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).

Continue reading