A Scene Terrible to Contemplate – Nedjo Cabrinovic & The Unfinished Assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The 100th anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand will soon be remembered all across Europe. This was the event that sparked the outbreak of the First World War, changing the world forever. The name of the man who carried out the assassination, Gavrilo Princip, will come into the historical consciousness once again. Princip’s fame rests upon his actions on that fateful day. If not for the assassination, he would never have gained any sort of notoriety. He was a lost and troubled soul. Like so many assassins before and after him he clung to the very fringes of society. Militant nationalism was the preferred anecdote to give his life some kind of purpose. Princip and the assassination may be synonymous, but there were several other young men lining the route of the Archduke’s motorcade that early summer day in Sarajevo. Four of the assassins failed to carry through with the original plan. Another, Nedjo Cabrinovic tried and failed. If his action had been successful, Gavrilo Princip would be a mere footnote in history, while Cabrinovic’s name would be on everyone’s lips when the centenary of the assassination is commemorated.

Nedjo Cabrinovic - almost famous, but now only forgotten and infamous.

Nedjo Cabrinovic – almost famous, but now only forgotten and infamous.

A Troubled Youth
Who was Nedjo Cabrinovic? Much like his co-conspirators he was a troubled young man. He began working as a teenager at various jobs all of which he invariably lost. These included stints as a locksmith, sheet metal worker and typesetter at a printing press. He stuck with the last of these, but never at the same place for very long. While working at the printing press he became familiar with radical socialist literature. He spent much of his formative years reading texts calling for revolutionary upheaval. His family life was chaotic. The relationship between Nedjo and his father was difficult in the extreme. They quarreled constantly. On one occasion, Nedjo’s father actually had him jailed for refusing to apologize to a housemaid he had slapped. Even at the printing press trouble proceeded to follow him. He took his readings of such revolutionaries as Marx to heart. He formed a union at the press, gave speeches and incited the worker’s to protest wages and conditions. Cabrinovic ended up losing the job and nearly being thrown into prison. He was also given to fits of anger, illness and non-conformist behavior.

Princip & Cabrinovic – Happenstance Versus Plans
Eventually he joined the Young Bosnians, a radical ethnic Serb group that wanted to see Bosnia throw off the yoke of Austro-Hungarian rule and unite with Serbia. Any possible means necessary would be used to carry this out. This background eventually led Cabrinovic to his place alongside the Appel Quay on the morning of June 28, 1914. Unlike Princip, Cabrinovic’s weapon of choice was a bomb instead of a gun. One thing they did have in common were the cyanide pills each carried with them to commit suicide after the assassination was done. Another similarity was that both turned out to be the only ones of the seven potential assassins in Sarajevo that day who actually tried to kill the archduke. There was a big difference between the two attempts though. Princip’s occurred by happenstance whereas Cabrinovic’s was done according to plan.

The Miljacka river and the Appel Quay to its left - this was the site of Cabrinovic's assassination attempt on the archduke in 1914

The Miljacka river and the Appel Quay to its left – this was the site of Cabrinovic’s assassination attempt on the archduke in 1914

Something To Remember Him By
On the morning of the assassination Cabrinovic did something very strange. Indicative of his mindset on that historic day, he went to a photographer and had several photos of himself made with a friend. Wearing an odd black and gray outfit, the last photos of Cabrinovic as a free man were taken. He asked the friend who had posed with him to make sure that among others, his sister and grandmother received copies. It was as though he was leaving them something to remember him by, as if assassinating the heir to the Habsburg throne was not enough. Not long thereafter, Cabrinovic found a suitable place to carry out his assassination attempt. He stood on the Miljacka River side of the Appel Quay close to a lamppost. This was critical because he needed to strike the bomb against the lamppost to prime it.

The Near Miss
At 10:10 a.m. the archduke’s car came into view for Cabrinovic. Unbeknownst to the passengers they had already safely passed two assassins, both of whom lost their nerve and failed to act. Cabrinovic had no such hesitation. He soon saw the motorcade coming into view and recognized the Archduke by the feathers in his helmet. He took out his bomb, struck it against the lamppost. It made a loud cracking noise. Cabrinovic’s motions in priming the bomb alerted the chauffer of the Archduke’s vehicle that something was amiss. The chauffer sped up, Cabrinovic tossed the bomb, but he was just off the mark. It hit the folded-down hood of the car, landing in the road where a few seconds later it exploded near the back of the next car in the motorcade. Shrapnel flew in several directions. Passengers in this car as well as bystanders had been hit, but none killed. Even the Archduchess Sophie had been grazed on the shoulder by a piece of shrapnel, the wound turned out to be superficial.

The archduke’s car came to a stop. He wanted to see exactly what had happened. After a minute, an officer hastily warned the heir to the throne and his entourage to keep going. The Archduke on learning of a bomb being thrown at him was reported to have said that the assassin “must be insane.” The archduke’s sanity can be called into question as well. He carried on with the morning program, rather than getting out of Sarajevo before another attempt on his life took place. It was a decision that would cost the royal couple their lives later that morning. As for Cabrinovic, he swallowed cyanide pills and jumped a wall, tumbling down into the languid, shallow waters of the Miljacka. In a matter of minutes a group of four men, one a policeman, had apprehended Cabrinovic. He was roughed up by an infuriated crowd before the police hauled him off to jail. It was all over for him, his attempt had failed. The archduke was still alive, but not for long.

Cabrinovic on the far left and Princip on the far right (in the foreground) - escorted by Austro-Hungarian soldiers suring their trial for murder

Cabrinovic on the far left and Princip on the right (in the foreground) – escorted by Austro-Hungarian soldiers suring their trial for murder

Contrition & Oblivion
As for Cabrinovic he actually showed contrition at the trial where he and the other assassins were convicted several months later. When reflecting on the fact that the assassination had led to a full scale war, Cabrinovic said that if he had known what would have transpired from the murder of the archduke, he would have used the bomb on himself instead. The damage had been done though. A worldwide cataclysm was in progress and would not end for another four years, after which millions were dead. Cabrinovic would die in a Bohemian prison from the effects of tuberculosis just a year and a half that day in Sarajevo. He was all but forgotten.

What Might Have Been – A Scene Terrible to Contemplate
Today at the Austrian Military Museum in Vienn,a the car in which the Archduke and Archduchess were riding in Sarajevo is on display. It is a surreal experience to look at the 1911 Graft and Stift Double Phaeton, still in good condition and think that it was nearly blown to pieces that morning. The tunic worn by Franz Ferdinand when he was shot is on display as well. The bloodstains are still visible. It is a humbling experience no matter one’s opinion of what transpired that fateful day in Sarajevo.

There is another way to look at this exhibit though, one that is not surreal or humbling, but truly horrifying. A counter factual approach sets the assassination forward an hour. Cabrinovic’s bomb lands on target. The archduke and archduchess try to scramble away, but the bomb explodes. Bits of their bodies are blown in all directions. Shrapnel incises every limb that is left of them. The screams of bystanders are more animal than human. The car is a heap of metal, glass and fabric, the chauffer and other passengers lay moaning and twitching. That scene is terrible to contemplate, but it was certainly possible. If it had occurred there would almost certainly be a very different exhibit about the archduke’s assassination in the Austrian Military Museum. Perhaps it would showcase bits and pieces of the debris, fragmentary remains of that morning in the Balkans nearly one hundred years ago. There will never be such an exhibit, neither will anyone have Nedja Cabrinovic’s name on their lips at the 100th anniversary ceremonies this June. Instead the man is lost to history, just like that moment in time, just like the world he so wanted to change.

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