Moment Of Surrender – A Street Corner In Sarajevo: Visiting The Beginning Of The End (Travels In Eastern Europe #22)

I was picked up at the airport in Sarajevo by the proprietor of my accommodation. We drove back through Novo Sarajevo (New Sarajevo), a newer part of the city I had never heard of before. The typical Tito-era tower apartment blocks loomed over the city streets. It was not until we got close to the old town that I began to notice steeples and minarets piercing the skyline. I was nervous with anticipation. My goal was to get checked in as quickly as possible so I would have time to hurry down to the location of the assassination site. After dropping my bags off, impatience drove me to immediately order a taxi, A few minutes later I was being whisked through the winding streets above the Old Town. The taxi driver misunderstood the directions and dropped me off nearby. This turned out to be for the best as I was able be to get my bearings while approaching the site.

From the moment I first saw a photo of Gavrilo Princip being apprehended by police immediately after his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the archduchess Sophie I was fascinated by that event. The assassination’s setting in Sarajevo, an exotic quasi-eastern city that was a cauldron of ethnic tensions had much to do with my interest. I can still remember when I first saw the photo. It was on page four in Volume One of the Marshal Cavendish Encyclopedia of World War I in my high school library. The Encyclopedia had a detailed article on the assassination. I read and reread it several times. My interest in the story of that fateful day led me years later to eventually track down an entire set of the encyclopedia later in life. Such curiosity eventually led me to research a trip to the actual site. That is what brought me all the way to Sarajevo. I now stood on the verge of realizing a decades old dream.

Realizing a lifelong dream in Sarajevo

Realizing a lifelong dream in Sarajevo

Trigger Effect – Changing The World One Bullet At A Time
It is not often (or ever) that I travel thousands of miles to visit a single street corner, but the allure of what happened in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 magnetically pulled me to that place where the Obala Kulina bana meets Zelenih beretki just across from the Latin Bridge. A century ago, the Obala was known as the Appel Quay, while Zelenih berertki was Franz Josef Strasse. Sarajevo was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the southern frontier of that multicultural polity. The annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary in 1905 had caused the blood of Serbia to boil. Bosnia had a large population of ethnic Serbs. The nation of Serbia wanted to incorporate them into a Greater Serbia that would rule over all South Slavs. Ethnic Serbs in Bosnia were stoked by the Serbian government to overthrow Austro-Hungarian rule. One way of doing that would be to assassinate the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand when he visited Sarajevo. The man who carried out the assassination, Gavrilo Princip, was a rootless, Bosnian Serb nationalist. His act of murder changed history.

When I got to the actual site, I was surprised by how small everything seemed. The Miljacka River, running beside the Appel Quay and under the Latin Bridge was flowing tepidly. It took less than a minute to walk across this world famous bridge. The street corner on which Princip stood when he fired the shots was just another ordinary street corner in front of an unmemorable building. Today the building holds a museum about the assassination and Austro-Hungarian rule in Sarajevo. There was a plaque with historical information on the outer wall of the museum and that was about it. It was something of a letdown, but what should I have expected? I had built the event up in my mind to such an extent that almost anything outside of the actual moment itself would have been a letdown.

The incredible thing was that the event really was of outsized significance, beyond all proportion to the modest surroundings of the site. There is no understating the assassination’s effect upon the world, both then and now. It was quite literally the trigger event that led to the outbreak of the First World War and millions of lives being lost in the first great conflagration of the 20th century. Princip’s shots were the inaugural volley that started the 20th century on an ultraviolent trajectory. Standing in the exact spot where it all began should have been humbling. In truth, I did not feel much of anything, other than a sense of gratification that I had realized a lifelong dream.

The Latin Bridge over the Miljacka River

The Latin Bridge over the Miljacka River

Murderous Foibles – Reign Of The Amateurs
As for the assassination itself, the entire operation was full of foibles, nebulous characters and outright amateurism. For example, there were six known potential assassins in the city that day. The first three completely lost their nerve, failing to carry out a number of prime opportunities to murder the Archduke. Another assassin did muster the courage to toss a bomb at the Archduke’s vehicle, which bounced off its open topped canopy and badly damaged one of his entourage’s vehicles following closely behind. The bomb thrower, tried to commit suicide by taking cyanide, which only proceeded to induce vomiting, then proceeded to leap into the nearby river which was less than half a foot in depth. So much for getting away. The police pulled him from the water and gave him a vicious beating.

The Archduke took this as more a personal slight than a potentially fatal threat. By the time he reached the town hall to give a speech, he was barking at the mayor about the ferocious hospitality shown toward him and his wife by the bomb throwing locals. His wife, Sophie, was able to calm him down, but his imperious, stubborn nature would come back to haunt them. Instead of getting out of the city as soon as possible, the archduke decided they should go to the hospital and visit those who had been wounded by the bomb. This meant going back through the city once again with the car’s canopy down.

The man in charge of the Archduke’s security (if there was such a thing on this day) decided they should avoid the maze of streets in the downtown area and hurry along the Appel Quay, more of a straight shot through town to the hospital. Unfortunately the archduke’s chauffeur was not told this information. He was still following the original route and turned right onto Franz-Josef-Strasse, back towards the city center. Just after making that turn, the chauffeur was dutifully informed (too late of course) that he was headed the wrong way (the right way by his incorrect calculations) and put the car in reverse, which jammed the gears causing the car to stall.

Princip was standing close to the middle of the crosswalk when he fired the fatal shots

Princip was standing close to the middle of the crosswalk when he fired the fatal shots

A Fluke Of History – An Ordinary Street On An Ordinary Day
At right about this time, Princip, whose most notable features were his short stature and a pair of preternaturally dark circles under his eyes, was coming out of Schiller’s Delicatessan (you can’t make this stuff up). He proceeded to pistol whip an innocent bystander who was in his way and then unloaded two shots. The first struck the Archduke in a jugular vein. The second struck his wife Sophie in the abdomen.
Right away, a crowd developed around Princip that attempted to lynch him. That was until the police arrived and carried him away. The Archduke and Sophie did reach the hospital, but she was dead on arrival and ten minutes later so was he. His final words were a repetitive mumble, “it is nothing.” Well it most certainly was something.

As for Princip, he turns the great man theory of history on its head. Perhaps it is not great men who make history, but weak men who overcompensate for their own innate weakness. They summon anger as a replacement for courage and leave their mark on the world through incident or accident. Such an improbable series of events put the assassination site into perspective for me. The act occurred less by planning than happenstance. It was a fluke of history that Princip found himself standing on the sidewalk beside the Archduke’s stalled out vehicle. The sheer randomness of everything that happened that day has left countless historians grappling to make sense of it all. The assassination is a reminder of the role luck and chance play in history. That may also be why the site itself seems to be so mundane. It happened on an ordinary street, on an ordinary day, but as I would find out soon enough, Sarajevo is no ordinary place.

Visiting Sarajevo – Shattered Impressions: Thirty Years & Thousands Of Miles Away (Travels In Eastern Europe #21)

Just as Bucharest has become associated with the monstrous architectural excesses of Nicolae Ceaucescu, my next destination, Sarajevo will always be associated with two tragic events that the city can never quite escape, the Assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand which sparked World War I and the 1,425 day siege of the city by Serbian forces during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s. The name Sarajevo evokes memories of these two events. One was the precursor to modern warfare, the other indicative of its ultimate extreme. These events will always have their place in history and give the city an unjustified reputation for infamy, as if it was fated to be the place where these events would occur. In other words, there must be something about Sarajevo. I must admit that I was not immune to such thinking. It was part of what drew me to plan my first trip to Eastern Europe and the Balkans around visiting the city.

I had originally planned to take a train through Bulgaria and Serbia to Bosnia, but after deciding to visit Bucharest it was easier for me to fly into Sarajevo. This was not the optimum way to ease into the Balkans. There would be no gradual change of scenery or prolonged crossing of borders, the transition would be abrupt. It was almost as if I was being parachuted into the city. Before parting ways with my travel companion, Tim, he had mentioned visiting the city. He called it “fascinating” and said it was well worth a multi-day visit. As the plane prepared for landing on the outskirts of the city, at an airport that had been central to the nearly four year siege, I wondered what to expect. I doubted it would be anything like my first encounter with the city, thirty years before and thousands of miles away.

Opening Ceremony for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo

Opening Ceremony for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo (Credit: BiHVolim)

The Winter Games – Sarajevo Shines In The Spotlight
It was the winter of 1984, Cold War tensions ran high and the Soviet Union was viewed as a monolithic Evil Empire. At least that is what we thought or were taught in the United States. The Olympic Games were more than a sporting competition. They were also a contest in the struggle for ideological supremacy. Posing the question of which system was better at developing athletes. A state controlled, centrally planned system or one inspired by the free market? The first communist nation to hold a Winter Olympics would be Yugoslavia with Sarajevo as the host city. Yugoslavia was an outlier, not part of either the Warsaw Pact or NATO, a communist nation with elements of the free market. The Yugoslavs hoped the Winter Olympics would boost their reputation with Sarajevo acting as the showpiece. The Yugoslav government spent $135 million in preparing for the games, an unheard of sum for a mid-sized country.

As a teenager in North Carolina and fanatical sports fan I eagerly followed those Winter Olympics. My most enduring memory is of snow, lots of snow, huge fluffy flakes falling on Sarajevo for days on end. Each day I tuned in, there would be legendary ABC Sports host, Jim McKay, standing amid a snowstorm, telling an American audience that Sarajevo was experiencing blizzard conditions. The downhill skiing event was canceled no less than three times due to heavy snow and high winds. I wondered if the event would ever be run. When it finally was, American Bill Johnson would be the surprise winner. I remember everything on the race course covered under a thick blanket of snow. For me, Sarajevo became the place of eternal snow, where it was forever winter. It was a powerful image that I struggled to shake less than a decade later, when the city came under siege.

A burning government building during the Siege of Sarajevo

A burning government building during the Siege of Sarajevo (Credit: Mikhail Evstafiev)

Siege Mentality –  A Ruined Image
The siege of Sarajevo brought images of a war torn city where people ran for their lives every time they crossed the street. There was no snow, only burning buildings gutted by artillery fire. Bullets, shrapnel and fear were pervasive. The siege seemed to be never ending, to the point that it became almost an afterthought. Bosnia became a synonym for ethnic conflict and Sarajevo a byword for death and destruction. Was this really the place that had hosted that winter wonderland of an Olympics? A dream city had somehow become a nightmare one. The siege and the Yugoslav Wars finally came to a muddled end, but Sarajevo would never be the same, at least not in the popular imagination. The war left thousands of scars, as many mental as physical.  As peace took hold Sarajevo faded into the background, part of yesterday’s news, obscured by international terrorism and the Euro Crisis. I thought little of it, as did the rest of the world.

Any mention of the 1984 Winter Olympics focused on the dilapidated state of the once magnificent facilities. War, neglect and lack of money had turned them into ruins at a very early age. Sarajevo came back into the news with the imminent arrival of the centennial of the Great War. It started to pop up in news headlines prior to the anniversary. It had been a dream of mine to visit the actual site of the Archduke’s assassination ever since I learned about it in high school Western Civilization class. My teacher, Mr. Johnson, spent an entire class drawing a diagram of the Sarajevo street layout, then explaining the causes of confusion that ended in Gavrilo Princip firing the deadly shots from point blank range that murdered the Archduke and his wife. Mr. Johnson had an incredible curiosity and spoke with such passionate fervor that it made me want to visit Sarajevo. To stand in the exact same place where to my mind, twentieth century history had begun. That was my goal in traveling to Sarajevo.

Sarajevo - from above

Sarajevo – from above (Credit: Julian Nitzsche)

Shock of the Normal – Opposites Attract
As my flight to Sarajevo touched down at the airport I looked out the window. I saw a place that looked completely normal. The wounds of war had been paved or painted over, the airport totally refurbished. It was inviting and well organized, passport control was a lark. My first impression of Sarajevo was of a warm, welcoming place, the complete opposite of its recent past.

Dead Reckoning – June 28, 1914: The Great War’s Legacy 100 Years Later

On Saturday, June 28, 2014, the 100th Anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event which sparked World War One, will be commemorated in Sarajevo. The commemoration will be solemn and relatively low key. Among other things, the Vienna Philharmonic is scheduled to perform a concert. There are a few other events on tap, but the overall tone for the anniversary is low key and respectful. This is only proper. After all, this was the moment when the 20th century changed forever and many believe was sent on its violent trajectory.

An Italian newspaper drawing depicting Gavrilo Princip killing Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo

An Italian newspaper drawing depicting Gavrilo Princip killing Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo

Improbabilities, Accidents & Happenstance
The assassination involved a series of ambiguous and troubled historical characters. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was not well liked or regarded by the citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, especially the elite. The fact that he was murdered gives some idea of the feelings of the empire’s enemies towards the Archduke. As for the assassin, Gavrilo Princip was an outcast, a man who lived on the very fringes of society. His act was neither glorious nor heroic. It was the result of a series of improbabilities, accidents and happenstance. Despite this, the assassination turned out to be a world historical event.

Yet it is what followed in the wake of the assassination rather than the event itself, which makes it of long lasting historical significance.  Four years of total war which ended with millions dead and wounded, along with a radical realignment of the political map of Europe flowed from the assassination. It is difficult to imagine how different Europe was before that event. Monarchies and empires ruled most of the continent including Bosnia. Freedom and representative government promoted the interests of the elite rather than a majority of the population. All of that either came to an end or underwent radical change. The world before the assassination vanished forever.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand & his wife Sophie at funeral ceremony

Archduke Franz Ferdinand & his wife Sophie at funeral ceremony

Coming to Terms – What Did They Fight For? What Did They Die For?
Following the commemoration in Sarajevo, expect much soul searching in France, Britain, Russia and Germany as they try to come to grips with the legacy of the Great War. For France, the Great War is a source of national pride, an honorable sacrifice to save their country from German militarism. Meanwhile in Britain, the war brings to mind images of needless slaughter, tragic heroism and victory at a cost that was indistinguishable from defeat. The Germans are still reckoning with causation and blame. Was the war really their fault? Should they bear the greatest burden of the blame? How do they honor their soldiers, without honoring militarism as well? Like so much of Germany’s ill-fated 20th century history, the questions are difficult and the answers are at best elusive, at worst nebulous. As for Russia, thoughts of the war are inseparable from those of the Revolution it led to. Russia has never come clean with its people about the truth of what occurred, the Soviet Union rewrote history to promote Bolshevism rather than honor the great courage and sacrifice of the peasant soldier. Lost in the Soviet version of the war was not only the truth, but also respect for the millions who died for what both then and now seems no good reason at all.

Lost amid these reckonings are the two principle polities whose enmity brought the world to arms. One, Austria-Hungary no longer exists, while the other, Serbia was synonymous throughout the 20th century with ethnic war and nationalism. They will both be referred to in Sarajevo, but following the commemoration they will almost certainly fade into the background. This will be a repeat of what happened during the Great War. The Austro-Hungarian Army fired the inaugural shots of World War I near Belgrade almost exactly a month to the day from when the assassination took place. After the starting point though, it seems these adversaries disappeared. This probably has to do with the fact that they were both losers in the war, even if the Serbs paradoxically managed to end up on the winning side. The Austro-Hungarian Army’s long awaited invasion of Serbia ended in defeat. Less than six months after the war had begun, the empire and its army were reeling. In the coming year, it would be reinforced and subsumed by the German Army. This would lead to victory for the Austro-Hungarians in Serbia, but it hardly mattered. This was a pyrrhic victory.

Serbian army in World War I - retreating into oblivion

Serbian army in World War I – retreating into oblivion

Defeat, Disillusionment & Disaster – The Great War 100 Years Later
When the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was murdered in Sarajevo, it was the beginning of the end for Austria-Hungary. In that way Princip’s action had been a success, but it brought Serbia so much misery, that it is hard to see how it was a victory.  The Serbs lost almost a fifth of their entire population during the war. That means about one in every five Serbs was dead by the end of the conflict. No country suffered a greater proportion of losses to its population.  What did the Serbs have to show for their suffering and sacrifice at war’s end? They ended up on the victorious side and led the states that would form Yugoslavia, but any gains they made were lost again during World War II, regained in its aftermath and finally lost in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s. The 20th century was not kind to Serbia. They could never quite achieve a Greater Serbia and the next best thing, Yugoslavia collapsed as well. For the Serbs, the Great War much like their entire 20th century history was filled with disappointment.

That word, disappointment may best explain the legacy of the Great War for all the major combatants. None of the nations and empires that were involved got what they wanted or expected. The war brought varying degrees of defeat, disillusionment and disaster to all involved. Perhaps that is why the commemoration in Sarajevo will be such a solemn affair.  It was the beginning of the end for one world and the start of something new and more horrible for the next one.

It Was Not Just the Balkans: Pre-World War I Political Violence in Europe

One of the prevailing stereotypes in 19th and 20th century European history is of the Balkans as a tragic and fated land, riven by infighting, feuds, diabolical plotting, ethnic hatred and outright war. There were notable examples of this kind of behavior throughout the region on multiple occasions over the past two centuries. Yet the same could be said for much of Europe during that time.

Bias & Backwardness – The Traditional Balkan Narrative
The reputation of the Balkans took a turn for the worse during the 1990’s. Following the collapse of Communism and Eastern Europe’s peaceful return to democracy and economic development, the former Yugoslavia went in a very different direction, it imploded. What followed became known as the Yugoslav Wars. The fighting was broadcast via television and internet to a western world stunned to see that large scale violence and ethnic cleansing could still occur in post-modern Europe.

The popular press covered the fighting with a wide range of preconceived notions. Among these were several recurring themes including that the violence was endemic to the area’s history, feuding and plotting was a way of life that rose almost to the level of a profession and it was a backward land infused with oriental despotism. Whether these were true or not hardly mattered, they fit into a traditional narrative that had a long history reaching back a couple of hundred years.  Trying to identify the origins of this bias against the Balkans has been the subject of many book length studies. This is not the time, place or space for such a study. Yet an understanding of how the Balkans came to be viewed today as a land of despotism can be easily understood through the action for which it was most famed in the late 19th and early 20th century, the act of assassination.

The exception or the rule - Gavrilo Princip being detained by Austro-Hungarian soldiers right after his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The exception or the rule – Gavrilo Princip being detained by Austro-Hungarian soldiers right after his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Murder & Intrigue – A European Phenomenon
Assassination seems to be the prototypical Balkan crime. It hits on all the derogatory stereotypes given to the region: radical politics, ethnic strife, extreme nationalistic sentiments and subversive conspiracies. It as though the Balkans had the market cornered on this type of behavior. In reality it did not. At the height of an assassination phenomenon lasting from 1900 to 1913, no less than twenty-eight different politicians, diplomats and heads of state were shot, stabbed or blown up in Europe, yet the Balkans accounted for only eight of these. That is less than three out of ten in the supposed powder keg of Europe.

One of the main reasons the Balkans became tarred with a reputation for murderous intrigue was because of two famous assassinations which occurred in the area during the early 20th century.  One is still well known today, the other relatively forgotten even though it caused a sensation at the time it occurred.  The more famous of the two was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb nationalist. It goes down as one of the most improbable and important events in modern times. The reverberations from that murder led to World War One. People who haven’t the slightest idea about the Austro-Hungarian Empire or its annexation of Bosnia are still aware that a strange character known as an Archduke was gunned down in Sarajevo. Many still believe such crimes to be typical of a backward region consumed by ancient hatreds.

Le Petit Parisien cover image of the assassination of King Alexander I of Serbia

Le Petit Parisien cover image of the assassination of King Alexander I of Serbia

Primitive Instincts
The other, lesser known political murder which informed the popular image of the Balkans took place in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia in 1903. In what is now called the May Overthrow, a group of Army officers led a coup against King Alexander I and his wife Queen Draga. The conspiracy is said to have grown to the point that it included an astounding 160 people. On the 29th of May, just a few hours past midnight, in the damp, chill air of Belgrade, the Royal Palace was surrounded by officers and soldiers determined to kill the King. They had a difficult time getting access to the royal quarters, but were determined enough to blow the King’s bedroom door open with dynamite. After searching in vain for a considerable amount of time, the royal couple was discovered hiding behind a secret door. What happened next is open to debate, but it seems that both the king and queen were almost immediately shot. The conspirators then took turns sabering them, accounts state that up to twenty-eight slashes were inflicted upon their bodies.

To add a final humiliation, the bodies were dumped out of a second story window of the palace onto manure piles in the gardens. The report of the coup made headlines all across Europe. The vindictive violence done to the corpses was shocking and bestial. This helped cement a popular impression of the Balkans as a land of backwardness, where royalty was treated with utter contempt. Interestingly, both famous Balkan assassinations took the lives of royal spouses. In this land, even the wives of royal heirs and monarchs were not safe.

Nikolai Bobrikov, the Governor General of Finland was one of three political figures assassinated in the Nordic Country during the early 20th century. Political violence was endemic and sometimes much worse in other parts of Europe than the Balkans

Nikolai Bobrikov, the Governor General of Finland was one of three political figures assassinated in the Nordic Country during the early 20th century. Political violence was endemic and sometimes much worse in other parts of Europe than the Balkans

Alternative Reality – European Backwardness
The two assassinations still inform how the Balkans is viewed today. The region has never really been able to escape the popular perception of what happened in Belgrade and Sarajevo over a century ago. The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s only tended to exacerbate matters. Ignorance by the general public in this case lends itself not to bliss, but to fear. Many avoid travel to Bosnia or Serbia due to its violent reputation. Those who do travel to the region are pleasantly surprised. Despite the fact that it is still developing economically it is one of the safest places in the whole of Europe with incredible natural and cultural history on offer.

Those who do bypass the Balkans would do well to remember that the rest of Europe was plagued just as much or more by political murder in the early years of the 20th century. For instance, in 1900 the King of Italy was shot dead, pierced by the four bullets of an assassin. Four notable Russian politicians were murdered from 1900 – 1911 and even in Finland (a land which today conjures up images of placid serenity) three notable public figures were murdered in a seven year period beginning in 1904. Yet no one much recalls those acts of violence. There is something about the Balkans that brings to mind smoke filled coffee houses, populated with saboteurs plotting to bring down the powerful. Whether this is true or not, hardly matters. That is the perception in the western world and that perception has created its own reality.

A Belief Stronger Than Life: Sarajevo’s Failed Assassination of 1910

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.

Postcard of Sarajevo along the Miljacka River in 1900

Postcard of Sarajevo along the Miljacka River in 1900

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.

Bogdan Zerajic- failed assassin, successful martyr

Bogdan Zerajic- failed assassin, successful martyr

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.

Franz Josef in Mostar - no assassin in sight

Franz Josef in Mostar – no assassin in sight

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.

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.

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.