Meet the Assassin Who Sparked World War One

Gavrilo Princip
A political poster is pictured in Gavrilo Princip's hometown Bosansko Grahovo, January 31, 2014. Gavrilo Princip's killing of Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, lit the fuse for World War One. Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Gavrilo Princip is a handsome man, walking through the marble cafe of his motel in a Serb-suburb of Sarajevo. He has the same high cheek-bones, the same piercing gaze as his great-uncle, Gavrilo Princip, who, aged 19, fired the shot in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914 that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

The archduke’s death catapulted the Great Powers into the First World War, a four-year long conflict that left 16 million dead and caused the downfall of four empires: the Russian, the Austrian, the Ottoman Turkish, and the German. This month sees the 100th anniversary of Princip Sr. shooting dead the Archduke, something that is causing the present day Princip some concern.

“I’m very sorry, I have to leave,” he says in English, crossing the petrol station forecourt in front of his motel. Tall, with silver-frosted hair, and elegant in a well-pressed blue denim shirt that matches his eyes, he looks a bit like Christopher Plummer.

“I’m fed up with all of this,” Princip says to my interpreter. “Nobody bothered us for 100 years and now everyone wants to talk. My family doesn’t think about our history like that.” His family did call him Gavrilo, though – and he hasn’t changed his name. There are 53 other Gavrilo Princips on Facebook.

For the next few weeks, Princip may well be the only person in Sarajevo who doesn’t want to talk about his notorious ancestor. Sarajevo today has the air of a hostess at the start of a party. Despite three and half years of siege and tens of thousands dead in the Bosnian War that ran from 1992-95, the city is en fête to commemorate the centenary of Sarajevo’s most notorious historical incident.

But, like everything else in Bosnia since Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991, Princip seems to have become the victim of an ethnic and political dispute.

“I guess Princip was a terrorist,” says Enes Popara, a 26-year-old Bosniak tour guide, waving an umbrella at his flock by the Latinski Bridge, on the very spot where the archduke met his end.

“To me, it looks just like an assassination,” says Sarajevo’s mayor, Ivo Komšić, in his office, overlooking the embankment where Franz Ferdinand died. Komšić, however, is uncomfortable with this definition. Aged 66, he was brought up in Tito’s Communist Yugoslavia, where Princip was considered a hero.

“Under the previous regime we considered him a patriot, all of us who lived in Bosnia,” said Komšić. “It didn’t matter if you were Muslim, Serb or Croat. Franz Ferdinand was a representative of the occupying power. We had Princip’s footprints in cement on the pavement where he fired the shot.” The footprints are gone now, wiped out by one of the tens of thousands of Bosnian-Serb shells  that fell on the city in the Bosnian War.

Over the river and up the hill, a large poster of Gavrilo Princip hangs on a café wall in East Sarajevo, the Bosnian-Serb half of the city. Since the Dayton Peace Accord in 1995, which ended the war, Bosnia has been divided in two, the Federation of Bosniaks (Muslims) and Croats, and the Republika Srpska. The two are overseen by the international Office of the High Representative (OHR).

“I put Princip up last year when people started saying he was a terrorist,” says the café owner, Zoran Goljamin. “For me, he’s a hero. That’s what we learned at school, before the war. Princip was a freedom fighter. His country was under occupation. And now Bosnia is under occupation again today, by NATO.”

In fact, the 900-strong European Union Force (Eufor) occupying force is now deployed by the EU, but Zoran could be forgiven for getting them confused. Indeed, as once Austrian colonists and soldiers thronged the streets of Sarajevo, now it’s Eufor soldiers, foreign aid workers and diplomats from the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the chief peace implementation agency in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“Pretty much everything said about Gavrilo Princip is wrong,” says Tim Butcher, author of The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War, who covered the four year siege of Sarajevo for the Telegraph, London. “Princip’s become the butt of jokes, a pathetic figure,” says Butcher. “In fact he was a tough Bosnian Serb farmer’s son, who went on a thoughtful process of radicalisation. You can see the slow burn start, in his school reports, when Austria formally annexes Bosnia in 1908. Until then, he gets As all the way. But then, after the annexation, his truancy goes up, as he starts thinking about other things.”

It has become fashionable to say the First World War was a waste of life. But for Princip and the peoples of southern, central and eastern Europe, the War removed the empires that had governed them for centuries. In 1908, Austria annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina from the Ottoman Empire – a formalisation of what had been the status quo since the 1878 Congress of Berlin, when Austria took over the governing of Bosnia from Turkey.

Princip became a member of Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia), a movement of young Slavs – of every ethnic and religious persuasion – dedicated to overthrowing Austro-Hungarian rule. Princip and his fellow Mlada Bosna members were looking for a moment to make a protest and found it when Franz Ferdinand, crown prince of the Habsburg Empire, and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg paid an official visit to Sarajevo.

The couple were driven down the embankment along the river Miljacka, the artery of Sarajevo, past cheering crowds. One of Princip’s Mlada Bosna colleagues threw a bomb. It missed, was caught and then thrown back to the bomber by an Austrian general, who was wounded. The imperial couple were saved. The assassin leapt into the river but was captured by police and the archduke’s cortege continued to Sarajevo’s town hall as planned.

In a show of imperial sangfroid, the archduke and his wife decided to take the same route on their return journey, to visit the wounded general in the hospital. Mlada Bosna had a back-up plan. As the imperial car stopped to turn at the Latinski Bridge, Princip stepped out of the crowd and shot the archduke in the throat at a range of two metres. Princip fired the pistol again but missed, hitting Duchess Sophie in the abdomen.

Franz Ferdinand was heard to say: “Sophie, don’t die, for our children.” Within minutes, however, the couple were both dead and Princip, whose cyanide suicide capsule had failed, was captured by the police.

Eighty years later, at the height of the Bosnian war, the archduke still figured in a much-loved Sarajevo joke. Mujo, the stock peasant in many Bosnian jokes, goes fishing and catches a golden fish. “I’m a magic fish,” says the fish. “Set me free and I’ll give you a wish.”

“I want to be a prince,” says Mujo. “I want to live in a palace and be married to a beautiful princess who loves me.” And the fish says, “It will be done.” The next morning Mujo wakes up in unfamiliar luxury; beside him a beautiful woman gazes adoringly into his eyes. There is a knock at the door. “Good morning Your Imperial Highness,” says a valet. “It’s time for your trip to Sarajevo.”

Today, Bosnia’s latter-day representatives of the great powers are mobilising for the centennial celebrations. Freedom fighter or terrorist, Princip today is a tourist opportunity for a country still struggling to emerge from its post-war, post-Communist economic fog.

“This commemoration wasn’t my idea,” says Ivo Komšić. “The impetus came from the other European countries. The French supported it most strongly. I didn’t understand why until I found out that they had had the largest casualties in the First World War – over two million Frenchmen died.”

Inevitably, with so much history at hand, there is an academic conference organised amid the festivities. Its organiser, Dr Vera Katz, shares much the same views as Princip’s great nephew.

“I’m sick of Gavrilo Princip,” says Dr Katz, in her office opposite the Bosnian presidency. “Everybody’s talking about him now. We organised this conference three years ago. We’ve got academics from 51 different cities in Europe and the U.S., 26 different countries. We’ve got people from Serbia. We’ve had a lot of cooperation from the Institute of Serbian History in Belgrade.”

What about the Serbs closer to home – the ones who prosecuted this most recent war? Dr Katz shakes her head. “We haven’t got anyone coming from Banja Luka,” she says, referring to the capital of the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb part of Bosnia. “The Serbs didn’t want to come. They are having their own conference,” she says.

“Nobody invited me,” retorts history professor Draga Mastilovic a few kilometres away in (Serb-controlled) East Sarajevo, in the old Bosnian Serb wartime capital and former Yugoslav royal ski resort, Pale. The Bosnian Serbs  have a rival set of celebrations planned.

Undeterred by the fact that the Muslim-Croat federation controls the actual spot where the archduke was killed, the Serbs are building their own: a Gavrilo Princip park, complete with a two-metre high statue of the man himself, is under construction in East Sarajevo. The statue is currently being created in Serbia, at a cost of €45,000, by the Serb artist Vladimir Majstorović. One of a pair, the other statue will be erected in Belgrade.  

The statue will be unveiled in a ceremony on June 28 – the same day the Serbs will flock to a commemoration event in Višegrad, a Serb stronghold two hours from Sarajevo. Višegrad plays deep into the Bosnian Serb myths: it was the scene of atrocities in the Bosnian war, where about 3,000 Muslims were killed and thrown by Serbs from the bridge and the rest driven out. Now almost no Muslims live in this once thriving multi-ethnic town.

Princip, as a member of Young Bosnia, was a Bosnian nationalist, not just a Serb, and he gave his life for that. Although, at 19, he was too young to be executed under Austro-Hungarian law, he died of tuberculosis on May 1918 in jail in Theresienstadt – now in the Czech Republic – having spent four years in solitary confinement, without books or pens. He scratched on the wall of his cell: “Our ghosts will walk through Vienna, and roam the Palace, frightening the Lords.”

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