On the centenary of the death of Gavrilo Princip: WW1 assassin, poet – and victim?


Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918)

His is a haunted face: thin, sunken, hollow-eyed, vaguely familiar perhaps as the teenager who shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the act that precipitated tit-for-tat mobilizations across Europe and the slaughter of millions in the First World War.

Details of the deaths of his victims are infamous: on June 28th, 1914, Franz Ferdinand had been travelling through the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, with his wife, Sophia, in an open-topped Graf and Stift automobile.

When the driver slowed at the corner of Franz Josef Strasse and the Appel Quay, the assassin stepped forward and fired a 9 mm Browning semi-automatic pistol into the couple at close range.

Sophia died of wounds to the abdomen, Franz Ferdinand from a bullet in his neck. The death of the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, is less well known.

He confessed to the crime, was tried and sentenced, and sent to Terezin prison in what is now the Czech Republic but was then part of the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire.

He died there on April 28th, 1918, as far from his home as the Hapsburg authorities could send him.

His peasant mother never visited him; none of his family did.

By the time of his death Gavrilo’s body was wasted to the bone by tuberculosis of the skeleton. His ulcerated skin suppurated and his right arm had been amputated.

He was buried under a path in the prison cemetery, along with a delinquent’s corpse: a deliberate insult.

But the young Czech officer in charge of the burial party, Frantisek Lebl, sketched the grave’s supposedly secret location, and returned to it after the war to place a Czech flag on top of the body, the Hapsburg Empire having collapsed under the colossal burden of its own contradictions and military defeat.

By then, the Czech people were recognised by the United States of America as oppressed nationals, rather than part of an enemy Empire, and thus the Czechs ended the war on the side of the victorious Allies.

Gavrilo’s objective – the overthrow of the hated Hapsburg oppressors – had been achieved.

A small irony? A mere footnote in history? I don’t think so.

From what I’ve read in these centenary years of the 1914-18 war, there is a great deal more to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip than is generally taught in schools.

I have read, for example, that a powerful Austrian politician knew perfectly well what the half-educated, impoverished 19-year-old Gavrilo was planning in Sarajevo that fateful June day, and did nothing to stop him.

I’ve even read that this powerful Austrian prevented the local Chief of Police from foiling the assassination plot in order that the attack could create the conditions for Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia.

If true, such events would imply that the war-guilt so often laid on Gavrilo’s thin shoulders is ill-deserved, and that generations of schoolchildren have been misled.

And I can’t help wondering, too, that if Gavrilo’s mother had known he’d been used in this way, would she have disowned him?

Balkan political history is a thickly layered, complex and highly contended subject, one which deserves to be treated with caution and respect. Thus I’m not for one moment pretending to know the truth about that assassination.

But on the 100th anniversary of Gavrilo’s death, I am publishing these snippets of intriguing, second-hand information to mark the beginning of a personal research journey into the life and death of this small-framed, Bosnian Serb poet-assassin in the hope of one day understanding his role in the great events that enveloped the world.










Author: Rowena House

ROWENA HOUSE spent years as a foreign correspondent in France, Africa and then again in Europe before turning to fiction. Her debut novel, a First World War coming-of-age quest called THE GOOSE ROAD, is published by Walker Books (2018). Her fascination with the Great War, the trenches, and the appalling artillery battles of the Somme and Verdun began at school when studying the war poets, Wilfred Owen in particular. As an adult, she experienced war first-hand as a Reuter’s reporter in Ethiopia, and saw its terrible impact on civilians. Now settled in the English countryside with her husband and son, she holds a Master’s degree in rural economics and another in creative writing, and mentors fiction writers alongside her journalism and storytelling.

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