Gavrilo Princip: the assassin who triggered the First World War

Princip was a slow-burn revolutionary, identifying himself with all Bosnians and committing himself to the ideal of winning freedom for all local Bosnians, not just local Serbs.

Slow-burn revolutionary: Princip in prison. Photo: Getty
Slow-burn revolutionary: Princip in prison. Photo: Getty

Gavrilo Princip was not the best-trained of assassins, or the best-equipped, nor was he the most ruthless. But he was, perhaps, the luckiest, shooting dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand through a series of strokes of serendipity and fortune. It was the rest of the world’s bad luck that his actions triggered the first global conflict.

Princip was born in 1894, a serf’s son from the wild west of Bosnia. His father, Petar, earned extra income by delivering letters around the hamlet of Obljaj, where Princips had eked a hardscrabble existence for generations.

Petar was later described as an “entrepreneur” by his infamous son, but in reality his life was a continuation of a centuries-old tradition of feudal peasantry, battling to live off the land, obliged to surrender earnings and produce to overlords.

From the mid-15th century those overlords were installed by the occupying Otto­man empire before its withdrawal was finally confirmed by the 1878 Congress of Berlin. But the removal of one occupier did not mean freedom for the local Slav population, because another, Austria-Hungary, then staked Bosnia as the newest tessera in the polyglot mosaic of the Habsburg empire.

Austria-Hungary presented this coup of colonialism – the Scramble for Africa was taking place at roughly the same time – as a project of enlightened occidentalism that would bring light to a part of Europe long benighted by orientalism. This was largely guff, as the Austro-Hungarians set about plundering the natural resources of Bosnia  – mostly timber from its rich forests – and failed to carry out land reform and left alone the system of feudal exploitation.

For peasants like the Princips, life hardly changed. Petar married a woman called Maria from the hamlet next door and set up home in a single-room hovel with a beaten-earth floor, set into a hillside. They had nine children but only three, all boys, survived. Gavrilo was the middle son, his early life a cycle of domestic chores and learning his three Rs. He shone at school, his ability to read and write marking him out in Bosnia where, after 30 years of supposedly enlightened Habsburg occupation, the illiteracy rate stood at 88 per cent.

The local Slav community shared the same bloodline although they had been cleaved by faith over the ages into three groups: early Christians who followed Eastern Orthodoxy were known as Bosnia’s Serbs, Christians who followed Rome were Croats and those who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule were Muslims. The Princips were part of Bosnia’s Serb community, and Obljaj an entirely Serb settlement of co-religionists who lived, worked, married and died together.

The big change for Gavrilo came in 1907 when, aged 13, he left this insular little world and set off for the capital city, Sarajevo, to pursue his secondary education. Here he shone, excelling in his early years as a hard-working and dutiful student. But he did not just learn his lessons, he also learned to think the unthinkable, discussing with other students how Bosnia might be liberated from the occupier.

Princip was a slow-burn revolutionary, consistently identifying himself with all Bosnians and committing himself to the south Slav or Jugoslav nationalist ideal of winning freedom for all local Bosnians, not just local Serbs. His thinking was woolly and naive but he did not give in to the chauvinism of some Serbs who wanted a single Greater Serbia.

After four years of study he left for the neighbouring country of Serbia, another part of the Balkans peopled by south Slavs. Serbia had won independence from the Ottomans in the late 19th century, and Princip lived there on and off from 1912.

With his fellow Bosnian radicals – from all three faith groups – he settled on a plan to assassinate a senior Austro-Hungarian figure as a symbolic act that they hoped would be a catalyst and would spur others into demanding liberation. When they read in newspaper announcements that Franz Ferdinand was due to visit Sarajevo to oversee military manoeuvres, they settled on him as the perfect target.

Princip struck on the morning of Sunday 28 June during the archduke’s ceremonial visit into Sarajevo city centre. His wife, the duchess Sophie, was killed at his side: an accident, according to Princip, as he had intended to kill only the archduke or members of his officer cadre.

At two weeks short of his 20th birthday, Princip was too young to be executed; under Austro-Hungarian law, the death sentence could be given only to criminals aged 20 or more. Instead, he was jailed, sentenced to 20 years in solitary confinement, with the condition that one day a month he was to receive no food.

Princip died in a prison hospital on 28 April 1918, his body so ravaged by skeletal tuberculosis that his right arm had been amputated. He was buried in an unmarked grave but later disinterred, and his remains were moved in the 1920s to Sarajevo, where they lie to this day. 

Tim Butcher is the author of “The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War” (Chatto & Windus, £18.99)