It was the middle of June, 1910, almost summer time in Sarajevo. Warmer temperatures were only one of the reasons for optimism. Another was the formation of a parliament for the Austro-Hungarian administered Bosnian province known as the Sabor. It was officially opened in mid-month by the provincial Military Governor, General Marijan Varesanin. The Austro-Hungarians felt that this might be a turning point in the process of integrating the province further into the Dual Monarchy. It was wishful thinking. Despite the parliament’s creation, a peasant revolt had just taken place in the countryside. Bosnia’s heterodox population of Serbs, Croats and Muslims were restless to the point of violence. Just two years earlier, the Dual Monarchy had annexed the province. This had inflamed revolutionary sentiment among the South Slavic people who called this mountainous land home. Their aim was to expunge the Austro-Hungarians and set up a South Slav state.
Warning Shots: Bosnia on the Brink
The Austro-Hungarian hope that the creation of a Sabor would quell some of the populace’s anger was in vain. Political violence was the preferred solution for young Bosnians who felt marginalized and unrepresented. They wanted self-rule, rather than imperial occupation. They were going to change their world and were willing to die for it. The ultimate outcome of this mindset occurred in June of 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. That successful act of violence led to the First World War. Strangely, a failed act of violence on the 15th of June, 1910 in Sarajevo was a shocking example of what was to come. It was a pity few failed to heed the warning shots.
On that day, the Austrian Military Governor of Bosnia, General Marijan Varesanin had been given the honor of leading the official opening of the Sabor. After the ceremony ended, his carriage made its way down the Appel Quay, astride the Miljacka River. He was heading back to his home at Konak, the military governor’s mansion. It would be along this same stretch of road four years later where Franz Ferdinand’s motorcade would have a bomb thrown at it. This would also be the same road where the fatal wrong turn by the Archduke’s chauffeur led the royal couple directly into the line of fire from assassin Gavrilo Princip. While General Varesanin knew that any Austrian leader in Bosnia was under threat of attack, he could not have imagined that on such a heretofore successful day, an assassin was lurking along his route home.
A Turn for the Worst
The carriage turned onto the Kaiser’s Bridge, ironically only one bridge up from the Latin Bridge where the Archduke would meet his fate. Suddenly five gun shots rang out in quick succession. They came within a hair’s breadth of hitting the General. A sixth shot did hit its mark, but in this final case the target happened not to be the General. The would-be assassin had placed the Browning pistol against his head and pulled the trigger. He dropped to the ground, dead in the middle of the road. Varesanin left his carriage to take a closer look. What he found was a young man, in his early 20’s, with blood oozing from his mouth. The entire episode, from first shot to the inspection of the assassin, took place with breathtaking rapidity.
The man lying dead in the road was one, Bogdan Zerajic. He, like so many Balkan assassins around the turn of the 20th century, came from an impoverished peasant family, one which not surprisingly had nine children. He tried to make a career for himself by studying law at university, but had to drop out due to lack of funds. He then found his true calling while reading anarchist literature and joining the burgeoning ranks of those youthful, wayward souls calling for revolution. He initially targeted the Emperor of the Dual Monarchy, Franz Josef for assassination. He got within an arm length of him in the city of Mostar, but could not bring himself to go through with the planned attempt. Only a few weeks later, Zerajic’s attempt on the life of Varesanin failed.
In Death as in Life – Zerajic & Princip: A Convergence of Souls
In death, Zerajic gained martyrdom. His grave became a pilgrimage site for those who would eventually follow in his footsteps. Among the visitors included Gavrilo Princip, who is said to have placed flowers on his grave. In death as in life these kindred spirits would converge, Princip was buried in the same cemetery a decade later. Interestingly, whereas Zerajic barely missed with his five shots at Varesanin, he was able to commit suicide. Conversely, both of Princip’s shots were hits, yet his own suicide attempt failed. Yet Zerajic despite his failure inspired many a Serb, while the successful Princip’s actions led to defeat and misery for Bosnia and Serbia in the immediate years that followed. The unintended consequences of history work in strange ways.
Answers to what might have been in the aftermath of the attempt on General Varesanin’s life offer any number of fascinating suppositions. What if he had been killed? It would almost certainly not have sparked a World War. On the other hand, if Zerajic had murdered Franz Josef in Mostar, one can pretty much imagine the ramifications. The difference between assassinating a military governor and the emperor are vast. One could lead to martial law, while the other to world war. It is a pity that a mere four years after the assassination attempt on General Varesanin in Sarajevo no one seems to have really considered that the same could happen to the Archduke. Maybe there was an ingrained faith that strokes of luck, rather than strokes of fate would see Austria-Hungary through in Bosnia. If only the Dual Monarchy’s leaders had thought otherwise. If it had happened in Sarajevo once, it could certainly happen in Sarajevo again.