There are many events attributed to the cause of World War I, but perhaps the most well-known is that of the assassination of Austria’s ruler, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
It was a moment that changed the history of the world and yet what most people don’t realize is that it almost didn’t happen. That’s right, the whole history of Europe would have been irrevocably changed if it weren’t for one man’s insatiable appetite…
Born of Nine
The man who would change the map of Europe could not have come from more humble beginnings. Gavrilo Princip, whom his parents named after the Archangel Gabriel, was born in the remote hamlet of Obljaj, Bosnia in 1894. His parents were poor Serbian farmers who had a total of nine children, six of whom ended up dying in infancy.
Gavrilo’s parents were strict followers of the Serbian Orthodox Christian faith. His father didn’t drink, smoke, or swear, which made him a bit of laughingstock amongst his neighbors. Still, he was a hard worker and lived off what little their small plot of land could provide. They were also oppressed by their Muslim landlords, a fact which stuck with Gavrilo all his life…
Despite his father’s opposition to the idea of education, Gavrilo began attending primary school at around the turn of the century. He was an uncommonly intelligent young man who overcame a difficult first year and eventually did so well his headmaster awarded him with a collection of Serbian epic poetry. By age 13, he was ready to head to Sarajevo to enter military school.
When Gavrilo reached Sarajevo, however, his brother had changed his mind. He believed that by having Gavrilo become “an executioner of his own people” he was simply contributing to the problems the nation was already facing. And so, Gavrilo enrolled into a merchant school instead. But school of any kind, he would soon find out, was not Gavrilo’s true calling…
Youth in Revolt
By 1910 Gavrilo had found himself an idol. He came to revere Bogdan Žerajić, a Bosnian Serb revolutionary who had attempted to assassinate Marijan Varešanin, the Austro-Hungarian Governor of Bosnia, before taking his own life. It made sense, Gavrilo was a young idealist and he respected Bogdan’s dedication to a cause he believed in.
A year later young Gavrilo would join Young Bosnia, a society that was determined to see Bosnia separate from Austria-Hungary and throw off the yoke of their rule to unite with the Kingdom of Serbia. Unfortunately for Gavrilo and his fellow young revolutionaries, however, the local government had forbidden students from forming organizations and clubs of any kind, much less any who discuss revolution…
The members of Young Bosnia discussed politics, literature, and most importantly, change. In 1912, Gavrilo and a number of his fellow members became involved in a demonstration against Austro-Hungarian authorities and ended up being expelled from school. Little did the Austro-Hungarians know, they’s just given a young revolutionary the catalyst he needed to create real change.
The Black Hand
He moved to Belgrade and volunteered to join the Serbian guerrilla bands who were fighting the Ottoman Turks. The group was under the leadership of Major Vojislav Tankosić a man who worked in one of the most fearsome criminal organizations of the time, the Black Hand. There was just one problem: they didn’t want him…
You see, there was a very specific thing about Gavrilo Princip that set him apart from other members of the Black Hand and the military, he was short. So short in fact that he was rejected at a recruitment office in Belgrade. He went as far as to track down Tankosić himself, but even he said that Gavrilo was too small and weak to help. Beaten and forlorn, he trudged back to Sarajevo to live with his brother…for a time, anyway.
It was 1913, the eve of the Great War and Austria-Hungary had declared a state of emergency. They implemented martial law, seized control of all schools, and prohibited all Serb cultural organizations. It was the excuse that Gavrilo and indeed many of his Serbian fellows needed to make their move. They were going to assassinate the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Duchess Sophie Chotek of Austria….
It happened just before 10 a.m. on Sunday. The royal couple had arrived in Sarajevo, Gavrilo’s home city, by train. They were planning on taking an automobile into the city which would be followed by a police patrol, just to be safe. The car’s top was rolled back in order to allow the crowds a good view of its occupants and it seemed that the royals were being welcomed with open arms.
Meanwhile, six conspirators lined the route as the car traversed it’s way through the city. Each man, including Gavrilo Princip, had instructions to kill the Emperor when the car reached his position. The first conspirator on the route, Muhamed Mehmedbašić, lost his nerve and let the car pass. Then, 19-year-old Nedeljko Čabrinović, the second man, got his chance…
At 10:15, Nedeljko Čabrinović hurled a hand grenade at the Archduke’s car. The driver saw the projectile coming and accelerated out of the way. Unfortunately for him, and rather fortunately for the the Archduke and his wife, the bomb had a 10-second delay and it exploded under the wheel of the fourth car in the procession. Several were wounded as were spectators, but the royals survived.
Make for the River
Nedeljko then tried to kill himself with a cyanide pill so he wouldn’t be caught. The problem was, the cyanide the Black Hand had supplied their agents with was all expired and he just ended up vomiting profusely before jumping into a nearby canal to end his life. The canal was only two inches deep and the sick and soggy assassin was picked up by police. Gavrilo Princip meanwhile, decided to give up and go get some lunch….
Austria – Hungry
The assassination attempt had been a bust. Not only had the emperor and his wife survived, the police had caught the would-be assassin, a 19-year-old student who was sure to spill his guts at the first opportunity. Gavrilo was forlorn and hungry and he went to a restaurant nearby to get a sandwich. As he sat there, eating his feelings, something outside caught his eye.
As it turned out, Franz Ferdinand had decided to go to a hospital in Sarajevo to visit the victims of the grenade attack. On their way, the driver, Leopold Loyka, decided to avoid the city center and take the back streets to get there. One of those streets passed right by the restaurant where Gavrilo Princip was “enjoying” his sandwich…
Princip was sitting right near the window of Moritz Schiller’s café when he saw the car drive past. He jumped from his seat and ran outside. At the same time, Loyka, who had realized he turned down the wrong street, reversed back down to the corner, right into Gavrilo’s sights. Then, because fate is fickle, the car’s engine stalled, the gears locked, and Gavrilo Princip fired his gun.
Gavrilo’s pistol, a FN Model 1910 was fired at a distance of about 5 feet into the open topped car. He fired twice, hitting both Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. At 11:00 am, mere minutes after Gavrilo Princip had finished his sandwich, the king and queen of Austria-Hungary were pronounced dead. But Gavrilo’s ridiculous shining moment was far from over…
Almost immediately, Princip attempted suicide in the same way that Nedeljko Čabrinović had, by taking a cyanide pill. Unfortunately, the pill was from the same expired batch given to them by the Black Hand. When he was done vomiting, he tried to shoot himself, but just then, the police arrived and wrested the gun from him before he got the chance.
Princip, being only nineteen years old at the time, was too young for the death penalty and in any case, the government, such as it was, didn’t want to make him a martyr. After some weeks at trial, Gavrilo Princip received a sentence of twenty years in prison and died there at the age of 23 after contracting tuberculosis. The world will always remember Princip, not only for the two shots he fired that changed the world, but also the sandwich that made it all possible.