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.
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.
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.
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.