Sarajevo and the resonances of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination

The conspirators who spread out along Sarajevo’s Appel Quay on the morning of 28th June 1914 – trying not to fiddle with the pistol and the bomb under their jackets, wondering about the cyanide dose that they had been given – have become tokens of world politics. One token, in fact, as we only remember the one who fired the successful shots, and not the other angry young men like Cabrinovic and Cuprilovic. (Does it help that it was the one with the short name who got lucky? Would our memory of twentieth century history be different if the Archduke’s car had happened to stop instead in front of Mehmedbasic – who was also, incidentally, the Muslim among the conspirators?)

Gavrilo PrincipGavrilo Princip’s father was a peasant rebel whose neighbours laughed at him because he refused to drink and swear, and who didn’t want Gavrilo (pictured) to go to primary school. Photos of him in traditional peasant dress seem more than a generation away from the cheap urban sophistication of Gavrilo in his suit.

Young Princip almost went to Austro-Hungarian military school, but took a different path, perhaps prompted by the epic poetry he’d been given as a school prize. He was 18 when he was expelled from school for threatening other students who didn’t want to go on a protest with him. He was still a teenager as he stood by the Miljacka river, waiting for destiny to come chugging round the corner, and watching for the police agents he’d so far avoided during his weeks in Bosnia.

Nedeljko Cabrinovic was doubted by his fellow-conspirators; his bomb was taken away from him the day before the assassination attempt. Walking to his assigned position during the morning of the 28th he met a friend, had his photo taken, flirted with some girls. But he’d also given away his possessions to his family; money to his grandmother and to his sister. Teenagers; idealists – recruited and fired up by older, wiser men who stayed in the shadows and were not risking their lives that morning.

Franz FerdinandWhen the convoy carrying the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (pictured) first drove along the quay, five of the six conspirators lost their nerve. They would claim in their testimonies to have been worried about passers-by, or sympathetic to the Duchess Sophie, or not sure of their target in time. Their bombs were clumsy; their cyanide was too old to have any effect – as both Princip and Cabrinovic would find. When Cabrinovic jumped into the river to drown, he found himself standing in six inches of water.

‘One of the most amateur regicides of modern times,’ Writer, Milovan Djilas, called it; ‘the success of the conspiracy was due mainly to sheer luck’. Cabrinovic, whose companions thought him unreliable, was the only one of them in that heart-pounding moment as the convoy passed to throw his bomb; the bomb bounced off the Archduke’s car and exploded under the car behind; the Archduke decided to change the route of his convoy to visit the wounded, but no-one told the drivers; driving back along the quay the convoy turned according to the original route, and when the mistake was immediately realized they stopped and began to reverse.

Despite the conspiracy in Belgrade, despite the planning and the careful smuggling in of weapons, it was only a mighty set of coincidences that brought together those two men for the encounter that would launch not only the war but indeed the century. Angry ardent Princip with his schoolboy poetry and schoolboy dreams and, stationary in front of him for one world-changing instant, the Habsburg heir who favoured conciliation with the Slavs and who was so scorned by the Viennese Court that the exaggeration of their diplomatic reaction to his death was matched by the meanness with which they treated his body and family. A folk-poem student union dream of nation met the feather-topped scion of mediaeval empire, and together they inaugurated the age of mass movement industrial war and politics.

Ironically, perhaps it was the remoteness of the event that made it the ideal spark for war. The great powers might have found a way to negotiate, to compromise, if the crisis had been another of the grand confrontations they had repeatedly fallen into during the preceding decade. But Austria-Hungary could never be brought to compromise with a handful of teenage idealists and their shadowy backers, and too many crucial players in the European capitals thought the risks in fighting a war were less significant than the risks in being too slow to start it.

We remember the forces that created the spark and the dry kindling that it ignited:  an exaggerated national pride; prejudice, and an inclination to competitiveness not co-operation; a belief that war could be an acceptable way of conducting diplomacy; and a disastrous calculation that war could be won. We remember, and we should learn. But the great sweep of the war becomes generalization and stereotype. The forces, the suffering, were too vast to be easily captured. (Which is why, perhaps, much of the greatest writing on the war comes from oblique angles: T E Lawrence with his public school passions and asceticism in the desert; Brittain waiting and mourning; Cecil Lewis from the sky.)

The GCSE-approved Causes Of The First World War are worth considering, not least for what they can teach us about how the world works today. But it’s no bad thing that the scale of the war forces us to glimpse it through individual stories, of heroism or endurance or even of assassination. On the 28th of June, we remember those individuals who made the war: the young men who stood in the crowd and waited and waited as the cars came closer and whose passion overcame their shaking hands and who found themselves, in the frozen moment of crisis, able to raise an arm and to act. Their ardour and their impact, whether you consider them glorious or infamous, also have their resonance.

Spider of SarajevoRobert Wilton

Robert is a writer and diplomat. His latest novel, The Spider of Sarajevo, is published on the centenary of the events it illuminates. He is in Sarajevo on June 28th, tweeting live the events of the Archduke’s visit @ComptrollerGen and @Corvusbooks.

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