A century ago, on 28 June 1914, an 18-year-old Bosnian Serb killed the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife during their visit to Sarajevo. By the end of the summer, the greatest war that humanity had experienced was already in full swing. It lasted four years, claimed the lives of millions of people, brought down three empires and led to the outbreak of an even nastier war, the Second World War.
Sarajevo, the city "where it all began" in 1914, looks as if were made to be the scene of a seminal event. Inhabited by Slavs divided by their religions (Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, Muslims) and their historical background, Sarajevo and Bosnia had spent five centuries under the Ottomans, before being passed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878. The Muslims leaned towards the Sultan, but still felt confidence in Vienna, while many of the Eastern Orthodox Bosnians preferred federation with neighbouring Serbia.
Sarajevo looked like a city that had got lost in the search for its self-consciousness. After 30 years under the Emperor Franz Joseph, the Ottoman streets and marketplaces, the tile-roofed houses and the mosques were now rubbing shoulders with fine fin-de-siècle façades. The Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, when the young Balkan nations fought for the European lands of the Ottoman Empire, added to the tension. Serbia had emerged as a regional leader, raising the hopes of Bosnian Serbs for a common political future.
The Latin Bridge at the beginning of the 20th Century
In this tense atmosphere, the royal visit of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, to Sarajevo on 28 June, was seen by many as an open provocation. For the Serbs, 28 June, or St Vitus's Day, was the day of their glorious defeat at the Battle of Kosovo by the Ottoman Turks in 1389. Five centuries later, Franz Ferdinand not only embodied foreign power over the liberty-hungry Eastern Orthodox Slavs in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but his plan to create an autonomous Slavic entity within Austria-Hungary encroached on Serbia's political ambitions for the region.
When the plans of the royal visit to Sarajevo became known, a group of youths, members of the Young Bosnia revolutionary organisation, decided to take action. On 28 June, armed with weapons provided by a Serb terrorist organisation – their real or imaginary connections with the Serbian intelligence are still disputed by historians – the conspirators lined up on Apple Quay, on the banks of the Miljacka River, waiting for the royal cortège.
There were five conspirators, and each of them was determined to kill the archduke. Determination, however, is one thing and action is another. The open cars of the cortège smoothly passed by the first two would-be assassins.
It was the third conspirator, Nedeljko Čabrinović, who threw a bomb at the cortège. But the fuse was too long, and the blast only wounded several people who were travelling in the car behind the Gräf & Stift containing Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. In the commotion, Čabrinović swallowed the emergency poison and jumped into the Miljacka, only to discover that the poison was out-of-date and the river was only knee deep.
After the fateful shot which ignited the First World War
Meanwhile, Franz Ferdinand reached the scheduled reception at the Town Hall safely. He telegraphed his uncle, the emperor, to report what had just happened, vented some of his anger at the local dignitaries, made a speech, posed for an official photograph, and went out again, with his wife. The royal couple got into the Gräf & Stift, which bore the marks of the failed assassination attempt but, instead on continuing along the planned route, decided to go to the hospital to visit those wounded by Čabrinović's bomb.
The driver, however, was unfamiliar with Sarajevo. Instead of taking the turn to Franz Josef Street, he continued along the scheduled route on Apple Quay. He passed Moritz Schiller's delicatessen, where he was told to make a turn to the right, and Franz Josef Street. While he was manoeuvring, two shots rang out from the side entrance at Schiller's.
Gavrilo Princip, aged 18, was one of the initial conspirators. After Čabrinović's failure, Princip wandered around, gun hidden, and decided to wait for the cortège on the official route. When he saw the archduke within arm's reach, Princip was quick to react. He didn't even take aim properly and only fired two shots, but both fatally wounded Franz Ferdinand and Sophie.
The funeral of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie
After several days of hesitation and consultations, Austria-Hungary demanded retribution from Serbia, which was alleged to have masterminded the assassination. Serbia, which was backed by Russia, did not oblige and on 28 July, Austria-Hungary declared war. Today, however, 28 June 1914, the day of Sarajevo's assassination, is regarded as the true beginning of the First World War.
The global impact of the killing of a man in a Balkan backwater town is baffling. It seems that people still struggle with the idea of the butterfly effect when it is applied to politics and history. Ever since, historians, politicians, journalists and enthusiasts have tried to make sense of the incredible run of circumstances which led to the "perfect storm" in Sarajevo. Franz Ferdinand had had premonitions of his imminent death, we are told. The man who should have told the inexperienced royal driver the route was unable to direct him as he was in hospital, wounded by Čabrinović's bomb. And what about the number plate of the ill-fated Gräf & Stift, now on view in Vienna's Heeresgeschichtliches Museum? It reads A III 118. If you re-arrange the Roman and Arabic numerals as II I1 18, you end up with 11/11/18, the date of Armistice Day (and there is an A in the plate, too, for Armistice). The day when the war which began at Sarajevo finally ended could have been divined from the very beginning. And did you hear that Princip was at Schiller's delicatessen solely because he felt hungry and was having a (supposedly cheese) sandwich?
Would the First World War with its millions of casualties and consequences like the advance of Communism and the Second World War have happened without Princip?
Actually, the Great War would have broken out, Sarajevo or no Sarajevo. In the first decades of the 20th Century, the young Balkan nations were rife with nationalism and conflict, with ambition and desperation. The Great Powers, too, had conflicts to resolve and this was already impossible through negotiation. A huge-scale armed conflict was imminent.
Combing every second of that fateful 28 June for interesting information actually prevents us from seeing the greater – and much grimmer – picture. Franz Ferdinand, who was actually not much loved by Emperor Franz Joseph, was given a humble funeral outside the capital, and Vienna's social life did not stop in the first days after the assassination. The perpetrators were arrested, and tried. About 30 people faced court and three of them were hanged in 1915. As minors, Princip and Čabrinović were sentenced to 20 years in prison. Both died of tuberculosis soon afterwards, at Teresienstadt, now Terezín in the Czech Republic. In yet another twist of historical irony, Terezín was a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War.
For the world, the events of 28 June 1914 were a tragedy unleashed. In Serbia and Yugoslavia, however, the bomb attempt was seen as a violent cry by oppressed people for freedom. These conflicting views are best seen in the history of the monument at the intersection of Apple Quay and the northern end of the Latin Bridge over the Miljacka, where Franz Ferdinand was killed.
As Princip and Čabrinović were under 20 at the time the assassination, they were given prison sentences rather than the capital punishment. They died of consumption, in the prison of Teresienstadt, now in he Czech Republic
The first monument "to the killing," with portraits of the victims, was erected by the Austro-Hungarian authorities in 1917. It was removed after Yugoslavia took over Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1918. Princip and his associates were now not killers, but heroes. Yet the next monument, a humble plaque with the words "Princip proclaimed freedom on Vidovdan 15 (28) June 1914," appeared on the wall of Schiller's delicatessen as late as 1930, without an official state inauguration and to widespread international criticism.
In 1941, when the Nazis entered Sarajevo, the plaque was removed and presented to Hitler, and propaganda presented the Young Bosnia conspirators as Jews and Freemasons. This approach, however, was soon overturned, as in 1945 Bosnia and Herzegovina became a part of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. Princip and the others were hailed again as freedom fighters.
A matter-of-fact plaque on the wall of Schiller's delicatessen where Princip stood when he fired
In the decades to follow, streets all across Yugoslavia were given their names. The fateful Latin Bridge became Gavrilo Princip Bridge and a museum of the assassination was opened. At Schiller's a new monument appeared: the bronze foot prints of Princip in the pavement. The text of the plaque said: "From this place on 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip with his shot expressed the people's protest against tyranny and the century-old people's desire for freedom."
This was at the time of the 50th anniversary of the assassination and the international community was not amused. Tito tried to downplay the respect in which the Young Bosnia men were held in Yugoslavia. And anyway, tourists just loved Princip's foot prints. Many stepped on them, posing as if they were shooting, again and again, the ghosts of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie.
In 1992, the monument was taken down yet again. The Muslim-dominated Sarajevo was under siege by Bosnian Serb forces, an atrocity whose bloodshed ravaged the city for almost four years. This time, the Young Bosnia members were seen as the propagators of oppression by Serbia and its successor, Yugoslavia.
The monument which now marks the place of the assassination by the Latin Bridge (the bridge has now reverted to its old name) and Obala Kulina Bana Street (former Apple Quay) dates from 2004. It has the least controversial text possible: "From this place on 28 June 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie."
It does not say anything about the sandwich Princip never finished. That story, actually, is yet another fabrication, born of the persistent desire for an explanation of how a world war could start at such an insignificant place.