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Gavrilo Princip

The spark that ignited World War I

"I am not a criminal, for I destroyed a bad man. I thought I was right."
Gavrilo Princip at his trial

June 28, 1914, was a beautiful sunny day in Sarajevo. Gavrilo Princip sat alone and disconsolate at a sidewalk cafe having coffee. He and his friends had just failed to execute their mission; to kill the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand. They had lost a chance to strike a blow for Serbian independence. 

Earlier in the day, Ferdinand and his wife Sophie had arrived by train on an official visit to Sarajevo. The archduke's advisors knew that a visit to Sarajevo was dangerous because there was a lot of unrest among the populace, but they also knew that it was their duty to go there and "show the flag." 

Gavrilo Princip -- The spark that ignited World War I
Appearances were an important part of keeping the empire together, but they weren't going to take any unnecessary risks. Ferdinand and Sophie's motorcade was to travel to city hall for welcoming ceremonies, and 120 Sarajevo policemen had been assigned to the parade route. Princip and the other members of the assassination team had also spaced themselves out and blended into the crowds that lined the parade route. 

As the open car carrying the Archduke and his wife approached, Nedjelko Cabrinovic, one of Princip's co-conspirators, threw a bomb, but it bounced off the car and landed in the street. The bomb exploded under the car that followed, injuring two in the car and several in the crowd. While Cabrinovic was being arrested, the Archduke's car sped off and eliminated any chance of another assassination attempt.

Nedjelko Cabrinovic
Nedjelko Cabrinovic

As Princip sipped his coffee, he must have reflected on how and why he had arrived at this moment. He believed that killing the Archduke was the key to setting events in motion that would result in Serbia asserting its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then uniting with Bosnia. Ferdinand had already indicated that once he ascended to the throne, he intended to give Serbia a greater voice in running its own affairs. The Empire was practically on life-support as it was, so Serbian and Bosnian radicals couldn't allow a compromise to spoil their plans. The Archduke had to be eliminated.

Gavrilo Princip was born in 1894 in Bosnia, the son of a postman and the fourth of nine children. He attended high school in Sarajevo and Tuzla. When Austria-Hungry seized his homeland in 1908, he became a member of Mlada Bosna ("Young Bosnia"), a radical student group dedicated to freeing Bosnia from the grip of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Gavrilo attempted to join the Serbian army, but was turned down for being too small and weak. He was recruited by a Serbian revolutionary organization called the Black Hand in 1912.

The leader of the Black Hand was Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, also known as Apis (Bee) the Chief of the Intelligence Department of the Serbian General Staff. He had hatched the plan to kill the Archduke and recruited Princip and two other men from a coffeehouse in Sarajevo. Though it was clearly a suicide mission, it was an easy sell for "the Bee" because his new recruits were all burning with revolutionary fire as well as tuberculosis. At that time (nearly 100 years ago) that was as good as a death sentence. They knew that they would die soon and so had nothing to lose.

Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic
Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic

The trio was brought to Serbia for partisan training and then were each given a revolver, two bombs, and a small vial of cyanide. They were instructed to commit suicide after the assassination so that the plot could not be traced back to Serbia.

Before the plan could be launched, Nikola Pasic, Serbia's prime minister, heard about the plot and ordered Princip and his co-conspirators arrested when they attempted to enter Bosina. His orders were ignored though, and the trio easily slipped into Sarajevo. All went according to plan - till they blew their chance when the moment of truth arrived.

While Princip was finishing his coffee and pondering what had gone wrong, the Archduke's car arrived at city hall. He mounted the podium and the mayor of Sarajevo began his speech as if nothing had happened. Archduke Ferdinand was quite annoyed and interrupted "What is the good of your speeches? I come to Sarajevo on a visit, and I get bombs thrown at me. It is outrageous!" That was the end of the speeches and they all went inside.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie

The Archduke inquired about the injured and was told that they were at the hospital. Ferdinand said he wanted to visit them, but a member of his staff suggested that the trip might be dangerous. General Oskar Potiorek, the Governor of Bosnia scoffed, "Do you think Sarajevo is full of assassins?" Potiorek then suggested that it might be prudent for Sophie to remain at city hall, but she refused saying, "As long as the Archduke shows himself in public today, I will not leave him."

Poor Sophie should have listened to Potiorek, but she insisted on staying with Ferdinand because this trip was one of the few times that she had been allowed to appear with her husband in an official ceremony. Back in Vienna, Sophie was an outcast in royal circles because Ferdinand had married below his station. She was not allowed to appear beside him in any official functions in Austria. Ironically, her participation in the ceremonies in Sarajevo was supposed to be a wedding anniversary treat.

It was decided that they would all go to the hospital. In what can best be described as either an ill-advised display of bravado or monumental stupidity, the motorcade took the same route they had traveled before. Along the way the Archduke's driver took a wrong turn that put Europe on the road to war. Princip was astonished to see the royal car pass right in front of the cafe where he was standing. When the driver realized that he was going the wrong way, he stopped and began to back up slowly. Princip stepped forward to within five feet of the car, took out his revolver, and fired two shots.

Ferdinand was hit in the neck and Sophie was hit in the abdomen. He pleaded "Sophie dear! Sophie dear! Don't die! Stay alive for our children!" But Sophie was already dead and Ferdinand would be dead within a few moments.

Princip fires the fatal shots  
Princip fires the fatal shots

After firing the fatal shots, Princip attempted to turn the gun on himself, but it was knocked out of his hand by an onlooker. He then swallowed the cyanide he had been issued, but it was so old it only made him vomit. He was arrested by police and according to one account, "They beat him over the head with the flat of their swords. They knocked him down, they kicked him, scraped the skin from his neck with the edges of their swords, tortured him, all but killed him." No doubt at that point Princip was wishing they would kill him and get it over with.

The arrest of Gavrilo Princip
The arrest of Gavrilo Princip

Austria-Hungary demanded that Princip and the other assassins be turned over, but Serbia refused, citing its sovereignty and right to try them under Serbian law. Eventually Serbia gave in, but by then it was too late. As a direct result of the assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. Because of various treaties and defense agreements between European countries, one nation after another took sides and the end result was the first World War.

Gavrilo Princip at trial
Gavrilo Princip at trial

Meanwhile, Princip was quickly convicted of murder, but because of his age he could only be sentenced to 20 years in prison. He died of tuberculosis in 1918 at the age of 24 at the hospital of Theresienstadt prison.

For many years after, Gavrilo Princip was celebrated as a national hero of Yugoslavia. A museum was dedicated to Princip in Sarajevo at the corner where the event happened, along with a wall plaque and his footprints embedded in the pavement. When Yugoslavia disintegrated in the 1990s, ethnic differences resulted in war between Bosnia and Serbia. Attitudes changed and Bosnia then considered Princip a terrorist and an unwitting dupe of Serbia. The museum, plaque, and footprints were removed for a few years, but shortly after hostilities between Bosnia and Serbia ended they were replaced with a museum that commemorates the historical importance of the event rather than a tribute to Princip.

Museum at the corner where the fatal shots were fired   A close-up of the plaque
Museum at the corner where the fatal shots were fired
& a close-up of the plaque

Princip's actions that day will always be considered one of the defining moments of the 20th Century. The ultimate costs of World War One in lives and property were truly staggering. In four years of war, over half of the 42 million men who were mobilized became casualties. Over 8 million soldiers and 6 million civilians died. It has been estimated that the war cost the Allies $125 billion and the Central Powers $60 billion, but the costs of the war went far beyond lives and property.

The victors were not kind to the vanquished. The Allies sought revenge by forcing Germany to pay huge sums as war reparations. The German economy collapsed under the weight of those reparations, causing great disaffection and disillusionment among its youth. That set the stage for Hitler to come to power in Germany and drag the entire world into another war just twenty years later.



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