Gavrilo Princip was a Yugoslav nationalist and a member of ‘Mlada Bosna’ (Young Bosnia) movement. He assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo in 1914 initiating a sequence of events that ultimately led to the outbreak of the First World War. The ‘Young Bosnia’ movement, which predominantly consisted of Serbs but also included Croats and Bosniaks, sought the unification of all Yugoslavs and an end to the Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to Princip, Archduke was selected as the target because it was very likely that as a future sovereign, he would have initiated reforms providing more autonomy to the Slavic regions, which would have prevented the planned unification. The dramatic events of the day of the assassination culminated in Princip and his accomplices being arrested subsequent to which the ‘Black Hand’, the secret Serbian nationalist society was implicated causing a démarche, known as the ‘July Ultimatum’, to be issued by Austria-Hungary to Serbia. At the age of 23, Princip succumbed to tuberculosis that he had contracted due to the poor conditions in prison.
Childhood & Early Life
Gavrilo Princip was born on 25 July 1894 in Obljaj, a remote village east of Bosansko Grahovo in Canton 10 of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The second son and the fourth child of his parents, Petar and Marija, he was named Gavrilo by a local Eastern Orthodox priest who insisted that naming him after Archangel Gabriel would help him to avoid infantile death common in those times, and due to which, his parents would lose six of their nine children.
The Princips, a Serb family, who lived off the land by farming, were very poor. Since Petar’s income from the farm after paying one-third to his landlord was insufficient to feed the family, he worked as a mailman and also transported passengers across the mountains separating Bosnia from Dalmatia to supplement his income.
In 1903, at the age of nine, Princip began attending primary school, despite opposition by his father and proved to be extremely good in studies
At the age of 13, Princip went to Sarajevo invited by his elder brother, Jovan, who wanted him to enroll in an Austro-Hungarian military school. However, he ended up joining a merchant school instead as a friend convinced Jovan not to make Gavrilo "an executioner of his own people". After studying for three years, Princip enrolled in a classical high school in Tuzla in August 1910 and graduated from there the next year.
In 1910, he came to know and admire Bogdan Žerajić, a Bosnian Serb revolutionary who unsuccessfully attempted to kill the Austro-Hungarian Governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Marijan Varešanin, before killing himself. Fired with enthusiasm, Princip joined ‘Mlada Bosnia’ (Young Bosnia), a society that was working to free Bosnia from Austria-Hungary and unify it with the neighboring Kingdom of Serbia.
Princip was expelled from school in 1912 for being involved in an agitation against the Austro-Hungarian authorities. He left the city soon thereafter and walked the 170 miles to Belgrade, where he attempted to join the fight against the Ottoman Turks under the leadership of Major Vojislav Tankosić, a member of the notorious ‘Crna Ruka’ (Black Hand), the primary conspiratorial society in Serbia at the time.
Rejected because of his small physical stature at a Belgrade recruitment office of the ‘Black Hand’, he personally met Tankosić who also disallowed him as he was too weak and small. Mortified, Princip returned to his brother in Sarajevo and spent the next few months shuttling to and from Belgrade.
In Belgrade, he managed to impress Živojin Rafajlović, one of the founders of the ‘Serbian Chetnik Organization’ with his determination and was sent with 15 others members of ‘Young Bosnia’ to Chetnik’s training center in Vranje to learn to shoot, use bombs, and knives.
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Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Princip and his fellow conspirators planned to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand when he visited Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 to oversee military training in Bosnia.
A little before 10 A.M. in the morning, the royal couple was taken in a six-car cavalcade from the Sarajevo station to the city. They were in the second car with Lieutenant Colonel Count Franz von Harrach and Oskar Potiorek while the mayor of Sarajevo, Fehim Čurčić, and the city's Commissioner of Police, Dr. Edmund Gerde were in the front car. The car of Archduke had the top rolled back to permit the crowds to have a better view of the royalty.
Six conspirators, including Princip, lined the Appel Quay, the route of the vehicles, spaced out so that each could attempt the assassination as best possible. Standing by the ‘Austro-Hungarian Bank’, the first conspirator, Muhamed Mehmedbašić, became scared at the last moment and allowed the car to pass.
Nedeljko Čabrinović, a 19-year old student, hurled a bomb at the Archduke's car as it passed the central police station a few minutes later. However, the driver spotting the thrown object accelerated and the bomb with a 10-second delay exploded beneath the fourth car, seriously injuring two occupants while a dozen bystanders were hit by the shrapnel.
Because of the speed of the cars and the presence of the crowd, the other conspirators could do nothing. Preferring death over arrest, Čabrinović swallowed a cyanide pill and leaped into the Miljacka River, however, he failed to die and was arrested as the cyanide capsule had lost its potency and the river had hardly any water.
After attending the reception at the City Hall, Ferdinand decided to pay a visit to the victims of the grenade attack in hospital. General Oskar Potiorek decided that the car should go the Sarajevo hospital via Appel Quay to avoid the city center but forgot to instruct the driver who took a wrong turn into Franz Josef Street, then stopped and started to back out but managed to stall the engine.
Princip, standing near the Moritz Schiller's café grabbed the opportunity and fired twice from his 9 mm ‘FN Browning Model 1910’ pistol from a distance of five feet hitting Ferdinand in the neck and Sophie in the abdomen, killing both.
One month later, on July 28, 1914, holding Serbia responsible for the assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war.
Imprisonment & Death
Princip’s tried to shoot himself on the spot but his plan was foiled. He was arrested and tried to swallow a cyanide pill in custody but it was out of date. He received a sentenced of 20 years in prison as he was too young to receive a death sentence, being 27 days short of the minimum age of 20 years required by law.
With the conditions in Theresienstadt prison being extremely harsh, he contracted tuberculosis and died three years and 10 months after the assassination, on 28 April 1918. Weak and malnourished, he weighed a mere 40 kg at the time of his death. His right arm had been amputated earlier due to extreme skeletal tuberculosis.
Afraid that his remains would become relics for Slavic nationalists, he was secretly buried in an unmarked grave by the prison guards, however, a Czech soldier present on the occasion made it possible for his body, with that of other "Heroes of Vidovdan", to be exhumed in 1920 and brought to Sarajevo to be buried beneath a chapel at St. Mark’s Cemetery.
The house in Sarajevo where Princip lived was destroyed during World War I and rebuilt as a museum. It was demolished by the ‘Croatian Ustaše’ and rebuilt again after the communists came to power in Yugoslavia in 1944. Another museum was dedicated in his name in Sarajevo. The house was destroyed a third time during the 1990s during the Yugoslav Wars and rebuilt in 2015.
The spot from where Princip fired is marked by a plaque; the embossed footprints on the pavement earlier were destroyed during the Bosnian War of 1992-95.
On 21 April 2014, a bust of Princip was unveiled in Tovariševo, Serbia and on the centenary of the assassination in 2014, a statue of Princip was erected in East Sarajevo. Republika Srpska gifted a statue of Princip to Serbia that was erected in Belgrade on 28 June 2015.
Princip's pistol, kept in custody of the Austrian Jesuits for long, is now a part of the permanent exhibition at the Museum of Military History in Vienna.