Gavrilo Princip: The Consumptive Assassin

 

 

 

 

On a summer day in 1914, a sickly student shot and killed the heir to the throne of the Ruritanian Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife. Just over a month later Europe would be plunged into a war of unimaginable horror that would change the Continent and the world forever.

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.

Born in 1894, the son of a postman Gavrilo Princip was a deathly pale and emaciated young man who would become devoted to the cause of Slav nationalism but a sickly, weak child rarely fit enough to play with other children it seemed this shy loner could only dream doing great things.

After attending school in Sarajevo where he did poorly he moved to Belgrade where he fared no better failing his college entrance exams. He doubted in any case that he had long to live and remained in a hurry to make his mark.

When in October 1912, a territorial dispute in the Balkans between Serbia and others with 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 war time 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 clearest example of this was 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 within 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 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 that might not materialise again for many years. Plans were laid to assassinate the Archduke and Gavrilo Princip who in the preceding months had proved his fanaticism in the cause of Serb nationalism but was also expendable, was one of three men, along with Nedjelko Cabrinovic and Trifko Grabez, chosen to commit the murder.

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 might be discovered issued the three conspirators with phials of cyanide to be taken if captured - the assassination had become a suicide mission.

franz ferdinand x

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 unstable but popular Rudolf his successor though sober and hard working was a distant and ill-tempered man coarse in his language and brutal in his treatment of others. He did not suffer fools gladly and was quick to both criticise in public and remove from office those he thought incompetent.  It made him few friends either in Government or at the Imperial Court.

Yet even his many enemies had to concede that he was 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 allowed his heir 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.

The visit of Franz Ferdinand to Bosnia-Herzegovina was intended to show the nations of Europe in particular Serbia, who was the dominant power in the region. 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 put aside temporarily the fractious relationship he had with his uncle. It was also a chance for Sophie to accompany him, that they could at last be seen together as husband and wife, and she as an Empress in the making.

The date set for their formal entry into the city was 28 June 1914 (they had actually visited the day before to do some shopping without much fuss) which corresponded with the Serbian commemoration of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 which had ended in defeat to the forces of the Ottoman Empire but during which they had also assassinated Sultan Murad I. Whether the date chosen for the visit was a delibearate provocation or not its significance would not have been lost on the Archduke, though the nerves he expressed prior to the visit would suggest otherwise.

Greeted at Sarajevo Railway Station by the regional military commander Oskar Piotorek at whose invitation he had come, the Archduke was smiling and affable even if it was a little too hot for comfort dressed as he was in a full military uniform adorned with green ostrich feathers. He was particularly delighted for Sophie who could be seen beside her husband in the car, their future Empress receiving the cheers of the crowd. His mood would change.

franz ferdinand & wife sh xx

The crowds lining the streets of Sarajevo appeared happy and well-intentioned and little thought was given to the absence of any proper military escort but among them were Princip and his comrades who had since been joined by four others 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.

cabrinovic x

The crowds lining the streets of Sarajevo appeared happy and well-intentioned and little thought was given to the absence of any proper military escort but among them were Princip and his comrades who had since been joined by four others 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.

As the cavalcade neared its destination, Sarajevo City Hall, it slowed nearly to a halt. This presented Nedjelko Cabrinovic with his chance and unlike Mehmedbasic before him he did throw his grenade but had forgotten it had a ten second fuse. Instead of detonating it bounced off the Archduke's car rolling beneath the one following and exploding 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 and arrested - frustrated, forlorn, and somewhat embarrassed.

In the meantime the Archduke Franz Ferdinand appeared unperturbed remarking:

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

But he was nonetheless furious at the reception accorded him and gave full vent to his notorious temper during an address given in his honour thundering:

"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 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. It was agreed they should do so but he neglected to tell the driver and unaware of the new arrangements he set off as before. Realising this Piotorek began remonstrating with him.

Under pressure from Piotorek the driver tried to turn the car around in the narrow confines of the ironically named Franz Joseph Street. In doing so the car stalled.

Gavrilo Princip, believing the assassination attempt had failed was eating a sandwich and drinking coffee 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 pistol and fired seven times. His earlier practice in the local parks 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 anti- Serb violence. In the meantime, Princip confessed 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 to be charged with the murder of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife.

franz ferdinand bodies x

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. The procession was suitably solemn and the response to it likewise even if the people turned out to watch rather than to mourn. The Imperial Family did not turn out at all, few soldiers lined the route, and in private 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 vault.

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 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 our lifetime.

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

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