Princip, Sarajevo and the twists of history


The course of history has often been determined by confluences of odd events that can be described as nothing less than bizarre.

Consider the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Prinicip on this date, 95 years ago:

In June 1914, Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife had been invited by the governor of the Austrian provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina to watch troops on manoeuvres. Ferdinand, according to Wikipedia, knew that the visit would be dangerous, knowing his uncle, Emperor Franz Josef, had been the subject of an assassination attempt by the Serbian nationalist group Black Hand in 1911.

Just before 10 a.m. on Sunday, June 28, 1914, the royal couple arrived in Sarajevo by train and transfered to automobiles. The car in which Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were riding had its top rolled back to allow the crowds a view of its occupants.

In all, seven conspirators lined the route, spaced out along the Appel Quay, each one with instructions to try to kill Franz Ferdinand. The first conspirator, armed with a bomb, lost his nerve and allowed the car pass without taking action.

Later, when the procession passed the central police station, another conspirator hurled a hand grenade at the Archduke’s car. The driver accelerated when he saw the object flying towards him, but the bomb had a 10-second delay and exploded under the wheel of the next car. Two of the occupants were seriously wounded and a dozen spectators were also hit by bomb splinters.

After the attack, five other conspirators, including Princip, lost an opportunity to attack because of the heavy crowds and the high speed of the Archduke’s car.

After some of the hubbub had died down, Ferdinand decided to go to the hospital and visit the victims of the failed bombing attempt. In order to avoid the city centre, it was decided that the royal car should travel straight along the Appel Quay to the Sarajevo Hospital. However, no one informed the Archduke’s driver about this decision. On the way to the hospital, the driver took a right turn into Franz Josef Street.

Princip had gone into a local cafe for a sandwich, having apparently given up, when he spotted Franz Ferdinand’s car as it drove past, having taken the wrong turn.

After realizing the mistake, the driver put his foot on the brake, and began to back up. In doing so the engine of the car stalled and the gears locked, giving Princip his opportunity. He stepped forward, drew his FN Model 1910 pistol, and at a distance of about five feet, fired twice into the car. Franz Ferdinand was hit in the neck and Sophie in the abdomen, and both were dead before 11 a.m. 

Princip attempted suicide first by ingesting cyanide, and then with the use of his pistol. But he vomited the past-date poison. The pistol was wrestled from his hand before he had a chance to fire another shot.

Princip was too young to receive the death penalty, being 19 years old at the time of the assassination, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was held in harsh conditions which were worsened by the war. He died of tuberculosis on April 28, 1918, at Theresienstadt (which later became infamous as a Nazi concentration camp).

The seemingly improbable events that led to Princip’s actions set off a chain of events that resulted in World War I, a conflict that would eventually claim more than 10 million lives.

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