchess Sophie was dead, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand soon would be.

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Princip made no attempt to flee but instead tried to turn the gun on himself but someone from the crowd grabbed his arm before he could do so. He was then overpowered by some nearby policemen and severely beaten before being dragged away.

That night martial law was declared in largely Muslim Sarajevo but it didn’t prevent riots and considerable ant- Serb violence. In the meantime, Princip did not hesitate to confess to the assassination and did so with pride, though he denied there was any Serbian involvement and regretted the death of the Archduchess Sophie.

Eventually, eight men were charged with the murder of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife.

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Under Austro-Hungarian Law the penalty for murder was death by hanging but because they could not discover Princip’s precise date of birth they determined that he was still under twenty one years of age and too young to be executed. Instead he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, the maximum allowed.

Similar to Princip, Nedjelko Cabrinovic, Trefko Grabez, Vasilo Cubrilovic, Cujelko Popovic, and Mohamed Mehmedbasic were deemed too young to hang and were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Mehmedbasic was to escape his incarceration while Cabrinovic was to die soon after in January 1916.

Three fellow conspirators, Velkjo Cubrilovic, Misko Jovanovic, and Danilo Ilic were sentenced to death and hanged.

They died martyrs to the cause of Slav nationalism, at least in the eyes of some.

On 2 July, the bodies of the murdered Archduke and his wife were returned to Vienna and driven slowly and in silence through its streets on carriages draped in black but though the procession was suitably solemn the response to it was no less subdued. The people turned out to watch, rather than to mourn, their lost heir while the Imperial Family did not turn out at all. Few soldiers lined the route, and in private at least the Emperor expressed not grief but relief.

The following day a private ceremony took place before two open caskets, the Archduke’s of gold, that of the Archduchess silver and placed twenty inches lower than his in acknowledgment of her inferior status.

The Imperial Family remained barely 15 minutes before the bodies were taken to be buried in the grounds of the Archduke’s private residence as the Emperor had earlier forbidden the Archduchess from being buried in the Hapsburg family crypt.

In prison Princip remained defiant and refused to be blamed for the conflict that ensued as a result of his actions. When asked if he felt any guilt at the carnage he replied:

“If I hadn’t done it the Germans would have found another excuse.”

But such was Princip’s poor physical condition there was little prospect of him ever completing his sentence. Nonetheless, fearing attempts to free him from captivity he was constantly moved from prison to prison which only accelerated his physical deterioration. His last ever recorded statement was:

“There is no need to carry me to another prison. My life is already ebbing away. I suggest you nail me to a cross and burn me alive. My flaming body will be a torch that will light my people on their path to freedom.”

When he died on 28 April 1918, he weighed just six stone.

Little could he have imagined that his few seconds of murderous intent on that muggy, overcast summer’s day in a city few had ever heard of would to paraphrase the British Foreign Secretary Lord Grey- put the lights out across Europe never to be lit again in a lifetime.

He had changed the world, and he had changed it forever.

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