The Assassins, The Lovers, The Monuments

On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo. These killings precipitated World War I. That’s the important stuff; here are some details.

Princip on right, Cabrinovic on left, center is another assassin, Trifko Grabez. All three had TB and died in prison before the end of WWI.

Suicide Mission: There were seven would-be assassins arranged along Ferdinand’s automobile route. They had been supplied with six grenades, four pistols, and cyanide capsules by agents in the Serbian Army. Immediately after the killings, the young men were meant to poison themselves. Several had tuberculosis and thought they would die soon anyway. All were admirers of Bogdan Žerajić who had attempted to murder the military governor of Bosnia in 1910.  Žerajić shot at the governor five times and missed, then used the sixth on himself and hit the target. Gavrilo Princip said that he put flowers on his grave and knelt there the night before the assassination. Žerajić was far from the only Serb assassin to fail in a mission; there are a long list of them between 1900 and 1914: a governor shot at and missed but two passers-by killed, a governor wounded slightly but the would-be assasssin killed, and so on. Rebecca West remarks that those young men who served in the Balkan Wars became efficient killers but that those who stayed home were hopeless at murder. None of the June 28 assassins had served in the Balkan Wars.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie leave Sarajevo City Hall to take their last ride.

The Plot Failed: Archduke Ferdinand’s car passed the first of the would-be assassins who was too afraid to throw his grenade. The second, who had both a pistol and a grenade, was dazzled by Sophie’s white dress and did nothing because he didn’t want to get blood on it. The third, a former pacifist named Čabrinović, threw his grenade at the car. It hit the canvas top and rolled off under the wheels of the vehicle following, where it exploded, injuring a number of people. Čabrinović swallowed his cyanide capsule and jumped into the river where he failed to drown because there were only a few inches of water in the channel. The cyanide capsule was stale-dated and failed to kill Čabrinović though it did make him sick. Children of some of those killed by Čabrinović’s bomb sent a message of forgiveness to his trial. Later, Čabrinović surveyed the ruins of post-War Europe and said, “If I had known what was going to happen, instead of throwing those bombs I would have sat  on them and killed myself.” He died in prison of tuberculosis.

Princip in custody

Blunders Turn Failure into Success: Ferdinand and Sophie continued on to the City Hall where the Archduke was to speak. Franz Ferdinand was a man of short temper and was very angry about having bombs thrown at him. He upbraided Potiorek, the hated military governor for not attending to security, and it should be said that Potiorek failed in this duty in every conceivable way. Furthermore, the Archduke’s speech, which had been carried in the car following his, was spattered with blood. Sophie finally quieted him down and Ferdinand gave his speech. He then decided to go to the hospital and visit the men who had been wounded by Čabrinović’s grenade. Their driver took them back down the way they had come but had not been instructed about where they were going and, when he got to the Latin Bridge, took a right turn toward Franz-Joseph Street. Ferdinand yelled at him and the confused driver stalled the car in front of Schiller’s Delicatessan when he tried to reverse. Gavrilo Princip was standing in front of Schiller’s when the Archduke popped up in front of him. Princip seized the moment and fired a shot, then jumped onto the running board and fired another. Then he bit on his cyanide capsule. It was stale; he got sick but did not die.

Looking across the Latin Bridge. Schiller's deli is the building on the right. The car turned right on the narrow street in front of the deli.

Sophie Died for Love: Sophie came from a Czech family that had fallen in social stature over the preceding century. She was Lady-in-Waiting to Archduchess Isabella and considered a commoner. When Ferdinand started hanging out at Isabella’s palace, it was assumed that he was enamored of one of her daughters. When it was discovered that it was the lowly Sophie that he loved — well, hell hath no fury like a snubbed aristocrat. The couple, both in their thirties, had to wait several years before being allowed to marry and then only on condition that Sophie not take the ceremonial role of archduchess and that her children not inherit the throne. So, at state dinners, Sophie sat at a table for commoners, distant from her husband and the royal family. In time the situation relaxed a bit and Sophie was allowed to accompany Ferdinand on visits to the provinces in his capacity as a military leader. So, when Ferdinand went to Sarajevo to review the troops, he was pleased to offer Sophie the honor of riding beside him in the open car. Princip’s first shot struck the Archduke in the neck. Sophie threw herself across Ferdinand to protect him and the second shot went through the side of the car and pierced her body. “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die,” said Ferdinand, “Live for our children’s sake.” By the time the car reached the imperial residence and medical assistance, Sophie was dead. Ferdinand died a few minutes later. Prinicip said that he was sorry about that, that he never meant to kill the Archduchess; he was trying to kill Potiorek who was also in the car. At the state funeral, the family made certain that Ferdinand’s coffin was elevated a foot and a half above his wife’s. Sophia and Ferdinand were unlikeable, disliked people but, as Rebecca West notes, that was not the whole truth about them; no matter how ugly their appearance in the great world there was something ultimately beautiful in the small existence they shared as a couple.

Schiller's delicatessan. X marks the spot.


Schiller's is now the site of the assassination museum.

Gavrilo Princip’s Sandwich:  There is a story that Princip was eating a sandwich in Schiller’s when he looked up and saw the Archduke’s car. He ran out of the deli, leaving it uneaten, and pulled out his revolver. This is a fine tale that offers many interesting diversions — what if it had been a better sandwich? Could cuisine deter conspiracy? What if it had been a worse sandwich and Princip suffered food poisoning? And so on. But the stringent analysis of Mike Dash shows that the Sandwich Story is an Urban Legend, derived from a piece of fantastic fiction and now enshrined in many articles and websites. Nevertheless, I welcome the opportunity to introduce you to the sculpture of Tibi Tibi Neuspiel, one in a series of assassination sandwiches (all of them cheese and bologna on white bread) that have assassins toasted on one side, victims on the other. The Princip/Ferdinand sandwich formed from beeswax has sold out at $450 a unit.

Neuspiel's assassination sandwich

Russia Was Involved: The young men welcoming their glorious doom were inspired by nationalist groups such as Young Bosnia, but they were supplied with weapons by the Serbian military. Dragutin Dimitrijević, known as Apis, was the main coordinator of the assassination. He was Chief of Intelligence for the Serbian General Staff. Others included Vojislav Tankosić who had helped murder the Serbian king, queen, and various relations in the Army plot of 1903 that had eliminated the former ruling family and put the Karageorges on the throne;  and  Danilo Ilić, leader of the Sarajevo Black Hand, a pro-Slav, anti-Austrian joint. Russia, also being pro-Slav and anti-Austrian, was sympathetic. The Russian secret service both denied any knowledge of the assassination plot and also claimed that they tried to stop it which is a contradiction that says everything. Although Russia’s support for the Black Hand and similar groups is pretty well established, that country does not seem responsible for the assassination itself. Even so, considering that World War I was a disaster for Russia that culminated in the Bolshevik Revolution, this has to be the biggest blowback from a covert operation in world history (though the CIA may decide to take that record away from the Russians tomorrow for all I know).

The Muslims were Involved:  Some of the twenty-five or so people arrested in the assassination plot were Bosnian Muslims. One of them, Mehmed Mehmedbašić, was the first assassin who choked and didn’t fling his bomb. He said later that there was a policeman nearby and he couldn’t do it. Mehmed had, earlier that year, attempted to kill the military governor with a poisoned dagger. That plot failed, too. He was well-trusted by Serb nationalists and was considered one of them. After the assassination, Mehmed, aided by Serbian authorities, fled to Montenegro. Again captured, again allowed to escape, and captured once more, Mehmed was found guilty in the 1917 second trial of conspirators. This was a rigged event overseen by French authorities in the area at the time. When Mehmed was pardoned in 1919, no one complained very much. The presence of Muslims in the pro-Slav movement may surprise anyone familiar with recent headlines and raises the question: what did these assassins want? At the time most were looking for a non-Austrian state, a Yugoslavia. After World War I, this was achieved of course, but then the Wants switched to more narrow national aims — an independent Bosnia, a return to Serbian greatness, a separate Croatia, and so on. Meanwhile, the notion of three faiths — Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim — given equal status in the country began to lose its appeal. Mehmed was killed by Croatian fascists in 1943.

Post-murder Bloodbath: Potiorek, the Austrian military governor of Bosnia, was one of a group that wanted to reduce Serbia before it could organize a successful revolt. He used the assassination as an excuse to round up and jail more than 5000 people in Sarajevo. Many troops were brought into the city to preside over the disorder that Potiorek fomented — if those troops had guarded Ferdinand’s auto route, history would have been very different. Broad hints were given to Croats and Muslims that a riot was in order and, in fact, those who did not riot were jailed. So Sarajevo was looted and buildings burned and many people died. Sometimes, the Austrians did not wait for rioters but simply murdered people out of hand. Sixty residents of the ski resort at Pali were shot, for instance. Potiorek, who had failed to protect the Archduke, was promoted. Many suspected that he had actually connived at the assassination but there is no evidence to support this notion.

The trial. Princip is in center, Ilic to his left and Caprinovic to his right.

Too Young to Die: In October of 1914 the first trial of assassins commenced. Twenty-five people, those gunmen that were captured and anyone who had assisted in any way, were charged. The Austrian government would not give the death penalty to anyone under the age of 20. There was some debate about Princip, who was a month shy of that birthday on June 28, but it was decided that he was, in fact, too young to hang. He and the younger conspirators tried to aid the older accused and claimed that the assassination was all their idea and downplayed the role of official Serbian involvement. Čabrinović made up an involved tale about the Freemasons who, he said, engaged him to murder the Archduke for his Catholic tendencies. Some believed him but the court had none of it. Ilic and four others were found guilty and old enough to hang (two had their sentences commuted later). Nine were acquitted. Of the remaining eleven, nine died in prison mostly from tuberculosis. Some of the conspirators who had escaped were rounded up and tried in 1917 on trumped up charges peripherally related to the assassination. Three of these were also hanged including Apis. Mehmed got fifteen years but was pardoned in 1919. Tankosić was killed during the First World War.

Princip's cell (right) at Theresienstadt

Princip’s Legacy: Princip always stuck to the story that he had sworn to at his trial. He claimed that it was his own idea to go after the Archduke and that the Serbian Army had been reluctant to give him weapons. He told the prison psychiatrist, Dr. Pappenheim, that he was pleased to strike a blow for a Slav state, free from Austria, and considered himself a patriot. He shrugged off any responsibility for the First World War, considering that it would have happened even had the Archduke not been murdered. Princip’s arm had been broken in the beatings he suffered on being captured. It was never set properly and tuberculosis spread into the bone. The arm was amputated in 1917 but Princip did not last another year. He died of tuberculosis in Theresienstadt, later to become famous as a Nazi concentration camp, in 1918, four months before the Great War’s end. Princip had been transferred to this Czech location since Austia feared it could not hold him in Serbia. He was buried secretly, at night, in order that his body not be used as a rallying symbol for Slav nationalists. One of the gravediggers memorized the location and Princip’s body was dug up and re-interred with other martyrs in the Orthodox cemetery in Sarajevo. A plaque inscribed with lines from a revolutionary poem is fixed to the wall over the graves.

Tito's 1953 plaque with concrete footprints. (photo by xinem)

The Memorials: In 1914 busts of Ferdinand and Sophie were mounted on the Latin Bridge. These were removed after the defeat of Austria but the pedestal where they were mounted still stands. A bronze plaque honoring the couple is in storage — it may or may not have been publicly displayed in the 1920s. The bridge and the street nearby were re-named after Gavrilo Princip and, in 1931, a small plaque honoring him was mounted near the spot where the shootings occurred: “Here, in this historical place, Gavrilo Princip was the initiator of liberty on the day of St.Vitus, June 28, 1914”. A nearby building was turned into a Young Bosnia museum. This museum, and the plaque, were destroyed during World War II. In 1953, Tito announced that Princip was an anti-imperialist revolutionary and the museum was reinstated. A new plaque was put up, and a set of concrete footprints were placed where Princip was supposed to stand when he fired his shots. Plaque, museum, and footprints were removed or destroyed in the 1990s as was a bas-relief honoring Young Bosnia. Now there is a plaque simply stating that here was the spot where the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand took place. A small museum contains some items of interest such as a replica of Princip’s gun — the original is in the Vienna Museum of Military History. In 1992 someone put up a monument to Peace there. In 2003 it was announced that the concrete footprints, destroyed by shelling during the siege of Sarajevo, would be replaced. So far, they haven’t. The street has been renamed and the bridge is the Latin Bridge once again.

4 comments on “The Assassins, The Lovers, The Monuments

  1. nursemyra says:

    Toast sculptures? Very innovative

  2. JayElle says:

    How sad

  3. Filippa says:

    I´m in first year high school and have an assignment to write an articel about the Assassantion of the the Archduke and his wife, this is the most intresting inform ive found whit details that would make my story much more intresteing.. So thank you

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