Accompanied By Fate – The Last Years of Gavrilo Princip

Timing is everything. This was never truer than in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was in just the right place at just the right time. He stepped out of Schiller’s Delicatessen in the early afternoon of June 28, 1914 to suddenly discover the Archduke’s car stalled right in front of him. The rest as they say is history. That moment may have been the right time to commit the assassination, but Princip would later come to regret both the fortuitous timing and the event itself.

Gavrilo Princip being taken to court by Austro-Hungarian soldiers

Gavrilo Princip being taken to court by Austro-Hungarian soldiers

A Virtual Death Sentence
When the assassination occurred Princip was twenty-seven days short of his 20th birthday. Under Austro-Hungarian law, he could not be sentenced to death due to his age at the time when he committed the murder. This at first might have seemed to be a stroke of luck. After all, though Princip received the maximum sentence, it was for only twenty years. He could possibly live long enough to be a free man once again. Taking such a view of the situation is deceiving. Princip may have avoided execution, but he was also effectively denied martyrdom. Not a small thing in the mind of a man hoping to change the world. Princip’s twenty year sentence ended up lasting only three and a half years. Yet that turned out to be long enough. The tortuous years he spent in prison turned out to be a much worse death sentence.

Terezin was a fortress complex north of Prague, in what is today the Czech Republic. It was constructed during the late 18th century as part of what was to be a system of defensive fortresses to protect Habsburg Austria’s territory. The complex consisted of a large fortress, which was basically a walled town, as well as a much smaller fortress. Neither were ever attacked and both soon became obsolete. The complex was then converted into a prison. Today Terezin is better known by its German name of Theresienstadt. This is because of its role as a transit camp for Jews during World War II. Tens of thousands perished in the fortress due to disease and malnutrition. Those who did survive were shipped onward to extermination camps further east. Almost all the prisoners who were there during the darkest days of the Holocaust are anonymous to history. Strangely though, the most famous person to ever suffer within the walls of Terezin had been imprisoned there some twenty five years before.

Keeping Company With Failure
Gavrilo Princip arrived at Terezin in December 1914. He was lucky to have made it alive to the prison in the first place. On the week long railroad journey that carried him from Bosnia to Bohemia, the train had stopped in Vienna. At the station a lynch mob baying for blood had to be held back by the police. The mob had good reason to be angry. The empire they called home was committing suicide on the southern and eastern fronts of the Great War sparked by Princip. After just four months of war, the Austro-Hungarian forces had lost one million soldiers. And worse was yet to come.

Upon his arrival at Terezin, Princip was immediately placed in solitary confinement within the small fortress. For days, weeks and months on end he was bound with shackles that weighed over twenty pounds. His days consisted of either sitting or sleeping. He was not allowed visitors nor any reading material. In early 1916, during the depths of winter, his will finally broke. He attempted to hang himself with a towel, but was unsuccessful. This was the second suicide attempt by Princip that had failed. His first had occurred in Sarajevo immediately after he carried out the assassination. He took cyanide, but vomited it up. Before he could turn the pistol he had killed the Archduke with on himself, he was stopped by onlookers. It was not just his situation in the prison that brought Princip to such desperation, he had almost surely been informed by guards that the Serbian Army had experienced total defeat. By 1916, the south Slavic areas were occupied by German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers. The assassination by Princip had sparked an all-consuming war that had for the time being destroyed the dream of a Yugoslavia, which Princip had fervently believed could unite all the South Slavic peoples.

Cell where Gavrilo Princip was imprisoned at Terezin

Cell where Gavrilo Princip was imprisoned at Terezin

Dreams of Love & The Reality of Hopelessness
Within a few weeks of his attempted suicide, Princip received one of his first and only visitors in Terezin, a psychiatrist by the name of Martin Pappenheim. They met on four different occasions, the first in February and the last in mid-June of 1916. Princip confided to Pappenheim that the days were interminable. He badly missed being able to read and had no intellectual outlet. The only sliver of light that still cast a ray of hope amid the darkness of prison life were fantastical dreams he kept having about love. Yet these were fleeting, since Princip only slept a few hours at a time. According to Pappenheim, the twenty-one year old Bosnian Serb had lost all hope. Now that Serbia had suffered total defeat, there was nothing left for him. Pappenheim also noticed the festering sores on Princips wasting body. Tuberculosis was literally eating the young man alive on the outside. Being chained to the wall of his cell for a year and a half had irreparably damaged Princip’s physique. Little did he or his psychiatrist know that he still had nearly two years left to live.

Pappenheim’s meetings with Princip soon became a thing of the past. He was left alone once again. His condition continued to deteriorate. His left arm literally rotted away at the elbow. A wire was used to connect the lower and upper parts of his arm. Inevitably, an amputation had to be done. This only bought Princip a limited amount of time. With his body covered with infection, sores oozing profusely somehow he lasted into the spring of 1918. Than just after dawn, in late April he finally drew his last breath. The suffering was over for Princip, yet the war raged on.

Accompanied By Fate
A couple of years before his death, in one of the meetings Princip had with Pappenheim their discussion had turned to the war that was raging all over Europe at that moment. Princip found it incredible that the war had started because of the act he committed in Sarajevo. He had thought a war might eventually come about, but not right then. Princip professed that such an outcome seemed unbelievable. He was not the only one who probably felt that way. The rest of the world shared Princip’s disbelief of the Great War that had ensued from the assassination of the Archduke. Princip ended up dying all alone in a Bohemian prison, meanwhile a whole world was dying together on bloody fields of battle all across Europe.

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