The assassination of Franz Ferdinand is known universally as the central event that kick started World War I. Those two bullets fired on a sunny June morning in 1914 catapulted the world into a power struggle that would continue into the Cold War. However, perhaps the most remarkable thing about this assassination is that it very nearly didn’t happen at all.
Young Bosnia attracted a particular group of people – young, angry students. At the centre sat Vladimir Gaćinović, a young revolutionary whose writings had made a martyr of the would-be assassin Bogdan Žerajić.
Žerajić had planned to take down Emperor Franz Joseph himself on 3 June 1910, but changed his mind. Later that month he found his resolve and on 15 June he opened fire on General Marijan Varešanin, the Governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, five times and missed. He turned the sixth bullet on himself.
Inspired by the efforts of Žerajić, the membership of Young Bosnia swelled with radical Serb nationalists. Along with another radical group, the Black Hand which was led by extreme elements of Serbian military intelligence, they set their sights on the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
The seven would-be assassins planned their crime carefully. Issued with four Browning pistols and six Serbian Army issue grenades, their Black Hand benefactors also gave them them packets of cyanide powder which they would use to kill themselves after the deed was done.
The conspirators were very aware of the plans of the Archduke’s visit – Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were to be driven in the second of a six car parade. Beginning from the railway station, they would travel along the river to the city hall. With the path clear in their mind the assassins were positioned carefully along the route. With seven of them armed and ready, the Archduke’s death seemed inevitable.
As the parade moved down the street it was Mehmedbašić, a 28-year-old carpenter and the only Bosnian Muslim in the band, who was first passed by. He gripped his bomb in his hand. This was not the first time Mehmedbašić had been involved in an assassination plot. Earlier in the year he had taken part in a botched attempt to kill Oskar Potiorek, the Governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1911.
Perhaps haunted by that failure, as he watched the Archduke’s car approach he hesitated. How could he be sure that this would work? The car seemed to be traveling awfully fast and the crowd surrounding him was full of Serbs. As he panicked the car passed him by. He had lost his chance.
Next was Vaso Čubrilović, aged just 17, he had been caught up in Young Bosnia along with his brother and friend. Armed with a pistol and a bomb he stood beside Mehmedbašić and witnessed his failure. Initially fully prepared to act, he too became overcome with fear and doubts. If a man over ten years his senior had not taken the hit, then perhaps it was best that he too held back. The car passed him by.
Nedeljko Čabrinović was next in line. Struggling with an abusive and difficult upbringing, the brash young man had left school at just 14, and now aged 19 his bitter circumstances had forced him into Young Bosnia. Unlike the previous two assassins Čabrinović had another motivation – he was dying.
Suffering from tuberculosis, he was aware his life would not continue for much longer, and was totally ready to sacrifice it to free the country from Austrian domination and ‘reunite’ it with Serbia.
At 10:15am the car approached Čabrinović’s position and he did not flinch. He hurled his hand grenade and it flew through the air directly towards the archduke’s car. But the driver had seen it too. The car accelerated as the bomb flew towards it. It bounced off the folded back of the convertible cover and rolled into the street. In his rashness Čabrinović had forgotten the 10-second delay and the bomb exploded not beneath Ferdinand’s car, but under the fourth car.
The effect was devastating. Not only did it completely put that car out of action, but it left a 1 foot diameter crater and sent shrapnel flying into the crowd thick with innocent people. 16-20 people were wounded and the rest were panicked and furious. As the cars sped away and the crowds overwhelmed the area the other assassins didn’t have a chance to land a hit. The assassination plot had been a complete and utter failure.
That left Čabrinović. In dull disbelief, and total humiliation that his attempt had failed so spectacularly, he quickly swallowed his cyanide pill. Determined to ensure his death, he threw himself into the nearby Miljacka River for good measure. However, Čabrinović’s suicide attempt was just as ill fated as his assassination. The cyanide pill was out of date, instead of killing him it just caused violent vomiting.
To add insult to injury, because of a dry summer the river was just 13cm deep, so he couldn’t drown himself either. He was quickly yanked out of the river by police and attacked by a furious crowd before being taken into custody.
Understandably ruffled, Franz Ferdinand arrived at the town hall and interrupted a somewhat badly timed welcome speech by the Mayor to protest “Mr. Mayor, I came here on a visit and I get bombs thrown at me. It is outrageous.”
Cue a panicked meeting of the Archduke’s party as they tried to decide what to do next. The very reasonable suggestion that the couple remain in the safety of the Town Hall until troops could be brought in to escort them was vetoed due to the soldiers lacking the snazzy uniforms appropriate for an Archduke. Instead it was decided the Archduke and his wife would visit the wounded from the bombing at the hospital.
The assassins had basically given up at this point. Not only had their plan totally failed but they had managed to injure innocent people and had watched Čabrinović completely humiliate himself.
However there was still one assassin left with vague hope of carrying out the plan – Gavilo Princip. Rejected from fighting in the First Balkan War (1912) due to his sickly demeanour, Princip shared Čabrinović’s fire, because he too was suffering from incurable tuberculosis.
He decided to position himself in front of a nearby delicatessen and catch the Archduke on his return journey – plus failed assassinations do tend to work up an appetite.
For all intents and purposes this plan should have been even more underwhelming than the first. The royal car was set to travel straight along the Appel Quay towards the hospital. If this information had been relayed to the driver then Princip would have waited in vain. But in a disastrous oversight nobody thought to inform the driver of the route change.
Whether it was because of panic, confusion or tension, the chief of police simply flat out forgot to inform the driver of the new route, and the car calmly took the original turning towards the museum, not the hospital. Realising the mistake, Governor Potiorek who was in the car with the couple yelled to the car to reverse. Unfortunately the car lacked a reverse gear and instead had to be pushed backwards.
Princip would have been barely able to believe his eyes. The car with the assassination target was stalled just feet away from the corner where he just happened to be standing. As ill fated as the plot had been, finally luck had fallen spectacularly in the assassin’s favour. With his pistol in hand Princip fired two shots and, through incredible marksmanship or dumb luck, fatally wounded both the Archduke and his wife.
With the deed done Princip raised the gun to his own temple to end his life but it was knocked from his hand. He reached for his cyanide, however as the furious crowd swarmed around him that too was knocked out of grasp.
Gavrilo Princip would escape both his full 20-year sentence (he escaped life imprisonment as he was under 20) and the terrible aftermath of his murder. Dying of TB in prison on 28 April 1918, Princip died before seeing his dreams come to pass – the Habsburg monarchy deposed and South Slav lands united under a Serb-dominated Kingdom of Yugoslavia – and the terrible cost of bringing those dreams to life.